The Truth About Kenny Rogers' Relationship With Dolly Parton

There are a lot of iconic duos in music history. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Simon and Garfunkel. Hall and Oates. And, of course, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.

There's something undeniably electric about their on-stage appearances. See them performing together, and it's clear that not only do they truly love what they do, but they truly love each other. The kind of friendship they shared is the kind that most people can just aspire to experience in their lifetime, and it's the kind of friendship that makes the world a better place.

And here's the thing: Although Parton has been married to her beloved husband since 1966 and Rogers was married five times — including to Marianne Gordon, from 1977 to 1993, and Wanda Miller, whom he was married to at the time of his death — there were also rumors that there was something more than just friendship going on between the two. Was there? Or was it just ugly gossip that was trying to ruin a beautiful friendship? Let's do a deep dive into their relationship and find out.

The Bee Gees brought them together

It seems impossible to think that there was a world pre-Parton and Rogers, but there was. According to The Atlantic, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers first met way back in the 1970s. At the time, she already had her own television show. It was — perhaps predictably — simply called "Dolly," and Rogers was asked to do a guest appearance. Was it magic at first sight? Nope: "I was just another guest in the mix of her very busy schedule."

Fast forward to 1983, and the Bee Gees. Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb had written a song called "Islands in the Stream," and they needed someone to sing it. That person was initially Kenny Rogers, but when they started collaborating on it, they worked on it, and worked on it, and worked on it some more — without hitting that "wow!" moment — for so long that Rogers started to hate it. It was at that moment that Barry Gibb realized just what the song was missing, and she just happened to be a stone's throw away from their Los Angeles recording studio. They called her, she was there in less than an hour, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Rogers would later write in his memoir: "I've lived through earthquakes in California, twisters in Kansas, and hurricanes in Georgia, but nothing prepared me for working with Dolly."

They shared similar childhoods and had similar struggles

"Islands in the Stream" was released in 1983. The decade wasn't even over yet before they were already being quizzed about their fast friendship. They went on tour together, did a Christmas album, more duets ... and people wanted to know. Kenny Rogers was once again guest-starring on Dolly Parton's show when he commented that friendships were built on a shared background, belief system, and family values (via The Washington Post). And that might shed some light on just how they hit it off so quickly.

Dolly Parton, says Biography, was famously one of 12 children, growing up in Appalachian Tennessee. Money was always scarce, and after first finding music through her mother and her church, she was gifted a guitar — and there was no looking back. Rogers had a similar background: Biography says that he was one of seven children, and they, too, grew up poor. He spent his early years living in a federal housing project in Houston, Texas, and it was up to him to buy himself his first guitar — which he finally was able to do in high school.

Parton was much younger when she first started performing professionally: just 10 years old when she started performing on local TV and radio stations. While she was on stage at the Grand Ole Opry when she was just 13, she's never forgotten where she came from. Neither did he — and they seem to have bonded over that.

They valued their friendship too much to date

In spite of the fact that Dolly Parton has been married for the entire time she's known Kenny Rogers, there's still a strange obsession with the idea of seeing them becoming more than friends. In 2020, People looked back at a 2013 interview where Parton said — probably for the millionth time — that no, they were just really good friends. She also stressed that it wasn't just the two of them, and their respective band members and crews all got along, too. 

It was Rogers who explained that while there might have been some temptation there, they were both well aware of the fact that what they had was just too good to jeopardize. "... we didn't want to ruin a good friendship," he explained. Parton agreed, saying that they had both seen too many friendships ruined by going to the next step. "We never did go there," she said. "There was always so much other stuff going for us. So much love and friendship." Rogers also acknowledged that Parton was already married, and had been for a long time. And in the other direction? Parton laughed: "I couldn't catch him between wives!"

The pair have joked about the idea on multiple occasions: When they were asked about it on the Today show, he claimed, "First of all, she's hard to look at for me," while Parton responded, "I'm not his type!" Bottom line? They just meant too much to each other.

