Bill DeYoung: You first attempted a trio record with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton in 1977, with Emmy’s then-husband Brian Ahern producing, but it was never released. What happened?
Linda Ronstadt: I think we had pretty much a whole record. There were some real problems there. I think that Brian is an excellent producer, (but) I don’t think he was really on track with that one. He wasn’t a good communicator. And I’m used to working with somebody where you can talk about stuff. The control booth was out in the truck, and we were in his house…and there were a lot of mind–altering things going on in those days. I’m not saying we were exactly taking them, but they were around. It was a different mentality.
It was actually a difficult thing for Emmy to be married to the producer, because there were times when she didn’t agree with him, and she felt she had to side with him. And things would go farther than they needed to. I think that was very hurtful for Brian, and for Emmy, and for all of us that it was an aborted production. But it was mine and Dolly’s decision on the phone to stop it. We didn’t feel the record was worthy of what we wanted to have.
Bill DeYoung: “Mister Sandman,” on Emmylou’s Evangeline album, was salvaged from those sessions. Were there any others that got released?
Linda Ronstadt: “Mister Sandman” was one of the problems. We didn’t sing in tune. It wasn’t a good version of it. I thought the version she did that was all hers was dramatically, infinitely better.
“My Blue Tears” came out on my record. I asked for that track. That’s what I thought should define the direction of what the trio should be. “Even The Cowgirls Get The Blues” was one of them too, and “Evangeline.” I remember Dolly at the time saying the album was too cluttery, and I agreed with her.
Bill DeYoung: You three finally made your album together in 1987. I guess you felt it was special enough to wait for.
Linda Ronstadt: It was a thrilling sound. The only problem was that Emmy and I are both passionate about material. And that would be like two ganging up against one. Unfortunately, Dolly’s tastes often didn’t jive with ours; she has different ideas of what’s pretty, and fancy and impressive. For us, it was uncomfortable often to sort of get around her taste without hurting her feelings, or making her feel like we thought we were better than she was, or hipper than she was. And I thought we did a masterful job with it. There were never any fights.
Bill DeYoung: Did the trio ever go on tour?
Linda Ronstadt: We had a tour planned, and it was cancelled. I don’t think her manager thought that was the best move for Dolly to make. It’s not up to us to say what they should value. He convinced her that it was more important for her to do a variety television show.
Bill DeYoung: Feels Like Home, your 1995 album, was originally to be the sequel to Trio, wasn’t it? Emmy sings on that one.
Linda Ronstadt: Emmy wanted to do a project that wasn’t a trio project. She wanted to involve some of the writers and singers that we loved, like the McGarrigle Sisters. I had suggested Alison Krauss.
We invited Dolly as a courtesy, to see if she wanted to sing on some tracks. And she was busy, but about six months later she sent word that she wanted to do it. I said, great, maybe this should be a trio record. And Emmy, who’s always more practical than me, was remembering how difficult it had been to get our schedules together, and how difficult it had been to schedule time to promote the record, which we’d felt was really crucial. And we thought that if Dolly was on the record, and then pulled out and couldn’t promote it, the two of us couldn’t go out and promote it, if it was a trio record.
So Emmy strongly wanted to keep it a record of ours. Plus, she remembered the taste discrepancy. I felt that what the trio had done was so stunning, I would love to repeat it, so I fought for that.
I asked Dolly if she would sing on a couple of tracks, and Dolly said, no, she wanted to be full-on trio or nothing. And then Emmy said, “I really would rather not do that. Don’t let her talk you back into a trio record.” And Dolly talked me back into a trio record, because she’s very charming and I loved that sound and thought it would be a wonderful thing if the three of us could go and promote it.
Bob Krasnow, the head of (my record label) Elektra, wasn’t a fan of Dolly’s. He didn’t want us to do another trio record, either. But I said, ‘We’ll ram this record down country radio’s throat. We’ll make it sell.’
I asked for Dolly’s personal word of honor, and she gave it. I showed up, Emmy showed up, and the night before we started, Dolly sent us a fax, saying there was something wrong with her infomercial and she had to go back for 10 days.
I had booked all these triple-scale players from Tennessee, and it was going to be very expensive to put them up. Emmy stayed at my house, so that we could save money.
When she did arrive, Emmy and I took her in another room, sat her down and said, “Look, we don’t feel like you have the same commitment to this project that we do. We’re asking you now to tell us whether you’re going to really give us three weeks of time at the end of the record, for promotion and a short tour. We have to have the release date written in stone.”
And she gave her word. Her exact words at the time were, “I get some many irons in the fire, sometimes I burn my own ass.” And we thought, how lovely. But we had her word of honor. Krasnow was still very reluctant and said, “She has a reputation for being unreliable.” I said, she gave me her word, that’s good enough for me.
We got to the point where we had only Dolly’s vocals to record. We had a week left to do them. She cancelled again. It cost us another $20,000. It was 20 grand every time we got one of those faxes. Emmy was gone off on the road, and she was grieving terribly because her father had just died. I’d been in there night and day working on it with George Massenburg, and I was exhausted from being up with my new baby. Dolly did her vocals and we had two mixes left to do. Then she put out her live record right on top of our release schedule at the beginning of August. She said it was going to sell so good and would help the trip record sell.
