Dirty Linen This article is from the Dirty Linen magazine #106 (June / July 2003). The magazine is available on newsstands and by subscription.

Linda Ronstadt
Silver Threads & Golden Needles
by T.J. McGrath

Talking to Linda Ronstadt on the phone about her recently released The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt is an exercise in keeping both ears open. A natural-born conversationalist, she can easily discuss thematic underpinnings of popular songs from the 1950s while giving explicit instructions to her adolescent daughter on how to barbeque a chicken. Her career in music, four decades long, has embraced a wide assortment of styles and genres, including folk, country, rock, jazz, pop, Cajun, Broadway, Spanish language, and, lately, bluegrass. One of her talents is picking the perfect song to suit her vocal abilities, and, in the process, she has given her fans selections from the best songwriters out there: Jimmy Webb, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Chuck Berry, Warren Zevon, Karla Bonoff, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Smokey Robinson, Jackson Browne, and dozens of others. With more than 32 albums under her belt, many of them certified gold and platinum, and an armload of Grammy awards, she must be doing something right.

Silk PurseAnd doing something right includes being ready to try something new. Starting in the mid-60s, Ronstadt opened many doors for women by being in the vanguard: the first woman to release an alt-country album when it wasn't hip (Hand Sown, Home Grown), the first true woman rock 'n' roll superstar in the 70s to sell out stadiums with a string of mega-successful albums (Heart Like a Wheel, Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams, Living in the USA, Mad Love) and the first popular female singer to go back to her roots with songs from her childhood (Canciones De Mi Padre/ "My Father's Songs").

Ronstadt is surprisingly modest about her achievements and legacy and deflects questions about her stardom to more important topics, like her singing style and influences. She is candid to a fault, and once she gets talking about a subject she loves, like Cajun music or Nelson Riddle, she can go on for hours.

"The most important thing I can say about my music is that I learned everything I know from listening to songs in my living room between the time I was eight and 10," Ronstadt said with a laugh. "If I didn't hear it on the radio, or if my dad wasn't playing it on the piano, or if my brother wasn't playing it on the guitar or singing it in his boys' choir, or my mother and sister weren't practicing a Broadway tune or a Gilbert and Sullivan song, then I can't do it today. It's as simple as that. All of my influences and my authenticity are a direct result of the music played in that Tucson living room."

Linda Ronstadt Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Ronstadt always loved singing with her family, but she first came into national prominence in January of 1968 as a member of the Stone Poneys, singing lead on "Different Drum," a song written by Mike Nesmith. Desiring to strike out on her own in 1969 after most of the Stone Poneys scattered to do individual projects, she recorded her first solo album, Hand Sown, Home Grown, a collection of mostly folk and country songs. The album is simple and direct and not cluttered by over- production. The rock press was impressed, but the album didn't yield any singles. Her next big radio hit, which further broadened her commercial appeal as a "different kind of country singer," was "Long, Long Time," which reached #25 in the charts in 1970, from her second album, Silk Purse.

Her voice has long been her greatest asset. It's a friendly voice that's warm and powerful, the kind that can rock auditoriums or hush a noisy coffeehouse. "I was born with a real wide range. I can sing high and low very easily," she said. "My brother, who was a boy soprano, was a big influence as he practiced his songs in the house. My dad had a rich baritone, and he was always singing Mexican songs that he knew. I then heard Lola Beltran and Hank Williams, and I was amazed that I could sing along in harmony with their records fairly easily. And I've learned that certain music, like Spanish language songs, are healthy for your voice and that certain styles, like rock 'n' roll, can destroy it."

Country music, picked up on late-night radio waves like "The Louisiana Hayride," also shaped Ronstadt's musical development in her teens, and she concentrated on learning how to sing like George Jones and Johnny Cash, masters of the smooth delivery. Dolly Parton was also an early favorite of Ronstadt's because she sounded so "real, like she just came out of the mountains and woodlands with a good story to tell."