Kenny Rogers's ex-wife was fine with them

If there would be anyone who might have something negative to say about the friendship between Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, it's their respective spouses.

Rogers met Marianne Gordon (pictured, with him in 1983) in 1974. They married three years later, and remained married until 1993 — and for anyone keeping track, that was the period of time through "Islands in the Stream," and numerous other collaborations. Gordon spoke with Closer Weekly and had this to say about the whole thing: "I never felt uncomfortable at all. I just knew him so well." She added that others had approached her with concerns over her husband's relationship with the glamorous singer-songwriter, and Gordon confirmed that she just brushed off any rumors of romance or an affair.

In the years following their 1993 divorce, Gordon has maintained she has nothing but good things to say about him. The divorce was hard, she acknowledged (via Fox News), but Parton had nothing to do with it. Instead, Gordon blamed the deterioration of their marriage on "a mid-life crisis. He felt like his career was fading." And he didn't like it. He was plagued by feelings of insecurity and dreams that he stepped on stage for a concert, only to find there was no one in the audience. But: "He was so sweet. I always felt his total focus was on me."

Was he the star she mentioned as her first big crush?

Anyone who says they've never had a celebrity crush is lying, and that's true even of celebrities. So, when it came time for The Big Issue to ask Dolly Parton about her first crush, was it her longtime friend? Anyone hoping for some evidence that there were some side shenanigans going on might hope that the answer is in the affirmative, but it's not.

She met Johnny Cash when she was first starting out, and to the 13-year-old Parton, he was nothing short of magical. "Johnny was all strung out on drugs and everything, but he was so magnetic, so sexy. He was my first male grown-up crush, he just really moved me. ... I told him, you know you were my ... first sexy grown-up crush. He always got a kick out of that."

It just goes to show that crushes aren't always all they're cracked up to be. While Cash found it hilarious that he'd been Parton's first crush, she had something else to say about meeting Rogers (via Biography): "You never really know where you're gonna run across somebody that's just gonna be partners for life."

Want the inside scoop? Listen to 'You Can't Make Old Friends'

Dolly Parton's album "Blue Smoke" includes a very, very special track. It's called "You Can't Make Old Friends," and it isn't just a duet with Kenny Rogers. According to what she told Pop Matters, the song was incredibly special to them because it summed up their entire relationship pretty perfectly. "That song was very emotional, because of our relationship and the fact that we're both older ... and when we were talking about when St. Peter knocks on the door and you come walking in, it makes you think."

While Parton is a seriously incredible songwriter, she didn't write this one: That, says The Boot, was songwriter Don Schlitz. (He, incidentally, also wrote "The Gambler" for Rogers.) While he wrote it, the idea came from Rogers, who told Schlitz the song title he had in mind, and let the songwriter take it from there.

Schlitz called it one of the high points of his career, saying that once you have a song recorded by legends like them, you know that no matter what happens for the rest of your career, you're golden. The song and the video, he said, were very clearly done by exactly who needed to do it: "It's a great honor to be a part of that."

They were like soulmates and siblings

Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers have spoken candidly about exactly how they see each other, and it's pretty adorable stuff. Country Fancast reported that after a 2017 event marking a retirement from music for Rogers, Parton told interviewers: "Kenny's friendship means more to me than our hit records. Actually, we're kind of soulmates."

It wasn't the first time they had used the term to describe their relationship, and in 2013, she said this during an interview with Warner Music Nashville: "There's different kinds of soulmates, but, it's like, with Kenny, I just see him and I smile." Seriously: Everyone needs someone like that in their lives.

They went on to say that no matter how long passed between seeing each other, they could pick up right where they left off. When they were on Today that same year, they clarified even more. Parton described their relationship as having pretty much the perfect brother and sister vibe, and let's all be honest here — this is the kind of sibling relationship everyone with siblings can aspire to.

