Friday, Feb. 6, 1987
Top trio in tune on album
Superstars cut hassles and harmonize
by DAVID ZIMMERMAN
QUEENSTON TRIO: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt united for 'Trio' album. Ronstadt out-glitzed Parton in $11,000, silk-embroidered fringed frock. Parton's silk-stitched ensemble was $5,000; Harris' Hank Williams-style rose-stitched jacket cost a mere $3,500.
Single lilts onto charts after decade
When Linda Ronstadt first met Emmylou Harris, they were two stars-to-be with a common bond. "The first thing we found out" said Harris, "was that our favorite singer was Dolly Parton."
Then, 10 years ago, Harris called Ronstadt and said she had invited Parton over to her Los Angeles home. "I'll be right there," said Ronstadt. Once the three soon-to-be superstars settled themselves, Harris pulled out her guitar.
"We started harmonizing and it sounded really good," said Ronstadt. "We went 'Wow, we ought to record this.'"
That long-awaited collaboration, Trio, arrives March 2. A single, To Know Him is to Love Him, is already out. What began as a lark - a musical 9 to 5 - required a decade of determination by three strong women to overcome legal squabbles, frantic schedules and life's whammies.
"It says something about women and friendship," said Parton. "I guess we all had to get older and smarter."
"What we really have in common is the love of that music," said Ronstadt. "We can do it for hours and hours and never get bored."
"I've had good luck with trio things," said Parton. "I love working with men, but I don't have the success I've had with women. I'm speaking of Burt Reynolds (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) and (Sylvester) Stallone (Rhinestone.)"
Trio was tough. Record label and management in-fighting and career demands scuttled previous efforts and there were snags even when sessions began. Parton had health problems and was desperately trying to get her Knoxville, Tenn., Dollywood theme park off the ground. Harris was involved in a child-custody battle and said Ronstadt - plagued by a back problem - spent much time in the studio "lying on her back and in a great deal of pain."
But there was a light side of the project conveyed in the playful feel of the first video - based on To Know Him Is To Love Him and directed by Ronstadt's companion George (Star Wars) Lucas. The three are shown joking and cutting out valentines in front of the fireplace in Ronstadt's home.
On one occasion, Lucas sent roses: Pink for Harris, white for Parton; red for Ronstadt. He also palled around with the musicians, who only later learned he was the movie director.
"We certainly were girls," said Parton. "We spent half the time talking about new outfits." Those outfits include the specially made clothes, created by Hollywood's Manuel, they wear on the album cover. Ronstadt - who even out-flashed Parton - got an $11,000 fringed black outfit with rhinestones and embroidered silk red and pink roses.
But studio dress was more eclectic. Trio producer George Massenburg said all three "showed up one day in Tina Turner wigs carrying pink cassette players."
Choosing Trio's overall sound was open-ended, considering the variety of musical styles the show business triumvirate has traipsed through and the diverse textures of their voices.
"We all tried to be open-minded," said Ronstadt. "There was discussion of whether we should make it rock or make it pop," said Parton.
What emerged is three voices braided through the traditional mountain-tinged sounds of guitar, autoharp, dobro and dulcimer. "It's just what we wanted - old-timey," said Ronstadt.
Of the singers, only Parton - who wrote two Trio songs - has mountain roots. One of a dozen children raised in a two-room shack in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, her lilt could only have been nurtured there.
"It's what they call a high lonesome sound," said Ronstadt who grew up middle-class near Tucson, Ariz. "It's a holdover from the early migrations - an old English and old Irish style frozen from the 15th century."
Ronstadt said she and Harris - born in Alabama and active in the rock-country movement in the early '70s - also have dissimilar voices. "But I've sung along with her records so much I can shadow her very closely.
"No one can copy Dolly but you try to go into her consciousness and sing the way she does from the heart. You get to ride along and feel the way she does."
The single - a slow-beat cover of the Teddy Bears' 1958 hit - was released last week and charted six days later at No. 48 in Radio & Records, the fastest charting record in Warner Bros./Nashville history.
"It's a song that came into the room one day and ran right into Emmylou's mouth," said Ronstadt. "When she sang it acoustically it sounded like a prayer. It was so natural for her style that we put it in."
Massenburg said the women ruled the sessions. "It was the girls' record. These are three women who have taken great control of their lives and their careers and will not accept the old ideas about their place in music and in the world."
Parton said all three are improved models. "We're all pushin' 40 and I hope by that time we should be smarter about our personal lives and our profession and our eating habits." (Actually, Dolly and Linda have pushed past 40. Dolly turned 41 Jan. 19. Ronstadt is 40; Harris, 39.)
"I've lost a lot of weight (30-40 pounds in the last year. The 5-foot-2 Dolly now weighs 103 pounds) and got a lot of things in order. Emmylou got remarried (to songwriter/producer Paul Kennerly) and Linda has somebody in her life. Of course, I've always had somebody special in mine." Parton's is Carl Dean, her husband of 22 years.
Parton will open a $6 million Dollywood expansion in early May. "Linda wants to bring George's little girl and Emmy wants to bring her two little kids." A concert is planned.
It may be one of the few opportunities to see the "Queenston Trio," as some dub the three.
Scattered summer and fall performances are likely. A longer tour could depend on the album's success.
Warner Bros. is hopeful. "We think it could develop into a left-field hit possibly like Paul Simon's Graceland," said vice president Bob Merlis. The sound has worked before. The threesome's Mister Sandman cover was Top Ten in 1981.
Although another pop oldie introduces Trio, it's not typical. Nor is Kate McGarrigle's I've Had Enough - Ronstadt sings lead - a musical departure for which a string trio, flute and clarinet were called in. Harris said Jean Ritchie's gentle Dear Companion - which the three performed last year on the Country Music Association awards show - is closest to the album's heart.
"It's not old, but it sounds timeless and has real mountain roots."
By the time their hours of old-time harmony became an album, the women had become old-time friends. They say Trio exists because they took charge.
The first attempt at recording eight years ago involved "too many chiefs and not enough Indians," said Parton. "So we had a powwow between the three of us and said why don't we wait until we can do it properly. Let's weed these people out and get rid of some of the aggravations."