Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt probably did a lot to establish “Americana” as a category of music with their two Trio albums in 1987 and 1999. Some of the ways they did that, I’m not sure are necessarily good things.
I have been a fan of Linda Ronstadt since I first heard her, probably in the late ’60s. And I’ve been an even bigger fan of Emmylou Harris since I first heard her in the mid-’70s. And who doesn’t love Dolly Parton? Ronstadt and Harris were long-time fans of Parton, and she liked both of the younger women and the music they made. The three recorded a handful of tracks, mostly on Harris’s albums, in the ’70s and ’80s, and I’m sure I was not the only fan who hoped they would do more along the lines of “Mr. Sandman” and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.”
So I was very excited when news came that they were releasing an album together. So were a lot of people. The first Trio release was a smash crossover hit, rising to No. 6 on the pop charts and staying atop the country charts for five weeks. They won a country Grammy for it, and lost Album of the Year to U2’s Joshua Tree. I felt bad that I didn’t like it better.
What was great about it was what was always going to be great: the harmonies. Man, those three women can harmonize together, and when they do, it creates a fourth voice in the room, that of all three of them singing together. All three are steeped in the American songbook, including country, rock, folk, old-time, bluegrass and probably even lots of jazz and pop standards. They have impeccable taste in music, as a glance at the first album’s playlist revealed. There’s a Dolly-Porter song as opener, as well as another of Dolly’s songs; a Jimmie Rodgers classic; one by folk stalwart Jean Ritchie and another by Canadian art-folk royalty Kate McGarrigle; a Phil Spector girl-group rock ‘n’ roll standard; a traditional gospel hymn; and even one by Brit folk-rocker Linda Thompson.
But to my ear, there was nothing on the order of “Cowgirls” or “Mr. Sandman,” a shining bit of rocking country or a bopping pop-rock gem with exciting harmonies that’d make you sit up and take notice, snap your fingers, tap your toes, maybe even get up and move your feet a little bit. It was all just a bit too polished and polite.
To be sure, the opener “The Pain Of Loving You” with Dolly in the lead is very promising, but it’s followed by the sedate country shuffle of “Making Plans.” “To Know Him Is To Love Him” is drop-dead gorgeous with those harmonies, but it’s very slow; and as much as I approve of Ronstadt’s choice of Jimmie Rodgers’s “Hobo’s Meditation,” it too drags and is too respectful a rendition. Dolly’s “Wildflowers” raises things a notch, but it’s pretty much downhill from there. The songs are all beautiful (though I find McGarrigle’s “I’ve Had Enough” tortuous), and the harmonies absolutely beautiful, and the musicianship (by the likes of Ry Cooder, Albert Lee, Mark O’Connor, Russ Kunkel, Kenny Edwards, David Lindley and Herb Pedersen) unbeatable. But somehow, for me, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
Sad to say, Trio II was even more sedate and tasteful. About the only tracks the induced any toe-tapping at all were Dolly’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” (which could have been a great lost Carter Family song), which Emmylou sang a great lead on, and Del McCoury’s “I Feel The Blues Movin’ In,” with Dolly singing lead. The harmonies on their cover of Neil Young’s seminal “After The Gold Rush” are hair-raising, and it was a massive hit for them, but somehow it seemed to get lost in the rest of the plodding, overly polished songs. And the symphonic backing made me roll my eyes. Neil’s original oozed despair from its blasted landscape, this one seemed an upbeat parody, almost.
This three-CD set includes one disc of extras, collecting 20 tracks that include the pre-Trio songs they cut together as well as alternate versions of songs from the two official releases and some outtakes. You can also get this disc separately, which I’d recommend. It has “Mr. Sandman,” “Cowgirls,” and A.P. Carter’s “Are You Tired Of Me,” plus a superb alternate version of “Wildflowers,” a great version of “Waltz Across Texas Tonight,” a stepped-up, fast gospel style version of Dolly’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” plus a rocking version of the Staple Singers “You Don’t Knock.”
If you’re a fan of the Trio albums, by all means get this set. It’s worth it for the remastered CDs alone, not to mention Holly George-Warren’s great liner notes; and that extra disc has some wonderful moments.
“Ronstadt, who is a whiz at arranging complicated vocal parts, calls the Trio’s mix of material ‘parlor music,’ ” George-Warren says in the booklet. That hits the nail on the head. Such as “High Sierra,” one of the hits off Trio II.
I hate to say anything bad about anything by any of these three singers, because I deeply respect them all. And it’s not that I love just their earlier work. Emmylou continued to put out groundbreaking and trend-setting works like Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl after the Trio project; Linda made a superb Cajun album with Ann Savoy, her final recording before illness forced an end to her distinguished career (and I understand that there’s an album’s worth of bluegrass material in the can, that she cut with Laurie Lewis); and Dolly has mostly turned to bluegrass and other roots music. I just am not that big a fan of most of what they recorded together as Trio, which was a disappointment to me. I guess I’m just not a fan of parlor music. I wanted very much to like it more than I did.