“Islands in the Stream” sailed away with the distinction of being country’s greatest duet on Wednesday night (June 8) during a CMT taping in Nashville. And for the first time in 15 years, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers sang the memorable love song side by side.
Their energetic performance of the 1983 classic capped the countdown of CMT 100 Greatest Duets, which will air as a television special in September. New artists such as American Idol’s Carrie Underwood and longtime favorites like Crystal Gayle offered the Top 12 selections for thousands of country fans in town for the CMA Music Festival that began Thursday (June 9) morning.
Thanks to “Islands in the Stream,” Rogers and Parton are among the most famous duet partners in country music history, although their contemporaries — like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn — were not certainly forgotten during the concert at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.
Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt revived “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” made famous by Lynn and Twitty in 1973, and their obvious friendship elevated the duet to more than just live karaoke. Watching them together and remembering their partnership on Loveless’ Mountain Soul album, it’s easy to imagine them making a duets record of their own someday.
Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon) and Montgomery Gentry teamed for Waylon and Willie’s classic “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” inviting the crowd to sing along. Rebecca Lynn Howard had a ball on Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s “Jackson,” teasing newcomer Keith Anderson in her fluffy blue dress. Joe Nichols and Lee Ann Womack showed their country roots on the Jones-Wynette favorite, “We’re Gonna Hold On.”
Proving that some newcomers do know their history, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert turned up the twang on “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” the missing-you song that brought fame to Shelly West and David Frizzell in 1981. Their sparks had some fans thinking they might be romantically linked. (Blame the power of a good duet sung very convincingly.) Gayle reprised her role for the romantic “You and I,” her 1981 crossover hit with the late Eddie Rabbitt. Raul Malo, who also served as the show’s musical director, effortlessly stepped in with his sweeping vocals.
Not every country duet is a love song, of course, and conflict always makes a story more compelling. Rogers and Womack joined for the imminent break-up of “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” which Rogers released with Dottie West in 1978. Underwood and Jamie O’Neal duked it out on “Does He Love You,” right down to the wailing vocals in the Reba McEntire-Linda Davis version from 1993. Terri Clark and Trace Adkins, who also teamed up to host the concert, reminded fans that they are hardcore honky-tonkers at heart by offering another Lynn-Twitty hit, 1971’s “After the Fire Is Gone.”
At the beginning of the countdown, the crowd welcomed two relatively recent favorites, Clint Black and Lisa Hartman-Black’s “When I Said I Do” (1999) and Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart’s “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” (1991), sung by the artists themselves.
But what about “Luckenbach, Texas” or “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” or “Golden Ring,” or “Whiskey Lullaby”? Those are somewhere in the countdown, too, along with Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s “Picture” and Toby Keith and Willie Nelson’s “Beer for My Horses.” Though Lynn and Twitty barely missed the top spot, they did close out the countdown — with “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.”