Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris are three of the finest singers, songwriters and musicians country music has ever known. Selling more than 200 million records combined and charting a slew of hits on the Billboard charts, these pioneering women defined what it meant to be a woman in the 20th century. Often being parsed against their male counterparts, their willingness to be vulnerable and intimate and bold and independent forever changed how music was made and felt. The thread of their own work is like weaving a colorfully vibrant, but weathered and worn, tapestry of not only the female perspective but that of the greatest stories ever told in any genre of music. Each interpreter on her own has crafted such an enduring and timeless body of work, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more significant triumvirate of women.
In 1987, the holy trinity -- after much juggling of schedules and superstar careers -- finally came together and forged one of the most remarkable and ambitious records of all time, the gospel-inflected and delicate Trio. Brimming with gut-wrenching musicality and heart-plucking longing, the album would go on to earn them the much-deserved Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Entries like “Telling Me Lies,” “I’ve Had Enough,” the outstanding “To Know Him is to Love Him” and “Rosewood Casket” solidified their syrupy and smooth harmonies in a way never before heard in country music. The watershed moment not only cemented their legacy into the public consciousness but it opened doors for every aspiring musician and songwriter who followed. The trio would later come together in 1999 for the long-awaited follow-up, Trio II. Again, the sheer accomplishment, scope and simplicity of songs like “Lover’s Return,” “After the Gold Rush” and “He Rode All the Way to Texas” shaped and directed what country could be.
Now, 30-years in-the-making, both studio albums are repackaged into a complete collection, containing remastered versions, alternate takes of previous material and rare, never-before-heard cuts from both album sessions. The set, on Rhino Records, hits retail September 9, and the release closes out one of the most important movements in country’s history.
The process to release the massive boxed set began nearly 10 years ago. A man named James Austin became the trio’s “patron saint,” as Harris puts it. “I’m sure there were difficulties and problems [in releasing this] somehow he could explain. All I knew is that we had this person who was just so committed to this project coming out. He stuck with it for 10 years. He’s the one who gathered all the unreleased material and kept in touch with [us] and wanted our input. He was doing the heavy lifting,” she told reporters recently. “Why it took 10 years, it wasn’t because of me or Dolly or Linda and certainly not because of James. He was really working this all this time. It was a labor of love with him.”
“It is nice to finally have it all together. We all look for wonderful things in our lives and hope to be a part of great things. I just think we all take such pride in this. For me, this will always stand as one of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Parton beamed. “I’ve never been prouder of anything. I love these girls like sisters. What we did as a trio is going to stand up long after we are all gone.”
The original Trio release was produced by George Massenburg, who has worked with the likes of James Taylor, Carly Simon and Roy Orbison. Notably, he took extreme care to allow the women to guide and nurture their musical journey and vision for the project. “He was great at listening and caring. He would refer to it as ‘carrying out our whim.’ The music ideas came from us, and he would keep us from getting into a muddle and going off into 29 different directions,” Ronstadt reflected. “He had the best way of recording. We were recording acoustic instruments so they sounded natural but at their best. He was an invaluable partner, especially when he didn’t interfere with us particularly. He let things develop and kept things organized and on an even keel. He was one of the great sound recorders. He invented a lot of the stuff in early digital recording.”
On a purely basic human level, the collaborative effort was a melding and transformation of women coming together and exploring their “shared sorrows,” Ronstadt said of how their sisterly bond fed into the song selection process. “Whether they were commercial or not was not one of [the criteria]. We tried to pick a song that we loved so much that if we couldn’t do it would make us kind of sick or keep us up at night. It also is from a peculiar point of view. It’s a very feminine slant in a cooperative way -- when women are able to sort of put aside their work and get together and talk about their troubles, maybe put a little music together, in a community way.”
In a more democratic fashion, the songs needed to resonate in some way, with Harris often taking the lead and uncovering the diamonds in the rough to cut. “Emmy and Dolly are both great songwriters. That’s always a good help. Emmy also stays up a whole lot later than both of us put together. She finds all the great songwriters and gets all the good songs before the rest of us got a chance to hear them,” Ronstadt said. “She’d arrive with a whole selection of songs. Then, we’d just listen and we’d all decide which ones resonated. It was a mutual selection. Emmy was the best song finder.”
