My Dear Companion
On Linda Ronstadt and her gal pals
By Rebecca Gayle Howell
Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris © 1978 Ed Thrasher
Trio turns thirty-five this year. A historic album of historic covers, Trio features Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton singing the songs of Jean Ritchie, Jimmie Rodgers, and, wait for it, Phil Spector. But it was not just another supergroup moment. Trio weaved country traditions and the ease of pop music with the wounds of patriarchy. In delicate, healing truths Ronstadt and her friends reached out—and then all across the South, in carpeted bedrooms with doors closed, mothers and daughters reached back.
If progress were linear, the 1990s would have given us the first generation of U.S. white women to be well and truly liberated. But in the time between Trio’s first release (1987) and the group’s second and last—Trio II (1999)—Andrea Dworkin would prophecy the War on Women, an anti-abortion minority would become a movement, and the country would meet and loathe Hillary Clinton. Allison Yarrow called these years our “bitchification”—the effects of a media narrative in which women in the public sphere were vaunted for their sexuality, only so they could be demeaned, then weaponized against all women. (Think: Monica Lewinsky.)
This effect was particularly powerful in the South, where evangelical purity culture had already cemented the foundation needed to believe such narratives. Yarrow is Southern Girrrl Gen X, like me. She grew up in Small Town, Georgia, and I grew up in Small Town, Kentucky. We were the young regional bitches, born to ourselves like a threat. We were children in rayon and shoulder pads, sweating through an untried twenty-four-hour news cycle that told us, constantly, by way of cable TV and Christian radio, sermons and potlucks, and shocking election results, that we girls were living in bodies that someone else needed to manage.
But Ronstadt made it possible for us to imagine that a woman could be in charge of herself.
Ronstadt is Mexican-American, born to a Tucson ranching family in a time when the Sonoran Desert border was porous, no fence. The cultural border was also porous, both across the desert and within Ronstadt’s childhood home. She grew up gathering with her family to sing the songs passed down from her Mexican-German grandfather, Federico José María Ronstadt, a philharmonic musician and local arts patron. They spent their evenings enjoying concerts by the family’s dear friend Lalo Guerrero, a master Chicano folk musician who would one day receive the National Medal of Arts. Her aunt, Luisa Espinel, was leaving her vaudeville celebrity to become a published songcatcher. Mexican radio filled the house. Linda Ronstadt belonged not to a nation, but to a desert.
This is to say, Ronstadt’s inheritance was freedom, and she projected it into her public life. She was just twenty-two years old when she released her first solo record—Hand Sown…Home Grown—which featured arrangements that exhibited her curatorial range and genius. Songs by Wayne Raney and Jimmy Bryant are performed next to songs by Bob Dylan and Randy Newman. She became famous overnight, as did her love life. She balked at marriage and serially dated. She paid no attention to the attention being paid to her.
Still, the music industry made sure its message was clear: a woman could be in charge, so long as her lips were pouty enough. By Ronstadt’s second solo record—Silk Purse (1970)—she had already released her first big hit, “Long Long Time.” The lyrics were written by a guy named Gary Wright, and through him, Ronstadt lilts such lines as “I can’t say you hurt me when you never let me near / And I never drew one response from you / All the while you fell all over girls you never knew / ’Cause I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine.” Poor girl. Poor, tragic, sexy girl.
Silk Purse’s album art features a Kodachrome Ronstadt wearing an Elly May costume that makes her look questionably legal, but with an “I-know-what-I’m-doing” smile. In the picture, she is sitting on the floor of a sty, somehow still clean, surrounded by sows. Penthouse cheered: “There’s something distinctly average about Linda Ronstadt, but perhaps that’s one of the things that makes her so ravishing. She is the high school girl you dated once or twice and remembered for the rest of your life.”
But Ronstadt was distinctly not average, and she did know what she was doing. Or, would: “Competition is for horse races, not for art. I had to face all that when Emmylou came on the scene.” Emmylou Harris was still Gram Parsons’s Fallen Angel then, an unknown until Parsons invited her to travel the country as his backup sweetness. It was his solo debut they toured that year, but it was her precise soprano that made it cosmic. “Everyone was telling me for two years that there was this girl who was doing everything that I was doing, and they were raving about her. I felt threatened by it. I was scared; I was afraid to meet her. I thought, ‘Oh, no, what if she’s better than I am?’ and I met her, and she was.” Ronstadt continued, “Not to say that it doesn’t hurt you when you know somebody can sing better than you can, because there is envy. I do envy Dolly. I do envy Emmylou…but I don’t begrudge them their success. I wish I could sing that well, but I can’t. Them not being able to do it is not going to make me sing any better.”
