Her clear, versatile voice is instantly recognizable, whether singing pop, rock, or jazz. The singer is also known for expressing her political and social views onstage. And though her home now is the most sophisticated city in northern California, Linda Ronstadt still holds folk music close to her Southwestern heart.
You can trace all of this to her Tucson upbringing, a life filled with music, tuned by a thoroughly Western attitude. Now that she’s returned to California (she lived there earlier, during her rock music years), Ronstadt believes she’s struck gold in terms of culture, an element that is essential to her lifestyle.
“I always believed survival is based on small groups of like-minded people,” Ronstadt explains by phone. “There was a larger group of like-minded people here. On the other hand, I don’t let go of Tucson. I haven’t sold the house. I really look forward to it when I go there several times a year. I have a group of dear friends there who are connected to friends of my parents. I just find that I can’t let go of that.”
In her Bay Area flat, Ronstadt has a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and access to an array of constant cultural happenings. It is a neighborhood that suits her preference for walking.
“It’s an old building, which I just love,” she says. “But I don’t have a garden. I don’t have a garage; I park on the street. The good news is once I park, I don’t need to use my car very often. I can walk to most everywhere I need to go.”
Mexican Folk Roots
Ronstadt’s predilection for culture was born of a background steeped in classical and folk music. Her great-grandfather, Frederick Augustus Ronstadt, a German mining engineer, became a naturalized citizen of Mexico in 1843. His oldest son, Frederico José María Ronstadt (Fred, Linda’s grandfather), was born in Mexico. At age 14, Fred traveled with his father to Tucson to learn the blacksmithing and wagon business, subsequently founding the Ronstadt Hardware and Machinery Company.
Fred is credited with creating Tucson’s first orchestra, the Club Filarmonico Tucsonense. Some of his eight children were very musical, including sons Edward and Gilbert (Linda’s father) and daughter Luisa, who became internationally known as singer Luisa Espinel.
“I loved canciones [songs] from Mexico. We sang a lot of those as a family growing up. I also loved other folk music that I heard through recordings and the radio. Arizona was great because you could get Del Rio, Texas, and things like Louisiana Hayride.”
“I also am a product of the great American radio of this country of the late 1940s and ’50s,” she adds. “It really was an extraordinary thing. My favorite mass media is the radio. Of course [today] the radio is totally changed. It’s not local. It’s just homogenous, it’s like one-size-fits-all radio. I still love folk and classical music the best.”
Mexican canciones, sung in tribute, formed a major part of her early childhood memories, Ronstadt says. She would later cite the great Mexican singer Lola Beltrán as an influence on her rock ’n’ roll singing style. Her father, whom she describes as “a wonderful singer,” was always bringing friends together to sing.
|'Life takes her where it takes her. She uses all that in her artistry. She’s an amazing woman.'|
“Out would come a bottle of tequila, out would come a guitar and there would just be 40 songs,” she recalls. “And I would not move more than an inch away, because I loved the music.”
“In my family, if it was your birthday or a wedding, you got a serenade. I can remember going many times at four in the morning through the bushes down a little path to my grandmother’s house with my family and we would sing for her. When it was her birthday, we would sing different family songs that my grandmother loved.”
Among the frequent guests at her family’s home was Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero, considered to be the father of Chicano music. Guerrero and Gilbert would hang out and start singing for fun.
Ronstadt recalls a special second birthday. “They came to my window and they sang for me. I asked for this song, ‘La Burrita,’ which I liked a lot, about a little donkey. I remember that to this day.”
Singing to the Public
Ronstadt says she probably would not have performed anything but traditional and folk music had it not been for a twist in the recording studio. While in college, she met guitarist Bob Kimmel and the two began singing folk rock; singer and guitarist Kenny Edwards joined them in Los Angeles to form the Stone Poneys. Signed to a record deal, Ronstadt, then 21, and the band found the record company had plans for a more commercial sound.
“I went into the studio and recorded 'A Different Drum' as a bluegrass song. The record company didn’t like it and wanted to do it again. When I went there [the next day] there was an orchestra and an arranger, somebody I hadn’t met before.
|A private person, Ronstadt has remained single, choosing to adopt two children, Mary and Carlos, to whom she is devoted. |
“It was a totally different approach. I sang it twice and that was it. It was a hit. So that was what the culture responded to, that’s what it encouraged for me.” She adds with a laugh: “And I found that I liked to eat.”
The public adored her voice, and over 15 years Ronstadt cut a slew of successful pop and rock albums that showcased her vocal power and prowess. Still, classical and folk music remained her personal preferences.
