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A Conversation With Linda Ronstadt

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs by Jason Henry

Music is filled with legends, and no female artist stands out any brighter from the heady 1960s and ‘70s than Linda Ronstadt. From 18-year-old newcomer to the LA music scene, armed with her father’s 1898 Martin guitar, to her last stage concert in 2009, as her voice prematurely gave way, Ronstadt sang with a long list of some of the brightest musicians of the era, influencing some of the biggest bands and singers on the planet. Listen in on this candid and intimate conversation where she shares her decision to pursue music in California, about her triumphs and tragedies, her new book “Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands”, the song she is most proud of, and how she would like to be remembered.

Around what age did it click with you that you might want to pursue a career in music?

I never wanted to be anything but a singer. I thought that I would be singing at pizza parlors or Holiday Inns, or something like that. As long as I could make a living as a singer… I didn’t have an ambition when I started.

What did your mom and dad think when you made that decision that you’re going to pursue music in California?

Well, they thought I was too young to leave home. And I was, I was only 18. But I had to get to where the music was. And it was not in Tucson. It was in LA. When it became apparent that they couldn’t change my mind, my father went into the other room and returned with the Martin guitar that his father had bought brand new in 1898. My father handed me the guitar and took out his wallet and gave me thirty dollars. I made it last a month. The only thing I remember about that long ride through the desert night was the searing remorse for having defied my parents.

When you moved to Los Angeles, counterculture was taking hold of the country, with California perhaps being the epicenter. What was it like for you at such a young age, during such a fascinating period, when you first arrived?

Well, it was all very new. It was a new world. There were a lot of art films that we went to see. We went to hear a lot of other music groups. We were kind of brown hippies. Country hippies. We got to tour that world a little bit. There was a lot of stuff, there were psychedelics and a lot of new things to embrace. I fell in love with Japanese movies. The first time I was there, we were gonna go see this band called the Rising Sons at the Ash Grove. The Ash Grove was where all the good folk music was, and I was just dying to go because I had heard about it. Read about it. And we went down to the Ash Grove and there was Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder playing in a band together. And I just said, “Man, they’ve got some great guitar players here!” I felt humbled by it and wanted to be around it and learn it.

You, Bobby, and Kenny formed your own band, the Stone Poneys.

Yeah, after a Charlie Patton blues song. We got gigs in little beatnik dives like the Insomniac. We got paid $30 or something like that. That is where I first met Jennifer Warnes. She was singing down there, too. Our school friends from Tucson would come stay for a few days on their way to their summer jobs, sleep on whatever bit of floor space they could claim, and we would sing our new stuff for them. The Troubadour had an open-mike night on Mondays, called Hoot Night, which also served as a way to audition. It was well attended by record company executives, managers, and agents. We were hired to open for Odetta, one of my folk music heroes. We were politely received by Odetta’s audience. It was our first time to perform in such a high-profile place.

The Stone Poneys quickly had a big hit with Different Drum, but the executives at Capitol Records had wanted you to record it slightly differently than you had initially envisioned it?

I had first heard it as a bluegrass song on a Greenbriar Boys album and just thought that it was a hit song. So, we recorded it, but it wasn’t the song that it could be. So, the record company said that they wanted to recut it. They recut it with the strings and harpsichord, and I was fairly horrified. I went, “We can’t do this!” But it was a hit. I was wrong.

Do you remember the first time that you heard it playing on the radio?

Well, we were driving, and stopped for fuel at a gas station, and I heard it coming out of the back of the garage. It was on KHJ, which was a big Top 40 station in Los Angeles. I knew that if KHJ played it, it would go national. We were on our way to the record company to talk about our second album and on the way the car froze. The engine froze. I mean, screaming metal. It was louder than an animal dying. It was horrible. We were stopped at the gas station, and we were trying to think what to do, because we didn’t have a car.

