Country Legends Willie and Kenny (and Their Friends) Shine on Pair of Specials

Willie is all smiles at the all-star concert tribute special in his honor.
Willie is all smiles at the all-star concert tribute special in his honor. Photo by Joshua Timmermans/Courtesy of A&E
With most folks in Coronavirus Quarantine, our televisions are likely going 24/7 with all the watching, playing, and streaming (stocks I should have bought two months ago: Charmin, Purell, Zoom, and Netflix). Fortunately for the music fan, we live in a golden age of documentaries and concerts across seemingly all music tastes and styles.

Two of country’s most legendary names – and both with strong and deep ties to Houston – will be the subjects of brand new specials debuting on the A&E Network: “Willie Nelson: American Outlaw” (April 12, 9 p.m. CT) and “Biography: Kenny Rogers” (April 13, 8 p.m. CT).

click to enlarge Willie Nelson contemplates where he put his weed. - PHOTO BY JOSHUA TIMMERMANS/COURTESY OF A&E
Willie Nelson contemplates where he put his weed.
Photo by Joshua Timmermans/Courtesy of A&E
In “Willie Nelson: American Outlaw,” viewers have a front row seat to a recent all-star tribute concert to the Red Headed Stranger, with a truly once in a lifetime lineup of performers playing songs that Willie either wrote, recorded, or – in one memorable tune – were inspired by him.

That last one would be Jack Johnson’s true tale of a mind-altered poker game, “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money”). Alas, Toby Keith was not around to sing his ode “Weed with Willie.”

Performers include Eric Church (“Me and Paul”), Vince Gill (“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”), Chris Stapleton (“Whiskey River”), Jamey Johnson (“Georgia On My Mind”), the Avett Brothers (“Bloody Mary Morning”), Nathaniel Rateliff (“A Song for You”), and Lyle Lovett and Ray Benson (“Shotgun Willie”).

“When we were putting the show together, we started reaching out to people, and there was an immediate outpouring of people who wanted to be part of this,” says Rob Rauffer, Co-Executive Producer of the Willie special and Executive Producer of the Kenny Rogers program. He’s also a driving force behind the Outlaw Music Festival, which made a stop last year in Houston.

In fact, the actual Willie tribute concert was so long and involved so many artists, that only 20 of the 30 performances made the broadcast cut (though eagle-eyed viewers can see people like Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffett, Steve Earle, Margo Price, and Jason Isbell among others in the big finale of “On the Road Again.”

Nelson himself comes on and off stage for a series of duets and guest appearances with Emmylou Harris (“Pancho and Lefty”), Sheryl Crow (“After the Fire Has Gone”), and Dave Matthews (“Crazy”), and even solo spots. The occasional fragility in his voice a reminder that the man is still going at 86 years old, but we won’t have Willie forever.

The likely highlight is a two song set where Willie plays with George Strait, including “Good Hearted Woman” and a brand new co-written song in which the men trade humorous asides and lyrics of admiration, “Sing One With Willie.”

“When George Strait came in, that was a big thing. They had never performed together before, and I think that will surprise people,” Rauffer says, adding that they had done their parts for a recorded version of “Sing One With Willie” separately, so the special marks the first time they actually shared the same stage.

click to enlarge It's a bittersweet moment when Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton sing what would be their final-ever live duets a a tribute concert. - PHOTO BY JOSHUA TIMMERMANS/COURTESY OF A&E
It's a bittersweet moment when Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton sing what would be their final-ever live duets a a tribute concert.
Photo by Joshua Timmermans/Courtesy of A&E
“I think people just fell in love with him so deep,” Dolly Parton says onscreen of her frequent and decades-long singing (just singing!) partner who’s the subject of “Biography: Kenny Rogers.” “There’s an emotional weight in his voice,” adds country music journalist Robert K. Oermann. “He gets the essence of a story song.”

Presented as more of a straight ahead documentary, this show is more of a tribute to the genial Gambler, whose admiring interview subjects include Lionel Richie, Chris Stapleton, Reba McEntire, and a number of family members, music biz associates, or current or former matrimonial partners. There’s also plenty of archival live footage, rare photographs, and both contemporary and vintage interviews with Rogers himself.

click to enlarge The beard! The suit! The ballads and story songs! - PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES/PROVIDED BY A&E NETWORK
The beard! The suit! The ballads and story songs!
Photo by Getty Images/Provided by A&E Network
Of course, this one takes on a different meaning in light of Rogers’ death last month, which is noted in a in a title card at the end.

“We did complete the show before he [passed] and Kenny and his wife Wanda were able to see it earlier this year. They were really touched by it. He loved it,” Rauffer says. “The whole thing is a bit of a love letter to Kenny and what he’s done for the genre of country music, taking it mainstream with all those [legendary] songs that were played even on [Top 40] radio.”

Throughout are performance clips from the 2017 all-star farewell concert “All in For the Gambler” in which acts like those mentioned above and Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, and Jamey Johnson perform songs that made Rogers famous.

The show and special culminates with two duets featuring Rogers himself singing with Parton: Their first and biggest success (“Islands in the Stream”) and their touching last (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”).

“As if that last ten minutes wasn’t enough of a tearjerker to begin with, we now know that’s truly the last time, they’ll ever perform together,” Rauffer notes.

On the documentary side, there’s an as complete as ever seen look at Rogers early career with acts like the Houston-based Bobby Doyle Trio, New Christy Minstrels, and (most importantly) the country rock band the First Edition. The interview with two of his former bandmembers here are insightful, and the multiple concert and TV clips (the act had their own network variety show at one point!) are great.

“I was born in 1965, so I only really knew of Kenny from ‘Lucille’ on. But it was interesting to really get into the earlier part of his life and career and the First Edition, things that people really didn’t know about him,” Rauffer says.

Also revealing is how low the low points of Rogers’ professional career was post-First Edition and even into his early solo career. And how crucial producer Larry Butler was to boosting both Rogers’ confidence and career.

And while he had solo hits with “Lucille” and “Reuben James,” it was the Don Schlitz-penned “The Gambler” that cemented his career and persona. Lionel Richie gives some amusing stories of their unexpected lifelong friendship, and how the song he wrote for Rogers – the smash “Lady” – came about and what its original title was. But somehow, “Baby” just wouldn’t come across the same.

Much is made of Rogers’ many No. 1 hits on the country, and pop charts, and perhaps no artist showcased how blending of the two genres could work as well as Rogers. The majority of his music fell into two categories: story songs and romantic ballads. Of the latter, Rogers here repeats his oft-told observation that those songs are “what every man would like to say, and what every woman would like to hear.”

As to what makes these two specials stand apart from so many others, Rauffer says it’s a mixture of the subjects and the structure.

“For the Willie show, it’s really going to show the breadth of his music by the different types of performers. For Kenny, it’s the mixing of the live show [interspersed] with the documentary about his history. But both Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers are such cultural icons, and had such an impact on culture.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero