In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
For the entire span of its existence, country music has existed as its own parallel popular-music economy. But country has never been a sealed-off world, though it sometimes pretends to be one. Country has always worked in conversation with mainstream American pop music — sometimes actively working against it, sometimes seeking points of intersection. After the early ’80s, those points of intersection would become a whole lot harder to find.
When MTV came along, it changed the landscape, and country sort of shrugged and gave up. By and large, the country-music industry never really attempted to reconcile with giddy blockbuster pop or synthy new wave. (If anyone in country was trying to make that stuff, please leave it in the comments section; I’d love to hear it.) Through most of the ’80s, country more or less retreated into itself, fighting its own little internal wars. But before that big separation happened, two of country’s great crossover artists came together and managed one last dominant hit.
Before “Islands In The Stream,” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton had each managed one crossover chart-topper apiece. Both of those singles had been supremely canny moves. Kenny Rogers, who’d made folk and psych-rock before finding his true calling in country, linked up with a surging Lionel Richie to make 1980’s “Lady,” a fine piece of soft-soul smolder that rendered genre distinctions superfluous. A few months later, Dolly Parton got there with “9 To 5,” an even better swaggering working-girl jam that adapted some of the pulse of disco and came attached to a hit movie. Rogers and Parton were never purists, and their big duet is really only country music by association.
“Islands In The Stream” happened because Kenny Rogers was paying attention. He’d had his biggest-ever hit when he joined forces with Lionel Richie, someone who existed outside of country music but who made sense within it. By that same token, the Bee Gees had scored themselves a minor country hit in 1979, when country stations played “Rest Your Love On Me,” the B-side of their #1 single “Too Much Heaven.” In 1981, Conway Twitty (one of the original Number Ones artists) covered “Rest Your Love On Me” and turned it into a #1 single on the country charts.
Kenny Rogers was kicking around the idea of a duets album, so he called up Barry Gibb to see if he had any songs. At that point, the Bee Gees had been utterly blown out of the pop charts in the wake of the disco backlash. But Gibb and his brothers were still finding plenty of success writing and producing songs for other artists; they’d taken Barbra Streisand to #1 with “Woman In Love.” So Gibb jumped at the chance to work with Kenny Rogers. He even insisted that they record a whole album together, and that’s what they did.
Barry Gibb co-produced Rogers’ 1983 album Eyes That See In The Dark with regular Bee Gees collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, and the Gibb brothers wrote or co-wrote every song on the LP. Eyes That See In The Dark is a weird record, but it works more often than it doesn’t. The Bee Gees had been making vaguely soulful soft rock years before they got into disco, and Rogers’ take on country was perfectly indistinguishable from vaguely soulful soft rock.
All three Bee Gees wrote “Islands In The Stream” together, naming it after a posthumously published Ernest Hemingway novel. They originally intended it to be an R&B song. (At various points, Barry Gibb has said that he had both Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross in mind.) If you listen to Barry’s demo for “Islands In The Stream,” it’s pretty clear that it could’ve worked just fine as a soul song. And it’s just as clear that Kenny Rogers didn’t really do anything to the song to change it. Maybe the genre of a Bee Gees songs is simply dependent on the accent of the person singing it.
Originally, “Islands In The Stream” was going to be a solo track for Kenny Rogers, but Rogers didn’t like the way it was turning out. After four days of trying to nail the lead vocal, Rogers told Barry Gibb that he was starting to hate the song. Gibb responded that the song needed Dolly Parton. At that point, Rogers and Parton had only ever sung together on a 1976 episode of Parton’s variety show. But Parton happened to be recording in the same studio that day. Rogers’ manager ran out and grabbed Parton, and she immediately laid down her part of the song.
Parton was an inspired choice. Whether or not Rogers and Parton actually recorded their vocals together, their harmonies are nuts. They sing most of the song together, their voices forming this supremely pleasant chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination. Neither of them are showy singers, but there’s a sort of conversation in the way their vocals match up. When Parton pushes hard, Rogers eases back, and vice versa. They’re singing about being deliriously in love with each other, and the voices have the same give-and-take ease as an actual good relationship.
The lyrics, of course, are total gobbledygook. The Bee Gees always wrote as if English was their fifth language. It’s amazing that they came strutting into country music, a genre that’s generally built around storytelling, and opened a song with words that nobody would ever say out loud. First line: “Baby, when I met you, there was peace unknown.” That’s not an expression. “Peace unknown” is just a ridiculous phrase. Next line: “I set out to get you with a fine-toothed comb.” That is an expression, but nobody has ever used it like that.
