Linda Ronstadt is easily the most successful female rock and roll and country star at this time. Her last five albums, including Simple Dreams (her most recent), have each sold over a million copies. She's won numerous music awards, including three Grammies; she's paved the way for other female artists. And Linda manages to be, at once, music's most sexy and desirable heroine and an extremely intelligent and articulate person.
It's unlikely that there is anybody who has not heard of Linda. Her records are a mainstay of radio stations- pop, rock and country. Her life has become fair game for gossip columnists. And her face adorns more than just the music magazines- the national press has joined the Linda bandwagon, and she's been a cover girl for People, Time and Us.
Unlike other unfortunate cover girls, Linda's position as darling of the press is not a flash in the pan. She has not only been around for a long, long time, but the way things look, she's going to be around a lot longer.
Linda Maria Ronstadt was born July 15, 1946 in Tucson, Arizona. Like many musicians, Linda's interest in music began at a very early age, since she was surrounded by a musical family. The third youngest of four children, Linda had a sister and two brothers, and all four would play and sing with their father, Gilbert.
Gilbert Ronstadt insisted that his children listen to more styles of music than simply whatever the current popular music happened to be. And although Linda, like most normal children, resented it at the time, she is extremely grateful now.
She grew up listening to and loving Mexican and country music- what she calls Mexican bluegrass. Her favorite female singer was a woman named Lola Beltran, and she believes that mariachi music had a strong influence on her own style.
Then, when Linda was six, her sister fell in love with Hank Williams and Linda was hooked. She and her sister would listen to radio station XERF from Del Rio, Texas- a station that played an amalgamation of Top 40, country, rhythm and blues and both black and white gospel. Linda credits the station as a strong influence on her music.
It was at age six that Linda decided she would make a career in music, and she started singing professionally as soon as possible, which was while she was still in high school, at age 14.
She, her brother and her sister started a folk trio and made the rounds of Tucson's clubs. They called themselves the New Union Ramblers and their repertoire included the music they grew up on- folk, country, bluegrass and Mexican.
During those years, Linda continued to do the things the daughter of a fairly prosperous family did. She went through debutante season and she attended Arizona State University for a semester.
But Linda did not plan, as did most of the girls she grew up with, to simply get married or join a convent. Although she wasn't quite sure what she did want to do, she was absolutely positive about what she didn't want to do.
In 1964, Linda left the coffee houses and clubs of Tucson, dropped out of college, said a temporary so-long to her family and headed for Los Angeles- with $30 in her pocket and her childhood dreams still alive.
There, she joined a Tucson friend, Bobby Kimmel, and eventually met Kenny Edwards. Another trio was formed- and this one eventually became the Stone Poneys.
The name Stone Poneys was taken from the title of bluesman Charley Patton's song, Stone Poney Blues. The name might seem particularly fitting since the Stone Poneys were not a happy group.
Their sound was very much folk. In fact, on some of their cuts, they could be easily mistaken for Peter, Paul and Mary, another two-male, one-girl singing trio that was popular at the time.
Los Angeles at this time was rich with young people experimenting with music. Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, and Don Henley and Glenn Frey who later formed the Eagles (only after working with Linda for awhile) were all on the scene.
"We were all learning about drugs, philosophy and music," Linda told Time. "Everything was exciting."
The Stone Poneys signed with Capitol Records and, despite problems which eventually led to the disbanding of the group, recorded three albums together. The second contained Linda's big break, Different Drum.
With the success of this song, Linda's career as a solo act was launched- but it took years before she really amounted to anything more than just another "chick singer."
Linda's first solo album, Hand Sown, Home Grown lacked cohesiveness- and response.
Her next album, Silk Purse, began to earn her the recognition she now has. It contained her first solo hit and won Linda her first Grammy Award nomination. The song is Long, Long Time and was written by Gary White. The album was recorded in Nashville, Linda's first and only attempt to record in the city of country music.
With Silk Purse, Linda's fascination with the range of her own voice reaches a high that was not evident in the earlier albums. Lovesick Blues, the Tin Pan Alley song that has become so identified with Hank Williams, is a difficult song for anyone to sing. Hank did it best, but Linda's version is excellent and is a perfect example of the heights she could reach when she really tried.
The hit, Long, Long Time, was another example, one that Linda told Country Music People nearly didn't happen: "That was another song that I fought for, because people heard it and said 'How syrupy- what are you going to do with that? It's a ballad, it's going to put everyone to sleep.' I was convinced it was a hit, and we went in the studio at ten o'clock in the morning. And that was Nashville- those guys liked that song so much that they got out of bed at nine o'clock on a Saturday and came down to do it, which is really something. But I don't think I sang it very well, although I was into it at the time, believe me- I was really feeling that song, but what can you do at ten o'clock in the morning?"
Capitol executives finally agreed to release Long, Long Time as a single, reportedly telling her they'd do it this time, but she had to promise not to bring them another country record. The record hit and Linda was once again public property.
