Classic Americana Albums: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris “Trio”

Warner Bros. Records, 1987

‘Trio’ was a dream album when it came out, back in 1987. Three of the biggest names, and voices, in country, country/rock, and americana all gathered together on one record and singing in perfect harmony. The three women had long been good friends and long harboured ambitions to work together, but conflicting schedules and different record labels, that weren’t always open to collaborative efforts, had made previous attempts impossible. They had actually started sessions for a record together back in the mid ‘70s but it never came to anything, though some of the recordings would emerge on solo albums over the years. Emmylou Harris’ ‘Evangeline’ album boasts ‘Mr. Sandman’ and the album’s title track and Linda Ronstadt’s 1982 ‘Get Closer’ album features the Parton composition ‘My Blue Tears’, with Dolly & Emmylou singing harmonies. It would seem that none of the tracks from the aborted mid ‘70s sessions were held over for the ‘Trio’ album but a precedent was set that they could work well together and would do so when the opportunity presented itself.

That opportunity finally came around late in 1986/early ’87 and the album, produced by George Massenburg, who was working with Linda Ronstadt at the time and had also worked on albums by James Taylor, Little Feat, and a host of others, was released in March of 1987 on Warner Bros. Records.

The three women assembled a host of big name musicians for the album, that included Albert Lee, David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Herb Pedersen, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Mark O’Connor, and many more. Of the three main artists, only Emmylou Harris plays an instrument on the album, contributing her acoustic guitar playing to three of the album’s eleven tracks. Only Parton wrote for the album, contributing two songs, ‘Wildflowers’ and the opening track, ‘The Pain of Loving You’, which she had co-written with Porter Wagoner. The remaining nine tracks include two traditional songs and a mix of contemporary songs from various writers, including Phil Spector, Kate McGarrigle, Jean Ritchie, and Linda Thompson (writing with Betsy Cook). It’s an eclectic collection of songs designed to show off the three voices and it does the job perfectly. The Cashbox magazine review at the time said “The long-awaited collaboration of three of country/pop’s greatest voices is an unqualified success. The near-perfect song selection gives the three ample room to develop subtleties and nuance that in places is heart-rending. These three singular voices blend together in seamless harmony, floating over the sweetest country melodies and poignant understated lyrics.”

The album would also be a major commercial success, achieving platinum status in the USA alone and racking up worldwide sales in excess of 4 million units. The album itself topped the Billboard Country albums chart and would achieve top ten status in the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. They released four singles from the album and each of them achieved top ten status in the country charts. The most successful was the trio’s cover of Phil Spector’s Teddy Bears hit ‘To Know Him is To Love Him’, which hit the Number 1 spot on the country chart. The other three singles, ‘Telling Me Lies’, ‘Those Memories of You’ and ‘Wildflowers’ would all achieve top ten country chart status, with only ‘Wildflowers’ falling outside the top five (highest chart position was at six!) The awards inevitably followed. The album received three Grammy nominations and won in the Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal category. It also won the Academy of Country Music Award for Album of the Year for 1987 and the award for Vocal Event of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards 1988.

The huge success of the album meant that a follow up was almost inevitable, but the same scheduling and label problems that had made the first album difficult to make meant that ‘Trio II’ would not emerge until twelve years later! It was also well received critically, but was nowhere near as successful commercially, though it did yield the trio another Grammy Award in the shape of 2000’s Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for their cover of Neil Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’. Rumour has it that a third collaboration was discussed but, by this time, Ronstadt had already started to develop the degenerative illness, progressive supranuclear palsy, which would, eventually, rob her of her singing voice, and so declined to be involved. Instead, the three women released “The Complete Trio Collection” (2016), which combined “Trio” and “Trio II” with a third disc of alternative takes and unreleased material to give a comprehensive edition of the three singers’ collaborative works.

As you would expect, all three of these albums are well worth listening to but ‘Trio’ is a particularly outstanding album. There’s a warmth that comes across that you only find when good friends sing together and it is evident throughout the album, the standard of musicianship is even higher than you might expect and the song selection exquisite.

In December 2020, ‘Trio’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. A classic americana album from three of the genre’s finest singers.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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