Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers achieved long and successful solo careers in country music while also regularly joining their distinctive voices for duets and tours. In addition to often being performing partners, the two shared a close friendship that first blossomed when they recorded the now-classic duet "Islands in the Stream." Parton joined Rogers onstage one last time for a farewell concert in 2017. On the occasion, the pair once more expressed their love and affection for one another.
Rogers and Parton had similar paths to the top of the charts
Parton and Rogers shared similar backgrounds, which may help explain their connection. Both grew up in poverty — Rogers in a Houston housing project, Parton in a cabin in the Tennessee hills that was filled with 12 children. Parton has explained, "He, like me, was brought up very poor. We understood that world, and how much we wanted things."
When their friendship began, Rogers and Parton each had successful careers, though they'd experienced twists and turns along the way. After finding success with Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, in 1975 Rogers had chosen to embark upon a solo career in country music when the group split up. Parton had achieved great success in country music in part because she'd joined Porter Wagoner on his popular television show in 1967. But by 1974 she'd decided it was time to branch out on her own.
Both Rogers and Parton had the drive to make it as solo artists. Rogers ended up taking country music by storm with hits like "The Gambler," which also inspired a TV movie tie-in. Parton conquered the world of pop and movies while maintaining her country music credibility.
"Islands in the Stream" cemented their friendship
In 1983, Rogers was a popular and renowned singer, but his talent couldn't keep him from feeling stuck when he tried to record "Islands in the Stream" in a Los Angeles studio. At the time, Parton, who'd taken Hollywood by storm with a standout performance in the hit film 9 to 5, was in her Los Angeles apartment, which was near the studio where Rogers was working. After Rogers had struggled with the song for days, Parton was asked to come to the recording session.
Parton arrived within an hour of getting the call and quickly clicked with the music and as a duet partner with Rogers. The two recorded "Islands in the Stream" together, and, in addition to their musical partnership, a beautiful friendship took off. "Since the day she walked into the room to do 'Islands in the Stream' we have had, I think, a very special relationship," Rogers has noted. Parton has said of Rogers, "You never really know where you're gonna run across somebody that's just gonna be partners for life."
"Islands in the Stream" became a huge hit and served as the impetus for Rogers and Parton to join their voices for more music and tours across the globe. And being able to travel and perform together only strengthened the pair's friendship. With Rogers, Parton indulged in a playfulness that few others could. "I was always such a feisty little thing and I was always doing stuff backstage or onstage," she's stated. "You know, pinch him on the butt or whatever." Their closeness resulted in some speculation as to whether they were more than friends, but the relationship was simply a close friendship.
The two shared a lasting friendship
Rogers' accomplishments were honored during All in for the Gambler: Kenny Rogers' Farewell Concert Celebration, an event that took place on October 25, 2017, at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. Parton was among the superstars in attendance, which Rogers appreciated. He stated, "I've known Dolly for 30 years, so I think it's so sweet of her to come here so that I can say goodbye properly."
That night, Parton serenaded Rogers with a song she'd written years earlier, one that fully expressed how she felt about her good friend, "I Will Always Love You." She and Rogers also rejoined forces for "Islands in the Stream," as well as pairing up for "You Can't Make Old Friends." "You Can't Make Old Friends," which features lines such as, "It was you and me since way back when," was written for the pair and was inspired by their lasting friendship. Parton has said of the song, "Now that summed up our relationship."
Their rendition of "You Can't Make Old Friends" was the last time Rogers and Parton would perform together, but their friendship lasted until Rogers passed away on March 20, 2020. The next day Parton shared an emotional video and a message on Twitter: "You never know how much you love somebody until they’re gone. I’ve had so many wonderful years and wonderful times with my friend Kenny, but above all the music and the success I loved him as a wonderful man and a true friend. So you be safe with God and just know that I will always love you, Dolly."