Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt‚ Emmylou‚ Harris come together again for Trio II
Off camera, they hardly seem like divas, let alone legends. They could be any three immaculately made-up, everyday women gabbing over afternoon tea during a trip into the big city. They talk about shopping: Linda wants to find some heavy winter coats for her young children, because you just can't find such things back home in Arizona. They discuss fashion: Emmylou recounts a high-heels horror story in which Willie Nelson plays a bit part and swears that she couldn't be paid to ever wear the damn things again. "You couldn't pay me not to wear them," replies Dolly with customary cheek. And talk turns to food: A big bowl of mashed potatoes with gravy sure would hit the spot, comments Dolly to nods of agreement.
At a cue from the director, the women cut the small talk, sit up straight and put on their perkiest smiles (none so perky as Dolly's) for the twin cameras in front of them. A piece of paper taped underneath one camera tells them they're being beamed via satellite to so-and-so reporter from such-and-such TV station in this-or-that city. Inevitably, so-and-so from ABC News or a local news station in Cleveland or Nashville concludes their allotted time with a song request, and the magic begins. Three strikingly different voices, Dolly Parton's Tennessee mountain soprano, Linda Ronstadt's strong, clear alto and Emmylou Harris's other-worldly vibrato, melt into one shimmering wonder for what may well be the most transcendental version of Neil Young's 1970 classic "After the Gold Rush" since the previous interview ten minutes ago.
To simply call it a display of grace under pressure would be criminal. The women are in the midst of a three-hour block of satellite interviews and have been up since before 5 a.m. for a taping of "Rosie O'Donnell." And yet the a capella performance is nothing short of rapturous.
"Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming / Saying something about a queen." After a tantalizing verse, they stop short like a phoenix in mid-ascension. "That's all you get," Parton teases playfully."Y'all have to buy the album to hear the rest."
The album in question is Trio II, the long-delayed follow-up to their Grammy and Academy of Country Music award-winning Trio album, which launched four Top Ten hits in 1987. The release of Trio II is only slightly less miraculous than the supernatural wonder of these voices together.
Not two years ago, the very idea of Parton, Ronstadt‚ and Harris sitting together again like this, patting each other lovingly and throwing around words like "sisters" and "friends," would have seemed a pipe-dream.
"I can't work with [Parton]," Ronstadt told music magazine Goldmine in 1996, echoing similar sentiments of disillusionment from Harris after Parton's calendar conflicted with the original release and promotional schedule of Trio II, which was finished in 1994.
Parton fired her own volley in a '95 Ladies Home Journal interview, chastising her sisters in harmony for aborting the project rather than cut her enough slack to finish up her other business so she could devote her promised time to the album. "I would have lived up to my word, but my word wasn't good enough for them," she said at the time. "Finally, I just said, 'The hell with it, sue me."
Thankfully, it never came to that. "We apologized to each other," explains Ronstadt, laughing.
"We apologized," echoes Parton, "Then we all got together in a room and they kicked the s*** out of me. They beat me up and I begged for forgiveness. Actually, we just talked that out. You know, we're like family. It wasn't anything major. They were upset with me for having to change things, and I don't blame them. And I was hurt at them for not understanding, so we just acted." Parton tenses like a cat and grits her teeth to illustrate.
Ronstadt pats her arm and Harris weighs in: "It was great when the opportunity came up to finally get the record out, but it was even better to talk to each other again." Bygones.
They ready themselves for more satellite-beamed questions. Twelve years since the last album? Yes, a long time, but it's just so hard for us to line up our schedules, they take turns explaining. They wanted to make sure the album could stand the test of time, so they shelved it in Dolly's closet for five years and let it age, quips Harris. What about tour plans? Ronstadt says she's semi-retired, but they all just might crash in on each other's shows from time to time, probably Emmylou's, since she's the one always touring.
Ronstadt discusses how she doubted her ability to sing lead on the new album's Carter Family cover, "Lover's Return," certain that she wouldn't be able to do it as good as Dolly would. "Dollywood?"‚ interjects Parton, beaming."Gotta get a plug in there!"
They discuss their outfits. The cowgirl digs from the first album's cover and videos are clearly a thing of the past, as Ronstadt today wears a long, conservative burgundy dress and Harris a light blue sweater and purple dress that has earned her the nick-name "Tinky Winky," after the recently outed Teletubbie.
Parton, who once described her famous look as a mix of Mother Goose, Cinderella and the local hooker, looks the part in a tiny red leather jacket, short black dress and platinum blonde wig up to there. "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap," she punchlines at the end of one particularly winning "buy our album, please" pitch.
"And we're clear!" announces the director. All at once, the women, ravenous for lack of a lunch break, dive for the chips and pretzels on the table. A slice of pizza with a tiny bite missing is brought to Emmylou for her to take a second nibble, after which it is whisked away and a makeup assistant hurries to fix her lipstick. They are queried off camera about their upcoming projects now that the week-long promotional blitz for Trio II is nearing its end. Harris and Ronstadt have recently completed a duet album, which Harris describes as a much more contemporary sounding affair than the traditionally minded Trio project. Ronstadt is also producing an album on Sony Classical for glass harmonica player Dennis James, whose ethereal playing haunts the album version of "After the Gold Rush." Parton, who recently released a critically acclaimed, back-to-basics solo album, Hungry Again, before her label, Decca‚ folded last month, is gearing up for another season at her theme park and a fresh round of TV movies.
All well and good, of course, but it only leads to the $100,000 question: With their differences apparently behind them, is there any desire to threepeat? After all, if a Trio III has even a cowgirl's prayer of being released by say, 2012, hadn't they better get crackin' at it?
Not surprisingly, there are no promises. But there are no denials, either. Nobody ever expected Trio II to see the light of day, so the notion of a third go-round, possibly when the women are in their sixties or even seventies, is bandied about like a playful challenge rather than dismissed outright. "The voice," remarks Harris, "is the last thing to go. The voice and the legs."