|This is an excerpt from the print edition of Dirty Linen magazine #106 (June / July 2003). The magazine is available on newsstands and by subscription.|
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.
And 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."
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."
This is an excerpt from an article in Dirty Linen #106 (June/July '03). Read the full text in the magazine, available via subscription or on newsstands and in bookstores.