By Nancy Kruh
October 27, 2017
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on People

One of the strongest lineups ever assembled in Nashville – including Reba McEntire, Lionel Richie, Lady Antebellum, Don Henley, Alison Krauss and Chris Stapleton – hit the stage Wednesday night for Kenny Rogers’ farewell tribute concert, but they all turned out to be mere warmup acts for the showstopping main event: the final performance of one of country’s most beloved duos, Rogers and Dolly Parton.

After Rogers, 79, had spent the entire concert watching the event from the side of the stage, he finally took his rightful place, center stage, with Parton about three hours into the show, and the two set about to demonstrate their timeless chemistry.

“We’ve been so excited about this because he says, of course, he’s retiring,” Parton, 71, began playfully. “Kenny, I just wanted to say that I’m really, really proud of you, and I just hope many, many years from now when I’m older” – she paused to laugh at herself – “I’ll know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.”

The play on “The Gambler” lyrics soon turned into something else as Parton couldn’t resist poking fun at the years of tabloid rumors. “Anyway, you’ve been accused of it all through the years, but you are retiring … you want to hold ’em now?” she asked, gesturing to her ample endowment. “I’ll try not to embarrass you.”

Her comic foil wasn’t taking the bait. “I’m not sure that embarrassed me,” Rogers teased.

The two were off and running, regaling the crowd with reminiscences about their first meeting, their recording sessions, their tours together – all liberally seasoned with Parton’s spicy humor and Rogers’ deadpan retorts.

But they knew what Bridgestone Arena’s sellout crowd had come for – their songs – and they obliged, first blending their voices for a tender reading of their 2013 hit “You Can’t Make Old Friends.”

Parton turned serious to introduce the next song, telling Rogers, “I’ve always thought there’s a part of me that’s never, ever going to be touched by anybody else, and I’m going to hold you there forever, and I’m going to sing you a song … ”

The crowd gasped and sighed, realizing she was about to sing her signature “I Will Always Love You” – a song she wrote for her original duet partner, Porter Wagoner, but the poignant lyrics took on new relevance as she directed them to a rapt Rogers.

Inevitably, what everyone had most waited for arrived – a final performance of the classic “Islands in the Stream” – though by then no one wanted the night to end. Soaking in the cheers and applause as they closed, Parton looked at Rogers and beckoned: “Kenny, how about we go out like rock stars?”

“Absolutely,” Rogers obeyed, and he counted, “One, two three …”

With arms outstretched, both ceremoniously dropped their mics with a loud thud, turned and walked upstage into the darkened lights.

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It was a perfect finish to an evening that would have been unforgettable even without its topper. In a career that’s spanned 60 years, Rogers has made countless friends in the industry, and an astonishing array accepted the invitation to pay tribute to the icon. Their performances of his hits underscored the magnitude of his impact.

The Oak Ridge Boys, whose career was jumpstarted by a Rogers tour, kicked off the night with “Love or Something Like It,” and Justin Moore – a young artist deeply influenced by Rogers – turned in “Lucille.”

Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott was joined by her mother, Rogers’ most recent touring partner Linda Davis, for a duet of “Twenty Years Ago.” An even more surprising mother-daughter act, The Judds, clutched hands as they turned in “Back to the Well.”

The reuniting of the famously tempestuous duo was at Rogers’ behest, Wynonna revealed before the show: “Because when Kenny Rogers sends you a personal note and says, ‘I love you Wynonna, I want you to sing, and I want you to bring your mom,’ I go, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Lionel Richie provided another highlight, singing “Lady,” a song he wrote for Rogers. Richie drew a hearty laugh from Rogers, sitting side stage with his wife, Wanda, when the pop singer tried to approximate Rogers’ well-known vibrato.

Don Henley and Kris Kristofferson were both surprise additions to the lineup, and they offered trademark songs that Rogers had recorded – Henley’s “Desperado” and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Alison Krauss lent her angelic voice to “Love the World Away”; Idina Menzel brought her Broadway chops to “You Decorated My Life”; and Lady Antebellum creatively turned “She Believes In Me” into a dialogue between the lyrics’ two characters. Little Big Town offered a celestial vocal blend to “Through the Years,” and Reba McEntire kept it country for “Reuben James.”

Chris Stapleton was tapped for the unenviable task of delivering “The Gambler,” and he ably met the challenge with a soulful rendering.

But the night – which was filmed for eventual broadcast – still belonged to the teaming of Rogers and Parton, and before the concert she offered assurance it won’t be the end, if only for their own enjoyment.

“He’s only retiring from show business with the public now,” she said. “We’re still gonna be buddies. We’ll get to sing every once in a while.”

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