Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris
The Complete Trio Collection
The Complete Trio Collection is an interesting historical document, but in its attempt to be complete, it manages to be less than the sum of its collective parts.
The first two discs are simply the two studio albums released by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris under the Trio banner, digitally remastered but without any additional adornments. The original Trio from 1987 remains an unqualified masterpiece, and it has never sounded better. This was three of the strongest female talents in country music history coming home to their roots, and creating their own mesmerizing sound. The material selection was superb, and the choices of lead vocals for each track on point. The original songs are some of the best that the ladies ever worked with, particularly “Telling Me Lies” and “Wildflowers,” and I don’t think finer versions of “The Pain of Loving You” and “Farther Along” were ever committed to tape by any artist, anywhere, at any time.
Trio was clearly a labor of love that had the full attention of all three artists, and they made sure they got it right. Trio II, which arrived twelve years later, was not, and The Complete Trio Collection falls significantly short because it glosses over the true history of that project. The liner notes are particularly disappointing here, because they don’t detail what truly happened with those sessions: that Ronstadt and Harris were fully committed to the project but Parton was not. Five of the ten tracks eventually released on Trio II appeared first on Ronstadt’s 1995 album Feels Like Home, after she stripped down the Trio elements to make the songs work for her solo record. Trio II may have gone gold and won them another Grammy, but it is a weak and uninspired collection, with covers that don’t approach the glory of the originals, and with the exception of the best track – “Lover’s Return” – that opens the record.
The selling point of the collection is the third disc, a collection of twenty tracks that were mostly unreleased up until this point. The compilation makes a huge mistake in sequencing here, choosing to bounce around in the historical record instead of presenting the recordings chronologically. It’s a poor attempt to cover up the same truth revealed by listening to the two Trio albums sequentially: all of the creativity and dedication went into the first Trio session. Nearly all of the worthy outtakes here are from the original Trio sessions. The alternate versions of songs that appear on the original album aren’t nearly as good as the final versions released, but they do reveal how the ladies progressed to the winning sound showcased on that collection. However, some of the Trio II outtakes are so incomplete that they don’t even feature all three women on them. Sure, it’s great to hear Dolly Parton tackle the Tony Arata classic immortalized by Patty Loveless, “A Handful of Dust,” but where on earth are Linda and Emmylou? Why is it taking up space on this collection?
That being said, there is one performance that makes the entire price of admission worth it, and hints at what the second Trio collection could have been if the time and commitment had been there: “Softly and Tenderly.” Beginning with an a cappella verse by Emmylou, the sparse arrangements allow for the purest showcase of the raw singing talents of all three women, who each get a turn at the lead. It is a powerful statement of what could have been, and with Ronstadt’s singing career tragically ended, can never be again.