The Complete Trio Collection
Photo: Cover of 'The Complete Trio Collection'

35 Years Ago Country Music’s Three Greatest Queens Joined Forces on the Iconic ‘Trio’

Trio’s enormous success 35 years ago proved that a female-headed album could be a smash hit and that country music wasn’t merely a niche genre.

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris
Warner Bros. Nashville
2 March 1987

We learn so much about singing because you get to sort of be them for a second when you’re shadowing them in harmony, and you get to have like it’s like getting on an eagle and getting to see the world through that eagle’s experience. You know, I get to sing through Dolly’s voice or sing through Emmy’s voice when I sing close harmony

Linda Ronstadt, The Sound of My Voice

I’ve never been prouder of anything. I love these girls like sisters, but what we did as a Trio, really, I think is going to stand up long after we’re gone.

Dolly Parton

I met Linda Ronstadt in 1973, Liberty Hall, Houston, Texas, and we met and the first thing usually girl singers will ask another girl singer is, “who’s your favorite girl singer?” And we both said. “Dolly”.

Emmylou Harris

In 1987, three of country music’s greatest contemporary female artists joined forces to form a perfect supergroup. Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt forged an enviable career of hit singles, sold-out world tours, and classic albums and were legends when they finally were able to coordinate their busy schedules to record their first collaborative album, Trio. The three women shared a history, Harris and Ronstadt meeting and becoming close friends after Ronstadt spotted the ethereally talented Harris on tour. The two singers became sisters and shared a mutual admiration for Nashville genius Dolly Parton. Though linked by their love of country music, each singer had a distinct voice and sound, yet was able to braid their sounds beautifully on the lovely Trio. The album became a musical event.

Linda Ronstadt ruled the 1970s unequivocally as the queen of rock. Sporting pinup good looks and a powerful, luxurious voice, she was a significant force in popular music. When belting a satisfyingly large note, her voice was a formidable blast (listen to her clarion call on “Blue Bayou”). She applied that incredible talent to California rock, singer-songwriter pop, and country music (she even found success with the Great American Songbook). Her preternaturally wide range allowed her to shape and mold her muscular voice to do almost anything.  

Her kindred musical spirit, Emmylou Harris, possesses a delicate and haunting voice. Her singing sounds like a ghostly cry, and she has incredible control of her voice, being able to apply her sepia tones, adding a crystalline layer to her harmonies. She is an otherworldly talent, one who brought a startling, hushed intimacy to the songs she has sung.

And then there was Dolly. A mountain Mozart, Dolly Parton was country music’s definitive superstar. Penning thousands of songs, she was a revered tunesmith, able to put into words the stories of the many lives led in the Tennessee hills. Parton emerged from Nashville as a consummate entertainer, conquering music, television, and film with her charisma, talent, and flamboyant image. All of the Hollywood glitz sometimes obscured her abilities: she was a sensitive songwriter gifted with a stunning voice of silken gold: her tremulous, nipped soprano could burst into a glorious gospel cry.

When the three ladies met and started to sing together, they discovered their wildly variant sounds and tones complemented each other perfectly. They came up with airtight harmonies, and even if one voice sang lead on a particular song, the other two provided celestial support. And even though they worked on each other’s albums and sang as a Trio occasionally on television in the 1970s, it was their 1987 musical project that finally captured all that lightning in one pretty bottle. Parton said of this union,

That was my lucky day because I knew the second we started singing that there was something special there, we all did. And we were all on different labels, different management, different everything at that time, different schedules. But it was just one of those things we thought no matter what, we have got to make a record.

— Dolly Parton

Superstar summits in country music wasn’t exactly a new concept when Trio was released. Collaborations between musical giants were a tradition – a way for major artists to marry their sounds and consolidate their respective audiences. Country legends Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson formed the Highwaymen in 1985 and released their first album to critical and commercial acclaim. Around the same time, Jimmy Griffin, Randy Meisner, and Billy Swan released a record under the moniker Black Tie. Meanwhile, Willie Nelson devoted a large part of his discography to collaborative efforts with country titans like Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, and Roger Miller. Parton herself shared top billing with the likes of Kristofferson, Nelson, and Brenda Lee on the 1982 project, The Winning Hand. So, when Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt came together, they were following a proven and winning formula. What set Trio apart from records like the Highwaymen’s The Highway Man was the magical chemistry that the three women shared and how that bond translated perfectly on vinyl.

Looking at country music in 1987, much of it bore the mark of pop influence. Country singles were slicker and glossier. Though Trio isn’t a roots or acoustic album, it was far less produced than a lot of what was happening in country music during that time. Parton’s work during this period was largely pop-based, as she was determined to branch out of country music and court the pop scene. Whilst recording Trio, Ronstadt was also working on her third collection of pop standards. On the other hand, Harris was the sole member of the Trio hewed to a rootsier, Americana sound with her music. What Trio does is find the sweet spot in the Venn diagram in which all three women overlapped. The production was clean and polished, without sounding too calculated or crass. The song selection worked as a playlist of country-pop, singer-songwriter pop, and folk, but all beautifully arranged and immaculately produced by George Massenberg’s steady hand.

The album’s first single is a gentle, swinging rendition of the Phil Spector tune, “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, recorded many times, perhaps most famously by the Teddy Bears, with lead vocals by Carol Connors. The Trio’s version shares wisps of echoes with Spector’s original, namely the shuffling doo-wop structure of the 1958 single, which was recast as a lovely country ballad. Emmylou Harris is the lead singer on the song, her pebbly voice handling the solo verses, while her partners offer support. The contrast between Connors’ handling of the song and Harris’ couldn’t be more pronounced: Spector’s original tune leaned into the trope of young female melodrama, very popular for pop songs in the 1950s. When Connors hits the bridge, she builds to a frenzy when she asks “Why can’t he see?/How blind can he be?” as the backup vocalists (including Spector) add to the drama with their repetitive chants which increase as her voice grows into a full keen.

Harris sings the song as a mature woman. Her crackling voice toning down the theatrics of the song, turning the tune from a tear-stained teenage lament to a gentle sing-a-long. Massenburg creates a soft, delicate space for the three singers. Ry Cooder’s tremolo guitar matches nicely with Harris’ quavering vocals and David Lindley adds a nostalgic 1950s high school prom feel with his Kona Hawaiian guitar solo. To promote the single, a music video was filmed in which Harris, Parton, and Ronstadt (along with Lindley) are sitting in a cozy living room set in front of a roaring fire. The set is cluttered with doilies and paper hearts, Tiffany lamps, and chintz as Parton and Ronstadt are cutting out valentines while Ronstadt and Lindley are strumming their guitars. Director George Lucas (who was dating Ronstadt at the time) captured an old-fashioned girlishness in the video that felt nostalgic and tied well with the sentimentality of the song.

To launch Trio with a single in which Harris dominates is an interesting move on the part of the label, because of the three, she had the lowest profile: Ronstadt was a huge star in the 1970s and she was able to carry that success over into the 1980s; Parton, of course, became a massive superstar and by 1987, she was not only a popular singer, but a TV star, film actress, entrepreneur, and even an Oscar nominee. Harris, respected and important in her own right, had a much more contained and limited public persona and following. But this move turned out to be canny and wise, as the single went to the top of the country charts.