UDPATE 12/17/13: Linda Ronstadt will enter Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By Janet Traylor/November 3, 2013
“I covered a big wide range of music in my career, and I wanted to write a book about why I made those choices and why they weren’t arbitrary.” Linda Ronstadt
I often wonder how an artist becomes an artist. Many times, a life of creative expression emerges from seeds planted in childhood. I have long held an affinity for novelist Willa Cather, whose childhood, like mine, was colored intensely by early experiences of growing up on the Western Prairie.
Various women have written of their personal artistic evolution: Eudora Welty, in One Writer’s Beginnings. And more recently, celebrated soprano Renée Fleming, in The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer.
Now 67, singer Linda Ronstadt has added her own story to the genre: Simple Dreams, A Musical Memoir (Simon & Schuster). Ronstadt read Fleming’s book, which she described as very valuable to her as a singer, and was moved to share her own professional experiences in the hope of helping others who aspire to a career in music.
“There were a lot of things written about me, about what I said and what I did; I thought it should come from the source. I covered a big wide range of music in my career, and I wanted to write a book about why I made those choices and why they weren’t arbitrary,” she said at an inspring event I attended recently.
Ronstadt was a guest at Changing Hands, a popular independent bookstore in Tempe, Arizona. Moderated by pop music writer Ed Masley on behalf of The Arizona Republic, there was a standing-room-only crowd of appreciative fans, many of whom came of age to the ever-evolving beat of Ronstadt’s music, as did I.
Ronstadt recounted for her rapt audience the outlines of the book, tracing her childhood, her ascent as a rock-and-roll legend and the wide range of musical endeavors Ronstadt described as “rampant eclecticism.”
She grew up not far from Phoenix, in Tucson, where her paternal grandfather, born in Sonora, Mexico, had owned a thriving hardware store and managed a sprawling cattle ranch. He sold most of it off gradually over the course of the Great Depression. It was on the remaining ten acres of that land that she was raised.
Ronstadt speculates that her mother, herself the daughter of a well-known inventor who operated an experimental dairy farm in the Michigan countryside, must have found both her father and the desert that shaped him to be richly exotic.
Growing up, Ronstadt spent hours listening to Spanish and English songs on the radio and harmonizing with her siblings. Her influences were broad, among them Mexican traditional, country-and-western, popular folk and opera. Her passion for music grew naturally out of this crucible.
She began her professional career in the coffee houses of the late 1960s in Tucson, and moved to California at the age of 18, with thirty dollars in her pocket and the acoustic guitar her grandfather had bought brand new in 1898.
She waited until the night she left home to tell her parents she was going to California. Like his father before him, her father presented her with the guitar, saying, “Ahora que tienes guitarra, nunca tendras hambre.” (“Now that you own a guitar, you will never be hungry.”)
Her career took off in the 1970s. From her first tour in 1974, in which her financial ambition was to “buy a washing machine,” she moved quickly to her hit song, “Heart Like A Wheel,” which allowed her not only to buy a washing machine, but a house in Malibu to go with it.
Wide-ranging musical luminaries fill the pages of Ronstadt’s book: Jim Morrison, Keith Richards, Gram Parsons, Jackson Brown, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Nelson Riddle, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson. They were neighbors, friends, colleagues.
Ronstadt is circumspect in recounting romantic involvements. Governor Jerry Brown of California makes a brief appearance, but the only partner for whom she still seems to carry a torch is Kermit the Frog, with whom she sang, “When I Grow Too Old to Dream” at the 1979 Grammys. They later reunited briefly (“much too briefly for my liking,” Ronstadt noted in the book) to join forces in singing “All I Have to Do Is Dream” on a Muppets’ record.
Influenced by music she had grown to love in her childhood and youth, Ronstadt followed her heart throughout her career, performing diverse genres that included rock, pop, country, Broadway, opera, American standards and Ranchera-style Mexican songs.
