Three musical greats make Trio masterful

Linda Ronstadt (from left), Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris answer questions during an interview in 1999 to promote their second album, Trio II.

Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt first sang together in 1975, according to Holly George Warren's engaging liner notes included with the magnificent three CD collection, The Complete Trio Collection (Rhino, $29.99).


Album cover for The Complete Trio Collection

As Warren reminds us, the women were bowled over at their first time singing together.

"It was a glorious sound," Harris said of that first meeting at her Los Angeles home.

"All of us were surprised and stunned by the effect of our voices together," Ronstadt added.

"It gives me chills, even now," Parton said.

A few tunes were recorded in the 1970s. The Christmas song "Light of the Stable" was released as a Harris single, featuring Parton, Ronstadt and Neil Young on harmonies. It also was the title track of Harris' 1979 Christmas album.

Rodney Crowell's "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" surfaced on Harris' 1979 album Blue Kentucky Girl. "Mr. Sandman" and "Evangeline" wound up on Harris' 1981 album Evangeline and Parton's "My Blue Tears" was part of Ronstadt's 1982 album Get Closer.

It was 12 years after their first musical collaboration before record company and scheduling entanglements finally dropped away, giving Parton, Harris and Ronstadt the freedom to record a full album.

The women's magnificent Trio album was released in 1987, sold 4 million copies and won a Grammy Award. It also was nominated for album of the year in 1988, losing to U2's The Joshua Tree. Other nominees were Prince's Sign O' the Times, Michael Jackson's Bad and Whitney Houston's Whitney.

Today, nearly 30 years after, the astonishing vocal quality of this trio -- especially the exquisite harmonies -- still sounds fresh and timeless. The first notes of Trio's opening tune, "The Pain of Loving You" (written by Parton and Porter Wagoner), hooks listeners and reels 'em in. Parton, Harris and Ronstadt's often transcendent, heartfelt harmonies have a familial intensity, texture and emotionality.

Complete includes remastered versions of Trio and Trio II, its 1999 follow-up.

But as enjoyable as the two albums are, the biggest thrill comes in the third disc, 20 tunes that include alternate versions and 11 previously unreleased songs.

Parton, Harris and Ronstadt brought out the best in one another. The results on Trio were breathtaking. Playing a blend of traditional country, bluegrass, folk and a little pop, the range of material from traditional sources to then-contemporary writers was impressive. Along with another superlative Parton original, "Wildflowers," the singers traveled across Jimmie Rodgers' classic "Hobo's Meditation," Linda Thompson's heartrending "Telling Me Lies" and Kate McGarrigle's melancholic "I've Had Enough." Their lovely take on the 1958 No. 1 hit by the Teddy Bears (with Phil Spector), "To Know Him Is to Love Him," was the album's big hit, although it is arguably the weakest song on the album.

Trio II followed a similar musical path. High points included The Carter Family's "Lover's Return"; an ethereal, otherworldly version of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush"; Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home"; and Del McCoury's "I Feel the Blues Movin' In."

While there was no Trio tour (just a few TV appearances) nor a third studio album, the bonus disc of this set is, for all practical purposes, exactly that. This CD alone makes buying this set more than worthwhile -- it is loaded with beautiful music. When the women tried different approaches to several tunes, the alternate versions sound fresh and the performances are radiant.

Parton's "Wildflowers," which featured the songwriter on lead vocal on Trio, gets lead vocals from all three women on disc three. The rollicking Pops Staples tune "You Don't Knock," which gets a bluegrass-inspired arrangement, is given some saucy swagger by Harris. Ronstadt is deeply moving on "In a Deep Sleep" by traditional Irish artist Triona Ni Dhomhnaill. Parton shines on the gorgeous "Handful of Dust."

Ronstadt sings lead on an alternate, stripped-down take on McGarrigle's "I've Had Enough." The aching, raw emotion of her delivery is palpable and moving.

The bonus disc also spotlights breathtaking harmonies with an a cappella version of the bluegrass gospel song "Calling My Children Home." Parton's "My Blue Tears," previously unreleased, is a tearjerker that the women's harmonies drive home. Their reading of "Softly and Tenderly" will be spiritual nourishment for many.

Of the songs recorded prior to Trio, "Mr. Sandman" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" are on the third disc. "Evangeline" and "Light of the Stable" are not in this compilation. Also missing is their 1978 track "Palms of Victory," which is on Harris' Songbird compilation.

These omissions are missed, but The Complete Trio Sessions is highly recommended. Fans of American roots music and these three artists will find a lot to like here. Parton, Harris and Ronstadt have achieved a great deal on their own, but as a trio, this Trio was greater than the sum of its parts.


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Style on 11/27/2016