By Kurt Wolff
It’s hard to argue with a good duet. When two talented singers wrap their voices around one another, the result can produce a magical experience that goes beyond the abilities of each individual artist, no matter how skilled they are on their own.
Duets have been an integral part of country music since well before the dawn of the genre’s commercial era in the 1920s. And of course they’re still popular today–check out the songs on our list of New School Male-Female Country Duets that we published last week, which includes two songs released just this year from some of the contemporary music world’s biggest and best-known singers.
Last week’s list ran from the present day back to the 1997, when Tim McGraw and Faith Hill released their massively popular duet “It’s Your Love.” This week we go back even further, exploring the most classic duets in country music history, performed by some of the genre’s most legendary artists (many of whom are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame).
The same year (1965) that country legend Merle Haggard married fellow Bakersfield, Calif. singer Bonnie Owens (who used to be married to Buck Owens…but that’s another story), they cut this single. Their voices worked together beautifully, taking the Liz Anderson composition all the way to the Top 5. Their marriage ended in 1978, but the two remained friends. In fact, Owens sang backup in Haggard’s band starting in the 1960s all the way until her death in 2006.
Lynn’s duets with Conway Twitty (see below) get loads more attention, but years before she teamed with another country vet for a series of duet albums that are often forgotten. During the 1960s Lynn was still young and her career only beginning to rise; her partner here, Ernest Tubb, was about 20 years her senior and a longtime country veteran (he helped invent honky-tonk’s guitar-forward sound), thanks to hits such as “Walking the Floor Over You” and “Thanks A Lot.” They may have seemed unlikely partners, but these two good-natured souls created a fun series of duets that click in surprising ways.
Buck Owens and fellow California country legend Rose Maddox (of the awesome family group the Maddox Brothers & Rose) cut a number of duets together in the 1960s, including the divorce duet “Mental Cruelty” (which hit No. 8 in 1961) and a great version of the oft-covered “Loose Talk.” Written by Owens, “Sweethearts in Heaven” was the B-side to the duo’s 1963 single “We’re The Talk Of The Town.” It’s about a couple vowing that, should one “go first” and leave the other behind “to face life alone,” that he’ll be there “waiting” for her “just inside the pearly gates.”
You can’t talk about classic male-female country duets without including mention of “Islands in the Stream.” Both Kenny and Dolly were at their commercial peaks in the early 1980s when they hit the studio to cut this song, which was written by the Bee Gees and inspired by an Ernest Hemingway novel. “Islands in the Stream” would go on to top three different Billboard charts and be certified platinum. Even if you don’t consider it the most epic country partnership of all time, there’s no question these two voices were meant to be together.
Emmylou Harris’ pure, angelic voice has been in constant demand since she emerged in the early 1970s–so much so that we could easily assemble a Top 10 list Harris duets and call it a day. Still, some always do jump out. For this release, Harris teamed up with another of the richest country vocalists to emerge during the 1970s, the “Gentle Giant” Don Williams. The song is a classic by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, and it was released on Emmylou’s 1981 album Cimarron. It’s beautifully low-key version of Townes’ gentle love song, so it’s little wonder that it turned into a Top 3 single for the duo.
5. “As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone” – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn
These two Country Music Hall of Famers recorded numerous songs together, but this tearjerker stands out for all sorts of reasons. No question it’s cheesy–the ring of the phone at the start of the song, the hokey lyrics, the two voices cracking as the characters come to realize their relationship is over–but it’s also beautifully executed with honest intent and pure feeling…and without ever flinching. (Conway, of course, had long ago proved himself a pro at that crackling, quivering vocal style–just listen to his signature song “It’s Only Make Believe.”) We may chuckle at it today, but this duet shows two pros at the top of their game.
4. “Just Someone I Used To Know” – Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton
One of the most famous musical pairings in country music, Porter and Dolly recorded quite a few duets together, and this song–penned by the late producer, songwriter and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee “Cowboy” Jack Clement–is among their finest. Appearing on the pair’s 1970 album Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca, it’s a powerfully sad song, with the two iconic vocalists giving it a haunting richness.
“Jackson” was written in 1963 by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber, and it’s been recorded by a number of artists (including a sassy version by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra), but it’s the Johnny and June version that remains the most iconic. They recorded the song in 1967, a year before they got hitched–which makes it all the more fun, as the song is about a bickering couple, one of whom is desperate to leave and go party in Jackson (“I’m goin’ to Jackson, you turn-a loose-a my coat”). “Jackson” hit No. 2 on the country charts and even went on to win Johnny and June a GRAMMY. The video above is a live version recorded at San Quentin prison in 1969.
There are so many awesome duets between these two country giants, the King and Queen of Country Music, that picking a single favorite is tough. The sweet, fragile honesty of “Take Me”? The big dreams that covered up the dearth of love in “Two Story House”? Both great candidates, but when you slip on “Golden Ring,” it’s impossible to deny the latter song’s power. Especially with that ending to the song: the lyrics circle back to the beginning, with yet another young couple venturing into the same “pawn shop in Chicago” looking at the same set of “wedding rings there on display”…and the tale of woe begins all over again.
1. “Return of the Grievous Angel” – Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris has recorded some tremendous duets in her time (see “If I Needed You,” above), but her recordings with country-rock godfather Gram Parsons come out on top, as they’re simply some of the most powerful creations in country music. It’s tough work choosing between songs of theirs such as “Sleepless Nights,” “In My Hour of Darkness,” “Love Hurts” and the gut-wrenching “$1000 Wedding,” but this song (penned by Parsons and Thomas Brown) nabs us every time with its its peppy rhythm and simple but solid melodic hooks.
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