Dann Rogers Talks Songwriting, Uncle Kenny Rogers, John Lennon, Fasting and Much More

Dann Rogers, who is the nephew of famed songwriter and performer Kenny Rogers, has seen just about every side of the music business ever since the day he was born.

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Dann, who released his latest single, “Lesson in Love,” earlier this year, has written hits, composed and produced records, listened to legends, and been there in the moment when timeless genius strikes. Yet, he’s one of those guys who doesn’t do it all for the limelight. Rather, he does it for the art and connection music provides.

On his latest single, Dann gives his perspective on at times-polarizing subjects. Yet, he does so with both conviction and openness. That, in and of itself, is a hard balance to strike. But he achieves it.

Below, American Songwriter chatted with Dann about his history in the industry, what he loves most about music, what advice his Uncle Kenny gave him, what compliment John Lennon gave him, and much more.

American Songwriter: When did you first find music in a personal way and what made you want to invest in it with your own time and energy? 

Dann Rogers: My dad went into the music business on the day I was born. He started out as a radio promotions man and then became an R&B record producer and record label owner. Being his oldest son, he would always take me to work with him. So, I grew up in radio stations, recording studios, and record company offices. Looking back, I now realize what an awesome sandbox it was for me to play in. My longtime friend and self-professed big brother Billy Cox, who was also Jimi Hendrix’s bass player, said to me when I was 17, “Danny, you were born into the music business. You didn’t have a choice.”  He was so right.

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, for the first 14 years of my life. There were always big stars and songwriters coming to our house and staying with us. Mickey Newbury would sleep on our couch for a few days at a time. He was a young ambitious songwriter and carried around a classical guitar with him everywhere he went. I will always consider Mickey my mentor and the guy who first influenced me the most as a young writer. He had more soul for a white boy than anyone I’ve ever known, and his songs are legendary.

One day, my dad was producing a group called The 13th Floor Elevators, and Mickey and I went to the studio with him. I was sitting across a desk from Mickey out in the living room of an old house turned into a recording studio watching him play guitar when my dad came out and asked Mickey to watch me while he went out for coffee. About 45 minutes later, my dad walked back in the door, and Mickey said, “Hey Lelan, Whatcha up to?” My dad grinned and said, “Oh I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.” Mickey looked right at me and said “Hey Danny, write that down.” I can still sing the original chorus he came up with for that song. As I was writing his words down I innocently said, “Hey Mickey, what if you said this?” And I then suggested something for a line. He looked at me and said “That’s great. Write that down.” It was at that moment I knew I was going to be a songwriter and live a creative life.

From that day on, I started daydreaming in school and making up songs, and writing lyrics. I was a terrible student, but I wrote my first Pop hit four years later at the age of 15 for Johnny Nash, and I’ve never looked back. John Lennon sent me a personal message through Johnny Nash that I had written the most beautiful bloody song he had ever heard in his life. I didn’t believe Johnny when he told me, but his wife repeated the story a week later to me over lunch. When I got a message from a Beatle at that age, it inspired me and set the bar for me as both a writer and an artist. I jokingly tell everybody that after a slap on the back from John Lennon, I started at the top in the business and worked my way down. It’s like Billy Cox said, I was born into the music business.

I love the way music moves me, both physically and emotionally. I don’t normally listen to the lyrics first. I listen to the beat and the melody and how it moves me. I loved the soulful vocal expressions and the grooves of R&B music. I couldn’t stand still whenever I would hear something with a groove. I liked the descriptive story songs in country music that I was exposed to early on in Texas. My dad discovered Mickey Gilley in Houston and produced him. I grew up going to his nightclub and watching him practice with his band.

As a teenager, I listened to Top 40 radio and then played those songs in my early bands. That helped me understand the craft of writing at an early age. I loved Top 40 radio because every song you heard sounded different, catchy, and unique. I think that’s why my music as a writer and an artist is so diverse. I write whatever I write at that moment. I don’t write music to make money or to fit in a certain genre. I never have and I never will. I write because it’s what connects me to the universe and makes me feel good about being here on this planet. I consider myself a true artist, and my art is my expression of my life’s journey.

AS: How much does your family lineage impact the way you think about music? 

DR: I’m just one in a long line of musical family members. My grandfather was a fiddle player and his brothers played guitars and other instruments. They would play at picnics and barn dances up in Apple Springs, Texas. Music has always been in the Rogers’ lives. I have no idea how far back music goes in our family, but I do know it’s in my DNA and I came by it the old-fashioned way, I inherited it. Aside from Kenny, I’ve probably worked harder and longer at music than any of my other relatives. I have two sons who are great writers, so the talent seed is there. I always loved playing live shows, but I also loved being in the studio writing and producing more.

