Country siren Trisha Yearwood has made no secret of the fact that Linda Ronstadt is one of her primary influences. Indeed, the slick California-rock sound purveyed by Ronstadt during the ’70s has inspired a whole generation of country divas. Yet Yearwood’s fixation is particularly acute. Ronstadt’s backing band in the early ’70s included members of the Eagles; Yearwood sang with Eagle Don Henley on her 1992 album Hearts in Armor. Ronstadt recorded “Mr. Radio” on her 1982 album Get Closer; Yearwood covered “Mr. Radio” on The Song Remembers When (1993). Ronstadt and Aaron Neville have become frequent duet partners; Yearwood sang with Neville on “I Fall to Pieces” for the 1994 album Rhythm, Country and Blues.
Listening to Yearwood’s new album, Thinkin’ About You, you would sometimes swear you were hearing Ronstadt circa 1976. Yearwood’s voice is thinner and more pliable than Ronstadt’s, but both resort to a hearty squawk when passion takes them over, and both possess low honey tones. But ultimately the two women are very different artists. Ronstadt, the stronger vocalist of the two, was restless in the country-pop mode and went off in search of bigger musical challenges during the ’80s. Yearwood seems wholly satisfied remaining on familiar terrain, constantly refining her skills as a country singer.
With Thinkin’ About You, Yearwood’s devotion to one style of music has paid off handsomely; the album is a near-perfect example of the country-pop genre. Rising to newly discovered emotional heights, she endows songs as disparate as the playful title track and the moody “You Can Sleep While I Drive” — written by Melissa Etheridge — with enough heartfelt personality to make them completely her own.
Straying to the outer limits of the country format, Yearwood turns the string-drenched “On a Bus to St. Cloud” into a beautiful ballad of memory and loss. The singer takes her biggest risk with her rendition of “Till I Get It Right,” a 1973 hit for Tammy Wynette. The song has a more complex melodic structure than Yearwood is used to, yet she tackles it with courage. Delivering the most affecting performance of her career, Yearwood shows that far from limiting herself, she’s only just begun to scratch the surface of her potential as a country singer.
Begun as a second trio record with longtime singing partners Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, Feels Like Home became a solo project for Ronstadt when Parton pulled out because of scheduling conflicts. Although Home is being billed as a return to her ’70s roots, Ronstadt can never really go home again. The singer’s voice is much earthier and more knowing now than during her commercial heyday, deepened by her return to her real roots, the mariachi music of her youth that inspired Canciones de Mi Padre (1987) and Mas Canciones (1991).
So, armed with the wisdom of 20 years’ experience, Ronstadt tears holes in standard-issue rock and country songs like Tom Petty’s “The Waiting” and Matraca Berg’s “Walk On.” Where Ronstadt really gets a chance to shine is on the poignant piano-driven title track, written by Randy Newman. As sturdy and roomy as a Baptist church, the song allows Ronstadt the space to soar. On a more traditionalist note, the singer’s nuanced renditions of Uncle Dave Macon’s “Morning Blues” and David Olney’s “Women ‘Cross the River” are more gently glorious than anything she has done since “Dark End of the Street” on Heart Like a Wheel (1974).
These albums show, finally, that both Trisha Yearwood and Linda Ronstadt are too ambitious to repeat themselves — or in Yearwood’s case, to merely copy another singer. They are artists for whom each song represents another challenge, a spirit that makes them true mavericks.