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Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris
Album: The Complete Trio Collection
Label: Rhino
Tracks: 11+10+20

This collective trio of discs I believe now gathers together all known recordings made during the crop of late-80s and 90s sessions by the team sometimes dubbed "the female country Holy Trinity" which united three of the most iconic voices in country music. For a long time, the two albums they released as a formal threesome - Trio (1987) and Trio II (1999) - have been seen as highly desirable acquisitions (if not exactly genre benchmarks), and surprisingly have remained only intermittently available in the catalogues despite their stature as best-sellers and multi-Grammy-Award winners. Even their original history has elements of surprise, for it was a full decade after the three had been recording together sporadically in the 1970s (but not helped by the fact that they were contracted to different labels) that they finally managed to get together to record a full album, under the production guidance of George Massenburg.

1987's Trio disc has been described as a "powerhouse sound of country and Americana"; fair enough, for its eleven cuts ran the gamut from Farther Along and Wildflowers to Making Plans and To Know Him Is To Love Him, a range of material that reflected the different backgrounds of the three singers (in bluegrass, country rock and rock). Sequel disc Trio II, sessions for which began in 1994, ostensibly provided more of the same, with ten tracks of an even wider provenance (five of its tracks appeared on Linda's 1995 album Feels Like Home, but they were remixed for Trio II's release). Both Trio discs have been remastered for their latest incarnation, and listening to them again confirms the impression that they were recordings much of their time, the first set in particular making only slight concessions to contemporary Nashville gloss and for much of their length pointing the way for the more honest presentation of country outside the mainstream. (Even so, I still rather like the tasteful semi-orchestral production of After The Goldrush on Trio II, for all it's resolutely non-country).

The third, bonus disc of this set rounds up 20 extra tracks recorded at the Trio sessions, all hitherto unreleased. Of these, six are alternate takes/mixes of songs featured on one or other of the Trio albums - it's always instructive to gain access to alternate takes, and these prove valuable, with My Dear Companion and the Kate McGarrigle composition I've Had Enough scoring highly in the satisfaction stakes. The remaining 14 titles are all previously unreleased and of songs not included on the original albums; they include darned fine accounts of Handful Of Dust, Waltz Across Texas Tonight, the a cappella Calling My Children Home, the feisty gospel You Don't Knock, Dolly's My Blue Tears and Linda's Lover's Return, although the ladies' version of Grey Funnel Line is a curious mishmash of the verses and there are a couple of disappointments - the dated Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and (worst of all) the sickly Mr. Sandman - but here these deficiencies lie in the glutinous backings rather in the vocal performances.

Fans of the two Trio albums will (rightly) regard the bonus material as essential, even though it doesn't necessarily advance our appreciation of the sessions. But even if in relative artistic terms the Trio sessions might be seen as representing little more than a thoroughly pleasing, diverting byway for the three ladies - especially when you remember the career highlights that were to come for them individually in the subsequent decade or so - this collection is worth a place on your shelves simply because those vocal performances are matchless. And its (virtually budget) retail price is remarkably low. Finally, for those so inclined, there's a vinyl double-LP of the bonus tracks, and a single-disc CD selection from the whole three-disc set.

David Kidman