And being car-less, as you know, in Los Angeles, is tantamount to death. And we had a big bass and our instruments in the car. So, we had to get somebody to come and get us. We were car-less, but we had a hit record.

You were playing mainly small clubs at that point?

We were playing at the Troubadour. That was big for us. It was wonderful to us. We played several clubs, there was a whole network of them. Golden Bear in Huntington Beach… there was a club in Santa Barbara. In those days, you could work at a real small level and still make money. You didn’t have to be famous to work there.


That must have been quite an exciting time when you look back, to be so young and your career is on the rise, and you’re in a place where so much is happening. What was it like being young and watching your star rise during that time in Southern California?

Well, I didn’t know that my star was rising that much. But when I hopped on at the Troubadour, I thought that was really something. And I played at the Whisky a Go Go. I prayed every night that the place would burn down, so I wouldn’t have to play there. And [then] it burned down three days after I closed. I thought, ‘Oh no, I must have wished it to burn.

What was it about the Whisky that you didn’t like? Were you nervous to perform there?

It was just a different audience from the Troubadour, a little bit more dated. I didn’t like the band I was playing with.

Capitol Records wanted you to step away from the Stone Poneys and have a solo career. Was it a difficult choice to leave the band behind?

Well, it wasn’t difficult. Kenny had decided that he wanted to go to India, and then it was just me and Bobby. Then he went off to start McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica as a performance space. So that left me by myself. After the group broke up, you did a lot of touring with different groups: the Doors, Neil Young, Jackson Browne…

What were those early days like? You were often the only female artist touring.

Yeah, I didn’t know very many girl singers until I met Emmylou [Harris] and Maria Muldaur; that was it. And you know, it was funky traveling in those days. I’d go wherever I could fit; they’d squeeze me into the backseat of the car. I was the one who was portable. It was hard. I wasn’t playing with really high-quality musicians at the time, but I always put all my money back into the band. I tried to hire the best musicians I could afford, and that made a difference.

Back in 1976, you spoke to Rolling Stone about a sort of loneliness that everybody goes through when they’re out on the road for a long period. Is that something that stayed with you through your career?

I think so. It was like being in the Army, you know? You wish you could go home, but you have a camaraderie with your fellow soldiers. It sustains you.

So, what would you do when you were traveling to combat that?

Go to soundcheck, go to the show, go home, go to bed. That’s what I did.

So, being on tour is not nearly as glamorous as people think.

No, it’s not glamorous at all. It’s washing your socks in the sink overnight, you know? I had a dress that went in my purse, and I used to wash it after the show, and then dry it. It was made out of some kind of nylon. And it just shrank from being washed so much. It got so short that I had to get a new dress. (Laughs)

In 1971, you put together a very talented band. In that band were some musicians who went on to great success themselves. One of them was Texas native, Don Henley, who was with Shiloh when you first encountered him. Shiloh was playing one of your songs one night when you were out at a club.

Yeah, I was with John Boylan (Manager), and we were walking — I think I was on my way to the bathroom — and I heard “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” The guitar player played our solo note-for-note, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe they listened to my record.’ John had already met Don before, somehow. So, he went to Don and said, “Do you want a job playing in [Linda’s] band?” And he said that he did. I had Bernie Leadon playing guitar for me, but he went on to join the Flying Burrito Brothers, so I had to replace Bernie.

My boyfriend at the time was J.D. Souther, and his friend and singing partner was Glenn Frey — Longbranch Pennywhistle. One day he asked me, “Why don’t you get Glenn, he can play that stuff, he’s a good guitar player?” So, I got Glenn. We couldn’t afford for everybody to have their own room when we traveled, so Glenn and Don were bunkmates, and they started writing songs together.

How long were they in your band?