Ronstadt is famously unassuming and generous. But what I hear is the clever wisdom of baby-boomer feminism: she’s refusing to “catfight.” Harris met Ronstadt in 1973, the same year Gram Parsons was found dead from morphine in his desert motel. If Harris felt lost to herself, she came to when she began collaborating with Ronstadt. They started singing together shortly after they met, recording their sublime version of “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You).” In it, Ronstadt offers up her signature operatic vibrato, cut by the belting power of rural Mexican folk traditions, dragging her voice against the air like a grief. Harris keens behind her, with an eerie verisimilitude. She means it.
Ronstadt remembers being changed by those early days of friendship with Harris: “Gee, I wish she didn’t miss Gram so much. I’d like to ride off into the sunset and be a duet with Emmy. I wanted us to be The Everly Sisters.” Instead, Ronstadt used the power she’d gathered to herself in the bullying music industry to argue that Emmylou Harris deserved a solo contract. By 1975, Harris had released Pieces of the Sky.
That record is, in some ways, a first glance at Trio’s potential: Ronstadt sings on “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” and Harris covers Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.” In 1976, Ronstadt and Harris appeared together on Dolly!, Parton’s syndicated variety show, and soon thereafter cameos began to appear on albums like Harris’s Roses in the Snow (1980) and Ronstadt’s Get Closer (1982). All the while, Ronstadt and Harris did indeed become as close as family, with ever growing astonishment at each other’s skill. “[Linda Ronstadt’s] probably got the most beautiful voice, bar none, of any singer in the 20th century,” Harris confessed. “Her and Maria Callas.”
And they were both gaga for Dolly. As the story goes, Ronstadt picked up the phone and it was Harris telling her that Parton was at Harris’s house. Ronstadt lived forty minutes away, and she says she got there in twenty. When they sat down together, Parton began trilling “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” and before she knew it Ronstadt and Harris were improvising, inventing the harmonies that would become their shared legacy. Each of them tells the story in a way that amounts to this: When they first heard—or, felt—the sounds moving through them, something in the air changed, a transcendence. “Oh, it was just chilling, chilling, chilling,” Parton remembered.
Trio was released in 1987. It sold four million copies and was nominated for a Grammy for Album of the Year alongside Michael Jackson’s Bad, Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, and Whitney Houston’s Whitney. (And—they all lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree. A startling year for music.) I was eleven years old. It was the end of Reagan’s reign. And my family, like so many, was in economic crisis—and splitting apart. I cut off all my hair and started to wear my dad’s military jackets. I wanted to be tough, tougher than worry. But on my walk to school, I’d pop the Trio cassette into my old Walkman, put on those cozy foam earphones, and float on the sound of women rising.
I didn’t know yet how difficult things would get. The 1990s were indeed the surge of a war on women that has not, for one day since, let up. An unholy force that allied James Dobson with Newt Gingrich turned a whole South of women against each other and ourselves. It is the same force that now rejects our medical autonomy. After all, a Southern white woman made the Dobbs ruling possible.
Trio’s album art makes for an important diptych with that of Silk Purse. On Trio, Ronstadt sits elevated, atop a horse-rail fence, backdropped by an unbound Arizona landscape. She wears a black western dress and a dark bob that is only slightly less pointy than her black cowgirl boots. Her eyes look at the camera, straight on. She’s flanked by her besties, Emmylou and Dolly, both in sunrise pink and red. Between them, she’s home.
Without Trio, is there a Sarah McLachlan? A Joan Osborne? A Lilith Fair? I’m sure it wasn’t always easy between Ronstadt, Harris, and Parton. Still, they chose each other. And because they did, we could, too. Among those confusing and mean days when we Gen Xers were first taunted by right-wing media to hate our mothers, hate each other, win—there on our stereos were our mothers, singing out the softest of soft girl vibes, singing songs of the heartache we knew, not alone but together. And in their singularly voiced, seemingly harmless pastel tone—they snuck the truth across our borders: “When a flower grows wild / It can always survive / Wildflowers don’t care where they grow.”