Happy 66th Birthday, Dolly Rebecca Parton!
Now, as I’ve mentioned several times before, I grew up on country music. That was what was permitted in the household, for the most part. My father preferred old-school country & bluegrass music. Willie Nelson (whom I had the pleasure of seeing in concert last night; more on that later) was too rough around the edges for Dad, who wasn’t a huge fan. He was on the fence about Dolly Parton, too, if I recall – at least the more pop-oriented, crossover music she was putting out in the early 80s. Kenny Rogers, however, was totally acceptable to all, his gruff, kindly voice regaling us with stories of gamblers, cowboys, and grieving husbands.
I loved it all. Dolly was a particular favorite, her sometimes fragile, sometimes boisterous soprano, her witty way with words, and her amazing storytelling ability teaming up to make her unstoppable at the time. And Kenny & Dolly? One of the decade’s top power couples, there’s no doubt in my mind. Interestingly enough, as closely linked as they are in my mind to each other, they only recorded one album and two singles together. But it was this song, Islands in the Stream, that started it all.
This was my bread and butter, this was the stuff I hoped would come on the car radio on my way to school or on the radio at night as I was falling asleep. Hitting the top of the country and pop charts in 1983, it was one of the first songs I ever remember calling “my favorite song.” I loved the harmonizations, and I practiced singing along with either Kenny or Dolly (usually Kenny, as even then I had not a soprano bone in my body) as the mood struck me. What really got me, though, was the syncopation of the syllables – I loved how the word accents in the refrain were on the off-beats, and how you could play around with different stresses in the music because of it. I was too young to articulate what I loved about it, but I knew it was Good.
It was also around this time that I realized I listened to different music than my friends. I can very clearly remember spending the night at my best friend’s house at six or seven years old, talking about our favorite songs, and how she was appalled that I had no idea who Bruce Springsteen was. She had a brother that was older than us by some eleven years, and so I considered her to be much more worldly than I, a veritable encyclopedia of all things cool. And she did not know what my favorite song was, and I had never heard of Bruce “Stringbean,” as I believed we called him, whose iconic butt-with-a-bandana poster hung on Older Brother’s wall. I remember being a bit confused, even guarded, about it, unsure as to why I didn’t have the same knowledge she did. I didn’t fully realize how much like an outsider it made me feel until several years later, but even at that young age I felt a bit different.
Funnily enough, this song crossed over to hit #1 on the Billboard Pop Charts as well, so it’s obvious to me now that perhaps my young friend should have known the song, if she were listening to top 40 radio – and who didn’t, in the 80s (besides me)? Also funnily enough, it’s just not that much of a country song. Aside from Dolly’s twang and Kenny’s soft Texan vowels, there’s just not that much that screams “typical country.” (Though again the 80s were rife with country-pop crossovers, largely spearheaded by these two and the odd Olivia Newton-John moment, so maybe it did sound typically country at the time). But I digress. The main point I wanted to make was that this isn’t a Dolly Parton or Kenny Rogers song – it’s a Bee Gees song. You all likely knew that, already, right? Well, if you did or didn’t, take a listen to it again. It positively screams Gibb Brothers on a second hearing, doesn’t it? The stuff I mentioned liking earlier, the vocal harmonies, the syncopated melodic lines, are absolutely 100% Gibb. A few years earlier, a bit more bass and a bit less brass, and it could have been a B-side to something off of Saturday Night Fever. Or, more strikingly, compare it to some of the things that Barry& company had written for youngest brother Andy – made-for-radio friendly pop like Shadow Dancing. So, in reality, Islands in the Stream is a triumvirate of country-disco-pop musical deliciousness. And now you know it is one of my all-time guilty pleasures, only I don’t feel at all guilty about it.
Even though Dolly was already Big Stuff, and had been for some time, the 80s were her decade. She starred in classic movies like 9 to 5, sailed the country and pop charts, and, well, there’s always Dollywood. She continued her success through the 90s and 00s, returning more to her bluegrass routes but always with a delightful twist (like, for example, covering things like Collective Soul). She’s recognized as a country legend and as one of the best and most prolific (and most influential) songwriters of the twentieth-century. So happy birthday, Dolly Parton, and may the circle be unbroken.
[As an aside, I actually kind of knew and liked the Bee Gees as a kid because they (well, Robin) made this delightful album, which I still own. On vinyl, natch.]