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Dolly, Linda & Emmylou

March 01, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

"TRIO." Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris. Warner Bros.

Who's responsible for some of the most sensual vocals of the pop season? Clue: Samantha Fox wasn't within 50 miles of the recording studio.

No, it's Dolly Parton, who finally--as promised almost a decade ago--joins pals Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris for a country album. Singing lead on "Those Memories of You," Parton manages to impart the forgotten country standard with a subtle voltage that runs like an electric current through the traditional, acoustic arrangement. The sense of loneliness and loss in relatively unsaucy lines like "In dreams of you, my body trembles / I wake up and call your name. . ." is given a real, physical pungence by Parton's smart reading. She's so good, and so real, that you're instantly willing to forgive her all the bad movies and awful crossover records of the last decade.

Of these three warblers, Parton is the one with the most to gain (or regain) image-wise, and she acquits herself more than admirably. Rediscovering the wonders of just what made Parton a star in the first place is only one of the joys connected with "Trio," though: Harris and Ronstadt are in equally redoubtable voice, and the way in which the three singers blend is never quite the same from track to fine track.

The first loop to throw the listener is the almost complete lack of electric ornamentation and modern country accouterments, but there are more pleasant surprises: Though it's Harris and Ronstadt who've been most compared to each other over the years, it's Ronstadt who most sounds like the odd woman out here. The shock is in how indistinguishable Parton's and Harris' sweet trills often are from one another.

Also unexpected is the mix of material, ranging from the expected traditionals (the gospel-flavored "Farther Along") to country versions of non -country oldies (Phil Spector's "To Know Him Is to Love Him") to unknown contemporary ballads (selections by Kate McGarrigle and Linda Thompson, both of which are given operatically stiff but undeniably lovely lead vocals by Ronstadt).

Forget all the "new traditionalists" out of Nashville who've been raising ersatz controversies with supposedly trend-bucking country that isn't that traditional at all. This album is part of a real retro-revolution, with participants famous enough to perhaps fan the flames in a way that similarly intentioned but lesser known projects (like T Bone Burnett's sparkling acoustic effort of last year) haven't been able to. One listen to these three veterans harmonizing, and you may never be able to settle for the Sweethearts of the Rodeo again.

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