“I tried to do what I could. It was like trying to serve two masters,” she says now. “I kept trying to do traditional music, trying to make it in a way so that people see the value of it and then they might like it. Sometimes I stuck my neck out and took a chance.”
She surprised fans in 1983 and 1984 with what some saw as risky forays into the American popular songbook (the albums What’s New and Lush Life)—the first rock singer to successfully make that detour. She also spent time on Broadway in the operetta The Pirates of Penzance.
Both these endeavors seemed natural choices for Ronstadt, by then in her late 30s. Grandfather Ronstadt had once created an arrangement of Pirates of Penzance and her mother, Ruthmary Ronstadt, owned a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection. Classical and American popular songs had also been part of the Ronstadt home’s musical mix. She had begun to mine the musical jewels of her upbringing.
“The U.S. invented the popular song and brought that to the rest of the world,” Ronstadt says. She cites Gershwin and Rodgers & Hart as her favorite songwriters: “They were amazing craftsmen, both in musical and intellectual sophistication, in the way that they crafted their lyrics. For popular music, I really like those the best.”
Then in 1987, Ronstadt, in her early 40s, found a way to connect her audiences to traditional music through Mexican canciones. Although she wasn’t completely bilingual in Spanish, she’d sung canciones throughout her childhood and was confident she could pull off the delivery. Mindful she was taking a risk, she enlisted mariachi wizard Rubén Fuentes, who helped her surmount any language difficulty.
“I was sick of all the pop stuff I was doing, so I said, ‘I know a bunch of songs from when I was growing up as a child, world-class songs that are better than this. And I want to record those.’ And I did and they sold.”
She toured with mariachis in support of Canciones de Mi Padre, later following up the best-selling album with Mas Canciones in 1991.
In her personal life, there have been relationships with well-known suitors, among them former California governor Jerry Brown and filmmaker George Lucas. And there have been public moments in which her political beliefs have ruffled audiences, the most notable incident in 2004 when she performed in the concert hall at the Aladdin Casino and Resort in Las Vegas and endorsed Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.
Again, Ronstadt can trace such independent spirit to her upbringing. “Well, I think I learned to speak my mind. My father and my grandfather were people who did that. They were very discreet, though, and considerate. I wish I’d learned more of that, but I did what I could.”
A private person, Ronstadt has remained single, choosing to adopt two children, Mary and Carlos, to whom she is devoted.
That commitment is reflected in a 1996 CD she released, Dedicated to the One I Love, which was aimed at the parents of newborns. In the album Ronstadt performs gentle lullaby treatments of baby boomer standards such as “Be My Baby,” “In My Room,” and “Angel Baby.”
Motherhood has also affected the way she approaches her music. In her most recent release, Adieu False Heart, Ronstadt and Ann Savoy, a music historian who married into a Louisiana Cajun family, tried to convey a sense of innate parental talent.
“They are love songs,” Savoy says. “Love in all its forms: very mellow and contemplative. And most of the songs are written by men.”
“We tried to find a way to make it our own,” Ronstadt explained. “[Ann] knows older, more ancient sorts of sentiments. This was the feeling that we wanted to have: women who weren’t really professional, but were musical, raising their children, running their houses—which Ann and I both do—and had a chance to sit down for a minute and sing.”
“Linda and I are at a point in our lives where we want to sing songs that move our hearts: songs of beauty that tell a story or a feeling that we relate to. And we want to tell the stories in voices that are rich, more vulnerable, working with harmonies to get the emotions across.”
It’s this type of lyrical storytelling that appeals to Ronstadt, now in her early 60s.
“I spent my whole life singing really loud and basically trying to make things work on a pop record. And with Ann’s record we didn’t make any effort at all to do that,” she says.
“She has grown in her life and her life has changed, as it does for all of us,” Dan Guerrero says. “As a mother, had she not had the two children, she might not have been doing this. Life takes her where it takes her. She uses all that in her artistry. She’s an amazing woman.”
Ronstadt says she’s internalized much of the music she loves. She eschews pop and rock music, although her daughter has introduced her to performers such as Christina Aguilera (“great chops”) and Mariah Carey (“huge vocal register”). She sees the Internet as “one big jukebox.”
And she bemoans the lack of sophistication and innocence in today’s popular music—the result, she says, of being exposed to the seamier side of humanity through such vehicles as reality TV shows.
“The culture doesn’t value subtler things. The more we go into the Information Age, it seems like there is so much stuff that is overwhelming. We appreciate less and less subtlety. I don’t know if that will come in the next change of humans.”