Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. In this essay, I examine the woman who helped pioneer the marriage of country and rock, shone a light on the unrecognized works of struggling songwriters, proudly sang music that celebrates her Mexican roots, and was the first of the pop stars to revitalize interest in the jazz pop of the Great American Songbook: Linda Ronstadt.
I remember once reading a great line in the critique of a new album by some amazing singer (I think it was Annie Lennox), and the critic said this: “Her pipes are so outstanding, I think she could sing me the New Jersey phone book and I’d still love it.”
Linda Ronstadt has recorded such a broad variety of music in her 40-year career, and done so in such convincing fashion, that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if she had indeed attempted to sing the phone book, or a cookbook, or a history book. Good grief, she has successfully wrapped her voice around so many genres — from country ballads to traditional Mexican rancheras, from New Wave rock to Sinatraesque torch songs, from Motown classics to Southern California folk rock — there’s no reason to think she couldn’t have found a way to make even textbooks sound melodious.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who has tried more different styles and nailed it than Linda has,” said her longtime musical collaborator Bonnie Raitt. John David Souther, Ronstadt’s one-time paramour and cherished friend, added, “Her range is huge, and there’s not too many people who can pull it off the way she has.” The great Dolly Parton put it this way: “Linda can literally sing anything.”
Or, more accurately, she used to be able to sing anything. In 2011, Ronstadt chose to retire from the business, and although she didn’t say so at first, it was because she was suffering from what was first diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease but is, in fact, a degenerative malady called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which robbed her of, among other things, the ability to control her vocal cords.
She withdrew from any public appearances, but by 2018, when asked to participate in a documentary about her life and career, she relented, and the result, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” is a thoroughly enthralling video journey, narrated largely by Linda herself. I strongly recommend you seek it out to re-familiarize yourself with her and learn more about her remarkable life.
Ronstadt came from a Tucson, Arizona, family of music lovers. “My father had a lovely baritone voice and loved Mexican love songs,” she recalled. “My mother was big on Gilbert and Sullivan. My brother was a soprano soloist in a church choir when he was a boy. My sister was a Hank Williams fanatic. My aunt preferred classical music and opera. So I was fortunate to have all these different influences, and I soaked them up like a sponge.
“We sang all the time. We sang at the dinner table, we sang in the car, we sang with our hands in the dishwater. It was kind of isolated living on a 10-acre ranch outside Tucson, so we had to make our own entertainment. The radio was my best friend. We picked up plenty of amazing music. We got Louisiana Hayride. We got ’50s pop radio. We got plenty of songs from south of the border. I loved them all.”
At age 15, Ronstadt started a vocal group with her brother and sister they called The New Union Ramblers, performing at community get-togethers and school events. But her sister married young and started a family, and her brother became a police officer, so Linda decided to head out on her own to pursue her musical dreams.
In the early ’60s, the place where everything seemed to be happening was Los Angeles, so she headed to the West Coast at 18, split the $80 rent with two roommates in a Santa Monica beach cottage, and started frequenting the various venues where people with similar interests hung out. The beatnik dives. The Ashgrove, famous for traditional folk artists. The clubs on the Sunset Strip. And, of course, the Troubadour.
At first she waited tables and washed dishes — “I had no problem with that, I’d been doing it my whole life” — and performed in The Stone Poneys, a trio with musician Kenny Edwards and songwriter Bobby Kimmel, just acoustic guitar, mandolin and three voices. “We practiced every day and played out whenever we could,” she recalled, “and it was a pretty eclectic mix of songs we would try, even back then.”
In 1965, when The Byrds took Bob Dylan’s folk song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” added jangly electric guitars and a rock beat and made it the #1 song in the nation, “all the record labels scurried around looking for new acts,” Ronstadt said. “Everyone wanted to try to define what it was going to be, this cross-pollination of country, pop and rock.”
The Stone Poneys had cut a couple of demos, including a charming country tune written
by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees called “Different Drum.” Capitol Records heard it and liked the song but not the arrangement. “They wanted to re-cut it,” she noted, “and we were thrilled, but then we showed up at the studio and everything changed. They had an orchestra in there! I’m thinking, ‘This is not the way I envisioned it,’ but it’s a good thing they didn’t listen to me because it became a big hit.”
Capitol offered a record deal, but not to The Stone Poneys. The deal was for Linda as a solo singer. “Kenny headed off for India, and years later played bass and guitar on several of my albums. Bobby started McCabe’s, a combination guitar store and music venue that’s still a Santa Monica landmark. Meanwhile, I was essentially a harmony singer with no material. People thought I was brave…but I was nervous.”
It wasn’t long before Ronstadt was making appearances on “The Johnny Cash Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and sat with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, despite the fact that her early albums didn’t sell well. On her 1969 debut, “Hand Sown…Home Grown,” she leaned away from folk and more toward country and rock, and radio stations weren’t sure what to make of her. Same goes for “Silk Purse” (1970) and “Linda Ronstadt” (1972), which had diverse song lists that ran the gamut from Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” to the Goffin-King oldie “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and from Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water” to Livingston Taylor’s “In My Reply.”
Because she wasn’t a songwriter, Linda made it her business to keep her ear to the ground in order to discover the great new songs being played on Open Mic Night at The Troubadour. “What a treasure trove that place was,” she recalled with a sigh. “Kris Kristofferson. James Taylor. Tim Hardin. Laura Nyro. Neil Young. JD Souther. Joni. Jackson. Elton John!”
