Women at work

Music 1 byRichard Cook

Waiting for certain records to arrive can take the patience of herons looking for fish. It's 12 years since Trio, by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, and now at last comes Trio II (Asylum), a second collection of country, pop and folk tunes sung in flawless harmony by three of the finest voices in America. When the first album came out, they were queens of their various domains, and it felt like a suitably royal occasion. Now they are all unfashionable figures who will probably never sell many records again. But the music is like a recollection of their most heartbreaking qualities. I have sat very quiet while listening to it.

Dolly Parton is the one who personifies their various traditions. A move to reassert her eminence as one of the major figures in country music has come none too soon, since for many she may be more easily remembered as a minor film star of the 1980s. Certainly Hungry Again, her most recent record, has come and gone with barely a murmur of attention, something unthinkable for Parton in her prime. She brought a surprising frankness and eloquence to country songwriting which she managed, amazingly, to integrate into its sexism and sentimentality. Her pure and immortal voice helped, but Dolly found her own way of embodying the virtues of a music that once seemed impenetrable to outsiders. As last time, the trio tackle one of her back catalogue pearls, "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind", and it stands at least as tall as anything else here.

The other two have never much taken to songwriting, but as interpretive singers they have a formidable record. Emmylou Harris is the country gentlewoman without peer. Her own albums have grown into a huge list by now, although few have touched an audience outside her amen corner. Each time she simply picks a stack of tunes from decades of songwriting and sets her unique voice, which seems to have an ancient creak in it, to cover them. The vibrato on her singing has always lent a lovelorn quality to what she does. In this context, she lends a piercing gravitas to what the others do. That is something to which Linda Ronstadt, once the fairest damsel of California pop, has seldom aspired. Formerly a Rolling Stone pin-up girl, Ronstadt has become a matronly presence who seems completely estranged from the music of the 1990s. Yet she turns in as strong a performance as either of her companions here. "High Sierra", one of the best tracks, gives her the lead, and she has never sounded better or more genuine.

But in many ways the record is frankly disappointing. Although some of the songs are inspired discoveries, others don't work at all. Neil Young's ridiculous old hippie dream "After the Gold Rush" is a ludicrous choice for Dolly to sing lead on. "Feels Like Home" is a Randy Newman tune that sounds like that songwriter at his most calculating. George Massenburg, who produced the first Trio record, repeats the favour, but there are too many passages where he can't resist overcooking what should be a simple and unfussy sound: what we want to hear are those three sublime voices, not their accompanists, and the music is sometimes rootsy, sometimes blandly upbeat, as if Massenburg isn't sure which part of America it belongs in.

When they get clear space to work in, the trio still create a sound gorgeous enough to stop conversation. As their stars have waned, they've grown closer than ever to America's folk-song heritage, and if the choice of the closing tune, "When We're Gone, Long Gone" seems a bit too obviously sentimental, these grand old dames have surely earned their place in the fabric.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world