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

After the album’s March bow, a second single was released, a reworking of Linda Thompson’s “Telling Me Lies”, which featured Ronstadt prominently and sounds like a track that could appear on any of her contemporary pop albums. The song has vague country effects but is primarily a pop song, arguably the most radio-ready song on Trio. Thompson wrote the song with Betsy Cook for her first solo album after her split from Richard (with whom she recorded a number of albums in the 1970s). It’s a very sad song about surviving the devastating loss of love – Thompson’s separation from her husband was rough, as was her health (at one point she lost her voice).

Like Harris, Thompson also turned to her friendship with Ronstadt during difficult times. So, the pairing of Thompson and Ronstadt feels right and organic and Ronstadt is able to seize the bruising pain in Thompson’s and Cook’s lyrics. Ronstadt has a powerful voice and she has amazing control over it, being able to convey the hurt in Thompson’s and Cook’s words, whilst using the full range of her vocals – from the thoughtful crooning in the verses to the pained belting to the tight harmonizing with her musical partners. “Telling Me Lies” would sound at home on her solo work, having a history of covering contemporary music, and the song is only made better due to the sterling background work of Parton and Harris.

The album’s third single, “Those Memories of You”, was another top-five country hit. Taking her rightful place in the spotlight, Parton displays her particular genius. Though she didn’t write the song, she’s able to pour her heart into the track. The arrangement allows her to sing out the verses, and when her friends join her, the three display the flowery power of their combined star power. The rootsy sound of the song is a refreshing change of pace for country radio; the song’s acoustic production with some nifty fiddle work by Mark O’Connor is an excellent callback to the country, Tennessee roots of Parton’s childhood. The jaunty harmonies recall the three ladies’ private singing sessions when discovering their specific chemistry. More than any on Trio, the song celebrates the joyful musical sisterhood shared.

As a companion piece to “Those Memories of You,” Trio’s final single, the pretty “Wildflowers”, is another Parton number, with the country diva taking lead vocals as well as composing duties. Parton’s knack for writing evocative, pastoral tunes has always been justly lauded. In this song, she uses the titular wildflowers as a metaphor for a young woman who feels hemmed in by her bucolic, humble beginnings. So much of Parton’s poetry is about her ambition and her desire to break free of her modest upbringing, and “Wildflowers” is a particularly affecting piece of mountain poesy. Joining Parton, Harris doesn’t just offer vocal support but also plays guitar. David Lindley adds a precious twirl with his distinct strumming on the autoharp.

The other Parton composition on Trio is the first track, “The Pain of Loving You”, which she wrote with her former musical partner and ersatz Svengali, Porter Wagoner. He was the man who inspired Parton to write her classic “I Will Always Love You”. Like “Wildflowers”, this song evokes a spontaneous sing-a-long as if our three songbirds just impulsively broke into song. Though Harris gets the solo, the number is notable because it introduces listeners to the heart-stopping loveliness of the melding of these three beautiful voices. Lindley’s twangy fluttery mandolin also sets the stage for the wistful themes of the record. Yes, the women sound like they’re having lots of fun on a lot of these songs, but there’s a delightful embrace of the old-fashioned: it sounds like these ladies are singing to a Victrola.

The collection of songs on Trio is eccentric. Sure, there are some contemporary tunes, but the ladies go as far back as the 1930s, with Ronstadt using her vivacious vocals on the proto-country song, “Hobo’s Meditation”, written by the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers. Singing from the perspective of the vagabond who is contemplating his life and mortality, Ronstadt tells a sad tale, ably backed by Parton and Harris, the three joining their voices to cry this lament. Trio closes with a pair of traditional folk songs: the elegant “Rosewood Casket” that boasts a wrenching performance by Parton and “Farther Along”, a churchy hymn that celebrates the astounding talents of all three women, with each stepping up to the mic. These vintage moments on Trio show just how much these pioneering artists owe to the rich cultural history of American country music.

