My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt – ‘The Complete Trio Collection’

81a3vfrcssl-_sx522_-2Thirty years ago, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt finally cleared their schedules and went into the studio to record the album they had talked about making for years. Released in March 1987, Trio was an immediate critical and commercial success, selling more than four million copies and winning two Grammy Awards. A follow-up album was released in 1999. The ladies reportedly would have liked to have recorded a third volume, but sadly Parkinson’s disease has rendered Ronstadt unable to sing. There was however, enough unreleased material from the first two albums to piece together a third collection. It consists of songs that were not used for the first two projects, as well as alternate takes and mixes of some of the songs that were used. These alternate takes/mixes sometimes differ radically from the previously released versions and at other times the changes are more subtle.

The Complete Trio Collection, released last week via Rhino Records is a three disc set consisting of remastered versions of the first two albums and a third disc of mostly previously unreleased material. Presumably most of our readers are familiar with Trio and Trio II, so I will focus on the third disc.

Despite the title, this is not a complete collection of the recordings Parton, Harris and Ronstadt made together. Noticeably absent is “Palms of Victory”, which was included in Emmylou’s 2007 Songbird collection and I assume that are other commissions. “Palms of Victory” was recorded in 1978 during one of the ladies’ earlier recording sessions from which no album was ever released. Two tracks from those sessions – “Mr. Sandman” and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” were released on Emmylou’s solo albums in the early 80s. Parton’s and Ronstadt’s vocals were removed from the single version of “Mr. Sandman”, since they were signed to different labels at the time.

Also labeled as unreleased is “Softly and Tenderly”, one of my favorite hymns. This track too was included in the Songbird collection. It concludes with a majestic vocal performance by Ronstadt and is well worth hearing again.

Dolly’s “Wildflowers” was a single released from the original album that reached #6 in the spring of 1988. It was a semi-biographical number on which she sang lead, with Emmylou and Linda providing the harmony vocals. The alternate take provided here has a completely different arrangement, with each of the ladies taking a turn singing the lead. The overall effect is more in the vein of “Palms of Victory” and the music that Emmylou made with Brian Ahern in the 70s. It’s quite different from the version we’re all familiar with but I liked it quite a lot. “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” is another Dolly composition that she has revisited many times over her career. An Emmylou-led version appeared on Trio II, but the alternate version has Dolly singing the lead. It is also faster paced with a lot of handclaps. Quite different from the previous version but it works equally well.

“Making Plans” was one of the last hits that Dolly had enjoyed with Porter Wagoner. A three-part harmony version appeared on the first Trio collection. The newly released version features Dolly singing solo. It’s a beautiful performance and for a song about being alone, a single voice is quite effective. “My Dear Companion” is given a similar treatment — omitting Dolly’s and Linda’s harmony vocals. Although Emmylou does a lovely job singing it, I do miss hearing Dolly and Linda echoing her words on the chorus. “Lover’s Return” from Trio II appears here as a Linda solo. Other tracks such as “I’ve Had Enough” and “Farther Along” are remixed so subtly that many fans might not notice the differences at first.

The disc also includes a number of previously unreleased songs that are not alternate takes or remixes – i.e., “new” material. Some of them we’ve heard before in different versions: Dolly’s “My Blue Tears” done in three-part harmony here, Emmylou’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and “Grey Funnel Line” which was previously recorded by Emmylou with Irish singers Mary Black and Dolores Keane. Others are less familiar. Dolly does a beautiful job on Tony Arata’s “Handful of Dust”, although I still prefer Patty Loveless’ more uptempo version. “You Don’t Knock” is a wonderful uptempo Gospel number, and “Are You Tired of Me” is a Carter Family classic from 1927. Dolly’s original composition “Pleasant as May” was written and recorded during the 1986 sessions but sounds like something that could have come from the Carter Family era.

Rhino Records enjoys a well deserved reputation for the way it handles reissues of classic material, and for that reason I decided to purchase the physical CD set instead of downloading from iTunes as I usually buy music nowadays. I must say that I’m a bit disappointed in the packaging. I hate digipaks and was hoping for a more deluxe package similar to Songbird, but given the economic realities in the music industry today, the decision to go with cheaper packaging is understandable. That is really my sole complaint about the collection. It may be overkill for casual fans but for diehards like me, this collection is a real treat.

