In the late ’60s and ’70s, folk and classic rock music began incorporating more country rhythms and themes. Bands like the Eagles and Creedence Clearwater Revival built their reputations on rock ‘n’ roll that often ventured into the hushed melodies and shuffled percussion common to country music. It was a time of blurred genres and open-ended rhythmic possibilities—bands weren’t consigned to a single approach, which led many to experiment with sounds. It was also around this time that pop music began its clear march to the heart of country music, with some mainstream artists looking toward a more pastoral production in their work.
There were a few artists, however, who found a truly sublime success in the meeting of various sounds, delivering song after song of emotional constriction and release. Linda Ronstadt, a country singer whose work delicately balances between the pop world and its twangy cousin, is one of the musicians who saw the boundless opportunities inherent in this confluence of sounds. She was always looking for how aesthetics could mesh and entangle themselves, leading to her collaborations with such musicians as Philip Glass, Frank Zappa, Neil Young and Warren Zevon, among a handful of others.
Linda Ronstadt. (Photo: Contributed)
Ronstadt was born in 1946 in Tucson, Arizona, to Gilbert and Mary Ronstadt, and she was raised on her family’s 10-acre ranch with her three siblings. Her earliest experiences with music had a great influence on her later years, with exposure to a handful of genres allowing her to become fluent in a number of musical languages. When she was 14, she formed her first band with her brother and sister, a folk trio that performed under a couple of names, including The Three Ronstadts, The New Union Ramblers and The Union City Ramblers.
As her taste and preference in music evolved, it caused a split with the direction of the band, and in 1964, after only a semester at Arizona State University, she moved to Los Angeles to try her hand at being a professional musician. She spent time there with a friend named Bobby Kimmel, whom she had known back in Tucson, and decided to form a band with him. Kimmel had already been writing songs with guitarist Kenny Edwards before she arrived, so the lineup quickly solidified—and they were signed to Capitol Records in 1966 as The Stone Poneys.
After three records with the band, Ronstadt moved on to her solo career, but because of a contractual obligation, her debut solo album, “Hand Sown … Home Grown,” was still required to be released by Capitol, which they did in 1969. Melding the brisk sway of country music with the melodic elements of pop music, Ronstadt was, even at this early stage, mixing the lineages of her influences to create a record that would go on to be considered one of the first alt country releases by a female musician. The cross-genre ideas that floated around on these songs came into stark focus on later albums and provided her with the direction that would see her through the next 50 years of music.
Often referred to as “an interpreter of her times,” Ronstadt released numerous records that found her music rising to the top of the pop and country charts. Taking the words of Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, The Rolling Stones and Buddy Holly, she infused her distinct perspective within these existing frameworks and came away with something that feels instantly connective in spirit and tone.
And while any number of her records find her wringing an admirable emotionality from other people’s thoughts, it wasn’t until the release of “Simple Dreams” in 1977 that she revealed just how well she could inhabit these various lyrical worlds and make them her own. “Simple Dreams” is so devastating in its associations and ideas that it displaced Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” from its top spot on the Billboard chart. That is the power and grace that Ronstadt brought to bear through these songs.
Containing some of her greatest hits, including “Blue Bayou” and “It’s So Easy,” the record was a colossal success, allowing her to have the distinction of being the first female artist ever to have two songs in the top five of the singles charts at the same time. She was continuing to meld the country and pop-rock sounds that she’d been working on for years, and “Simple Dreams” seems liked a nuanced distillation of those sounds. She still hearkens back to her classic country roots with traditional tracks such as “I Never Will Marry,” a duet with Dolly Parton, and “Old Paint,” an old cowboy song, but she also offers the pomp and rousing melodies of “It’s So Easy” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” which highlight her talent at adapting and rearranging songs from other musicians.
Her cover of Zevon’s “Carmelita” is an album standout, with its country shadows waltzing against the walls of the studio. It would be too simple and reductive to say that she simply approaches these songs from a feminine perspective—she did something much harder than that. She alters our appreciation of them by showing us that a specific gender isn’t necessary at all to our enjoyment of them. On top of that, her voice is as impressive as it ever sounded and gives each track its own emotional weight and resonance. There is nothing slight here; she was pouring out the blood and tears in her heart for all to hear. And it is something miraculous to behold.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.