Hiring on the fledging Eagles (Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner, Don Henley, and Bernie Leadon) as back-up bandmates in 1971, Ronstadt recorded the country-rock album Linda Ronstadt, which spotlighted her talents, but it was the next album, Don't Cry Now, with the ballad "Love Has No Pride," that brought her to the pop mainstream in 1973. The album also marks the debut of Peter Asher's involve­ment with Ronstadt's management and produc­tion. Asher, formerly a member of the hit Brit duo Peter & Gordon, was able to steer her to quality session musicians and songs, and Don't Cry Now moved up the U.S. pop charts to #45 and stayed on the list for 56 weeks.

Linda Ronstadt Ronstadt's next album, Heart Like a Wheel, skyrocketed up the charts with singles "You're No Good," "When Will I Be Loved," and "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." A joyous explosion of rock 'n' roll pop, cleanly edited to perfection, it was soon regarded as "The Album of the Year" in 1975 by many. The songwriting was particularly strong, especially by the team of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who wrote the title track. "I just love the McGarrigles," Ronstadt gushed. "They're so much more into quality than glamour. They forsake the glitz for gold dust in their writing. The tunes they compose are such beautiful 'parlor' gems, carefully crafted songs meant for small audiences with big hearts. A song like 'Talk to Me of Mendocino' is so tender and refined that you can't help but be pulled into it. That's quality that's lasting."

Finding the best songwriters is sometimes a tricky business. But it's easy to get Ronstadt talking about some of her favorites.

Jimmy Webb places at the top of Ronstadt's songwriting hall of fame. "He is just wonderful. He's brilliant and very sophisti­cated for a farm boy from Oklahoma. His music is sensitive and revealing, and he has this uncanny knack for putting life experiences into interesting metaphors. When he writes, he reaches for notes that are unexpected, and as a singer, he always keeps you on your toes. There is an element of danger and risk in the songs that he writes that I love."

When she talked about Warren Zevon, she gave a long pause. "I hear he's not in the best of health right now. Warren... I don't know what planet he came from. He's so brave and he takes chances, and he seems to pull it all off. He's got quite an imagination when he writes, and he takes you places you've never seen before.

"Jerry Jeff Walker and I go way back to the folk days of the Bitter End in New York City, where we shared the stage on many a night. Jerry Jeff had David Bromberg - a brilliant musician - in his band in those days, and he took me to the Café Au Go Go where I met Gary White, who gave me my second hit, 'Long, Long Time.' Jerry Jeff also introduced me to the music of the McGarrigles.

Linda Ronstadt "I met Jackson Browne when I was 17 and he was 16. He had already written 'Jamaica Say You Will' and 'These Days,' and those of us struggling to make it in music were already in awe of his talent. I was not surprised later on when he met with so much success. He worked hard on those songs for his first album, and he also knew where to find the best musi­cians, like David Lindley.

"Neil Young, I think, is prescient and his brain picks up all of this stuff on a subliminal level and processes it all into these killer songs. His voice is not a conventional voice, but I think it's beantiful in its own special way. His voice has an emotional aura and edge around it, and it's so authentic. He's a musical singer who's totally unique, and not everyone can do that."

And talent always wins out in the market­place of quality. Instrumentalists hold a special fascination for Ronstadt. "Richard Thompson, Leo Kottke, and Ry Cooder, for instance, show you just how responsive a musical instru­ment can be in the right hands. If you give them all the same guitar, they will play it completely different, which illustrates that the artist's emotional and technical background can lead him in a thousand distinct directions. All of these musicians have a recognizable sound, and they're able to color and enrich their music by their own experiences. There are so many layers of subtlety when you play an instru­ment, and each provides its own framework of sound.

"There aren't that many songwriters out there that have a 'subtle intellect' behind their songs. George and Ira Gershwin and Paul Simon - can you beat them? It's a certain level of craftsmanship that sets their songs apart from the usual fare. It's a gift. Authenticity can overcome style and subject matter. It has to come from the heart, and when you sing these kinds of songs, you have to send that authenticity straight to the audience. Trendy and hip fade away fast. Authenticity keeps forever."

Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor There are no better pop albums that sum up the times of the mid- to late-70s than Ronstadt's next five albums: Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams, Living in the USA, and Mad Love. The formula is simple, in part. Dress up oldies, give them a new spin, and throw in some new songs. These are the albums that made Ronstadt a household name and allowed her to sell out stadiums.

First-rate tracks like "Heat Wave," "The Tracks of My Tears," "That'll Be the Day," "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me," "Lose Again," "Tumbling Dice," "Blue Bayou," "It's So Easy," "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," "Back in the USA," "Ooh, Baby Baby," "Just One Look," "How Do I Make You," and "Hurt So Bad" were just some of the songs that found a steady home on nearly every pop radio station and jukebox back in the late 70s.

These songs helped seal her reputation as a rock 'n' roll performer who knew how to connect to an audience. The crowd loved seeing her do all of her hits, and her show was geared to keeping her fans happy and out of their seats. But each night was a terrible strain on her voice. "I hated it after a while," she said. "Rock singing just tears up your voice. It becomes an animal act or circus sideshow or sporting event as you travel through these stadium tube tunnels to get to your seat, and along the way your senses are assaulted by crass merchandizing ranging from bumper­stickers to hot dogs. High-arching guitar solos tend to dominate the 'conceived' rock show, and everyone pulls out their lighters on cue. I really needed a change of pace after a few years; I had to do something different because it was getting so stale. So I went back to New York and tried to get into a small theater."

Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris Ronstadt found work in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of "The Pirates of Penzance" at the Delacorte Theater at Central Park and then the bigger Uris Theater in 1980. Crowds hoping to see the First Lady of Rock fall on her face were in for a shock. Not only was she able to keep up with the vocalists in the opera, she was getting standing ovations for her singing. "I had been playing stadiums in front of 50,000 people, and now I was onstage singing to a smaller, more intimate audience. The rock shows were a social and cultural happening, almost like the 'big concert event of the year' in some of the smaller cities and towns I played in. Now I was in front of a very different audience, a more sophisticated audience, and I had to work a little harder with my singing to bring them in."

Ronstadt's forays into Nelson Riddle terri­tory by retro-cocktailing lounge-pop standards are well documented by three albums: What's New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons. "Nelson Riddle had the ability to put jazz into the orchestra without it sounding sicky-sweet," she said. "He always got his story in, and the arrangements were always multi-leveled, and there is always a support structure to the singer's vocalizations, with a lot of colorful subtext. He brought a range of experience to every score he wrote, and you can hear it in the interplay between instruments. You really don't hear that breadth or depth too much anymore on the radio."

In 1986 Ronstadt once again surprised her fans, who were just getting used to her belting out classic standards with a big band behind her, by recording Trio with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, a return of sorts to Ronstadt's traditional country music roots. She was also busy working on albums by Paul Simon (Graceland) and Philip Glass (Songs from Liquid Days).

An important milestone for Ronstadt was digging back into her roots and recording a pair of Spanish language albums called Canciones De Mi Padre ("Songs of My Father") and Mas Canciones. Both albums reflect Ronstadt's love and appreciation for the rancheras, corridos, huapangos, and danzas habeneras that she learned as a child growing up in the Southwest. She worked hard to get the emotional feel and inflections just right for these songs in Spanish. Word pronunciations had to be perfect, and Ronstadt, a stickler for detail, spent hours and hours practicing each song to get it right. The albums later spawned a national tour with a mariachi band and a television special.

There are new and exciting horizons up ahead. Ronstadt's recent excursion into Cajun music has its roots in her childhood. "I heard plenty of Cajun music growing up, but I don't speak French. I've become friends with Ann and Marc Savoy, and they take my breath away. They are like the Waltons, except they're real. They live in Louisiana on a farm that's been in Marc's family for generations. Marc is such an extraordinary guy - he's so smart and vibrant, and I call him the 'Great God of Rhythm and Joy' because when he starts to play, you'd better be there. He locks into an accor­dion groove and away you go."

