Kenny Rogers at Mystic Lake Casino, 12/16/12

Kenny Rogers at Mystic Lake Casino, 12/16/12
Photos by Nikki Miller

Kenny Rogers
With Billy Dean
Mystic Lake Casino
Sunday, December 16, 2012

Kenny Rogers is... kind of a piece of work. And bless him for it.

In the course of his career, he's hopped genres from jazz to folkcountrydelia (that's the word for First Edition, right?), to the middlebrow soft-country balladeer we know him as today. He's starred in his own five-part television movie series based on one of his biggest songs, The Gambler, and co-starred with Dolly Parton in a 1984 Christmas special to accompany their holiday album released that same year. He was once embroiled in a phone sex scandal (how does one even get embroiled in a phone sex scandal?!?), he's had a ton of plastic surgery, he opened a fried chicken chain.

And judging from his Sunday night show at Mystic Lake Casino, from the way he smiles and snickers to himself and just strikes you as a guy who is highly pleased with himself, well, I can't help but wonder: is this the most carefree dude on the planet, or does this guy smoke more than Willie? An answer of "both" is the narrative I've settled on, if only because that would be funny.

Rogers' Mystic stop was part of his "Christmas and Hits" tour, a showcase not only of his enviable career but one featuring a slew of holiday tunes, and a somewhat obscure cameo appearance by '90s country hitmaker Billy Dean.

At the age of 74, Kenny's stage presence is reserved, but his voice as emotive and characteristically gruff as ever. He cracks the same old hokey jokes (and they're obviously of an era -- note mention of how men are from Mars, women from Venus), and picks on the men in the audience for getting dragged by their wives to a Kenny Rogers show (man of the night was a guy in the front row named Gary, the recipient of a crisp $10 bill for every hit he could name, and a Kenny Rogers T-shirt; Gary became somewhat of a celebrity in the halls post-show). Rogers' schtick seems to beg for a Vegas show, so it comes as little surprise that he used to headline his own venue in Branson.

Kenny Rogers at Mystic Lake Casino, 12/16/12

After eight Rogers classics, Billy Dean took the stage to "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," a cover that became a minor hit for him in 2004, following it with his bigger 1992 single, "Billy the Kid." Dean had an impressive run in the early '90s (and he exists in this soft spot I maintain for early-nineties dudes I saw at my hometown county fair during the same era), but seeing that he'd be appearing with Kenny Rogers Sunday night, my first thought was "Yay!" my second, "Wha-huuuh?" So where's Billy Dean been all these years? It would appear he embarked on a tour of Irish pubs -- in Ireland -- with former bandmate Dan Mahar (who, coincidentally, married my gifted teacher's sister and used to write jingles in my hometown because, you know, why not, it's a small world). The two have also opened for Kenny Rogers, and Dean has been a yearly guest on Rogers' Christmas show.

During Dean's three-song set, Rogers took a load off on one of the two white benches on the stage, which was itself all decked out in Christmas trees and fake snow. Rogers would sing along, then poke fun at audience, shaking his head, then he'd scratch his nose, then shake his head some more. He turned his smart-alecking back on himself, introducing "The Gambler" with a crack that it was from that television series no one watched, but then again poked fun at the audience, saying this in response to their swaying to "Lucille": "You look like a room full of Ray Charles." In all the years I've seen Kenny Rogers perform live, I've heard him make this same joke over and over again, and always thought he said something far more nefarious; by comparison, the Ray Charles joke doesn't seem that offensive.

Kenny Rogers at Mystic Lake Casino, 12/16/12

Then "Islands in the Stream" and it's tambos for everyone! Rogers is throwing tambourines into the audience, it's a highly interactive experience, and then boom - just when you're thinking the party's about to begin (we have tambos!)... Kenny's lecturing us about the alleged war on Christmas, you know, all "gotta say happy holidays and that sucks" and whatnot, and with that, the "Hits" portion of the show is over, and the "Holiday," nay "Christmas," portion has begun. Billy Dean returns to the stage, as does a whole mess of kids, children purportedly from the area, mostly girls in fancy Christmas dresses. They sing a few tunes with Dean, kicking things off with "The Closing of the Year" which is, get this, a Wendy and Lisa song. Yeah, that Wendy and Lisa, the ones who get all attitude-y when Prince won't listen to their "slow jam" cassette tape. Well girls, now you've got a whole mess of kids singing your song with Billy Dean on a casino stage. Chin up.

Kenny Rogers at Mystic Lake Casino, 12/16/12

Before long Kenny Rogers has joined in the holiday fun, and the whole shebang is joined by a local high school choir, berobed in red. Then Wynonna (not in person) joins him for a (video) duet of their 1997 hit, "Mary Did You Know," clips of Wynonna singing on the jumbo screen. Little kids sing some more, some fake snow falls, Kenny cracks some jokes about the fake snow machines... and here's where I'm lost. One second, I'm all, "Islands in the Stream! Tambourines!" and the next, I feel like I should be sitting here with my grandma, pre- baking Christmas cookies. But I'm sitting with my most hell-raising friend, and we're drinking beer, and... they took away our tambourines! This is all too weird.

But then, Kenny's been the King of Christmas since he paired up with Dolly back in '84, so I guess this makes all the sense in the world. Merry Christmas, Kenny Rogers, you big ol' Ray Charles.

Critic's Bias: Billy Dean, next time you come through town for a solo gig, I'm so there.

The Crowd: Christmas sweater-y.

Overheard In The Crowd: Take it off! (Us, to Gary, after Kenny Rogers threw him a shirt and instructed him to put it on.)

Random Notebook Dump: Something redacted about what happened the last time I saw Kenny Rogers.

Kenny Rogers:
Love Or Something Like It
Through the Years
You Decorated My Life
She Believes In Me
Coward of the County
Daytime Friends
Buy Me a Rose

Billy Dean:
Thank God I'm a Country Boy
Billy the Kid
We Just Disagree

Kenny Rogers:
The Gambler
Islands in the Stream

Christmas Set:
Linus and Lucy (instrumental)
Greensleeves/What Child Is This (instrumental)
The Closing of the Year (Billy Dean)
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree (Billy Dean)
Jingle Bells (Billy Dean)
Let Them Be Little (Billy Dean)
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (Billy Dean)
Let It Snow (Kenny Rogers)
The Christmas Song (Kenny Rogers)
I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas (Kenny Rogers)
It's Just Not Christmas (Kenny Rogers)
Mary Did You Know (Kenny Rogers)
O Come, All Ye Faithful (Kenny Rogers)
Away In a Manger (Kenny Rogers)
O Holy Night (Kenny Rogers, with choir)
Silent Night (Kenny Rogers)
We Three Kings (Kenny Rogers and Billy Dean)
Joy to the World (Kenny Rogers and Billy Dean)
Til the Season Comes Around Again (Kenny Rogers)

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