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Nashville's Quid Pro Quo: The Death of the Country Music Duo?

By Alli Patton

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There is a moment when the two bouffant-sporting, rhinestone-clad figures on stage, rhythmically bobbing like buoys at the knees, lock eyes. You can hear it in his gentle twang. You can see it in her smile, bright as Nashville neon. It’s chemistry, vibrating in symphony with the sound of steel strings and foot-tapping bass.

The same chemistry is palpable when Dolly Parton leans into Kenny Rogers, promising to “rely on each other” on ‘Islands in the Stream’. It’s there as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings flash each other a knowing smile and agree they’ve done their ladies dirty in the “oh well”-anthem ‘Good Hearted Woman’.

It’s even more unmistakable when Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn swap digs at each other on the ridiculous, love-to-hate-you ballad ‘You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly’. As they take turns to gripe about this and that, you believe they’ve been married for 50 years too long.

For decades, country music has played cupid for these ready-made stars, forming dynamic duos with undeniable chemistry both on and off stage. This game of matchmaking is something that has become uniquely common to the genre.

Of course, long-term twosomes like Brooks & Dunn, Big & Rich and Sugarland climbed the ladder to country stardom hand-in-hand. But when the already established legends came together, they were more than just collaborators. Dolly and Kenny, Waylon and Willie, Conway and Loretta all flourished in the heyday of legend-on-legend coupling; they were matches made in honky-tonk heaven.

But, as country music becomes increasingly divided by an inter-genre struggle between mainstream pop, pick-up truck country and the back-to-the-basics brand of traditional – the question must be asked; can the all-star country duo continue to exist?

Searching among the more recent merging of talents, you might find a bleak fate. Today’s star-studded pairings seem less like the symbiotic relationships of their predecessors and more like parasitic ones – artists feeding off the hype and profitability of tacking a bigger name onto their newest single.

This is heavily evident in how today’s duets are presented. No longer is it framed Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton with Kenny Rogers; it's now Thomas Rhett (featuring Maren Morris); Kane Brown (feat. Lauren Alaina). Guest musicians are figuratively fenced off by punctuation, while their voices are restricted to choruses only.

The word “featuring” lacks permanence, keeping guests at arms’ length so as to feel like they are “just dropping in”. The connection is broken; there is no more “with” and “alongside” no longer exists.

The aforementioned Twitty and Lynn were two solo sensations who wedded their individual talents together, turning their mutual appreciation of each other into a working relationship. Together, the country power couple would go on to produce 10 studio albums, release back-to-back no.1 hits, and win a Grammy. For almost a decade, their names became synonymous – one seldom mentioned without the other.

Their partnership had the sort of longevity that is rare among today’s pairings, with most appearing in the form of one-off collaborations - clarifying for good the once hazy distinction between a duo and a duet.

Where the duos of old shared the emotional weight of every song — trading verses, backing each other up when needed, not one performer attempting to outdo the other – that is less apparent in the catalogues of today’s musical unions.

Bro-country messiah and serial collaborator Jason Aldean has called on the help of powerhouses like Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and frequent country-dabbler Kelly Clarkson to lend vocals to some of his highest charting tracks. But on many of these songs, Aldean has been the star, his counterparts’ voices having to compete rather than combine with his own.

On his 2018 tune ‘Drowns the Whiskey’, Miranda Lambert’s usually commanding vocal is a feeble squeak on the choruses, drowned out by his jarring twang and notable overproduction. While some trade-offs can be heard on Aldean’s most recent collaboration, the 2021 multi-award-winning 'If I Didn’t Love You’ featuring Carrie Underwood, he still manages to throw in unnecessary harmonies during Underwood’s verses, not letting you forget this is his song. Even though this duet was overall a hit, based on Aldean’s track record with musical partners, the odds of an Aldean-Underwood dream team forming after this seems pretty slim.

When some of today’s artists do return to work together, the product seems to be more rooted in a quid pro quo arrangement, rather than a rejoining of forces. Jon Pardi’s 2019 liquored-up lullaby ‘Don't Blame It On Whiskey’ featured Lauren Alaina who, in turn, featured Pardi on her 2021 rebound anthem ‘Getting Over Him’. There is a lot left to be desired across both these songs and the pairing as a whole. When it comes to chemistry, they don’t seem to scratch the surface; they simply scratch each other’s backs instead.

Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers had a more sporadic time as a country power couple — especially when compared to Twitty and Lynn’s career together — with a sprinkling of songs in the early 80s, a collective Christmas album, before collaborating one final time in 2013. But in their separate solo careers and over their three decades of friendship, Parton and Rogers championed each other throughout, with Parton saying, “Kenny's friendship means more to me than our hit records”. They had a unique bond that translated through their music.

For the recent pairings that have found musical chemistry together, the bond doesn’t go much further than their shared preference for lifted Fords or souped-up Chevys. The result has been an extremely surface-level exchange between two poster children for the modern homogenization of Nashville’s country.

Merely carbon copies of each other, many of the artists that collaborate today might as well have done their pandering solo. Cole Swindell’s 2016 hit ‘Flatliner’ features his vocal doppelgänger, Dierks Bentley. When Swindell passes the mic to his mate, there is no variation in the way the two sound, making for a muddied and confusing back-and-forth that is hard to distinguish as a duet.

Then, lest we forget, the 2022 faux-rap faux pas ‘Rolex On A Redneck’. Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean rattle off simple adjectives and weird flexes on a totally indiscernible, overcompensating medley of strained voices. It's safe to say the song was met with near-global ridicule.

The fate of the country duo is no doubt endangered – Loretta, Dolly, and Willie have now lost their creative other halves, while today’s forced pairings all pale in comparison.

Thankfully, there is promise in some newcomers who are bringing with them a penchant for the same kind of connection that the icons believed in. Maybe the duo will be given a new life if the likes of Brent Cobb and Nikki Lane (‘Soapbox’), Summer Dean and Colter Wall (‘You’re Lucky She’s Lonely’), or even Wall and Tyler Childers (‘Fraulein’) continually choose to embrace the form.

With such a divided genre where publicity and mediocrity are the only gods served, I’m not even sure if that kind of collective star power can exist between two country artists again. Despite all of it, I still hold out hope that country’s all-star duos — ever-enduring, genre-altering and brimming with chemistry — can still draw breath.

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