Robrt Pela Delves Into His Linda Ronstadt Record Collection

Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2018 - 11:07am
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Linda Ronstadt was at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts last week for a conversation about her four decade career.  And it sent writer Robrt Pela deep into his record collection.

Linda Ronstadt’s "Hasten Down the Wind" album was released on Aug. 1, 1976. I was standing outside my neighborhood record store that morning, clutching $5, when the store opened. I played that album until the grooves turned white. I played it again yesterday, for perhaps the thousandth time, straining to hear something new.

Linda has said in interviews over the years that her musical tastes were formed by the tunes she heard as a child in her Tucson home. Her parents and siblings sang. Out of the radio came Hank Williams and Patty Page and Frank Sinatra. Her father sometimes sang Mexican folk ballads to her.

For those of us who grew up in the suburban America of the '60s and '70s, our soundtrack wasn’t as rich. Our musical score featured jangly three-note singalongs squeaked through AM airwaves, designed to sell long-players crammed with filler. But if Linda’s “Blue Bayou” and “When Will I Be Loved” convinced us to buy her albums, we found something there other than filler. Between each of its top 40 hits, a Linda Ronstadt album was grooved with musical education.

After the pabulum of top 40 radio, a Rand Newman song could be revelatory; an update of Oscar Hammerstein’s “When I Grow Too Old to Dream” could open our minds. While other girl singers (imagine using that phrase today to describe a female vocalist — while they showed swagger hollering over a Pignose amp, Linda did it by covering Motown, barely a decade after “Tracks of My Tears” and “Heat Wave” were still called “race records.”

Linda’s liner notes were a Cliff’s Notes of the about-to-be singer/songwriter movement. Who were Eric Kaz and J.D. Souther and Karla Bonoff? If you were a 15-year-old longing for music that meant something, the way Linda made love to Eric Kaz’s “Sorrow Lives Here,” or how she sounded harmonizing with J.D. Souther on his “Silver Blue” were an invitation to go find out.

Linda is no longer making records. She has Parkinson’s disease, a nervous system disorder that prevents her from singing. It’s hard to imagine she won’t be sharing with us her latest musical passion every couple of years. But she’s left us the privilege of a body of recordings in nearly every imaginable musical genre. Because there won’t be another new Linda Ronstadt record, I’m listening to her recordings differently these days. Is Kenny Edwards really aping the octaves of Ed Black’s rhythm guitar part on “You’re No Good”? Was Linda’s "Pirates of Penzance" recording of “Poor Wandering One” really the first time she’d used her upper extension? Usually, though, I end up giving up. And giving in to Linda’s big, warm voice, the accompanying memory of its many musical invitations.

Consider Hank Williams, that voice had called to me, back when country wasn’t cool. Go find Tracy Nelson and John Hall and Ry Cooder. In big, round, perfectly formed notes, Linda Ronstadt’s voice had nudged me toward Patsy Cline and Frank Sinatra and Hoagy Carmichael and Steve Gillette. No, really, that voice is still singing to me today. Go find the music I grew up on. And this time, really listen.

Robrt Pela's reviews and essays appear in the Phoenix New Times.

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