Trio (Dolly Parton/Emmylou Harris/Linda Ronstadt): The Complete Trio Collection

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Trio (Dolly Parton/Emmylou Harris/Linda Ronstadt)
The Complete Trio Collection
(Rhino)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Back in 1987, teaming three of country/roots music’s finest lead female vocalists for an album could easily have been a train wreck of colossal proportions. After all, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt were already superstars as solo artists and generally were not used to collaborating and/or singing with other women vocalists, despite Harris’ and Parton’s well established earlier work with menfolk (Gram Parsons and Porter Wagner respectively). The threesome had already tested the waters with tracks such as “Mr. Sandman,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” (both appear on this expanded re-issue’s extras disc) that ended up on Emmylou Harris albums. But a full blown teaming of what was to be subtitled “the sisterhood of song” was still risky.

In retrospect, no one should have been concerned. Combined with a stellar backing band featuring David Lindley and Mark O’Connor and in George Massenburg a veteran roots producer, the original 1987 Trio release sold over four million copies along with nabbing two Grammy awards. The belated and only slightly less impressive 1999 follow-up, blandly if appropriately titled Trio ll, sold over a million more, notching another Grammy statuette. This three disc package remasters both, adding a third platter of 20 bonus tracks, many previously unreleased and some alternate mixes, revealing gems that easily could have been included on the originals. More importantly it brings attention to these stunning, somewhat forgotten projects whose enduring music hasn’t dated, sounding as good if not better today than when they were originally recorded. Certainly the recent inability for Ronstadt to continue this concept to a welcome third release due to her vocal issues injects a melancholy feel to what could have been.

Considering how distinctive each singer is, it’s amazing how their voices dovetail together on the harmonies that envelope nearly every track. The effect on this mix of traditional country, bluegrass, gospel and even some pop is like a third voice that is different from, but reminiscent of, the individual pieces. Picking out favorites or even highlights is nearly impossible since there isn’t a bit of filler here, and that includes the third platter which runs nearly 70 minutes. Still, hearing the threesome funnel their voices together nearly a cappella on the previously unreleased “Grey Funnel Line” followed by a Pop Staples co-write gospel “You Don’t Knock” rearranged in a sublime bluegrass arrangement will send shivers down the spine of anyone even remotely a fan of either one of the singers.

Parton, the most prolific songwriter, only has three credits between the two albums. Most of the tunes are obscure covers from rich sources such as Randy Newman, Kate McGarrigle, Jimmie Rodgers and even Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him,” a #1 hit on the C&W charts in this stunning remake. Interestingly, due to scheduling difficulties, the trio never embarked on a full tour, but did make some television appearances as a group. 

Six pages of history, interviews and background information from Holly George-Warren, individual blurbs on each of the bonus selections by John Boylan (credited with digital assembly), classy, beautifully appointed packaging with seldom seen photos and new notes from Parton, Harris and especially Ronstadt put the cherry on top of this set, creating a timeless classic.

Hands down, one of the best reissues of this year and a reminder of how essential these legendary singers are to the history of country and roots music, separately but especially together.