Christmas was Kenny Rogers’ time of year. The raspy-voiced singer of such legendary crossover smashes as “The Gambler,” “Lady,” and “You Decorated My Life” enjoyed a special fondness for the holly-jolly season, recording several holiday-themed albums beginning with the simply-titled Christmas in 1981. Following the release of that album, he took his fondness for Christmas to the masses with his annual Christmas & Hits Tour, performing seasonal favorites along with a diverse selection of his biggest hits.
Rogers, a musical superstar and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, was among many artists the music world lost in 2020, passing away on March 20th of natural causes at age 81. It’s appropriate, then, that we remember his final holiday album, Once Again It’s Christmas, on the fifth anniversary of its 2015 release. Once Again It’s Christmas also marked the last studio album of Rogers’ stellar career.
NEW TUNES AND DUET MAGIC
Once Again It’s Christmas featured classics like “Little Drummer Boy” and “Winter Wonderland,” and duets with an array of guest performers, including Jennifer Nettles and Alison Krauss. This was Rogers’ first Christmas record since Christmas From the Heart in 1998, a hiatus he humorously alluded to in an interview posted on YouTube.
“The record company came to me and said, ‘You know, that 17-year cycle is fine, but we need a Christmas album.’ And this is in July,” Rogers laughed. Rogers recorded the album during the summer months, which would hardly seem mood-inspiring. But Rogers maintained that he never paid attention to that notion once he started cranking up his vocals in the studio. “I get in there and I get into the spirit when I start singing Christmas lyrics,” he said, with a broad, Santa-style smile.
Rogers uncovered some new Christmas gems for the album, among them the title track and one called “Some Children See Him.” The former fell into his lap courtesy of an ex-band member, Don Russell, the drummer in a jazz ensemble that Rogers played with early in his career. “[It’s] an interesting song,” Rogers noted in an interview posted on Facebook. “It sounds like it was written in the 1960s, and it actually was. [Russell] sent me this song last year. I didn’t even know he wrote songs. And he said, ‘Would you do this on your Christmas album?’ I thought it was beautiful. It sounded like it had been around forever and that’s what I liked about it.”
The selection “Some Children See Him” was a relatively unknown carol co-written in the 1950s by jazz musician Alfred Burt. Rogers had never heard the song before, but he embraced its inclusive, ecumenical nature, as he explained to Billboard. “It falls within that category of ‘Mary, Did You Know,’ in that it’s a totally different look at Christmas,” Rogers noted. “It says in so many words that Black children don’t have to see Christ as white. You can look at him as Black.” Rogers added, “It really struck me as being a deep thought process into the universality of Christmas.”
For that tune, Rogers brought in one of his all-time favorite singers, Alison Krauss. The two had collaborated (along with Billy Dean) on Rogers’ 1999 single, “Buy Me A Rose,” which eventually became the 21st and last chart-topper of Rogers’ career. So this proved a true duet reunion. “I will tell you that once she started singing, you could have taken me off that record,” Rogers raved in a YouTube interview. “She is so wonderful.”
Rogers possessed an uncanny knack for finding just the right duet voice for a particular song. Over the years, he scored hits with a variety of singing partners, from country legends Dolly Parton and Dottie West to international pop star Sheena Easton and pop/rocker Kim Carnes. Rogers and West won back-to-back CMA awards for Vocal Duo of the Year in 1978 and 1979. His teaming with Parton on the 1983 classic “Islands in the Stream” remains arguably the most beloved duet in country music history.
The secret to his collaborative success? “You never start with a partner,” Rogers once commented. “You start with a song. And you say, ‘Who can sing this song well’?” He pondered that thought when selecting his duet mate for the Christmas chestnut, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The proverbial light bulb went off and one name beamed brightly. “I said, you know who has the personality for this? Jennifer Nettles,” Rogers recalled. “And she was great. She was awesome.”
He had wanted to work with the Sugarland lead vocalist and solo star for a couple of years. Rogers told Billboard, “We did ‘Islands in the Stream’ on the CMA Awards back in 2013, and I don’t think in the last 10 years I’ve found anyone that I had such a connection with.” He added, “My only concern about [‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’] was that I didn’t want to sound like a lecherous old man, because you have to be careful about things like that.”
Rogers landed a duet discovery with the American a cappella group Home Free, who performed on “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” He often related that he was unaware of the group at first, but heard about them through his twin sons’ teacher. Rogers combed the Internet, located their music, and came away duly impressed with the group’s upbeat harmonies.
Rogers had his hand in other aspects of the record as well. Not generally known for his songwriting, Rogers co-wrote one of the selections, “The Light,” with bandmate Steve Glassmeyer and Warren Hartman. Rogers, a noted photographer who published three books of his works, actually shot the album’s cover, which he titled “Red Tree.” He took the photo in Yakima, Washington, in December of 2003.
“I can’t tell you how much fun it was recording a Christmas record again,” Rogers said at the time of the album’s release. “I feel like this is a special group of songs — both old and new — and I was particularly lucky to be joined by many talented guest artists and musicians who each have something unique to say.”