Kenny Rogers's favorite memory of her is hilarious

Every longtime friendship has those moments that stick out in memory, even after years have gone by. In a 2017 interview with Southern Living, Kenny Rogers was asked what his favorite memory of Dolly Parton was, and he said it was a moment that happened when they were recording "You Can't Make Old Friends." He said that he looked up to see her, where she had just been standing — in another recording booth, with her own microphone — and she wasn't there. "She had left her microphone, and came into my part of the studio, and she put her arms around my neck and said, 'Kenny, I think you should know, I could never sing at your funeral.'"

While he laughed at the memory — and asking her why she assumed he was going to go first — the moment is bittersweet in hindsight. Five years later, Rogers would pass away. That was in 2020, and it wasn't until 2021 that CBS aired a one-hour concert special in his honor. It was filmed in 2017, says People, and featured the last performance of Rogers and Parton doing "Islands in the Stream."

That, however, was still in the future during the Southern Living interview: Rogers laughed, and continued, "I love her. I love her for that. You never know what she's going to say, but it always comes from love."

Let's talk about that time he compared her to Donald Trump

Dolly Parton, says the Independent, has always refused to come right out and say just what her political stance is. She usually deflects questions with a joke, or just says outright that she has too many fans from all walks of life to alienate anyone by coming down on one side of the fence or the other. Unfortunately for her, that refusal to pick a side has gotten her the ire of some people who think she should just commit: It proves that sometimes, there's just no way to win.

That said, Kenny Rogers had made it clear that he was a Donald Trump supporter — so much so that Reuters needed to fact-check the widely circulating claim that half of his estate went to Trump's reelection campaign. (It didn't.) Still, it was pretty surprising when Rogers compared Parton to Trump in mid-concert, saying (via Country Rebel): "She has no filter. ... She has become the Donald Trump of country music."

Regardless of where Parton really stands on the political spectrum, she addressed the comparison in an interview with Rolling Stone. She didn't agree with it, nor throw her friend under the proverbial bus. She laughed and simply said: "Me and Donald kind of have the same hair. [He] could have meant that, too. "

Their last performance together was in 2017

The New York Times reported that when Kenny Rogers officially retired in 2018, he cited "health reasons." Newsweek reported his final performance was a tribute show called "Kenny Rogers: All In for the Gambler," and it had been filmed in 2017. It would only air in September of 2021, and by then, it was posthumously. Dolly Parton joined him for a number of songs, including the one that started it all: "Islands in the Stream." That wrapped up the show, which was a clearly difficult yet poignant goodbye. Even as they performed "You Can't Make Old Friends," Parton sang: "How will I sing when you are gone? 'Cause it won't sound the same."

The concert was full of touching moments, like Parton's performance of "I Will Always Love You," which came (via USA Today) after she told him, "I have a spot (in my heart) for you that's never ever going to be touched by anybody else."

Rogers told Closer Weekly that the entire thing came together after he told Parton he was going to leave the business to spend more time with his family, his children, and his wife. She told him that he wasn't leaving without doing it in a proper way, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a massive show. Rogers was grateful: "You either have old friends, or you don't, and I have always had a friend in Dolly."

Dolly Parton gave a heartfelt tribute at his passing

Kenny Rogers passed away on March 20, 2020, and when The New York Times announced his death, it came with some wild stats on his career. He had sold more than 100 million records, had more than 50 Top-40 country singles, and was one of the first country performers to play to sell-out arena crowds.

It also mentioned that his love of duets had come from seeing his older sister perform, and it was a love that stuck with him throughout his career. There were many, many collaborations, but none more moving than those with Dolly Parton.

Rolling Stone reported that she found out about his death much the way the rest of the world did: By turning on the news. Parton posted a heartfelt tribute on Twitter, not only writing, but filming a video that talked about just how much she was going to miss him — and how she knew that he was in a better place. "I'm pretty sure he's gonna be talking to God sometimes today — if he ain't already — and he's gonna be asking him to spread some light ... I loved Kenny with all my heart, my heart's broken, and a big ol' chunk of it has gone with him today."