The rest of the song goes on like that, mutating language into shapes that only barely even make sense. Doesn’t matter. The words sound good together. The Bee Gees were able to sell utter bullshit like that by understanding how the sounds of words can be more important than their on-paper meanings. And they also made their nonsense work through the power of their harmonies. Rogers and Parton do the same thing on “Islands In The Stream.”
Musically, the song depends entirely on its two singers. The arrangement itself is nice enough, though there’s nothing definitively country about it. The beat is a nice, solid midtempo lope. The horn-bursts are straight-up Southern soul, and there’s probably a bit too much Fender Rhodes gloop all over the track. The central riff might sound heavy if it was played with any aggression at all. “Islands In The Stream” is not a monster song. It’s not even a great one. Instead, it’s really just well rendered soft-rock that never quite fades into pure background music. But it needs two big voices, and it has them.
It must’ve taken a real leap in imagination to think that Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton could sing Bee Gees harmonies, but that’s exactly what they do. Parton’s upper register, in particular, sounds a bit like Barry Gibb when he’s in falsetto-belter mode. Her parts on the song are the highlights; she’s enough of an instinctive actress to convey the fervent passion behind these basically-meaningless words. Rogers is more of an anchor on his own song, but he and Parton make sense together. They might even rely on each other.
The Bee Gees never wrote another #1 hit after “Islands In The Stream,” and Rogers and Parton never sang one, either. Rogers and Parton kept working together after Islands In The Stream — a big tour, a lot of duets, a whole 1984 Christmas album with some pretty great cover art. But “Islands In The Stream” turned out to be Rogers’ last big pop moment. Rogers’ only significant crossover hit in the years that followed was 1984’s “What About Me?,” a James Ingram/Kim Carnes collab that peaked at #15. Parton never even entered the top 40 again, at least as an artist.
Rogers and Parton both had plenty more success, and both of them moved into elder-statesman roles pretty seamlessly. Rogers made an album with George Martin, recorded the jazz-standards record he’d always wanted to make, and cranked out a steady stream of greatest-hits compilations. In 1991, he co-founded a fairly successful roasted-chicken chain; I used to cut school and eat lunch with my friends at the Kenny Rogers Roasters in Ellicott City, Maryland. In 2017, Rogers played a big retirement show in Nashville, and he ended it by singing “Islands In The Stream” with Parton. Rogers died earlier this year, when he was 81. Seems like he had a good life.
As for Dolly Parton, she is now a universally beloved cultural icon. Her brief period of movie stardom was already mostly over by the time “Islands In The Stream” hit, but she went on to star in things like Rhinestone and Steel Magnolias and Straight Talk. She made a bunch of great rootsy country records. She bought part of a local Tennessee theme park near where she’d grown up, and she renamed it Dollywood. She co-founded a production company, which made things like the Father Of The Bride remake and the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series. (Did you know that Dolly Parton was partially responsible for motherfucking Buffy? Before I researched this piece, I most certainly did not.) She’s the best of us.
Kenny Rogers will only appear in this column again as part of the whole “We Are The World” situation. As a songwriter, though, Dolly Parton will return.
BONUS BEATS: For people of my tiny mini-generation, “Islands In The Stream” mostly exists as the source material for “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are),” a single from the soundtrack of the utterly baffling 1998 Warren Beatty film Bulworth. The Fugees member Pras Michel is the lead artist on “Ghetto Supastar,” but the part that everyone remembers is guest singer Mýa interpolating “Islands In The Stream.” Here’s the video:
Two years after “Ghetto Supastar,” the Fugees member Wyclef Jean, that song’s co-producer, put Kenny Rogers on a song with Pharaohe Monch. It’s one of the strangest, most ill-advised cross-genre stunts I’ve ever heard. Here it is:
(“Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)” was fucking everywhere in the summer of 1998, but it peaked at #15. It’s Pras Michel’s biggest hit. “Ghetto Supastar” guest Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s highest-charting single as a lead artist is the 1999 Kelis collab “Got Your Money,” which peaked at #26. Ol’ Dirty Bastard will appear in this column, but only as the guest rapper on a prominent remix. Thanks to another movie-soundtrack collaboration, Mýa will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Capone-N-Noreaga interpolating “Islands In The Stream” on their 2000 track “Full Steezy”:
(As a group, Capone-N-Noreaga don’t have any singles that made the Hot 100. As a solo artist, NORE’s highest-charting single is the 2002 Pharrell collab “Nothin’,” which peaked at #10. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Bee Gees performed “Islands In The Stream” live for years, and they finally recorded their own studio version of the song for a greatest-hits compilation in 2001. Their take, which interpolates “Ghetto Supastar,” is not even remotely country. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Islands In The Stream” cover that the Constantines and Feist released as a 7″ single in 2008:
(Feist’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “1234,” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of My Morning Jacket and Neko Case covering “Islands In The Stream” together in Pittsburgh in 2011: