Ten-time Grammy winner Linda Ronstadt was the first honoree to be celebrated during Sunday night’s CBS telecast of the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. Eagles member Don Henley, who, along with future bandmate Glenn Frey, backed Ronstadt early in her solo career, presented a recap of highlights from the Arizona-born singer’s early life and her influential rise to stardom. In recognition of Ronstadt’s pivotal role as a crossover artist who routinely placed songs on the country and pop charts throughout the Seventies, country superstar Carrie Underwood delivered a pair of Ronstadt’s biggest hits, beginning with a sultry, truncated version of “Blue Bayou” then finishing with a gutsy take on the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved.”
During Underwood’s latter performance, audience members including the Jonas Brothers and Rita Wilson were shown singing and clapping along. The camera also caught a brief glimpse of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had hosted a pre-gala dinner for this year’s honorees, during which the recipients were presented with their multicolored medallions. He invoked the lyrics to that 1975 hit in his remarks, musing to the 200 dinner guests, “As I travel the world, I wonder when will I be loved.” Later in the evening Ronstadt remarked, “I’d like to say to Mr. Pompeo, who wonders when he’ll be loved, it’s when he stops enabling Donald Trump.”
Back at the ceremony, Kevin Kline, Ronstadt’s co-star in the early Eighties Broadway hit, The Pirates of Penzance, paid homage to the singer’s Mexican heritage and her record-breaking foray into traditional Mexican music, introducing a performance by Latin Grammy-winning female mariachi group Flor De Toloache. In an emotional highpoint of the presentation, Emmylou Harris and Ronstadt were both visibly moved to tears as Harris spoke of Ronstadt’s “fierce, unfaltering friendship.” Harris then introduced Trisha Yearwood, an artist who, from her debut in country music, was favorably compared to Ronstadt for her powerful vocals. She unleashed that power on two major Ronstadt hits, the first of which, “You’re No Good,” became her first chart-topping hit in 1975. Yearwood was then joined onstage by Aaron Neville for the tender, romantic “Don’t Know Much,” the song that returned Ronstadt to the upper reaches of the pop chart in 1989.
The 42nd Kennedy Center Honors, which is now available for streaming, also paid tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire, Sally Field, Sesame Street, and Michael Tilson Thomas. A 2019 documentary about the singer, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, will make its television premiere on CNN January 1st at 9 p.m. ET.