My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

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Album Review: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris – ‘Trio’

The 80s saw Emmylou branching out in various ways, but perhaps struggling to find a new direction after Ricky Skaggs left the Hot Band to launch his own solo career. After the tour de force that was Roses In The Snow, she released a couple of albums of out-takes from previous sessions and an album of live recordings (Last Date). After her final album with Brian Ahern, the rock influenced White Shoes (one of her poorer efforts), their marriage broke up. Emmylou found a new path when she married British born songwriter Paul Kennerley, and worked with him on the semi-autobiographical concept album, The Ballad Of Sally Rose, which saw Emmylou co-writing all the songs with her new husband. Neither this album nor its more conventional but equally underrated successor (Thirteen, also produced by Kennerley) was commercially successful.

But if Emmylou’s career had been on a downturn, 1987 saw her greatest achievement commercially, and arguably artistically, with the long awaited Trio project. She had half-formed plans for many years for a trio album with friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, but label conflicts meant there was never the impetus to proceed. Odd tracks appeared on some of their solo albums, others were left to languish in the vaults, but the project as a whole foundered. The mid 80s saw all three ladies at a crossroads of sorts in their acreers, and this record, while conceived as a labor of love, revitalized them all.

It wasn’t quite all acoustic, and some tracks also had string arrangements, but the choice of material and the overall feel is rooted deep in the roots of country music, particularly the side formed in the Appalachians – Dolly’s home territory, and one adopted by Emmylou on Blue Kentucky Girl. It was the strangest territory for Linda, but she was the kind of singer who can sing almost any genre and sound convincing. Producer George Massenberg was an experienced recording enginer without a track record as a producer, but he did a great job.

Emmylou opens proceedings with a crystalline lead vocal on a lovely version of ‘The Pain Of Loving You’, an old Dolly Parton/Porter Wagoner classic which opens the set. She also takes the lead on the one song not taken from the country or folk genres, the Phil Spector song ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, given a prettily understated reading which completely transforms the original into a rootsy country song, but retains the core emotion. It was a #1 hit single. She also sings lead on a tasteful setting of the slow sad ‘My Dear Companion’, which sounds as though it could have been written in the Appalachians in the 19th or even 18th century.

Dolly was the biggest star at the time of the album’s release, but through the first two thirds of the 1980s her music had been drifting ever more popwards. She had achieved massive crossover success, but was beginning to alienate country radio and fans. She had left RCA, her longterm label, freeing her to record Trio. She was to make one more attempt at balancing her pop and country careers with the release later in 1987 the very pop and widely derided Rainbow flopping. In 1989 she was to make a definitive return to country with the Ricky Skaggs produced White Limozeen, but I believe the commercial success of Trio paved the way for her comeback.

She wrote one new song for the project, the charming ‘Wildflowers’, a possibly autobiographical song about a free spirit which recalls her music of the early 70s. It reached #6 on the Billboard country singles chart as the final single from the album, proving country radio still loved Dolly when she sang country songs. Her vocals on the classic ‘Making Plans’, a mournful song anticipating the loved one’s departure, work perfectly, and she also sings the sweet traditional ‘Rosewood Casket’ (aranged by her mother). ‘Those Memories Of You’, written by Alan O’Bryant and previously recorded by a pre-fame Pam Tillis, has a high lonesome bluegrass feel, and was a #5 single.

Although never a strictly country singer, Linda Ronstadt had had a number of country hits in the 70s with her country-rock sound, but in the 80s had been branching out into other kinds of music. 1987 was a bumper year for her; beside her country success with Trio she was enjoying some of her biggest pop hits by duetting with R&B singer Aaron Neville. Linda’s beautiful voice soars on the Jimmie Rodgers’ song ‘Hobo’s Meditation’ (will there be any freight trains in heaven?). Nitpicking, one might complain that this is just too pretty and clean sounding for a song voicing the train-hopping tramp of the lyric, but it sounds so lovely I don’t care. Perhaps it shows the true soul inside the hobo’s rough appearance, with its wistful questioning,

Will the hobo chum with the rich man?

This is my favorite of Linda’s tracks, and possibly my favorite on the album. Linda’s other leads come on more modern folk songs. Her vocals are impeccable on the plaintive ‘Telling Me Lies’, co-written by Ronstadt’s friend Linda Thompson, which has something of an AC feel and was a top 10 single. Canadian Kate McGarrigle (who died recently) contributed the haunting ‘I’ve Had Enough’.

They finish up with the spiritual ‘Farther Along’, arranged simply by Emmylou with John Starling. Dolly takes the first verse, Linda the second, with Emmylou the last to be showcased.

Everything about this album works. Critical acclaim was accompanied by significant radio support with four hit singles, one of them reaching the top of the chart. It probably also regained Dolly some much needed country credibility. It has sold over four million copies, and is an essential purchase for any country fan (or anyone who loves harmonies). Luckily, it’s still easy to find. The 1999 follow-up Trio II was good, but failed to recapture the magic of the original.

Grade: A+