The Troubadour was also where she met the guys who would constitute her first touring band: A drummer from the band Shiloh named Don Henley and a guitarist from Longbranch Pennywhistle named Glenn Frey. The two bonded on that tour and ended up amicably parting ways with Ronstadt so they could start their own group you may have heard of: The Eagles.
Ronstadt had strong opinions about the songs she wanted to record, even if the record label didn’t always agree. “I loved singing upbeat R&B tunes like “Rescue Me,” but I also wanted there to be room for some of the superb young songwriters I was hearing, like Randy Newman (“Sail Away”) and Henley and Frey (“Desperado”),” Ronstadt said. “And it took me until my fifth album before I could convince anyone to let me record Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Heart Like a Wheel.'”
Speaking of which, it was her 1974 LP “Heart Like a Wheel” that really put Ronstadt on the map. As I see it, it was a perfect storm — the right singer at the right time, with the right songs and the right producer. Peter Asher became her manager and regular producer, taking tunes like Clint Ballard’s “You’re No Good,” Lowell George’s “Willin’,” Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and McGarrigle’s title cut and turn them into polished gems that radio program directors ate up. “Heart Like a Wheel” reached #1 on both the Pop and Country charts.
This began a five-year string of chart-topping LPs (“Prisoner in Disguise,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Simple Dreams,” “Living in the USA”) that made her the undisputed queen of country rock…or was it pop rock?…in the ’70s. On the singles charts, the songs that performed best for her were remakes of well-known hits (Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby”), but frankly, I always found myself more drawn to the gems by up-and-coming songwriters Ronstadt championed, like Karla Bonoff (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again”) and Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita”).
She defied conventional wisdom several times in her career. The first time was in 1978 when she covered newcomer Elvis Costello’s New Wave tune “Alison,” then recorded three more Costello songs on her first real departure, the rock album “Mad Love,” which featured lots of electric guitars and even a synthesizer. Her gamble had mixed results; the album reached #3 on the pop charts but failed to chart at all on the country charts. In fact, Ronstadt never made a dent in the country charts as a solo artist ever again.
But no matter, as she had other fish to fry. First she turned heads by starring in the Broadway production and film version of “The Pirates of Penzance,” of all things, winning great reviews and a few award nominations.
Then came her boldest move. Ronstadt had always admired the works of George and Ira Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael (cynically disrespected by young hipsters as “elevator music”) and wanted to do a whole album of that kind of material. “She decided this was what she wanted to do, and more important, was authentic at doing,” said Souther. “She was told, ‘No, don’t do this, it’ll ruin your career.’ But she did it anyway.”
To my ears, the trio of albums she recorded with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra in the 1980s was possibly the finest singing Ronstadt ever committed to vinyl. The way she curls her voice around “Someone to Watch Over Me” or belts out “What’s New” is simply magnificent, better, even, than her pop rock chart-toppers. Millions of music lovers agreed with me; “What’s New” reached #3 in a year dominated by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Men at Work’s “Business as Usual.” Time magazine calling it “one of the gutsiest, most unorthodox and unexpected albums of the year.”
Said Linda in 2005, “I was so focused on folk, rock and country that I got a bit bored and felt the need to branch out, and this would be the first of many hikes down roads not typically taken. I now realize I was taking a tremendous risk, and that (label honcho) Joe Smith’s opposition was a matter of him looking out for the company, and for me. But when it became apparent I wouldn’t change my mind, he gave in, adding, ‘I love Nelson so much! Can I please come to the sessions?’ When the albums became successful, Joe congratulated me. I resisted the urge to tease him and say ‘I told you so.'”
Her handlers also attempted to dissuade her from her equally radical left turn toward the Latin music of her childhood in 1987. It proved less popular, at least on the mainstream charts, but “Cancions de mi Padre” broke records in the Spanish-speaking markets and brought Ronstadt much inner happiness. “That music is anchored in my blood, in my soul,” she said.
Next came “Trio,” a hit-and-miss collection of country tunes with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that had been in the works since they first attempted recording together in the late ’70s. As you might expect, it topped the country charts but also reached #7 on the pop charts (which sparked “Trio II” seven years later).
In 1988, while attending a New Orleans concert by the great Aaron Neville, Ronstadt was singled out and invited to the stage to sing with him, and they both felt it went so well that they agreed to record four songs together, which proved to be the highlights of her next hit LP, “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.” Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Grammy-winning “Don’t Know Much” rightly snared most of the attention but, as usual, Linda wisely saved space for several fine new songs by Jimmy Webb and Karla Bonoff.
Her popularity began to wane a bit in the 1990s. She failed to match the chart success she’d achieved thus far (“Feels Like Home” fared best, stalling at #75), but the LPs featured a wide range of beautiful interpretations of forgotten or ignored gems such as Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” Goffin-King’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” Brian Wilson’s “In My Room,” Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Her final release, “Hummin’ to Myself” (2004), revisited the American Songbook catalog with subtle beauties like “Cry Me a River” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
As she gradually lost her ability to sing, Souther said, “To have this marvelous instrument that could hold the notes, hit the notes, shape the notes, and then to no longer have it…it must have been quite a reckoning.”
But as Asher put it, “I know of no one who could handle that kind of difficult adjustment in a more logical and thoughtful and intelligent way than Linda.”
At first Ronstadt was despondent about it, but soon grew philosophical. “I lost a lot of different colors in my voice There’s a lot of things you do in singing, you turn your voice to different planes to make different sounds, and gradually I couldn’t do any of that anymore. Singing is really complex, and I was made most aware of that by having it vanish. I still sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.”
“You know, I’m grateful for the time I had. I got to live a lot of my dreams, and I feel lucky about that.”