Linda Ronstadt had her first hit, “Different Drum,” in 1967, singing with a group called the Stone Poneys. She didn’t have one again until “Long Long Time” in 1970. Though long acknowledged to be one of the best woman singers in pop, it wasn’t until last year, with the release of her debut album on Asylum, Don’t Cry Now, that her years of working toward mass recognition began to pay off. Heart like a Wheel, which concludes her prior commitment to Capitol, should guarantee her success.
After years of touring, Linda Ronstadt has developed into the rare artist who comes off even better live than on record. Last February, when she opened for Jackson Browne at Carnegie Hall, I was awed by her stage demeanor. She took immediate command of both her band and the audience and delivered a thoroughly enjoyable and professional set, a satisfying crossblend of pop and country. One of the reasons Heart like a Wheel is so impressive, surpassing even the excellent Don’t Cry Now, is its expansion of repertoire beyond country and folk-rock. It also joins Ronstadt to her ideal producer, Peter Asher, who, with Andrew Gold, has provided ten well-chosen songs with full, distinctive sound settings, notable for the variety and imagination of their instrumentation.
The opening cut, Clint Ballard Jr.’s “You’re No Good,” displays Ronstadt’s enormous potential as a white blues singer. Backed by Clydie King and Shirley Matthews, Ronstadt lets go with a soulful wail that comes as an exciting surprise. Back in the country vein, Ronstadt faithfully resurrects Hank Williams’s “I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love with You,” singing harmony with Emmy Lou Harris against steel guitar and fiddle accompaniment by Sneaky Pete and David Lindley. The cut is a triumph of understanding and taste. Another highlight is J.D. Souther’s “Faithless Love,” perhaps the strongest ballad he’s written to date. Its striking arrangement features Herb Pedersen on banjo and has Souther singing smooth octave-lower sevenths against Ronstadt’s lead vocals — not an easy harmony to pull off gracefully.
While the remainder of the album consists of good material by Paul Anka, Lowell George, Phil Everly and James Taylor, among others, all of it is overshadowed by the title song, written by Anna McGarrigle, whose “Cool River” was recently recorded by Maria Muldaur. A folk hymn, whose tune and lyrics are incredibly eloquent in their simplicity, “Heart like a Wheel” is a masterpiece of writing and arrangement, set by David Campbell as a formal chamber piece with piano, double bass, cello, viola and fiddle counterpointing dual vocals by Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur. The song lyric, which distills the themes of the album — “And it’s only love, and it’s only love/That can wreck a human being and turn him inside out” — also underscores the essence of Ronstadt’s vocal personality. No other pop singer so perfectly embodies the Western mythical girl/woman, heartbroken yet resilient and entirely feminine in the traditional sense. There is a throbbing edge to Ronstadt’s honey-colored soprano that no other singer quite possesses — the edge between vulnerability and willfulness that I find totally, irresistibly sexy.