Grade: A+

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

From the very beginning, collaborations with other artists have been an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ career. Over the span of nearly 40 years, she is perhaps as well known for supplying harmony vocals to other artists records and championing promising newcomers as for her own solo work. It would perhaps be easier to list the names of the artists with whom she has not worked; like Willie Nelson she has worked with a variety of performers from both within and outside the country genre. It isn’t possible to do justice to such a large body of work in a single article, but I’d like to touch on some of my favorites.

Emmylou was performing in small venues in the Washington, DC area when she was discovered by Chris Hillman, who was then the bandleader of The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was he who recommended her to Gram Parsons, who hired her to be his duet partner and introduced her to the world of country music. She sang prominent harmonies on Parsons’ 1973 solo debut album GP, as well as on the follow-up Grievous Angel, which was released in 1974 after Parsons’ death from a drug overdose. Both albums were re-released on a single disc by Reprise. They are also available digitally and are well worth a listen. Emmylou later covered many of the songs on these two volumes on her solo albums. One of the best is a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts”, which also appears on Emmylou’s Duets compilation, which was released by Reprise in 1990 and is an excellent sampler of her non-solo work.

Duets also includes such hits as “We Believe In Happy Endings” with Earl Thomas Conley, “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, and “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” with Roy Orbison, which won a Grammy in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Two new tracks were recorded for the project: “The Price I Pay” with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and a beautiful rendition of Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” with Willie Nelson.

After the death of Gram Parsons and before she secured her solo deal with Reprise, Emmylou had sung backup on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records, and formed what was to become a lifelong friendship. Ronstadt eventually returned the favor, singing backup on Emmylou’s solo records, as did Dolly Parton, whose “Coat of Many Colors” Emmylou had covered on her Pieces of the Sky album. The three women formed an alliance and recorded together sporadically over the next several years. For many years, legal issues and record label politics thwarted their attempts to release an album together, but their collaborations occasionally turned up on Emmylou’s albums, notably “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” from 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl and “Mister Sandman” from 1981’s Evangeline. Parton and Ronstadt also both contributed to 1980’s Roses In The Snow. Eventually the three women released Trio and Trio II in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Emmylou and Linda teamed up again in 1999 for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Dolly wasn’t available to participate this time around; let’s just say that her presence is sorely missed as this particular album is not one of my favorites.

In 2007 Rhino Records released the four-disc boxed set Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, which includes a generous sampling of Emmylou’s lesser-known solo and non-solo efforts. Some of the highlights include “Spanish Johnny” with Waylon Jennings, “One Paper Kid” with Willie Nelson and “Here We Are” with George Jones. It also contains some of the outtakes from the Trio sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, as well as some of their earlier recordings that had not previously seen the light of day, including 1978’s “Palms of Victory” and an exquisite reading of “Softly and Tenderly” from the second Trio sessions. Also of note are some of Emmylou’s contributions to tribute albums, such as the title track to the 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which she sings with Rodney Crowell, and “Golden Ring” from 1998’s Tammy Wynette Remembered, on which she is joined by Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “Mary Danced With Soldiers” from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 also makes an appearance, as does “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I” with Guy Clark and “Sonny”, sung with Ireland’s Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The third and fourth discs of Songbird rely heavily on duet material, including collaborations with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Mark Knopfler, Carl Jackson, Randy Scruggs, Iris Dement, The Pretenders, and The Seldom Scene. Songbird is a somewhat pricy collection, but it is one of the best music purchases I ever made.

In addition to the artists previously mentioned, Emmylou has lent her voice to recordings by Terri Clark, The Judds, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others. As someone who became interested in country music during the Urban Cowboy’s heyday in the early 80s, Emmylou’s music was something of an acquired taste for me. It took a few years for me to fully appreciate her artistry, and it was primarily through her work with others that I became a huge fan.

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris with Mary Black and Dolores Keane – ‘Sonny’