Individually speaking, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris are about as legendary as it gets, but put them all together in a supergroup setting, and their star power is practically supernatural. After recording together on occasion throughout the 1970s, country music’s leading ladies officially debuted with the full-length album “Trio” in 1987, which spent five weeks atop the charts, collected two Grammy Awards and went on to sell more than four million copies on the strength of songs such as “Farther Along,” “Wildflowers” and “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” Though it would take more than a decade until “Trio II” released in 1999 featuring originals and covers spanning Neil Young to Randy Newman, the ladies picked right back up where their heavenly chemistry left off, also netting a Grammy and a platinum record in the process.
And just when it seemed like there wasn’t anything left in the vaults from Parton, Ronstadt and Harris, Rhino Records recently bundled both remastered blockbusters with 20 rarities (split between previously unreleased songs and alternate takes) for “The Complete Trio Collection.” Though the women won’t be touring to support the project, Chicago Concert Reviews joined them on the phone for a press conference that covered all the basics behind the three CD set, their creative methods together, plus an enduring friendship well beyond the recording studio.
The fact that we’re friends and we were able to make this music together and share our voices together, that’s going to be there long after we’re gone.
What criteria helped the three of you figure out what songs you wanted to do as a trio?
Linda Ronstadt: Whether they were commercial or not was not one of them…We tried to pick songs that we loved so much, that if we couldn’t do them, it would make us kind of sick or keep us up at night…[The project highlights] the way women are when they are able to just sort of put aside their work, get together, talk about their troubles and maybe play a little music together in a totally communal way. I think that a lot of those songs are like that- just shared sorrows or shared problems.
Emmylou Harris: Some shared joys…The joys came from sharing our sorrows.
Dolly Parton: As songwriters, we try to write all those emotions [as did] other great songwriters that were really involved in this project. I think you feel the joy in their writing, in their stories and in the songs.
Harris: And we just loved all those songs so much. I think maybe the joy of being able to sing them probably comes through on this record.
What do you think it is about your three voices that makes them all so complimentary?
Ronstadt: When the three of us sang together, it sounded special. I think part of it is the fact that Emmy and Dolly can duet, Dolly and I can duet, Emmy and I can duet or the three of us can sing together. Our voices have these particular characteristics that just fill out the places of the other people. My favorite combination is when Emmy starts singing lead, then I come in with a low harmony and then Dolly comes in on the top. It’s so beautiful. You can hear the different characteristics of the vocals. We’d start a song where we try with everybody each singing a different part. Dolly would sing the top, I’d sing the bottom, and then we’d try somebody else singing lead and we’d just wait until the song would decide which way it liked best.
Harris: The song would actually tell us once we would try.
Parton: And it was fun getting to try all those different ways. “I could’ve done that part.” “Well I did do that part!” “No, I didn’t but I coulda!”
Harris: There were a couple of times where we’d have to say “Linda, you’re not singing enough lead” and she was thinking we wouldn’t notice until the record was done. (laughter)
Ronstadt: You have two people that are so good at singing traditional material. That’s not my strong suit, but I can do harmonies pretty well. I’ve thought of my voice as the lecithin in the candy bar. It made everything blend. It’s kind of a thick voice that just kind of pulls everything together you know?
Harris: A thick and an extraordinarily beautiful voice.
Parton: But we did have to hammer her over the head! (laughter) We never let anything go to waste. What we didn’t use on the “Trio,” one of the three of us would have it on our record and then we’d ask the others to come sing harmonies on this or that so no good song went to waste.
What prompted the bonus material?
Harris: Well everything went on. That’s one of the points of this collection. There were these beautiful gems that for one reason or another hadn’t found their place on the original releases.
Ronstadt: A lot of them weren’t finished too. A lot of them were just spontaneous.
Harris: Or just bits of things. We just felt like “this is it.” This is everything that we did and I don’t think there was a dud in any of them, so why not put it all out for people who were fans of the trio?
Ronstadt: And you can hear them in different states. The stuff we released we polished up the best we could, but there was a lot of stuff in that vault that was live vocals or just us singing a cappella. These days records are so fussed over and tuned…
Harris: …and manipulated and polished to the point where there’s nothing left.
Ronstadt: This isn’t that way. This is the way that it was. The best we could do at the time.
How are you going to keep being close through the years? Are you going to be working on other projects?
Parton: While we’re going to be friends first of all. Emmy and I, we work all the time, and Linda is one of the greatest producers ever. Even though she says she can’t sing anymore, I bet she can sing better than she says. But she may wind up producing something on Emmy and I. Who knows what could happen?
Harris: Who knows? The fact that we’re friends and we were able to make this music together and share our voices together, that’s going to be there long after we’re gone. We’re just going on with our lives and [are] grateful that we had the chance to get our music down for ourselves and for whoever wants to hear it.
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris release “The Complete Trio Collection” on September 9. For additional details, visit Rhino.com.