Kenny Rogers Picked a Fine Time to Try Country and Then Wed Hee Haw's Marianne Gordon
If Hee Haw’s Marianne Gordon ever writes a song about her new husband, country star Kenny Rogers, it should be no problem thinking up an appropriate title. They Call My Man ‘Crop Surplus’ Because He’s Sowed So Many Wild Oats, for example. Or maybe, If Life Is a Department Store, I Married the Revolving Door.
In his restless 39 years, Rogers has had three busted marriages and two children, including a 19-year-old daughter he has seen only once in the last 15 years. “The marriage problem was my fault,” he admits. “I was so afraid of not being successful that I sacrificed those relationships.”
Through it all Rogers has been an amazingly versatile jack-of-all-genres. His musical “crossovers” have propelled him onto the charts in folk, soft rock and, most recently, to a No. 1 country hit, Lucille. It was the Country Music Association’s 1977 Song of the Year and earned Rogers an Entertainer of the Year nomination.
Three years ago Rogers met Marianne on a Hee Haw guest shot. Her own first marriage, to TV producer Michael Trikila, was failing at the time. After a second meeting at a friend’s party, they dated steadily while their divorces crawled through the courts. “We didn’t push the legal proceedings because we were afraid of the emotional ones,” says Marianne, now 34. “We didn’t want to be able to rush into a marriage.” They finally did mosey into one last October.
As if to acknowledge his turbulent past, Rogers recently wrote a lyric: The first is for the ego only / I’d rather be last by far / And so I say thanks to those before me / Because I love you the way you are. Even if Marianne never gets around to singing it to Kenny (music isn’t her forte; looking gorgeous is), the newlyweds have already collaborated on a bitter ballad, We Don’t Make Love Any More. (“It isn’t personal,” she says to the inevitable question.)
Their answer to the strain of performing life is implacable togetherness. Marianne goes along on most of his tours, which last 250 days a year. “That may not sound like much to someone with a 9-to-5 job,” Kenny observes, “but think how many airplanes and hotel rooms that means.”
When Marianne commutes from their L.A. home to Nashville for Hee Haw tapings, Rogers tags along too for guest appearances and recording sessions. (Unlike her career-driven husband, Marianne says she wants “to work just enough to be financially independent.” An occasional commercial is her only other paycheck these days.)
Rogers grew up in Houston, one of eight children of a shipyard worker who also played the fiddle. At Jeff Davis High School he formed a band, the Scholars, that had a nationwide hit single, Crazy Feeling, in 1957. By 19, Kenny had already sung on American Bandstand “and didn’t have a clue what to do as a follow-up.”
After a semester at the University of Houston, he played bass for an avant-garde jazz trio, happily living on $125 a week. (“I can’t do that anymore,” he says, almost regretfully. “I have to make a certain amount of money.”) He next turned folkie as a New Christy Minstrel. Eighteen months later, in 1967, Rogers and three other minstrels split to form the First Edition. Their middle-of-the-road rock spawned a dozen hits (e.g., Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town) and their own TV series before they succumbed to “creative stagnation” in 1976. Having tried everything else, Rogers went country.
His professional split-ups were matched by his personal life. His first two marriages to high school sweethearts lasted only two years combined. He and his first child—a daughter, Carole Lwnne, who lives in Texas—are only now establishing a relationship by phone and letter. Rogers’ third marriage of 12 years produced a son, Kenneth Ray II, now 13, who lives in Los Angeles where Kenny occasionally visits him.
Marianne’s life was considerably more serene. It began in the university town of Athens, Ga., where she was the second child of an insurance man. After a year of college, she moved to Atlanta, then New York as a model “to have both a career and a lot of free time.” Lonely in New York—”It was like the other side of the world”—she fled to California and bit movie parts in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Rosemary’s Baby. Myths aside, she still marvels at the “friendly people” in Hollywood and the fact that “I never once got chased around a desk.” In 1971 she joined Hee Haw, which is syndicated on 216 stations.
Gordon and Rogers live in a 12-room Westwood country-French house around the corner from Carroll O’Connor. They are refurbishing it in hopes of a resale killing. “We’re spendaholics,” Rogers admits. “The trick is to spend your money so you enjoy it and still have it work for you.” Though Kenny sometimes takes his wife morning tea in bed, a full-time housekeeper-cook attends to the couple’s day-today needs. “I can do all the domestic things,” Marianne says, “but I’m not going to jump up and down with enthusiasm about vacuuming.” Rogers notes in mocking tones, “She picked up a towel the other day.”
Marriage has brought Kenny an unexpected bonus. “When I met him,” Marianne reports, “he devoured cupcakes and Twinkies and drank 10 to 12 Cokes a day.” Now Kenny is fighting to keep an even 200 pounds on his 6’1″ frame. She, on the other hand, can’t gain a pound (over her normal 112) despite “six meals a day and sweets in between.” Both have “mixed emotions” about children. “Now that I’m settled into a great relationship,” Marianne says, “it frightens me to think of doing anything that might alter it.” (She admits, “If I had a child, I might sit and stare at it forever.”)
Rogers’ newest musical gamble is a duet act with Dottie (Country Sunshine) West, 45. “Anybody who’s afraid to tamper with his image has a limited time in this business,” he believes. “Music is ever-changing, and you have to go with it.” He’s just as determined that Marianne continue working. “No woman should feel strapped financially by her husband,” Kenny says. Marianne agrees. “If you’re financially secure then you can feel secure in all other areas. Besides,” she adds fondly, “this way I can support him in his old age.”