Flashback: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers Swap Hits - Rolling Stone
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Flashback: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers Swap Hits

See a clip from the 1989 TV special, ‘Kenny, Dolly and Willie: Something Inside So Strong’

After spending much of the Eighties recording for RCA, Kenny Rogers’ last two albums for the label were his first to miss the Top Ten on the country chart since 1977. Although he was still riding high with country singles, including the Grammy-winning Number One, “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” with Ronnie Milsap, Rogers left RCA, signing with Reprise Records. For his debut LP for the label, Rogers featured duets with country star Holly Dunn, R&B legends Gladys Knight and Ronald Isley (lead singer of the Isley Brothers) and country-pop songbird Anne Murray.

Yet, to promote the release with an NBC TV special, Rogers called on two longtime friends who didn’t appear on the new album but who had also experienced chart-related peaks and valleys through the decade. Kenny, Dolly and Willie: Something Inside So Strong, which aired 27 years ago today, on May 20, 1989, didn’t need to mention the last names of the three performers, they were already crossover legends (and future Country Music Hall of Fame members), sharing the same stage for a concert special filmed in Rogers’ hometown of Houston, Texas, before an audience that was made up of NASA employees and their families.

During the hit-filled seven-minute medley Rogers, Parton and Nelson performed together, the three trade vocals on each other’s songs, with Dolly first getting the chance to sing Rogers’ iconic line, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,” from “The Gambler,” while seated next to Willie, whose short hair and coat and tie recall his pre-pigtails and bandanna look. The pair is then joined by Rogers, who tells Nelson that before he and Waylon Jennings recorded the next song in the medley, the Ed and Patsy Bruce-penned “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” the song had been pitched to him to record. Nelson counters with the claim that “The Gambler” was actually offered to him before Rogers cut it. Parton, not to be outdone, quips, “They didn’t give me nothin’,” and when she joins Rogers to sing “Mamma,” changes the “cowboys” to “cowgirls.” [A longer clip from the show can be seen here.]

When it comes time for Nelson to sing solo, he chooses the 1977 hit, “Sweet Music Man,” one of the few songs Rogers ever wrote. Rogers prefaces Willie’s performance by relaying the candid story of how he came to write the tune, which he notes took all of 20 minutes but was inspired by personal problems he was going through at the time. Twenty-five years later, Reba McEntire would release her version of the ballad.

Willie’s traveling anthem, “On the Road Again” and Dolly’s party anthem, “Two Doors Down,” are highlights of the loosely performed medley, with the Rogers-Parton hit, “Real Love,” closing out the segment.

Something Inside So Strong was not one of Rogers’ biggest sellers, but it was eventually certified gold and featured one of the singer’s most ambitious singles, “Planet Texas,” which was perhaps the inspiration for the NASA-centered event. A Top 30 hit about extraterrestrials (“cowboys from space”) who visit Earth, the elaborately filmed “Planet Texas” video broke new ground for country music at the time.

Kenny, Dolly and Willie: Something Inside So Strong was a ratings winner for NBC and also won Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Variety or Music Series.


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