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Telling Me Lies
by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris
The three giants of song Parton, Ronstadt, and Harris first recorded together in the mid-'70s, but record-company obligations prevented the release of a joint album. Songs from those nascent collaborations found their ways onto the respective singers' solo albums. In 1986, though, the stars aligned and a full-fledged album by the three was recorded and released the following year to much acclaim. Trio was the title, though the group is often referred to by that moniker. An all-star band backed the three; David Lindley, Albert Lee, and Russ Kunkel are on most tracks, joined by numerous others for guest slots including Ry Cooder. As the only full-time songwriter of the three, and also likely because she takes the most lead vocals, Parton receives top billing. Two of Parton's compositions are included here, but they lend their voices primarily to covers; the most stunning song on the album, regardless of provenance, is the Ronstadt-led Telling Me Lies, written by Linda Thompson and Betsy Cook. It was nominated for a 1988 Best Country Song Grammy (the album itself was nominated for two additional Grammys, winning Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal).

I recall the release of Trio; at the time, Emmylou Harris would have been the only member in whom I had even a passing interest. In the intervening years my interest in country skyrocketed, and in 2016 when The Complete Trio Collection was released, including the group's two studio albums and a lengthy disc of outtakes and rarities, I knew I wanted to obtain it. In 2018 I did a deep study of Parton's dozen-plus albums with duet partner Porter Wagoner, and I had long been an Emmylou Harris fan. Ronstadt, however, still eluded me even by the time I got that Complete Trio set late last year. Two months ago I saw Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's excellent new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, and it felt as if every gap I had with her was instantly filled. A constant presence in the cultural fabric since my single-digit years when her Stone Poneys single Different Drum was among my very favorite songs, Ronstadt has been the kind of figure who skirted the edges of my rock-and-roll fandom. Naturally, her landmark '70s hits have been omnipresent, but I never took the time to actually *hear* them. I see a fair amount of music documentaries, and they are often lacking; The Sound of My Voice does a masterful job at pulling back and letting the subject's music tell its own story: there are interviews, but the concert footage and some key studio-session footage do all that is needed to illustrate Ronstadt's excellence and status as a master interpreter. Another thing that becomes all the clearer in the film is that Ronstadt, like Elvis Costello, is an expert in genre exercises rooted in serious love for each style she approaches. At the time of Trio, she had just finished a successful three-album run of American standards with orchestra leader Nelson Riddle; her next move following Trio was to immerse herself in the Spanish-language traditional music of her childhood along the Mexican border, which led her to three landmark albums in that field. Watching studio footage in the documentary of Ronstadt learning phonetic Spanish from musician Ruben Bladés and then cutting straight to a live performance of Ronstadt in full mariachi dress belting Spanish lyrics like a lifelong fluent speaker makes for the film's most dramatic depiction of how talented, skillful, and devoted to song Ronstadt is. Her 2013 Parkinson's diagnosis means, sadly, that she can no longer sing professionally. (The film shows how this diagnosis does not keep her from enjoying it privately.) I think I've bought a dozen Ronstadt albums since seeing the film. If you've not seen it, I urge you to do so.

In 1994-95 the group recorded the songs that would become Trio II; more record-company problems meant the album would be delayed until 1999. Several of its tracks were remixed to exclude the others' vocals and placed on Ronstadt's 1995 album Feels Like Home. Concurrent with the 2016 3-disc set The Complete Trio Collection, its third disc was released standalone, on vinyl only, as Trio: Farther Along, with 20 tracks of outtakes and rarities. It is interesting to learn from this disc that other songs appearing on members' solo albums were originally road-tested as Trio material, such as Waltz Across Texas Tonight that eventually landed on Harris's brilliant 1995 LP Wrecking Ball. And since I am lately stumping for Ronstadt in a major way, let me add here that the finest cut on Trio II also belongs to her; The Blue Train was one of the five that wound up repurposed for her solo album Feels Like Home before Trio II was green-lighted, and I can see why she didn't want to let it go to waste.

Finally, let me address the naming convention of the various Trio releases. While "Trio" is the common shortcut to refer to the group, their debut shows the billing as Parton/Ronstadt/Harris; Trio II shows it in a straight reversal as Harris/Ronstadt/Parton; Farther Along and the Complete set show it differently yet again, as Parton/Harris/Ronstadt. I know we're dealing with multiple record companies here, but I might have opted for simple alphabetical order across all four releases.
1987 - Warner Bros.
Posted: 15th November 2019
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