Kenny Rogers was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last October. Maybe the 75 year old wasn’t eligible until then — I admittedly don’t know — but it seems odd that the guy who brought country to the mainstream with his hit-filled early albums, the first of which was released in 1976, wasn’t inducted years ago. Oh well, better late than never, right? Speaking of which, Kenny released his first country album since 2006 late last year in the form of You Can’t Make Old Friends and it quickly became his 22nd Top 10 Country album.
Kenny worked with a few different producers on You Can’t Make Old Friends: Kyle Lehning (Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap), Warren Hartman (Kenny’s 2012 Christian record Amazing Grace) and Dann Huff (Keith Urban, The Band Perry). All great producers who’ve given the album a classic country vibe. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this album feels even more like classic country than Kenny Rogers’ earliest albums.
Much has been said in recent years about how Kenny’s lost some of his upper register, but that has not created a problem here. He’s simply chosen songs that fit his voice as it is today. Perhaps he would have made some different choices if he could still hit as many high notes, but since I love every song on this record I suppose I’m glad that his voice is the way it is now because it’s one of the many things that lead to this being such a marvelous album.
The record opens with the title track, a duet with Dolly Parton. If you’re looking for another “Islands in the Stream” then you’re going to be disappointed. This is more of a down-tempo, vintage country song, not an up-tempo pop-leaning tune. But I was never crazy about “Islands in the Stream,” so I was delighted to find that this is a subtle, gentle number. To some degree, it’s a ballad, but it’s also a sentimental look at life in general, as well as reflections on getting older, being in one’s twilight years. This isn’t a song that immediately grabs you and becomes an instant favorite, but it’s one that you’ll find yourself enjoying more and more with repeated listenings, something that could also be said about many of the album’s other songs.
I actually bought this CD for my mother for Christmas and didn’t give much thought to listening to it myself, but when she told me that it was really good but very depressing then I just had to hear it. I’d never heard my mother call music depressing before and, truth be told, I have a depressive personality, so I was intrigued. And I quickly realized what she was talking about as I listened to the lyrics, the majority of which tell stories, many being, well, depressing stories. The most depressing of which is “You Had To Be There,” a tune about a 21 year old who first meets his father when he visits him in prison after going down the wrong path himself. Gut-wrenching is how I’d describe this one. It’s one of the best songs I’ve heard in years, honestly, but it’s so painful to listen to and it doesn’t get any easier with multiple listens. On the contrary, I find myself getting anxious or depressed — or both — from the second it starts playing, my mind immediately recalling what the story is about. “You’d have to go back and teach me how when I was 9 / Because my mama couldn’t throw a ball even if she’d had the time / I should’ve been learning how to fish instead of learning how to smoke,” go some of the least depressive lyrics from the perspective of the son. I’m not going to quote the more potent lyrics because it’s best for you to just experience this song without knowing a whole lot about it, so the lyrics can more or less shock you, or at least tug at your heartstrings in a big way.
Another especially heartfelt song is “Dreams Of The San Joaquin,” a song about the struggles immigrants face when they come here to the States. “When a man in need of work’s an all too common sight to see / Each morning as the trucks roll in a lucky few climb on / And the rest of us are left to wonder where the dream has gone,” Kenny sings earnestly, spinning the tale as though he’s channeling Johnny Cash. And, I must say, this one really resonates with me because I lived in the Los Angeles area for a few years and I saw with my own eyes how dozens of Mexican workers stand outside hardware and paint shops each morning, hoping for work, knowing that only half of them are going to get picked for a job that day. I’d see guys making jokes and laughing, taking things in stride, but I’d also see the faces of men who looked broken, men who probably weren’t able to make enough money to buy a home or provide for their families in the ways they wanted to. Making the song all the more touching, Kenny sings an entire verse in Spanish.
On the lighter side, there’s the patriotic “‘Merica,” the nostalgia-laced “Look At You” and the folkish “All I Need is One.” There’s also a lovely cover of Bryan Adams’ “When You Love Someone,” which is fully given a country makeover. They’ve also slowed the tempo down a bit, which made it a bit frustrating for me to listen to the first few times, being an Adams fan accustomed to the original tempo, but now I’m floored by how much emotion Kenny’s version projects, not just in terms of his soulful vocals but in terms of the epic country instrumentation.
It might not spawn any top 40 hits, but You Can’t Make Old Friends is easily a career best for Kenny and it’s an album that should please his fans from four decades ago as well as earning him plenty of new ones. If you’ve ever liked any of his music, even if you haven’t listened to him in decades, do yourself a favor and give this record a spin. Had I heard this last year, it would have easily been in the top 20 of my best albums of 2013 list, probably even in the top 10. Maybe even in the top 5. It really is that wonderful.