LINDA RONSTADT and the country rock scene


with Norman Warwick

I wonder sometimes if I would have made it across all the bridges from pop to rock, to country and western, to country, to new country, to alternative country to discover the Americana I so much love now without the guides I followed from serendipity to the properlu planned. I have travelled from the ´pop’ of The Monkees, to the rock of, oh, let´s say Fleetwood Mac, in their second or third generation and light years away from that Blues planet from which they had set out. From their rock, though, I was catapulted, somehow, into the country of  Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton before deserting western and heading for the ´pure´ country of Loggins and Messina and Poco.  Linda Rondstadt appeared and appealed to me in many guises, pretty rock chich, great voice with which she sang country and the earlier  Americana rock of Buddy Holly. I loved her whatever language she sang in and I even followed her to a night at the opera later in her career. So, come follow your art down sidetracks & detours to a place that feels like home, where some of her best recordings are on the juke box.

I read Linda Ronstadt´s autobiography, Simple Dreams, and found it to be one of the most beautifully written books. That such a gentile lady could ever have been the high cut-off denim shorted, twinkle eyed ingenue with whom I would have gladly shared a lockdown hoe-down in a hay barn.

Her dreams were simple, although of course none of us could have ever achieved them. Her rare talent helped her to do so, and keeping her eye on the goal surely did too and never taking no for an answer are traits plainly evident in the book. So too are humility, compassion, empathy and a good heart.

There is also another book Linda Ronstadt of which theSan Francisco Chronicle Bestseller! “The arid land that starts in Arizona and stretches into Mexico’s west coast is Ronstadt’s foothold in the world. It’s a story she has told through music, and now wants to tell through food.”

Goodreads tell us that Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Linda Ronstadt takes readers on a journey to the place her soul calls home, the Sonoran Desert, in this candid new memoir.In Feels Like Home, Grammy award-winning singer Linda Ronstadt effortlessly evokes the barometric pressure of the high desert, a landscape etched by sunlight and carved by wind, offering a personal tour built around meals and memories of the place where she came of age. Growing up the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and a descendant of Spanish settlers near northern Sonora, Ronstadt’s intimate new memoir celebrates the marvelous flavors and indomitable people on both sides of what was once a porous border whose denizens were happy to exchange recipes and gather around campfires to sing the ballads that shaped Ronstadt’s musical heritage.

Following her bestselling musical memoir, Simple Dreams, this book seamlessly braids together Ronstadt’s recollections of people and their passions in a region little understood in the rest of the United States. This road trip through the desert, written in collaboration with former New York Times writer Lawrence Downes and illustrated throughout with beautiful photographs by Bill Steen, features recipes for traditional Sonoran dishes and a bevy of revelations for Ronstadt’s admirers. If this book were a radio signal, you might first pick it up on an Arizona highway, well south of Phoenix, coming into the glow of Ronstadt’s hometown of Tucson. It would be playing something old and Mexican, from a time when the border was a place not of peril but of possibility.

Few voices are as synonymous with the  country-rock terrain or the country-rock music scene as Linda Ronstadt’s. During her nearly 50 years of music-making, the Tuscon, Arizona native also divided the walls separating pop, rock, mainstream country and traditional Mariachi music. She could easily slip into whatever musical style she so desired, and went on to sell millions of albums and singles and garner countless awards and hardware. Tragically, Parkinson’s disease stole her voice back in 2013, although she suspects she was first hit with the illness 12 years earlier.

Ronstadt’s legacy remains strong, though. Following two LPs as front-woman of The Stone Poneys, including Evergreen Vol. 2, featuring the Top 20 hit “Different Drum,” she parted ways and released her solo debut album, Hand Sown…Home Grown in 1969.

Another of Ronstadt’s most important albums, 1977’s Simple Dreams, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and Rhino Entertainment will reissue the set Sept. 15. The remastered disc will include three bonus live versions of “It’s So Easy,” “Blue Bayou” and Poor Poor Pitiful Me by the late, great Warren Zevon

Along with musicians Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards, Ronstadt fronted the short-lived Stone Poneys in the late ‘60s. Through two studio albums, 1967’s self-titled effort and Evergreen Vol. 2, the trio unleashed a charred folk-rock style not too far removed from Ronstadt’s later solo endeavours. From the layered guitar work and an eerie resemblance to Peter, Paul and Mary, the song (off the latter record), sees Ronstadt relinquish a lover for being too clingy. “It’s just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me / Yes, and I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty,” she sings charmingly. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think she was declaring her unconditional love for him. However, Different Drum was actually one the earliest of his songs to confirm Mike Nesmith (above) of The Monkees as fine songwriter, though some of us recognised that earlier when he wrote What Am I Doing Hanging Round (I Should Be On That Train and Gone) for his group’.

