Linda Ronstadt had celebrated her 60th birthday three days earlier -- going to see "Pirates of the Caribbean" with her teenage son and having
the girlfriends over later that night -- and flowers are still everywhere in the sunny upstairs Laurel Heights duplex where she has lived since
moving back to San Francisco last fall.
"I think flowers are almost as important as groceries," she says.
Not interested in having her photograph taken, Ronstadt lounges in dishabille -- rolled-up jeans, white blouse, pink house slippers -- in her
third-floor living room with the Golden Gate Bridge outside her window, her bowl-cut hair framing a heart-shaped face. Her eyes sparkle and
she is happy, chatty, enthused about a scintillating new acoustic record, "Adieu False Heart," that she's made with Cajun music specialist Ann Savoy.
The album is yet another unexpected chapter in a career that has been full of surprises since she was the glamour girl of the '70s Los Angeles
music scene, romantically linked with then-Gov. Jerry Brown and filmmaker George Lucas, and red hot on the best-selling charts with a string of
glossy pop-rock remakes such as "You're No Good," "When Will I Be Loved" and "Blue Bayou."
"I hated those records," she says. "I never thought of myself as a rock singer. I was interested in songs like 'Heart Like a Wheel' and I liked the
others for about 15 minutes. But it wasn't until I found Nelson Riddle that I had music I could live with."
Ronstadt is back on the road this year after taking off much of the past 10 years to watch her two adopted children, ages 12 and 14, grow. She left
San Francisco, where she lived across the street from her current residence, in the late '80s and moved back to Tucson, where she grew up in the '50s,
a small-town rancher's daughter whose grandfather owned the hardware store. She left Arizona, she says, because she could no longer stand the strip-mall
culture and right-wing mentality. Now her kids walk to school and she feels comfortable strolling the shops in her neighborhood. "I feel a sense of
community here," she says.
Even if she is working more than she has in a long time, Ronstadt is still without management, a real record deal or even her own Web site. She has
no publicity representatives or handlers outside of her crisply efficient personal assistant.
"I fired my manager years ago because he kept trying to get me to work," she says.
In her live shows, she must balance the jazz standards she's become devoted to singing -- she did three albums with the Frank Sinatra
and Nat King Cole arranger Riddle in the '80s that changed her career -- with the pop hits her audience expects to hear. If she initiated
the now loathsome cliche of fading rock stars singing standards -- "Bolton Swings Sinatra" is only the latest and perhaps most egregious example -- Ronstadt
long ago moved beyond all that. She talks about working with an ensemble that would include violin and viola but no drums, rearranging everything for
the small, flexible group and presenting her songs like chamber music. She likes the idea of singing standards in front of a small combo without
having the extra baggage of the full orchestra.
"I sing them as works in progress," she says. "They're so sturdy, so finely constructed. You can't get bored with them. There's always something you can do with them."
Her 2004 release, "Hummin' to Myself," showed off a confident, skillful Ronstadt, not the big-band vocalist in front of the lush orchestrations of Riddle,
but a swinging session with Ronstadt riding a tight, hard-bopping small jazz combo.
But she has a long list of accomplishments. She has tackled Gilbert and Sullivan, Appalachian folk music, Mexican canciones. She did "La Boheme," she says,
just so she could learn the music. As a record producer -- and there are very few female record producers of any note -- she not only has done exquisite
work on her own recordings but also introduced New Orleans R&B great Aaron Neville to a broad audience, something many others had tried and failed to do.
The polished "Hummin' to Myself" went virtually unnoticed, selling a modest 75,000 copies.
"I thought it was a rather good record," she says, "but I didn't know what to do to make it distinguish itself. And I don't know what to do with the
Ann record either."
The "Ann record" is an increasingly uncommon labor of love in the unsentimental world of pop music. "Girl music," Ronstadt says it's been called.
"We both made a lot of compromises with boy music over the years," she says.
Ann Savoy has become one of the great exponents of authentic Cajun music. She is married to Marc Savoy, the master accordion-maker who has run the
Savoy Music Store outside Eunice, La., for more than 40 years. As one of the three members of the Savoy-Doucet Band, she has helped spread the iridescent
music beyond the Louisiana backwoods. Although she was born and raised in Richmond, Va., since marrying Savoy in 1977, she has become immersed in Cajun culture.
She has photographed, written books, collected folklore. She worked with T Bone Burnett on "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" soundtrack and
produced the 2002 collection "Evangeline Made," where she first sang with Ronstadt on a pair of tracks.
"A lot of people said, 'They sing like sisters,' " Ann Savoy says on the phone from Louisiana.
