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Dolly Parton Reflects on Missing Her Longtime Friend Kenny Rogers

Photo Credit: Gary Gershoff / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Gary Gershoff / Getty Images

Well-known singer and songwriter Kenny Rogers died on March 20, 2020. In the lead-up to the anniversary of his death, many reflected on their relationship with him. Among them was country icon Dolly Parton, who maintained a lifelong friendship with the late Rogers. She spoke about their decades-long relationship, the music they made together, and grieving his loss.

Musical partnership

Although each singer produced popular songs in their own right – Parton with works like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” and Rogers with “The Gambler” –  the pair also collaborated on numerous musical hits. Their first work together was “Islands in the Stream,” written by the Bee Gees, which appeared on Rogers’ album Eyes That See in the Dark. It was an incredibly successful duet that paved the way for future collaborations.

Black and white photo of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers smiling, both in sparklingl clothing.
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton attending the RP Foundation Fighting Blindness Humanitarian Awards Dinner at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City, April 19, 1988. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella/ Ron Galella Collection/ Getty Images)

Their next release, on October 29, 1984, was a full Christmas album titled Once Upon a Christmas. As with the previous single, the work was successful, although the success of the individual songs varied. It did win Top Selling Album at the Canadian Country Music Association Awards. They produced “Real Love” only a year later, but it wasn’t met with nearly as much success as their previous work, as well as “Love is Strange” in 1990.

A lifelong friendship

As their professional relationship blossomed, so did their personal one, beginning with that very first song they recorded together. Rogers recalled later in life, “Since the day [Dolly] walked into the room to do ‘Islands in the Stream’ we have had, I think, a very special relationship.” This is also what served as the inspiration for their final duet, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” It was written on their behalf in 2013, inspired by the close friendship that they had maintained through the years.

Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers performing together on stage in black tie attire.
Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers performing together, c. 1990. (Photo Credit: Beth Gwinn/ Redferns/ Getty Images)

In the coming years, Rogers knew that he would be retiring from performing. He put together one last show, All in for the Gambler: Kenny Rogers’ Farewell Concert Celebration, and he invited Parton to perform with him one last time. Although they were no longer working on new music, the two artists remained friends until Rogers passed away in 2020.

Parton was one of the many celebrities to share her goodbye publicly, writing, “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.”

Remembering Kenny Rogers

In an interview with People in 2023, Parton opened up again about this loss. She said, “I miss him so much. I’ve lost so many wonderful people in my life in the last few years. But Kenny — he was very, very dear and special and I never get tired of hearing us sing, all the years that we were on stage together (…) I never got tired of Kenny’s voice.” She also talked about their final song together, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.”

Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers sit beside each other laughing.
Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers laugh together backstage at the Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years show at the MGM Grand, April 10, 2010. (Photo Credit: Rick Diamond/ Getty Images)

More from us: Olivia Newton-John Recorded ‘Jolene’ Duet With Dolly Parton Before Her Death

Parton expressed how glad she was that they recorded it when they did, as Rogers retired from singing only a few years later due to his health. She also revealed that no matter how much she loves the song, she, “can’t hardly sing it anymore,” because it reminds her of her late friend. Despite the sadness she still feels over his loss, Parton asserted, “He’s up there singing. I know that.”

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.