Kenny was such a great entertainer and singer and he loved being on the road. He was always determined to be the biggest and best entertainer there was, and I think he succeeded.  He was not someone who enjoyed the process of songwriting, and he told me that. I think what he admired about me the most is that I kept honing my craft and working hard at it. He would always ask me to send him some songs whenever we were together. Several times over the years at his shows he would honor me by introducing me as a world-class singer/songwriter and a great entertainer in my own right. I took it as a loving gesture with two thumbs up from Uncle Kenny. He and I were the first two relatives to ever enter the Billboard Adult Contemporary Charts back in 1979. He was No. 5 with “Coward of the County” and I was No. 6 with “Looks Like Love Again. That was an amazing moment for me.

AS: Did your Uncle Kenny ever give you advice about the art form or business, or any especially heartfelt insight?  

DR: He was always willing to give me advice. He was really gracious that way and through the years if I needed him, he would always take my calls. Few people know this about him, but he was a great teacher. He knew how to explain things to you in a way that made perfect sense.

He was always interested in my songwriting. He tried to cut a couple of my songs but he couldn’t seem to make them his own after hearing my versions. We did write a song together for The First Edition called “Whatcha Gonna Do” that was used in an ABC Movie of the week. It was my band in 1976 that backed him up on the first four shows he did as a solo artist after the First Edition broke up. That was another proud moment for me – being on stage with my uncle who I always looked up to as a kid.

Here are the two most important pieces of advice he gave me:

  1. “Always be nice to people. If they like you they will go out of their way to help you.”
  2. “The more successful you are, the prettier the girls get.”

AS: What was the genesis of your 2020 double-album, LIFE

DR: The album took over 10 years to put together. I would work on producing some new tracks, take a break, and then write more songs and work on those. It wasn’t a deadline project. I did a 40-day fast about 12 years ago for the sole purpose of seeing if I could still write. I hadn’t written anything in a few years and my confidence wasn’t very high at the time. I rented a funky little dive in Newport Beach, California overlooking the harbor, and all I took into the empty apartment was a cafeteria table, two metal chairs, an air mattress, a blanket and pillow, a laptop, and eight guitars.

I literally got hungry for the truth to see if I could still write. About eight days into the fast, the songs started pouring out of me. Fast forward to 2021 and I had 19 songs finished and ready to release. It was a bold move releasing a double album in a singles market but it got to a point where I just wanted the songs out there so I could concentrate on writing the new stuff I’m working on now.

AS: What was the impetus for “Lesson in Love” and has that original spark of inspiration held now that the song has been written, released and heard by an audience?  

DR: “Lesson in Love” was one of the songs I wrote during that 40-day fast, but I never recorded it. I had gone through the abortion process with a girlfriend earlier in life and I could see what she was going through, and I didn’t feel good about myself either. We were both struggling with the guilt and shame of what she was doing, but we both concluded that it was the right thing for her to do at the time. I did not sit down to write a song about that experience, but once the story in the song began to reveal itself to me and unfold, I was able to pull on some past emotions that inspired me to write it from the standpoint of a man having great empathy for what the girl is going through. I think that’s why so many men like this song. They somehow relate to the topic from a father’s standpoint. I’m surprised at the reaction I’ve gotten from people ages 13-year-old girls to 75-year-old grandfathers. If God can use it to help save someone from a life of pain, then I stand proud to have written it.

AS: What is your favorite part of the song?  

DR: Instead of a guitar solo I wanted to hear a girl wailing with anguish to really drive home the emotion of the song. That turned out really well. One of the things I’m most proud of is that I broke the mold of traditional songwriting on this song. It’s not your typical verse, chorus, verse, chorus kind of song. I wrote three verses and then a bridge, then two more verses, a vocal solo and then another verse. There’s six verses and a bridge in this song, and it worked beautifully. It’s a real art piece and I’m proud of it.

AS: In this world of divisive arguing, how do you hope the track informs or helps that dialogue? 

DR: As a man there is no way I can fully understand what a woman goes through mentally and emotionally in making that decision. I think it’s a moral decision between herself and her God, and I would never judge a woman for her decision to do it. I also don’t feel any other human being, religious organization or government entity has the right to tell a woman what she can do with the body God gave to her. On the other hand, if there’s one woman out there that hears this song and decides not to go through with it, then has the baby and falls in love with it, then the song will have served a higher purpose. Take from it for what you will.

AS: What do you love most about music?  

DR: Music is a universal language that connects us all at our very core. It’s a form of spirituality. I love that is has the ability to penetrate our souls, move us physically, transport us emotionally, and make us feel different for the moment when listening to it. Music is love, and all we have to do is tap into to it. How beautiful is that?

Photo courtesy Rogers & Cowan PMK

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