Rogers laughed at the memory. “I went, ‘So we’re assuming I’m going first?’ ” He chuckled again. “But I love her for that. You never know what she’s going to say, but it always comes from love.”
Listening to the song, Parton’s train of thought makes sense — the ballad includes the lines, “What will I do when you’re gone? Who’s gonna tell me the truth? … How will I sing when you’re gone? Cause it won’t sound the same.” Those lyrics became even more poignant this past weekend, when Rogers died at age 81. Tributes to the country-pop superstar poured in, and on Saturday morning, Parton posted an emotional video on social media. She said she learned the news after turning on the TV.
“I loved Kenny with all my heart, and my heart’s broken,” Parton said, choking up as she held a framed picture of the two of them. “I know you’re sad as I am. God bless you, Kenny.”
After the news of Rogers’s death, his famed hit “The Gambler” rocketed up to No. 1 on the iTunes charts. The No. 2 spot? Karaoke favorite “Islands in the Stream,” his iconic 1983 duet with Parton. But as much as people have loved the musical collaborations between Rogers and Parton, there is also a long-running obsession with their nearly four-decade friendship.
It was a favorite topic in interviews, and Rogers and Parton were constantly asked if they had ever been more than friends, even though they always said no. “We all want you to get together!” Gayle King said in 2013 when Rogers stopped by “CBS This Morning.”
“We’re both married. Why would you want us to get together?” Rogers responded, smiling, as the anchors laughed and King quickly started to back off the question. “In all fairness, Dolly and I have been accused of having an affair for the last 30 years. And we never did.” He added that they indulged in some “harmless” flirting, but that was all.
What was most important, he said, was their friendship: “She’s one of those rare people that if she walked in the door and I hadn’t seen her in five years, it would be like we were together yesterday.”
The two first crossed paths in Nashville in the early days of their careers, and he helped her when she headlined a syndicated TV show in the 1970s.
“Kenny was a big star, and I couldn’t get any people on my show,” Parton told the Associated Press in 1990. “Kenny said ‘I’ll do it,’ and I’ll never forget it. He’s always been there for me as a friend.”
Nearly a decade later, Rogers was in the recording studio with Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, who had just co-written “Islands in the Stream” and decided to give it to Rogers. After a few days trying to record, Rogers didn’t like how it sounded and was ready to give up. According to Rogers, Gibb said, “You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton.”
By coincidence, Rogers told People magazine, Parton happened to be the same studio that day. Rogers’s manager went to go find her. “She came marching into the room, and once she came in and started singing, the song was never the same. It took on a personality of its own,” Rogers said.
“Islands in the Stream” became a massive hit when it was released in 1983 and fueled interest in Rogers and Parton as a duo — they released a Christmas album and filmed a TV special and started touring together. “We didn’t plan it. People just put us together because they liked us together,” Parton said in 1986. “We did that one song and out of that came years of concerts and friendship.”
Their easygoing chemistry remained the same for decades, as they could quickly veer from joking (“So this is my lead-in for me to talk about how handsome you are,” Parton said dryly in a 2013 Great American Country interview when Rogers called her “gorgeous”) to introspective: “One of the things that affects a relationship when you’re working with someone is your upbringing and your background,” Rogers said on an episode of Parton’s show in the ’80s, noting that they had similar family situations and religious beliefs. “She’s a very special person who has a very special place in my life.”
They collaborated on more duets through the years: “Real Love” in 1985; “Love is Strange” in 1990; Rogers recorded the Parton solo-written “Undercover” in 2003. And finally, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” which was nominated at the 2014 Grammy Awards for country duo/group performance. Even though they didn’t write it, they considered it autobiographical.
“[‘Islands in the Stream’] was a song about objective people. This was about us,” Rogers said in the 2013 GAC special. “And I think that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
They clearly knew how meaningful their partnership was to fans — Parton also used her tribute video on Saturday to comfort people about the world’s current nightmarish situation.
“I know that we all know Kenny’s in a better place than we are today. But I’m pretty sure he’s going to be talking to God sometime today if he’s ain’t already,” she said. “And he’s going to be asking him to spread some light onto this darkness going on here.”
(A previous version of this story said Parton’s 1970s TV show aired on the Nashville Network. This has been corrected.)