I can’t remember, several months. But then they came home and decided to form the Eagles. When they were forming the band, they didn’t have any way to support themselves. I knew that it would take about a year to get their band together and get recorded. So, I had the Eagles as my backup band. John suggested that they get Randy Meisner to play bass and I suggested Bernie, also a strong singer, to play guitar. They liked one another and started to work together right away. I heard the first thing that they worked out, which was “Witchy Woman,” in our living room. They worked out the harmony parts. JD and I were at the movies, came back and they had it arranged, all worked out. Their four-part harmony was really good. They really wanted to have a band and they really wanted their band to have hits. I don’t think there was any question that they’d be successful. I met Jackson Browne shortly after arriving in Los Angeles. He was sixteen when I met him and had already written “These Days.” He was younger than most of us by a couple of years, but he always ran in front of the pack. In the Troubadour community of blistering raw talent, he was a little smarter, a little further evolved in his thinking, a little more evolved in his writing practice. Later we toured together, often alternating as headliner, depending on who had the bigger regional hit.


In 1973, Neil Young was preparing for his Time Fades Away tour, and John thought that it might be a good idea for you to open for him. But Neil didn’t want to go on tour with anybody. However, he did change his mind and invited you to tour with him, but you weren’t quite sure whether you wanted to do the shows? What was behind your apprehension to join the tour?

Well, I was a club act, and I had a club band. I didn’t have a band that was made for 20,000-seat stadiums. I wasn’t sure whether we’d get booed off the stage. But John encouraged me, and I stepped up and did it. It turned out to be very successful for us. The Vietnam War had just ended, so we were sort of all focused on that. For the first show, we were at Madison Square Garden, playing for an audience of eighteen thousand. Playing at Madison Square Garden is something you just endured. You can’t hear yourself. The crowd is restless. The crowd was out buying hotdogs. It’s not a really artistic experience. The people were polite, I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Rolling Stones or their opening act, but they used to get — it can be Otis Redding and they’d be going, “We want the Stones!” But I didn’t get that, “We want Neil!”

Did you ever get stage fright?

Always. It just got worse as the show went on. People get tired and they get over it. For me, it got worse.

That’s interesting. What do you attribute that to?

Logic (Laughs). It’s logical that when you’re in front of an audience, they’d want to kill you. It’s inadequacy.

At that point, you were opening up for Neil Young, but once you became “Linda Ronstadt” and they were coming to see you, there must have been some affirmation there. Knowing that all these people were coming to see you, because they liked your music.

Well, they obviously made a big mistake. And they figured it out when I started singing. I wish the audience would’ve stayed home, and they would just let me sing. I didn’t relate to my audience.

You’ve done remakes of a lot of different people’s music. Are there any songs that you’ve done that you are particularly proud of more than others?

Oh, the song, “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.” I didn’t know how to sing then. I was doing songs that I really didn’t relate to. I didn’t do them as well on the record as I did them on stage after I had them in my mouth for a while, but it’s always like that. I didn’t know what I was doing yet. And I wasn’t good at picking material for myself. I always pick my own material, and sometimes it’s not to my credit.

How did you choose which song to record?

It was more like how can we scrape together enough songs to record? It was hard to find 10 good songs and sometimes I’d find 10 good songs, but I couldn’t sing them.

Did you ever want to dabble in songwriting?

People that write songs, they write songs. They wake up early in the morning and know an idea and they write it down. I don’t work that way. I’ve written songs. Anybody can write a song, but it’s really hard to write a good song, and it’s almost impossible to write a great song. And I had people who were writing great songs around me.


How did you handle becoming a celebrity?

I didn’t ever buy into the celebrity thing. I just put my head down and kept working. I did the work. It’s important. And I was getting better. You know, I wasn’t good when I started. I wasn’t good for a long time, but I got better. Fame took away my ability to observe other people, because they were watching me. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like being interrupted at dinner. [Fame] puts a lot of pressure on you. I lived a very private life, you know. I lived out in Malibu, behind gates. When I lived in Los Angeles, I didn’t go to a lot of social things. I didn’t go to openings or galas. I stayed home knitting and reading.