Music fans the world over responded with hearty approval. “What’s New,” released in 1983, sold more than three million copies and remained on the Billboard chart for 81 weeks. In 1987, “Trio,” with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, went to number one on the country chart, and within a year was certified platinum.
That same year, “Canciones de Mi Padre” was released, and immediately certified double platinum. It became the biggest-selling non-English-language album in American recording history. Ronstadt noted that singing with others had given her some of her greatest satisfaction. “I got to sing in styles I would never have been able to do as a soloist,” she said.
Recalling collaborating with Emmylou and Dolly, she mentioned the challenge of getting three busy careers, three agents and three different recording companies to come together.
The evening at Changing Hands concluded with questions from the audience. The local crowd made it clear how much this musician’s music has meant to them. Several had seen her multiple times in concert over the years. Many, echoing Ronstadt, expressed pride in their Mexican family heritage.
Reminiscences were personal. One woman told how sad her daughter had been as a young girl when they were living apart from her father, then working in another state. She recalled how her daughter would sing along with Ronstadt’s rendition of “Blue Bayou,” visualizing her daddy “saving nickels, saving dimes, working ’til the sun don’t shine, looking forward to happier times,” when he would be reunited with his “baby.”
A young boy introduced himself and his parents, and announced that the family has had Akita dogs who are in the same bloodline as one of Ronstadt’s dogs. “We have Lucy’s baby. His sister is our current dog’s great-grandmother,” he said. Ronstadt responded warmly, “I’m glad you have Lucy’s descendents.”
But the crowd seemed especially responsive when audience members expressed their appreciation for what Ronstadt has done to elevate and celebrate traditional Mexican songs.
Ronstadt is in her element when she speaks of this aspect of her career. “The Mexican shows were my favorites of my entire career,” she noted. In her book, she asserts that they reclaimed her from the “body-snatching juggernaught” of the music world. “In the rock and roll world, you had to act tough, disaffected,” she said. “That didn’t come naturally to me.”
For over 40 years, Ronstadt’s career has been noteworthy for the range of musical challenges she has embraced. Now, however, she faces a decidedly non-musical challenge. She recently announced she has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which has curtailed her ability to sing. Despite this life-changing disappointment, she has responded with characteristic calm and grace. “Things are never optimal. You just have to step up to the plate.”
When asked “what’s next,” she mentioned briefly that her inability to sing is frustrating—and then immediately turned to the topic of her current work with singer-songwriter David Hidalgo of Los Lobos at Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center, which has been a leader in the Mexican roots revival in the United States.
Near San Francisco, where Ronstadt now lives with her two children, the cultural center teaches classes to local youth in traditional Mexican music, dance, arts and crafts. Along with teaching performance skills, programs aim to encourage social skills (such as processing and sharing feelings) and to instill pride and build community.
“Mainly, I’m family,” is how Ronstadt described her role at the center. “We’re all family.”
Above Linda with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America/ABC News
Ronstadt pointed out that in our culture, we delegate music and art to professionals and don’t do our own singing, dancing, drawing and painting. She said while it’s important to learn from our artistic heroes, we must do our own art.
In particular, she advocated singing with one another. “Everyone should sing together as a community,” she implored the audience. “Have intent, even if you don’t have talent.”
“When you sing in groups, you ‘conspire,’ which literally means to breathe together, to be in harmony,” she said. “You’re forming a particular conspiracy to commit beauty. Find people to sing with. Find people to dance with. Do your own art. It’s really important.”
Ronstadt was recently named a 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominee. Visitors can vote in an online poll to select the new industees until Dec. 10. Musical excellence is the essential qualification for induction; other factors include innovation, superiority in style and technique and length as well as depth of career. Ronstadt surely measures up on all counts.
Janet Traylor earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, then studied art and architectural history in graduate school. Her career has encompassed art direction, graphic design, strategic marketing, consulting and writing. She’s co-authored a marketing column for Arizona Business Gazette, and has written for Bonjour Paris, Photo District News and other publications.
Photos at Changing Hands by Janet Traylor