Although many people believe Silk Purse is one of Linda's finest albums, largely due to the superior musicianship of Nashville's session players, Linda herself decided not to record in Nashville again, explaining to Country Music People: "I wasn't keen on the idea. It was very interesting in that there's such an enormous difference between country music in Nashville and country music in California. It's just another situation entirely, and I don't think we had any business playing music together. . ."
So Linda headed back to California to record her next album, Linda Ronstadt. In her never-ending search for good musicians with whom she could communicate, she came upon a few newcomers- Randy Meisner, Glenn Frey and Don Henley.
Before they became the Eagles, they did play with her on the album. Linda Ronstadt is considered a forerunner in the area of country-rock music, including such country standards as Crazy Arms, I Fall to Pieces and I Still Miss Someone, mingling with such rock and rollers as Rock Me on the Water and I Won't Be Hangin' Round. The authors of these songs were an eclectic mixture of country and rock: Jackson Browne, Johnny Cash, Eric Kaz, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie and Livingston Taylor.
Although rumors persist that Linda Ronstadt denies her country leanings, this is not the case. She consistently points to her country influences, and believes that Linda Ronstadt is one of the first albums to really capture the essence of the possibilities of merging country and rock.
"It was beginning to be apparent that country music and rock and roll could be synthesized," she told Country Music People. "People didn't realize that the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley had been making zillions out of the synthesis for years."
Although Linda's albums were obviously improving, she was still not much farther along than she had been five years previously. In similar circumstances, most artists tend to take a second look at the record company they're with. Linda was no exception, and after promising Capitol one more album to fulfill her contract, she signed with Asylum Records.
She also latched onto a red-headed Englishman, Peter Asher, as producer- and her career began its upswing.
Peter Asher's Midas touch began turning Linda Ronstadt's albums into gold immediately.
Every album that has been produced and released after Don't Cry Now has gone platinum, and the Grammy nominations began coming in album after album.
As her musical abilities increased, her self-confidence also increased. And as she took an active part in her own professional life, a definite image began to emerge. The "cuddly chicklet" had become a musician. She became established as a singer of love songs. Somebody else may have written those songs, but nobody could sing them like Linda.
By no means did this indicate that she was totally problem-free. In fact, the success of Heart Like A Wheel, the first album produced completely by Asher and the first to go platinum, left her shaken and guilt-ridden. She told New Times: "The first thing I had to do after Heart Like A Wheel went platinum was stop feeling guilty about my success, stop walking around apologizing to every single person I knew. The most miserable tour of my life was in 1975, after Heart Like A Wheel. It was as if all your dreams of success came true, and you still felt like the same old schlep you always felt like. You really freak. I was still feeling very unworthy. Now I realize that it's not my fault. I worked hard and I earned it, and it's up to me whether I enjoy it or not. I choose to enjoy it, and I'm really having a great time now. I've got a lot of politician friends, for instance. I tour in their world and they tour in mine. But that's not all. I'm learning faster and more now than I've ever learned. There's information coming into my brain like cannons. I feel like I have to run away sometimes so I can have a chance to store it in my memory banks so I can go out and get some more."
Heart Like A Wheel, released in 1974, marked a new beginning for Linda. It raked in the Grammy nominations, and Linda won her first for Best Country Vocal Performance/Female (for I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You, another Hank Williams selection). She was also nominated for Best Pop Vocal Performance/Female for Heart Like A Wheel and the album was nominated for Best Album.
To this day, Linda is equally recognized as a pop and country singer, and although she does rousing rockers such as Heat Wave superbly, her real strength lies in the ballads, the country music and the less demanding rock and roll.
For example, although Hasten Down the Wind, a later album, won Linda her second Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance/Female (1976), the outstanding cuts on the album were Crazy (a Willie Nelson song sung previously by country great Patsy Cline), and That'll Be the Day, an old Buddy Holly song.
Linda's natural ability to combine country with rock has made her an almost guaranteed cross-over hit; and it's paved the way for other artists, particularly women- and particularly Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
It is ironic that insecure Linda has played such an important part in the widening and growth of the rock and roll field. Despite her insecurity, Linda is more than happy to see her competition grow and to see others make it. She told The Boston Phoenix: "Competition is for horse races, not for art. I had to face all that when Emmylou came on the scene. 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. I feel that she is the best country-rock person. I'm moving in more of a pop direction anyway. And I was stunned, because I had been doing this for a long time, and I knew exactly how her talents compared to mine. And I also loved her immediately when I met her, because she's honest and she's nice. There was no way I couldn't like her.
"I get so overwhelmed when I meet somebody like Dolly Parton. 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 and Bonnie (Raitt), 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."
Linda and Dolly and Emmylou. Together, the trio is an indomitable combination of talent, beauty, freshness and mutual admiration.
The three have become close friends, singing on each other's records, making a rare television appearance on Dolly's syndicated series, and, most recently, recording a much-heralded album together.
It's natural enough that the three friends have gotten together professionally since each has always been an ardent admirer of the others. In fact, the admiration each had for the other two bordered on awe, and when they learned the admiration was a three-way street, relief and happiness were the prevailing sentiments.
