Album Review: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, The Complete Trio Collection

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The Complete Trio Collection is an interesting historical document, but in its attempt to be complete, it manages to be less than the sum of its collective parts.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.


  1. Something that should be said about what went sideways with Trio II: That was originally supposed to be only a 1994 Linda/Emmylou album with a number of special guests (this became the Western Wall album in a different configuration in 1999), but Linda, as a courtesy, had asked Dolly to be on a couple of tracks; and all of a sudden, for whatever reasons, Dolly said that it had to be an all-Trio album or nothing. Emmylou was uneasy about it then; and Bob Krasnow, who was the head of Elektra Records, Linda’s label, was very reluctant to allow it, saying that Dolly had a reputation for being unreliable. The resulting imbroglio had the effect of putting both Linda and Dolly on the outs with one another for four years, until they patched it up and worked it all out for the eventual release of Trio II in March 1999.

    I agree that Trio II is not what its predecessor was; and while it may be a shock to hear this, I think Linda is to some extent responsible for that. I really didn’t care much for her lead singing on either “Lover’s Return” or “High Sierra”; in fact, I really think “High Sierra” has one of her worst and most affectated vocal performances ever, and this is coming from someone who has been a fan of Linda’s since 1978. But I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that Linda isn’t perfect.

    Even so, on almost every other level, The Complete Trio Collection is, for me, a great summation of the vocal and musical abilities of three women who are arguably the most influential of their gender in all things country, roots-rock, and Americana over the last fifty years; and it just may be that the flaws of Trio II feed into the cumulative power of the whole.

  2. Wow I am shocked at the negativity of these reviews. I have been elated with this collection and have listened to it nonstop sense I got it.

    My only complaint with the first disc is that my favorite song Telling Me Lies is at a different volume than the other songs.

    Not having heard Linda’s album, I absolutely love Trio II. Erik, I respectfully disagree that I LOVE Linda’s vocals on High Sierra. They’re beautiful. After The Gold Rush is my favorite song but they all sound great. I had When We’re Gone Long Gone played at my Dad’s funeral

    Also I was much more impressed with the 3rd disc than the reviewer. You Don’t Knock, Where Will The Words Come From, Waltz Across Texas Tonight, and My Blue Tears are all standouts. I do agree that Softly And Tenderly is worth the price alone and the best song on the disc.

    All in all, this is the best cd collection I have heard all year.

  3. Mind you, I am by no means saying that this collection is terrible, only that there are a couple of places where it doesn’t always work for me. In every other respect, it wipes the floor with all the ballcap-worn-backwards Bromeisters that country radio plays; and it also illustrates just how much more empty the country music landscape would be for women if neither Linda, Dolly, nor Emmylou had even been around in the first place as individual artists, let alone as the Trio.

  4. Thanks, Erik. I appreciate you clearing that up. I think so many of us were waiting so long for this to be released that we may have had our expectations set too high. But I see your point of stating that it isn’t a perfect collection and that it may be weak in some areas.

  5. At the same time, whatever qualms I might have with the album, certainly the heretofore unreleased tracks like “You Don’t Knock” and “Where Will The Words Come From?” say volumes about each woman’s song-finding acumen, as well as utilizing very old-timey traditionalist Appalachian material and making it live and breathe again in our time. Due to ageism and sexism on country radio, not to mention the very nature of what they three were doing, it’s not realistic to expect that any of this collection will get played in that format like the first Trio album was nearly thirty years ago. And yet the whole collection, in my opinion, is a perfect slice of Americana from three women who all but invented the format, at least for women, back in the late 1960s and 1970s.

  6. Erik, I CANNOT thank you enough for sharing this. I will treasure this experience for a long time getting to see this incredible documentary on how these three angels came together.

    I smiled continuously as I watched but then teared up toward the end thinking of how we’ll never again get to hear Linda’s amazing voice again.

    And what a treat to hear from some of those incredible musicians who played on the album. Plus to see Rodney Crowell as well. I think my favorite part was hearing early Emmylou around the 14 minute mark.

    Thank you again for this special gift.

  7. Yes, I think this is an instructive thing to find out how three women from widely disparate backgrounds–Dolly, from extreme poverty in rural Tennessee; Emmylou, from a middle-class upbringing in the suburban Southeast; and Linda, from a prosperous ranching and business family in Arizona–could get together and revolutionize the way female artists do things in the music business.

    And it’s funny to note that Trio seemed to have been absolutely hated by the Nashville establishment of 1986-87. Just the mere idea of three women doing something like this as a supergroup, which was a rarity even in rock, was downright subversive in country music. In some ways, it arguably still is subversive. Not only did the three of them come from different backgrounds, but they also came from different musical scenes and were totally different in personalities. Dolly is as flamboyant as she is because of her having wanted to make it big (which she did in spades, of course), while both Linda and Emmylou were very shy, but also very cagey and street-smart (Emmylou with her DC and New York folk music experience, and Linda with her experience in the Los Angeles country-rock scene).

    I daresay that such a coming together of three great women isn’t going to happen like what we saw with Dolly, Emmy, and Linda. Some would make a case for the Pistol Annies, but I would be very cautious in making such comparisons. What The Trio did, musically and historically, is virtually untouchable in terms of impact, and probably always will be (IMHO).

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