Country superstars Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton scored a massive hit in 1983 with Islands in the Stream, a song composed by Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, better known as the Bee Gees. At the time, it was considered an odd fit, like organising a square dance at Studio 54. The Gibb brothers were widely deemed uncool by the Eighties’ arbiters of critical taste, fixed in public perception as the blow-dried kings of Seventies disco. As for country, well, it had never been overly concerned with pop fashion, and was something of a refuge for conservative, middle-of-the-road musical tendencies.
Yet here we are, 40 years later, and, though two of the Gibbs are deceased, the Bee Gees remain a touchstone of modern pop, cited as an influence by contemporary stars from Daft Punk to Dua Lipa. And on Greenfields, Dolly Parton, still going strong, is singing with the last surviving Gibb brother, Barry.
They’re both aged 74, and their duet of Bee Gees’ ballad Words carries a touching weight of hard lived experience. Parton and Gibb surely have two of the most identifiable voices in pop history, both breathy and tremulous, and though you can hear the effect of age (a slightly shakier vibrato in Parton’s case, with a false-toothy sibilance in Gibb’s), they glide through the rising and falling melody with pin-point accuracy and emotional conviction. Pedal steel guitars gild the lush orchestration, but it is a song that stands outside of genre or fashion, simply one the greatest love songs ever written.
The truth is that disco was only ever a small element of the Bee Gees incredible oeuvre. Born in Britain, raised in Australia, the Gibbs formed a family group in 1958, going on to sell more than 220 million records worldwide. They had considerable success as purveyors of baroque pop before John Travolta’s dancing in Saturday Night Fever transformed them into mirrorball legends.
As custodian of the Gibb Brothers songbook, Barry has collaborated with Nashville producer Dave Cobb on what is billed as a country spin on the Bee Gees. It is a set packed with outstanding voices, including Alison Krauss (spine-tingling on Too Much Heaven), Belinda Carlile, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban and Olivia Newton John offering a touch of gentle grit on Rest Your Love on Me. Jason Isbell duets on a new song, Words of a Fool, a melodramatic soul belter that earns its place in the canon of classics.
As a country album, however, I’m not sure Hank Williams would give it the spit from his chewing tobacco. Only Americana artists Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings really get down in the nitty gritty dirt on a version of Bee Gees obscurity Butterfly (from 1966). The luxurious production of modern country has effectively become indistinguishable from the Seventies soft rock productions that were the Bee Gees pre-disco forte. Anyone expecting a stroboscopic hoedown may be disappointed, but if it’s great performances of great songs you’re after, then fill your boots.
Out now on EMI
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