Much of Ronstadt’s songbook is rooted in introducing a new slew of fans to pioneering giants, covering everyone from Hank Williams to Frank Sinatra. Her 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind, scattered with other favourites like “Rivers of Babylon” and “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” presented a sterling cover of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” which he initially released in 1956. Ronstadt played down the doo-wop, jazz-inflections in favour of vibrant guitar licks and one of her best growls on record. “That’ll be the day when I die,” she howls about a scorned lover threatening to break her heart. Her delivery is both somber and cunning.

Much of Ronstadt’s later material, particularly in the ‘80s, consisted of exploring her vast other influences, including slick pop and adult contemporary. Her 1989 triple-platinum, collaborative album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, featuring Aaron Neville’s luscious tenor, is one of her more cohesive. On “Don’t Know Much,” originally recorded by Barry Mann in 1980, the pair shifts between raw intimacy and power balladry. Ronstadt has rarely sounded so exquisite as she does flipping into her head voice, exemplified by Neville’s unquestionably earthier mix. There is a glorious b/w tv clip (left) of this that does the rounds on Sky Arts and such liek

The extensive work over two full-length albums, 1987’s Trio and 1999’s follow-up Trio II (right), with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, certainly represents some of my favourite work for all of these artists, collectively and individually.. While it is Emmylou who takes the lead on their joint version of To Know Him Is To Love Him, the heartfelt intensity would not have been the same without Parton’s feathery harmony and Ronstadt’s caramel-smooth contribution. The song, written by Phil Spector, was first recorded by The Teddy Bears, of which Spector was a member, in 1958, and was inspired by words scrawled on his father’s tombstone.

Tumbling Dice is my favourite track by The Rolling Stones and the decision to cover that 1972 hit was a stroke of genius for Ronstadt. Again, a woman shaking up the status quo with a groovy, provocative song was ground-breaking and became a tent pole of her catalogue. The focus remains, satisfyingly so, on the sharp piano and guitar work, conjuring up a torrential force of pleasure and escape. Ronstadt’s vocal more than lives up to expectations, never rushing the arrangement but letting it ebb and flow as it chose. A standout moment on 1977’s Simple Dreams, her version is a classic in its own right.

Having first recorded Silver Threads And Golden Needles, the  Wanda Jackson (right) tune, for her 1969 debut LP Hand Sown…Home Grown, Linda later revisited it for her fourth full-length, 1973’s Don’t Cry Now. Not only was her voice far more nuanced and somehow richer on the latter recording, but also, the production received a facelift with its rockier elements subdued and the country tones brightened. The revamped version became a Top 20 hit on country radio.

Ronstadt’s 1974 studio album, Heart Like a Wheel, was a creative benchmark for both rock and country music and echoes today in the work of Miranda Lambert and Margo Price. Not just anyone could take on this trucker song about “weeds, whites and wine,” but Ronstadt’s frank portrayal of desolate nights on the road exposed new textures of this Little Feat (left) original (written by band member Lowell George). As Ronstadt muses about pivotal truck stops around the country, like Tucson and Tucumcari, her vocal approach paints a lively, cinematic picture, rising and falling beneath you.

Ronstadt possessed unmistakable abilities in being able to squeeze out deeper meanings in her peers’ work. Taking on Warren Zevon’s  afore-mentioned 1976 song, she fearlessly uncovers more harrowing layers of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” which she recorded for her 1977 album Simple Dreams. She recounts laying her “head on the railroad tracks,” getting abused by a man out in Hollywood who eerily reminds her of outlaw Jesse James and a unlikely brush with sadomasochism. In her very capable hands, her interpretation is both honest and humorously drawn. The album would later come in handy as the title for her 2013 memoir, mixing light-heartedness and sincerity.

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