Behind the Album: How Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris Formed an Unbeatable ‘Trio’

The 1980s were a prime era for supergroups. In many cases, these collectives of top musicians overdid it with bombast, and the music didn’t hold up very well once the initial notoriety of the assemblage wore off. Trio, the wonderful 1987 album that combined the talents of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, steered well clear of such mistakes.

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In fact, the three women delivered one of the finest albums of the decade, regardless of genre. It was a uniting many years in the making. Was it ever worth the wait.

Clearing Schedules for the Summit

The story goes that when Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt met each other in the early ‘70s, they quickly asked each other the identity of their favorite singer. Almost in unison, they both said it was Dolly Parton. It turned out Parton felt the same way about the other two women.

A collaboration between the women might have happened sooner. The women indeed did a few sessions together in the ‘70s. But the fact that each were on a different record label made the logistics of releasing an album together a bit tricky, especially at a time when they were all at their commercial peaks.

A few of the songs from the ’70s sessions did pop up here and there on different solo albums by the three ladies. They also covered songs either written or popularized by the others. But it wasn’t until 1986 that they were able to clear their schedules and their record company contradictions. Even then, the sessions for Trio were stretched out over the better part of a year as the women dealt with other obligations.

Producer George Massenburg assembled an incredible list of session players to accompany the three women. He also deserves credit for underplaying the production, which was no small feat at a time in music when the tendency was to go big. Instead, the voices of Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt do the heavy lifting.

It could be argued the timing of the release actually helped. The three women’s solo careers had all hit a bit of a lull. The publicity behind Trio brought back fans who might have forgotten them to an extent. Once they heard the album, they were quickly reminded of what they’d been missing.

Remembering Trio

The easiest thing for the three women to do would have been to settle into some block harmonies and pick a bunch of hits that would have goosed sales. Instead, they chose songs based on their depth and the emotional punch they packed. And they constantly switched up their game with their vocals—sometimes three-part harmony, sometimes two-part, sometimes call-and-response, always weaving in and out of the picture in unexpected places.

They also cast the songs perfectly. Parton took lead on the two songs she had a part in writing, but also stood out on the traditional “Rosewood Casket.” Harris, in addition to creating endlessly inventive harmony parts, brought chills on the hit cover version of the Phil Spector classic “To Know Him is to Love Him,” and the questing “My Dear Companion.”

Ronstadt takes the whole album to another level with her cover of “Telling Me Lies.” Written by Linda Thompson and Betsy Cook, the song came in the aftermath of Thompson’s divorce from Richard Thompson, and it hits differently than the more traditional material. Ronstadt combines delicacy and power while getting deep inside the heartbreak of the lyrics. She also expertly handles the quirks of Anna McGarrigle’s “I’ve Had Enough.”

The album isn’t really about the moments when the individuals step out in the limelight. It’s all about the harmony, courtesy of three women who were blessed with voices that could create it, and then built it even further via their friendship. On Trio, that harmony falls upon these wonderful songs of various vintages with an unmistakable glow.

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Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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