The amazing thing about Trio is that not only was it a terrific success, but it helped put to bed rumors that three massive female superstars couldn’t work together without letting their egos ruin the project. Reductive sexist groupthink likes to pit female artists against each other, so the sensible approach these three women took to make Trio was a fantastic rebuttal. When Trio was released, it met with warm critical acclaim and huge sales (over two million copies sold). It was nominated for three Grammys in 1988, including Album of the Year (against pop colossuses Prince, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and U2, who won for the classic The Joshua Tree). It also won for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

Trio was the highlight of the three women’s careers in the 1980s. The same year Trio was released, the three performers would also put out solo albums. Harris would continue to record roots material with her excellent Angel Band. Ronstadt would harken back to her Mexican roots with Canciones de Mi Padre, the first of several Spanish-language albums. Unfortunately for Parton, her 1987 solo album, Rainbow, was a failed attempt at MTV pop, highlighting the artistic pitfalls of her mainstream ambitions. The three would continue recording with Ronstadt enjoying great commercial success in the late 1980s as a duet partner on several adult contemporary pop smashes. Parton would continue to record at a prodigious pace, enjoying her greatest success as a songwriter when Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” became a record-breaking hit. Harris reset her career, starting with her 1995 album, Wrecking Ball, which saw her recast as an alt-country singer.

Like any great success story, there has to be a sequel. Despite their busy, conflicting schedules, recording sessions took place in 1994 for Trio II. Unfortunately, the project remained in limbo for years before the three could coordinate their work lives, and Trio II wasn’t released until February 1999. Ronstadt even used some of the tracks for her 1995 country album Feels Like Home. As with most sequels, the original was better. Critical reviews were respectful if reserved, and the album went gold. The most notable track from Trio II was the cover of Neil Young’s cryptic, apocalyptic “After the Goldrush”. The ladies did a marvelous job, their aged – yet perfect – voices framing the enigmatic lyrics beautifully.

Ronstadt and Harris would collaborate on an LP, Western Wall (1999), and in 2016, the pair of Trio albums was re-released with a treasure trove of bonus material. Unfortunately, the Trio would cease performing together when Ronstadt’s singing career came to a sad end in 2011 after her progressive supranuclear palsy diagnosis prompted her to retire. The end of Ronstadt’s singing career was a poignant end of an illustrious career, one that saw some dizzying heights and blazed a remarkable trail.

Trio is an extraordinary record with an enduring legacy, its echoes finding their way in the music of the Chicks, the Highwomen, and Pistol Annies. Parton herself assembled a similarly starry ensemble with Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn on 1993’s Honky Tonk Angels. It celebrated country music, American culture, sisterhood, and female friendship. The record’s eclectic song list reflected the three headlining legends’ diverse talents, influences, and sounds. On the ingenious setlist for the album, Ronstadt said,

Emmy and Dolly are great songwriters, so that helps… Emmy also stays up a whole lot later than either one of us put together, so she finds all the great songwriters and gets all the good songs before the rest of us got the chance to hear them.

— Linda Ronstadt

Its great success showed the industry that a female-headed album could be a smash hit and that country music wasn’t merely a niche genre. The three women who starred on the album exuded consummate brilliance and ebullient camaraderie and were a joy to watch on television when promoting Trio. It was fascinating to observe just how showbiz and savvy Parton was by 1987, forging a side career as a professional chat show guest. Though many singers look up to Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton, no one has come close to reaching the singular brilliance that each performer brought to Trio.

Works Cited

Associated Press, “Dolly, Emmylou reflect on Trio group.” 24 September 2016. Associated Press YouTube Channel.

Epstein, Rob and Jeffrey Friedman, dir. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. Greenwich Entertainment, 2019.

Konc, Riane, “Interview: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt Reflect on ‘Trio’ Projects.” 9 September 2016. The Boot.

Lucas, George. “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” Warner Bros. Nashville, 1987.

Parton, Dolly, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. Trio. Warner Bros. Nashville, 1987.