The two women share bonds beyond music. "I love them," says Ronstadt of the Savoys. "I love the way they raised their children. I like what she
likes. I go to her house and I see the same teacup we both bought. I love the way they live. I love her taste. She lives in that house -- Martha
"Linda called and said, 'Let's just hang around my house and sing some songs,' " Savoy says. "She wanted to play guitar. We switched around harmonies,
traded leads. We had the best time."
Staying at an antebellum guesthouse outside Breaux Bridge, La., the ladies went antique hunting during the day, ate barbecue outside by big,
roaring fires and played music in the dark, sensuous bayou nights, taking Ronstadt back to her childhood on the ranch singing around the mesquite fires.
"We'd spend the morning in our pajamas," Ronstadt says, "singing and drinking tea. Maybe we'd go to the nursery and pot some plants. Or hang her laundry
out on a line -- she doesn't have a dryer."
In that part of the country, they make music the old-fashioned way, and Ronstadt knows something about old ways. When she hears Savoy's family talking
about a door they built -- "I remember the day we cut down that tree" -- she recalls the hand-carved door her father made for their home.
Ann Savoy supplied all the material, plumbing the songbooks of Bill Monroe, Edith Piaf, Richard Thompson, even the '60s pop nugget "Walk Away Renee." "That's
the magic of it -- we love the same music," Savoy says. "She just loved everything."
Says Ronstadt: "Ann is one of the great song finders. I never find songs taking my kid to kindergarten -- Ann was so good; I was so happy to see them."
Ronstadt made Savoy sing in English for the first time in her career, and Savoy got Ronstadt to sing in French. They recorded the album in Nashville
with acoustic musicians, including Savoy's son Joel Savoy on lead guitar, under producer Steve Buckingham, a friend of Savoy's from their days in the
Richmond music scene, long before he made all those Dolly Parton records.
While "Adieu False Heart" may be a sharp departure from other Ronstadt records, a decidedly low-key, folky affair with limited obvious commercial appeal,
it is practically a big-budget blockbuster to Ann Savoy, who has spent her career in an arcane, dusty corner of American music.
"I think of it as well-recorded roots music," Savoy says, "maybe with a little more commercial value, not as obscure as all the other stuff I've done.
It's something more people in the world can relate to than anything else I've ever done -- let's say that."
"When I sing with her," Ronstadt says, "I know I'm doing something we can't do alone. That's the joy of collaboration."
Now Ronstadt puzzles over how to present the material in concert. The duo will play some folk festival dates later this summer and will headline one of
the shows at this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park in October. But she can't exactly just shoehorn this material into
her already schizoid act. "Don Henley says he has trouble slipping one new song into the Eagles show," she says. "I've got 12."
But anyone who posed for those photographs in hot pants and roller skates all those years ago knows something about show business. She chose to pursue
her career as a musician, not a celebrity, which probably accounts for her durability as an artist. Long after all the other Geffen girls who were her
peers and contemporaries have disappeared, Ronstadt is enjoying a thriving, productive career full of fine work that doesn't depend on the pop charts.
She keeps an entire second career in the Spanish language running, in addition to the pop and standards shows she plays. For Ronstadt, music has been a
part of her life since she was a little girl on the ranch.
"It's her job," Savoy says. "It's her work. It's her life."
Ronstadt can get under the hood with the songs. She compares folksinger John Jacob Niles with Schubert's 19th century songs, describes Burl Ives'
singing as "true bel canto with beautiful breath and all that." She traces the lineage of Aaron Neville's countertenor vocal style to Catholic singing
instead of Baptist gospel. She talks about recording a Leonard Cohen song with Emmylou Harris ("It was fun to get in there and experience all that architecture,
but I don't think we had anyone jumping up and down when we were done"). And although she's cut a few memorable versions of Randy Newman songs herself,
she says only Bonnie Raitt can really sing his songs -- "besides Randy," she says.
Meanwhile, she is reconnecting with old Bay Area music friends like Carol McComb, half of the '60s folk duo Kathy and Carol, and trying to adjust to
the smaller quarters of an upstairs duplex. Her two dogs have been boarded with friends. She keeps her Tucson place ("It's costing me a fortune, but I
can't let it go"), a small house surrounded by an acre of land in the old downtown area, but admits they don't get down there more often than Christmas
and Easter yet. She keeps looking for properties around Laurel Heights that might be roomier, at least have a small plot of garden, but real estate prices
in that neighborhood have gone through the stratosphere since she moved out more than 15 years ago. And she's a single, working mother with two kids in private school.
Thanks to Lauren Macchia for providing this article.