Wednesday night in Nashville, the Gambler played his final hand, in a concert celebrating his 60-year-career and marking his retirement from touring.
For most of the evening, Kenny Rogers sat at the corner of the stage with his wife Wanda, watching as the hottest stars in country music and legends from the worlds of rock, R&B and Broadway interpreted his songs. The night didn’t reach its peak however, until Kenny closed the show by doing one last set with his longtime friend and duet partner, Dolly Parton.
Early in the program, the crowd couldn’t resist singing along once Justin Moore hit the chorus of Kenny’s first #1, “Lucille.” Billy Currington offered a soulful, rhythm-and-blues-flavored take on “Morning Desire.” Little Big Town reminded the room why they’re both the CMA and ACM Vocal Group of the Year with their emotional arrangement of “Through the Years.” Chris Stapleton easily stepped into Kenny’s shoes on “The Gambler,” as footage of the TV movies it inspired played on the huge screen at the back of the stage.
Lady Antebellum played a central role in the tribute to Rogers, as both Hillary Scott and her mother, Grammy-winner Linda Davis, traced a family friendship with the legend that goes back decades. Appropriately, the two teamed up for a rare duet on the sentimental hit “Twenty Years Ago.”
Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood joined Hillary for “She Believes in Me,” before Idina Menzel interpreted “You Decorated My Life.” As good as the Broadway veteran’s version was, it simply set the stage for Idina’s next song with Charles Kelley: an earth-shattering recreation of Kenny’s #1 with Sheena Easton, “We’ve Got Tonight.”
The parade of legends and once-in-a-lifetime moments was just starting as Wynonna introduced her mother. “Ladies and gentlemen, my queen: Naomi Judd,” she said before The Judds reunited to do one of Kenny’s album cuts, “Back to the Well.” Reba McEntire sported a Kenny T-shirt as she sang the First Edition classic, “Reuben James.”
If it was possible for the star power to get brighter from there, it did. Though Janis Joplin did the best-known version of his song, Kris Kristofferson arrived to remind the crowd that Kenny and the First Edition had cut “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1969 as well. Don Henley did the Eagles’ classic “Desperado” in Kenny’s honor.
“This is the damnedest thing I’m doing,” Lionel Richie quipped, “because I’m used to singing this song with Kenny. And so when he said, ‘I want you to come sing “Lady,” I’m gonna watch you’ — What the hell is that?” the new American Idol judge joked, before granting the guest of honor’s wish.
Then, the music video for Kenny and Dolly’s duet “Real Love” played in its entirety, as the arena went dark and the stage was set for the moment the crowd had been waiting for.
“Kenny, of course, says he’s retiring,” Dolly started, after the two walked on. “I want to see what condition your condition’s really in,” she said, referencing his early hit while she felt his shoulders. “Looks good to me! Don’t he to you?”
The irrepressible Parton couldn’t resist trying to embarrass her most famous duet partner one last time.
“I just hope that many, many years from now when I’m older,” she added, “that I’ll know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.”
“Anyway, we’ve been accused of it all through the years,” Dolly said as she turned her most famous assets toward Kenny. “You are retiring. You want to hold ‘em now?” The crowd roared with laughter.
From there, Rogers’ and Parton’s obvious affection for each other was on full display. Their new classic “You Can’t Make Old Friends” both celebrated their bond and served as a fitting epitaph for their years together.
Kenny sat on a stool, while a standing Dolly leaned against him, offering her most famous composition, “I’ll Always Love You.”
And just as one of the most famous and successful pairings in show business history began — with the impromptu recording of “Islands in the Stream” — it ended with an upbeat version of the same song.
“Kenny, how about we go out like rock stars?” Dolly asked, before both dropped their mics and walked off stage.
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