Ironically, it took a disco icon to bring the two country legends together in the studio. “The first time I met Dolly Parton was in the 1970s. I was asked to perform on her television show in Nashville, simply called Dolly,” Rogers wrote in his 2012 memoir, Luck or Something Like It. “I would like to say that we became immediate friends, but we didn’t. I was just another guest in the mix of her very busy schedule.” But when Rogers tapped Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees in 1983 to produce his next album, Gibb had a flash of inspiration. It involved one of the album’s songs, “Islands in the Stream,” which Gibb had written with his Bee Gees bandmates and brothers, Robin and Maurice.
“I had worked on the song with Barry for at least four days, something I was not used to doing. I finally told him I didn’t even like the song anymore,” Rogers wrote. “Without breaking a stride he raised one finger in the air and said, ‘What we need is Dolly Parton.’”
As fate would have it, Parton wasn’t ensconced in Nashville. She was in Los Angeles, where Rogers and Gibb were recording. Forty-five minutes after Gibb’s epiphany, Parton walked through the door of the studio and got down to business.
“Baby, when I met you there was peace unknown / I set out to get you with a fine tooth comb / I was soft inside / There was something going on,” Rogers croons as the song oozes into existence. His voice is gruff and lonesome—that is, until Parton joins in on the next verse: “You do something to me that I can’t explain / Hold me closer and I feel no pain / Every beat of my heart / We got something going on.” Their harmony is otherworldly, an alloy of fierce and soft. Parton is the former; Rogers is the latter.
What follows is a monumental chorus that millions of YouTube plays can’t erode. “Islands in the stream / That is what we are / No one in between / How can we be wrong / Sail away with me / To another world / And we rely on each other, ah ha / From one lover to another, ah ha.” Rogers and Parton trade proclamations of undying commitment—“Too deep in love and we got no way out”; “We start and end as one”—with a vagueness that suggests a shy kind of mystery. The song is escapist. It’s borderline ridiculous. It’s also breathtaking.
With its sultry phrasing, bright brass, and synthesizer-based arrangement, “Islands in the Stream” strayed as far from traditional country as country royalty had ever dared before. The Texas drawl of Rogers and the Tennessee twang of Parton lend warmth and raw yearning to an otherwise twinkly sonic backdrop. That friction between soulfulness and sophistication is what sells it.
By his own admission, Rogers was always more of an R&B fan than anything else. “I grew up with Sam Cooke and Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters,” he told the music journalist John Tobler in 1989. “My heart is with R&B music.” Gibb originally wrote “Islands in the Stream” with Diana Ross in mind, but the song ended up with Rogers and Parton.