Linda Ronstadt Ronstadt has also been doing some practice sessions with Sam Bush, the noted bluegrass mandolin player. "Emmy introduced him to me. He flew out to Tucson, and we worked up some songs in my living room. That was really fun because we threw out the old arrangements and made up new ones on the spot. The first song we did was Little Feat's 'Roll Um Easy,' and it sounded great. If I want to play traditional music like bluegrass, Sam is a specialist and one of the best, and he's right there with me. A lot of rock 'n' roll musi­cians only play rock 'n' roll and can't handle the intricacies and subtleties of bluegrass, whereas Sam is comfortable in both worlds."

And Ronstadt is convinced that live music is the only way to judge the true quality of an artist's ultimate worth. "The best sort of music is the kind of music you get right in front of you at a live show or concert. The performance is everything. There is nothing artificial and commercial if the singer is right in front of you because there's nowhere to hide. Live music will always carry you away."

The last few years have found Ronstadt busy raising her children and working on side projects. She admitted that she doesn't miss the fast-track life and the 24/7 quest for fame and fortune. Surprisingly, she isn't tuned in to current musical trends or fashions. "I don't listen to too much popular music nowadays. The music culture seems to be evolving or de-­evolving at the moment, and I think now there's a certain meanness in attitude in some of the pop hits of today. I tend to look backward now to the glory days of popular music. And if I had to choose my favorite 'desert island' discs they would be Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, anything by Brahms, and Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely. I could get through anything with those discs by my side."

Finally, when asked to reflect upon her life, Ronstadt paused and then slowly gave a deliberate answer. "I wish I were a better singer in the classical music sense. My biggest regret is that I didn't learn to sing classical music or opera at an early age. You can't sing that kind of music well without training, and I didn't have any voice training growing up. Once you train in the classical music style, it's hard to switch to something else, like rock 'n' roll."

Courage is the coat of many colors, and Linda Ronstadt has tried on so many styles of music and has been so successful in her endeavors that it's hard to think there's anything left for her to try.

But there is. "If I finish up that bluegrass album with Sam Bush, I think I might release another album of pop standards. Songs which I can iden­tify with and, hopefully, connect others to. There are universal themes you can work with like falling in love and the inno­cence of childhood that everyone seems to be drawn to. I want to find the kind of song which brings out the best of my voice and my story­telling. Lately, I keep looking backward; I always seem to find myself drawn back to another era, and that's okay with me. 'I'm going to work hard and find the right songs again, the songs that will live on forever. That's what it's all about - making good choices with the songs I sing. If I find the right ones, the rest is easy."

The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt

Back in the 70s, Linda Ronstadt's voice was ubiquitous. As the disc jockeys used to say: The hits just kept on coming. "When Will I Be Loved," "Heatwave," "It's So Easy," "You're No Good," "Blue Bayou," "Just One Look," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Tracks of My Tears," "That'll Be the Day," "Ooh Baby Baby," "Long Long Time," "Back in the U.S.A.," "Love is a Rose," "Hurt So Bad," and "Heart Like a Wheel." Never mind that almost every one of these was a cover version of a song first made popular by a famous and influential 1960s artist. With help from producer Peter Asher, Ronstadt updated these tunes with a formulaic sound that relied on punchy guitar hooks. In doing so, though, she introduced a slightly younger generation to people like Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, and Smokey Robinson. And she popularized others, such as Warren Zevon and the McGarrigle Sisters, whose songs she helped make into classics. That's what's great about this greatest hits collection. Unfortunately, it omits two of her best tracks, ones that she recorded early in her career and helped establish her sound - "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," and "Love Has No Pride." Both of these can be found on the first greatest hits album released two decades ago. Instead of these time-worn gems, we get a few of her outings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including some duets with Aaron Neville and James Ingram. These ballads were nice and charted quite high. So it's logical they show up here. But at a price. Perhaps the thing to do would have been to release a two-disc best-of with every one of her well-known songs, including a few other covers that didn't make this one. This collection is pretty darn good, but incomplete. Call it the almost very best of.

                              -Ed Silverman  (Short Hills, NJ)


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