Well, we somehow did not agree with her. And we couldn’t get her on the phone. Another week went by. Meantime, we’d run out of money, and out of time. We started dumping her tracks as fast as we could. We had to somehow come up with a finished record. I started replacing her parts, Valerie Carter started replacing her parts. We couldn’t get her on the phone.
Finally, we had a three-way phone conversation. Emmy and I were in the same room. Dolly said, “How can you do this to me? My schedule is so overwhelming.” I said, “Dolly, you’ve made a choice.” She said it was like an act of God, like when you break your leg or something. I said it was an act of Dolly. Emmy said, “Dolly, we can’t ever get this time back. You took this time away from us.”
Krasnow was very upset. It made me look like a fool, because I had given him my word. I’d vouched for her, personally. I was hung out to dry, basically. It broke my heart. George Massenburg was so deeply hurt and discouraged, after how hard he’d worked. He did some of his best work on that record. He moved mountains.
Bill DeYoung: Guess that means you won’t be making any more records with Dolly, eh?
Linda Ronstadt: I can’t work with her. She didn’t represent herself as being reliable. Emmy doesn’t want to work with her, because she doesn’t feel that she values what we did as much as we did. It was her choice. It was not our choice. That’s how that record didn’t come out. And Dolly then went in the Ladies Home Journal and called us very unkind names. She was very unkind and uncharitable to both me and Emmy, and I think she owes us both an apology.
Bill DeYoung: Maybe you and Emmy will make an album together one day.
Linda Ronstadt: Do you know how hard it’ll be for us to get our schedules together again? Emmy’s now made this record (Wrecking Ball) with (producer Daniel) Lanois, that’s set her on a path that she’s very excited about. There’s no way in hell I’m gonna interfere with that. On the other hand, it is only my pleasure to be able to sing in the same room as Emmy. I just love it. I don’t even care if I’m singing, I just love to listen.
Bill DeYoung: What did you think when you first heard Emmylou Harris sing?
Linda Ronstadt: When I met her, I thought, ‘I would give anything to be able to sing with Emmylou Harris. I wish we could become the Everly Sisters.’ Well, she had a singing partner, Gram, and I thought it was a wonderful combination. I remember telling my boyfriend at the time, who was Albert Brooks, that Emmy could sing higher and lower, and louder and softer, and she could phrase a lot better, than I could. She really had country–rock nailed. Country–rock had been my little niche, but I’d been getting pushed very hard to move it more into rock ‘n’ roll. And I said, ‘She just does this so well, I think I’ll stop fighting this.’ Because she just does it better than anybody.
I made a choice. I decided that loving her music was more important than feeling that I was the queen of country–rock. And then I made a decision that she was my singing sister, and that when I got the chance to sing with her, I would do it. So we sang a duet on ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You).’ We won a Grammy for that record.
Bill DeYoung: In your opinion, what did Emmylou Harris bring to country music?
Linda Ronstadt: She gave girl country singers elegance, taste, class and dignity. I don’t mean to demean the girl singers that had been in country music before, but they never appealed to me. I must confess that I wasn’t a person who hungered after a Kitty Wells record. With all due respect for Kitty Wells. I was raised as Emmy was; we had a little bit more refined upbringing. To me, those women didn’t seem like real country singers. The seemed like girls who’d gone to the city, hung around the bars and became very jaded. They seemed hard; their makeup was on too thick. I didn’t like it as a role model, and their singing was too twangy, too hard and too nasal. Because of the hardness of their lives and their attitudes.
Emmy brought more country fresh air, a real rural style. More like the Carter Family and Jean Ritchie. And with it, elegance and dignity that came from the more refined upbringing, which doesn’t have anything to do with being hoity–toity, or rich, or anything like that. It just has to do with having been raised like a lady. In the meantime, she could go into the honky–tonks with the best of ’em.
Her approach was totally new. She was really responsible for bringing a lot of that stuff back. And she was uncompromising and tireless. And another thing I’ve always loved about Emmy is that she has campaigned for other singers and songwriters, very unselfishly. She’s been sending me tapes for years.
She’s got the profound respect of the entire musical community. There isn’t anybody that’s more revered, in a lot of ways. If you call up Keith Richards and say, ‘Emmy needs you to come over and change the cat box, tomorrow morning,’ he’ll get on a plane and come over and do it. He thinks she hung the moon.
(EDITORS’ NOTE: Three years after this interview, the Valerie Carter overdubs were wiped, and Dolly Parton’s original vocal parts were restored. The album, as originally recorded, was released as Trio II in early 1999, promoted by a brief tour and several television appearances by the three women. It was awarded a gold record and won a Grammy.)
Next, Ronstadt and Harris made a duo album, Western Wall – the Tucson Sessions. They discussed that record, and the Dolly Parton fiasco, in this interview.