Linda, Dolly and Emmylou share more than mutual admiration, however. Their love for music is the overwhelming force in their lives. And when they harmonize, it's possible to envision an all-powerful being putting them on this earth, then getting them together just for that purpose. Nothing is quite as moving as hearing the three perform Silver Threads and Golden Needles.
The culmination of this musical friendship is the album, at last word, scheduled for a fall release. The album was produced under the darkest veil of secrecy, but Emmylou told Country Music: "Dolly came up with the idea of the three of us doing an album. Linda and I have been together, or Linda and Dolly, or Dolly and I, but the three of us have only been together a couple of times. We're all on the road so much that it's hard for us to just sit around and sing. We've figured out the only way we're going to be able to do it is to say we're going to make a record, and eventually everything will be put down on tape."
The plan worked and the trio met at Dolly's Nashville home in January 1978 to discuss what some people consider the album of the year.
"It was like a week-long slumber party," Dolly reportedly gushed.
Brian Ahern, Emmytou's husband and producer, produced the album for Electra/Asylum, Linda's label, after working out a deal with Warner and RCA (Emmylou's and Dolly's labels).
Everyone involved in the project was sworn to secrecy. The song list was not released, and the one crew member allowed to take photographs was not permitted to sell photos. The three trade off lead vocals and harmonies.
And, in keeping with Linda's earlier remarks about recording in Nashville, the recording was done at Ahern's Los Angeles studio with Emmylou's band, the Hot Band, used as the primary sessions players.
With such an involvement in country music, it's difficult to understand why some people continue to knock Linda Ronstadt as a country artist. Her cross-the-chart success is remarkable considering she once had a manager who told her: "Country music- don't be stupid! You're too country for pop and too pop for country, and you'll end up nowhere."
Linda, obviously, proved that rock and country could be fused, and she certainly didn't end up nowhere while proving it. Instead she proved that music is in the ear of the listener. And she perhaps summed it up best when she told Frye Gaillard, author of Watermelon Wine: "There isn't any country left. When they closed the Grand Ole Opry, and I know they didn't really close it, but when they moved it out to an amusement park, that sort of officially closed an era. We're all suburban. We all have TVs and radios, and we're all exposed to a lot of different sounds.
"But there's a great thing about this weird hodgepodge of music today. People don't have to be so hung up on labels. I'm a pop singer, I guess, but I grew up with country music. I sing it, and it influences most of what I sing, but it isn't the only influence. Music, to me, is music, and it's either good or bad and you judge it on that basis."
This article is based on excerpts from "The Linda Ronstadt Scrapbook" by Mary Ellen Moore, just published by Sunridge Press, New York, New York.
|I NEVER WILL MARRY, I'LL BE NO MAN'S WIFE|
Linda Ronstadt has a top-ten single called I Never Will Marry, which has been on the
country charts for twelve weeks. It is a powerful statement about American music.|
Her backup singer is a vivacious, platinum blond from East Tennessee- named Dolly Parton.
The version on this record was written in the 50's by Fred Hellerman, who had heard many earlier folk versions of the song, including one recorded by the original Carter Family. Hellerman was a member of The Weavers, a group which was the most popular "commercial" city-folk act in music till The Kingston Trio came along with a sound that almost made The Weavers sound like hard-core hillbillies.
The Weavers, and such songs as I Never Will Marry were instrumental in introducing traditional country music to a whole generation of urban kids, the cult which was to make Joan Baez and Bob Dylan stars, first of a new American folk music, and later, superstars of the rock generation when another branch of the country music tree (which had spawned crazies like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the like), was fused with black rhythm and blues, becoming what is now the rich and varied music known as rock and roll.
Hard-core purists don't like this kind of cross fertilization. It has launched thousands of arguments. (In Nashville it even spawned a whole organization, when a group of "traditional" country performers formed the Association of Country Entertainers, using Dolly Parton as their symbol, to protest the Country Music Association's award going to Olivia Newton-John. Olivia, they said, was not "country," but John Denver's award was O.K. Now, a few years later, they are mad at Dolly because they think she has abandoned her roots. It goes on and on, Waylon is too rock and roll, Debby Boone isn't country, Tom Jones shouldn't sing country songs and, of course, Dolly should get back to her roots. And so on.
These bigoted arguments are a waste of energy. Worse than that, they keep true lovers of one kind of music from appreciating a new variety which they would probably love if they would only listen. Like Bob Dylan told Playboy, "If I had known what I know now, I probably would have taken off when I was 12 and followed Bill Monroe. 'Cause I could have gotten to the same place." The point is that there is nothing pure about American music, therefore, purists should be a little more tolerant.
There is another, more dangerous side to this coin... the frenzied obsession in Nashville to produce "cross-over." More often than not, this frenzy takes great country talent and produces mediocre pop records. My favorite example is Ray Price, a true giant in country music, who went in what seems like an instant, from the top of the heap with the legitimate cross-over, For the Good Times, to apparent total obscurity in a sea of violins (he should go back to fiddles, and be a major country star again). There are many more examples.
The Ronstadt/Parton I Never Will Marry is a classic and an important statement about a whole slice of American music history. I'd gladly pay $100 for a copy if that was the only way to own it. RUSS BARNARD