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Album Spotlight: Kenny Rogers, ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ – ToC Critic’s Pick

You Can't Make Old Friends
Warner Brothers

Kenny Rogers‘ new album ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ is a collection of songs as diverse as this legend’s career. No two of the 11 cuts could be placed neatly within the same sub-genre of country music. Intense displays of love, hope, anger and patriotism keep the listener pulled forward to hear what will come next.

The poignant title track (a duet with Dolly Parton) is the most easily digested song on the album. The rest take more commitment to appreciate. If you’re looking for fluff, move along, because Rogers didn’t phone it in with this, his 65th album.

‘You Had to Be There,’ a song about a man visiting his son in prison, finds this storyteller in top form. The spoken-word tale of regret and missed chances is a dense, emotional four minutes that casts a long shadow over the next two songs, both anthemic tributes to the country we live in, in one way or another. ”Merica’ is more literal, while ‘Turn This World Around’ is a thundering, heavily produced rocker meant to inspire hope for our species.

Production choices were critical to this album. Aging artists often fall back on older methods and out-of-date songs are the result. That’s not the case with ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends.’ Rogers finds that narrow groove that runs between contemporary and classic. Young fans won’t yawn. Older fans won’t think he’s sold out. In some cases, he gets off track — ‘Neon Horses’ lacks grit, something essential to the story he’s trying to tell — but overall, he trusts the people he’s working with and fans are rewarded.

The 75-year-old pushes himself out of his comfort zone with such regularity that the album almost loses its identity. ‘Don’t Leave Me in the Night Time’ is a zydeco cut with Buckwheat Zydeco pitching in. Before that is the melodic ‘Dreams of the San Joaquin,’ originally recorded by Linda Ronstadt in 1998. It’s a curious choice for a cover song. One wonders how Rogers relates to this story of life in the Dust Bowl circa 1930.

Almost lost between (literally) the Cajun accordions and “Grown men, raising up those longneck torches / Like neon horses” is a straight-forward lover called ‘Look at You.’ “I could live a million years or more / And not explain this beautiful pain I go through / When I look at you,” Rogers sings with such sincerity that you wonder if he wasn’t staring right into the eyes of his wife when he recorded those lines.

There are enough moments like that to ground ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends,’ but not so many that Rogers can be accused of living on his legacy. He’s still a man pushing himself forward.

Tracks to Remember: ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends,’ ‘You Had to Be There,’ ‘Look at You’

Did You Know?: 2013 is the 30th anniversary of ‘Islands in the Stream,’ Rogers’ famous duet with Dolly Parton. The 30th anniversary of their Real Love Tour is also coming up. The two have talked about hitting the road together again, but Rogers tells Taste of Country it might take too much rehearsal for both to commit to a long run of shows. Five or six dates together would be nice, he says.

Next: See the Best Albums of 2013 (So Far)

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