by NELL BOESCHENSTEIN
I first heard Trio as a seven-year-old in the backseat of my mother’s Oldsmobile station wagon. We were probably on our way to my violin lesson because in my memory we were always on our way to violin lessons when I was seven. The album was one of two tapes mom kept in rotation for car rides in the late 80s, the other being Paul Simon’s Graceland. (My first favorite tape was a group tribute to Woody Guthrie that I listened to nonstop between the ages three and six.) That said, I didn't yet quite understand what a "Rosewood Casket" was or grasp the concept of a "Hobo’s Meditation." What I did understand was that this was an album of songs I could listen to repeatedly and that Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt were women I wanted not just in the car with me, but in the kitchen, in the bedroom, on sleepovers at Caetie Ofiesh’s house, and in class as I learned basic arithmetic: one plus one plus one equals three, and that’s no lonely number.
Supergroups were the spawn of the late 60s. Cream is the archetype. Think also The Traveling Wilburys. The Plastic Ono Band. Supergroups did sometimes, too, exist outside the realm of rock and roll. The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson), for example, and it’s not too far-fetched to say The Three Tenors were one for the tails and white gloves set.
They were also often a way for the guys to get together, puff feathers, and engage in a ritual of musical one-upmanship. As a result the projects were notorious for being unable to withstand the weight of collective egos. That said, they weren’t always men and they weren’t always frustrated by the complications of said egos. Trio — starring the thinking people’s queens of country music — was one for sure and for the ages. The album was released in 1987 but the women had been planning a record together for at least a decade.
Describing how they first met in an interview, Harris explained how she was on the road with Gram Parsons and Ronstadt was on the road with Neil Young and they “kind of converged and, um, we revealed to each other that our favorite girl singer was Dolly Parton and from there our friendship blossomed because we had something very important in common.” About the first time the three of them sang together shortly thereafter, she continued, "The sound that we made together surprised and astonished the three of us. It was a very, very special sound and we knew that at some point we needed to do some singing and get it down on tape." But their 70s schedules proved too difficult to synch, so the Trio dream was temporarily deferred.
When their schedules did finally let up enough to collaborate it was at a time when country music was increasingly commercialized; what Trio proved was that the traditionalist approach maintained a beating heart of a fanbase. The album hit #1 on the country charts, won a couple Grammys in 1988, had the mainstream buzz to be put up against Prince, Michael Jackson, U2, and Whitney Houston for album of the year that year (it lost to The Joshua Tree, produced by Daniel Lanois who Emmylou Harris later hired to produce her famous 1995 album Wrecking Ball), and sold more than four million copies.
It’s sort of funny to watch the video from the 1988 Grammys as the nominees for best album are named. U2, Prince, and Michael Jackson all get audible cheers and catcalls, but when the nomination for Trio is announced there’s an almost awkward silence, as if people haven’t quite heard of these women or the little album they made sans drum machines and synth. "Funny," because it’s nearly impossible to overstate the combined influence of Harris, Parton, and Ronstadt. Even if they may have been losing then finding their ways again a bit as the 80s progressed, each was already a living legend, having become as much by remaining largely faithful to a basic American vernacular from whence she came.
This sense that each came from somewhere and wears that somewhere like a badge means something to me. I am from Virginia and wouldn’t want it any other way. I think about this fact maybe more than my therapist would like me to and that’s saying something since she, like any therapist, is hardly in favor of an ahistorical individual. Regardless, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes feel defensive in New York about my Virginia aesthetic, despite the fact that it is just that: an aesthetic, frosting on a deeper philosophy.
While neither Parton, nor Harris, nor Ronstadt are particularly arty — they aren’t Yoko Onos or Patti Smiths — they nevertheless warrant podiums. Behind their costumes and hair and makeup, Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt are as rock and roll in ethos as anyone, as pure awesome, as badass because, boys, Nashville can be as hard on a girl as New York. It takes a certain kind of stubborn, almost perverse, sense of subversion after all to stick to the dulcimer. Not to mention to be the sort of true blues they are in the red world of country.
To love Trio as a trio is not to admire these women any less as individuals, but that’s not my point. Beyond the strength of their individual personas, what never ceases to amaze me about the album is how the three share the spotlight without ever stepping on toes. Parton leads on four songs, Ronstadt on three, Harris on two. Parton is pure, aching, bawdy country in "Those Memories of You"; Harris is somber on "My Dear Companion", her voice full of the sound of loss for which it is known (goodbye again, Gram), made only more so by the harmonies in the chorus; Ronstadt has something to prove in “Telling Me Lies,” and prove it she does. The three sing ensemble-style on "To Know Him Is To Love Him" and round-robin style in the final song, the gospel classic "Farther Along."
When harmonizing, their voices meld but maintain what allowed them to be plucked out of the cacophony in the first place. American folk and country music are about singing together: in church, in the fields, on the porch, wherever. That is what this is about. Preach, practice, etc. "The music brought us together," Parton has said. "And the fact that our voices are completely different, all three of us, and our personalities are completely different, our look is completely different, you wouldn’t think that we would fit together in all the ways we do, but we’re very compatible in every way and it’s worked out real good. Since the early 70s we’ve been together and hopefully we’ll be together forever."
There is the sense here that they need each other. Even when not performing as a trio, they are known to pop up and play songs at one another’s shows and to talk in interviews about the years spent together on the road, how unusual that was at a certain time and how important it was to have the companionship and sense of camaraderie they provided each other. Sometimes I find myself at the butt of gentle jokes because I have a fondness for getting out the guitars and mandolins, the Rise Up Singing, and the whiskey, and singing so that all of Myrtle Avenue can hear. I don’t care because afterwards I feel better inside than I did before.
The other thing I didn’t understand when I first heard Trio in the back of the Oldsmobile but do now was that I wanted those women in the car and in my math class for beginners because they were an artistic embodiment of female friendship and collaboration. The imperative importance of those things are learned over time and neither is always easy. In footage of Trio performances you can see that that Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt have all taken notes on those lessons: these women love each other, love working together, love making it work, figuring out the equation so that it adds up correctly, balances out.
Nell Boeschenstein is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here. This is her first appearance in these pages.
"When We're Gone, Long Gone" - Trio (mp3)
"Feels Like Home" - Trio (mp3)
"He Rode All The Way To Texas" - Trio (mp3)