What did you knit?

Sweaters. I knitted all my children’s sweaters. It’s hard to find a wool sweater for a child. I wanted my children to have warm sweaters, so I knitted them all wool sweaters.

Was it therapeutic? What did you get from knitting?

I got a sweater.

Do you remember what your first big purchase was when you started to make real money?

A new skirt.

A new skirt?

A new skirt. I went to a nice grown-up place downtown, a Beverly Hills store, to buy it. A nice wool skirt and a nice wool sweater. I tried to look like a proper lady. I put it on for my boyfriend and he said that I looked like a librarian. That was the end of the skirt. (Laughs)

Was there any pressure from the record label to find the next hit song?

It wasn’t much of a big deal. (Laughs) I chose to record Mexican music, so I wasn’t exactly looking around for the next big hit. It didn’t occur to me, I mean, maybe it’s naivete or maybe I’m just careless and reckless, because that was a reckless thing to do, but I needed to sing the music. I loved it so much.

In 1978, the New York Times’ Ed Ward named you, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Stevie Nicks as the “Queens of Rock.” Were you friends with these women at the time?

I was friendly with all of them and an admirer of all of them, too. A genuine fan. I’m pleased to be in their company.

You’re credited with really developing the California folk rock sound that was emerging at that time. Can you see where that comes from?

No, I can just see that we were all incredibly different. Stevie Nicks is different from me, or Carly Simon is, Joni Mitchell is different from everybody on the planet. She is in a category of her own. Carly Simon was a really good writer, and I love her singing. And Stevie Nicks is totally original. I’ve never heard anybody like that. I mean, she’s great. We were living it then; we didn’t think about it that way. There was no context to put it in. I just saw the Eagles. They are really good. And Joni Mitchell and Carly and Stevie were really good. They were having hits. Fleetwood Mac was a great band.

So, does that surprise you that YOUR music resonated so strongly with listeners?

Well, it wasn’t something that I was trying to do. I was just trying to find songs that I could sing.

Around 2000, you started to notice that your voice was changing a little bit. What exactly did you notice that concerned you?

I remember the exact moment. I was singing on a record with Emmylou, it was called the Tucson Sessions. And I was trying to sing harmony. I was singing a Jackson Browne song, “For a Dancer.” And I heard… There’s a thing I couldn’t do. I couldn’t turn my voice from one way to the next. I thought that I had a bad headphone mix. It was the top end of my voice, and I couldn’t hear it. It wasn’t there. It was a really good song, too. I saw my throat doctor every year for a checkup, but everything was fine. They took pictures of my cords, and my vocal cords were fine. But I knew it was something. The top-end of my voice kept slipping away. So, I have the throat I’m talking with now which is inadequate. I can’t sing at all. I’m grateful I’m able to talk still, but I think that will go away eventually.

For someone who’s so passionate about music, and about her voice, that must have been incredibly difficult for you.

It was frustrating. Especially, Mexican music is incredibly, it’s very athletic. And the rhythms are hard. And it just became impossible. I always had that power just come in; I didn’t have to think about it. All of a sudden, I was thinking about it. I don’t have the muscle power to get it out. And it just became progressive. It probably started way before 2000. It probably started back in the 1980s.

Was there anything that doctors could have done if you had caught it early?

No, nothing. Because you don’t get the signals from your brain.

When the doctor gave you your diagnosis, did you have moments of denial?

I had no choice. It’s reality.

Some people try to fight it.

I understood what was going to happen, and since I got the diagnosis, it was already happening.

Your last stage concert that you performed was in 2009. Did you know that that was going to be your last stage performance?

Oh, yeah, I knew it was the last one, and it was Mexican music. And I sang the hard songs, the most struggling ones. But I played with my band until the end. It was time to get off the stage. I couldn’t perform it the way it was supposed to be performed.

Was that an emotional performance for you, knowing that it was the last one?