On the side of which musicians to procure for the studio sessions -- ultimately that included Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and Albert Lee -- the songs themselves often dictated the direction. “I think also there are musicians who are great onstage and then there are some that are great in the studio. Then, there are those that are great onstage and in the studio,” Parton said. “Usually, they try to pick the greatest of the great pickers that really record well and are familiar with the studio and like that sound. Linda and Emmy have always had great musicians and know great musicians. They were the ones that brought all the great musicians and most of the great songs.”
One of the anticipated, unreleased new cuts from 1994 is “Softly and Tenderly,” which Ronstadt was drawn to as the opening theme of the 1985 feature film The Trip of the Bountiful (starring Geraldine Page, Carlin Glynn and John Heard). “Some of us are religious, and some of us are not. It was the cold open and the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” she said. “The last time I went to church was when the mass was still in Latin, and they were singing Gregorian chants. For me, that was a song about profound homesickness. We all want to go home but when we do, there are weird problems.”
“I don’t think you have to look on it as gospel, in the traditional sense,” Harris inserted of the song. She went on to say the trio took the arrangement of Cynthia Clawson’s original into their own recording. “Cynthia’s was a beautiful vocal. We just stole her arrangement, with her blessing. I did call her and tell her what we were planning. We were so inspired by it.”
That sense of self-reflection, faith and meditation are common themes running throughout much of Trio. Parton explained, “That particular song was a song that I grew up singing all my life, being from a very religious background. That was a song that was just a staple. We did that in church. There are a lot of those types of songs on the ‘Trio’ album. That’s one of the things I’m proudest of. There is that longing in the soul. For country music and those mountain songs and way of life, that’s just part of it. That’s all you’ve really got...your faith and your hope. A lot of those songs are born of that. They do have that mournful tenderness in them.”
The most undeniable characteristic which made Ronstadt, Parton and Harris’ work so significant is their harmonies. Ronstadt mused over their studio work and why they mixed so well together. “Our voices blend in a particular way. All of us are used to singing with a lot of other good singers because we’re professionals and we get to have that privilege. When the three of us sang together, it sounded special. Part of it is the fact Emmy and Dolly can duet; Dolly and I can duet; Emmy and I can duet; or the three of us can sing together. Our voices have these particular characteristics that just fill out the places in [each other’s voices]. My favorite combination is when Emmy starts singing lead and then I come in with the low harmony and then Dolly comes in on the top. It’s so beautiful. You can hear the different characteristics of the vocals. What we usually do is start a song and we try with each singing a different part, like Dolly singing the top, I sing the bottom and then we try with someone singing lead. We just wait until the song will decide which way is best.”
Well-documented as being the shy one of the bunch, Ronstadt often let Parton and Harris sing most of the lead vocals. “There were a couple of times when we had to say ‘Linda, you’re not singing enough lead.’ It was like she was thinking we wouldn’t notice until the record was done,” Harris said, with a chuckle.
Ronstadt conceded “singing traditional material” wasn’t her “strong suit.” She added, “I can do harmonies pretty well. I thought of my voice as a candy bar. It made everything blend. It’s kind of a thick voice. It just kind of pulls everything together.”
Harris chimed in, “Thick and extraordinarily beautiful. It all worked out. Then, we found some other songs that Linda sang lead on, ‘Telling Me Lies’ and ‘Feels Like Home’ and ‘I’ve Had Enough.’”
The complete Trio collection, out September 9, contains “everything that we did. I don’t think there was a dud in any of them, so why not put it all out,” said Harris. “That’s one of the points of putting this collection together, that there were these beautiful gems (for one reason or another) hadn’t found their place on the original releases.”
“You get to hear the things in their different states. There was a lot of stuff that was in the vault that was just live vocals or us singing a cappella,” said Ronstadt. “These days, records are so fussed over and tuned.”
While their music-making days together may be over -- Ronstadt can no longer sing or perform, due to Parkinson’s -- they remain true to the sisterhood. “The fact that we are friends and were able to make this music together and share our voices together -- that’s going to be there long after we’re gone. We are going to keep on with our lives and be grateful we had the chance to get this much music down for ourselves and whoever wants to hear it,” Harris said.
“We’re bound together at the song,” concluded Parton. That poignant statement sums up their entire body of work together -- as not only top-tier performers and songwriters of their craft but, more importantly, as women.