Kenny Rogers is having throat problems - not a good thing for a man renowned for his soft, leathery croon.
"My body's falling apart, but I'm never sick," says the 70-year-old country-pop legend, his voice noticeably frayed. "I tell you: These throat problems started two days ago. I'm so full of steroids, I feel like a racehorse - or a professional athlete."
Rogers is calling from his luxury tour bus en route to a vocal cords specialist in New York, the same one Mick Jagger goes to.
"I'll be fine by the time I get to your city," he says reassuringly.
On Sunday night, Rogers' 24-city "Christmas & Hits" show headlines the Hippodrome Theatre, the last stop on the national tour. For the past 25 years, he has anchored the elaborately staged production with the first part devoted to his many hits, including "Lady," "Lucille" and "The Gambler."
The second half is filled with Christmas chestnuts such as "O Holy Night" and "White Christmas."
"It started off at a show in Atlanta," Rogers says of his annual holiday tour.
"It was around Christmas, and somebody asked if we did Christmas music. We did 'Holy Night.' Soon we got the idea to turn the second half into a Christmas production. I always had trouble juxtaposing 'Lucille' with 'Holy Night.' But I figured if we did it separate, the hits and the Christmas songs, it would work."
In the early years of the show, Rogers toured with a choir of 20 members, which soon proved to be cost-prohibitive. Nowadays, he invites a local choir to join him onstage. The choir from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County will join Rogers on Sunday night.
"We thought it was a great idea to include local choirs," Rogers says. "They're always prepared. It adds a certain majesty to the show."
Besides the string of annual holiday performances, Rogers remains a hot ticket on the international concert circuit throughout the year. He has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, ranking just behind Elton John, Elvis Presley and Garth Brooks as one of the biggest-selling male artists of all time. The hits he racked up during the Reagan era - including "Islands in the Stream," a No. 1 duet with Dolly Parton and one of the most ubiquitous smashes of 1983 - are still heard today on pop and country stations.
Rogers' decidedly soul-suffused approach made him more pop than country during his peak commercial years. It's a style heavily influenced by Ray Charles, who in the early '60s brilliantly blurred the lines between country, pop and soul.
"I saw Ray Charles when I was 12 years old," Rogers says. "I remember thinking how cool it was that everybody clapped when he sang. I wanted that same thing. I didn't even know I could sing at the time. But he was such an influence. With the music, it's all self-expression. That's all it is."
For Rogers, a song has to tell a story.
"If you look closely at those songs - 'Lady,' 'She Believes in Me' and 'You Decorated My Life' - those songs say everything a man wants to say and everything a woman wants to hear," he says. "Then I've been lucky to have man songs like 'The Gambler' and 'Lucille.' The trick is to have something everybody can enjoy. I never felt like I was a great singer, but there's something in the songs people can relate to."
Rogers, a father of three grown children and 4-year-old twin boys, is in the middle of finishing a new album, which he plans to release next year. It will be the follow-up to 2006's vulnerable, sometimes melancholic Water & Bridges.
In the meantime, Rogers says the Christmas show has kept him energized, nevermind the pesky throat issues.
"There are a lot of tender moments in the show that are not fabricated," Rogers says. "The choir is always prepared. It's really spectacular."
He roughly clears his throat before adding, "It's a really good show, and I'm not a guy who hawks his shows."
IF YOU GO
See Kenny Rogers at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $45-$100 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7823 or going to ticketmaster.com.