I saw every concert I’d ever done, flashing before my eyes. People have said that they see their whole lives before they think they are gonna die, they’re close to dying. I had that experience on stage. Of every concert that I’ve ever done.

Knowing that you were not going to be singing anymore, did you have a plan B?

I got into knitting, gardening, sewing, handwork. I did everything that I didn’t have time to do when I was on the road. And then I couldn’t do those either because the disease took away my manual dexterity. Like I couldn’t knit or sew or do needle pointing or embroidery. Things that I love to do. Gardening, I bend over… and my back… I get too much of a tremor. I can’t even trim the roses. I have somebody else to do it.

But you did do something that you hadn’t done before. In 2013, you published your memoir, Simple Dreams, A Musical Memoir. What inspired you to write the book? Was it difficult putting so much of yourself out in public?

That was just a whim. I emphasized on my life, myself as my musical process. I felt like I needed to get my side of the story. A lot of people had written stuff about me and a lot of it wasn’t accurate. I wrote it on my laptop, sitting on the floor. It took about a year to write.

Was it an enjoyable process?

It was an impossible process. I just got up every morning and wrote. The first thing I did — I just got my laptop in bed and I wrote a chapter, and then I’d go downstairs and sit on the floor and put it on the coffee table and lean against the sofa because my back was so bad. It was hard to type. And by the end of the day, by the end of that year, when I was typing, I might get my tremor. I was trying to do three letters at a time and having to go and correct them so much. It was driving me nuts. I thought there was something wrong with my laptop, so I bought a new laptop, and it did the same thing. It was really hard for me to type this last book that I wrote with Lawrence Downes — Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands. [2022] He’s not a ghostwriter, we wrote it together. It’s about five generations of my family on both sides of the border: What’s similar about our lives, what’s different, between my life and my great grandmother’s life.

Was there a difference in the process of writing this book compared to your first one in 2013?

My musical process was about a trip that Lawrence and I made together to Mexico. It’s a little place in Mexico where my grandfather was born. It’s part of the Sonoran Desert. We were always a musical family. There was always music involved in all the time together. We made this trip for an article for the New York Times that Lawrence wrote, and we wanted to go back. By that time, Lawrence and I had done all this research. I had written some pages about my grandmother; I sent them to Lawrence, and he helped me do more research on it. And we started writing together. Like, I write a section, he’d read it, then he’d write a section and I’d read it, and we would make corrections. But we were writing together. Some sections he wrote on his own, some sections I wrote on my own. It was a true collaboration.

The people behind your documentary The Sound of My Voice did a really nice job. It’s a great documentary. But you were hesitant to be involved. Why so?

Well, I didn’t like the idea of the documentary to start with, but I had seen their documentary of Harvey Milk, and I thought that they were really good. When they contacted me, they said, “We’re interested in the book only.” And promised to stick to the book. So, that was fine. I called them back and said that they could do it. First, I told them no, but finally that they could. I realized that somebody else would come along and do a documentary and it wouldn’t be as good. Wouldn’t be as accurate.

How did you balance being on the road and being a mom?

I took my children with me; I didn’t leave them. I only went somewhere where they could come with me and didn’t tour for very long. When my children were born, I became semiretired. Having a little tribe on the road was fun. I hated traveling without them. But it was only then. It was in the early days when I was on the road with those children. Then I had more to do in the city than just going to the soundcheck. I was going to the park with the kids or seeing something fun.

Looking back, after 55 years of being in the music industry, what would you say to the 18-year-old Linda Ronstadt when she’s first going out to LA?

Get a good etiquette book. If you have good etiquette, you can get anywhere.

How do you want people to remember you?

That I wasn’t very good, and I got better.

*“Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands” is out in stores. Grab a copy and enjoy an intimate conversation with Linda that carries readers deep into her family heritage and legacy and discover a very personal portrait of Linda Ronstadt.


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