A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who has also influenced two generations of country song stylists, Linda Ronstadt celebrates her 68th birthday today. Although Parkinson’s disease has robbed her of the ability to sing, Ronstadt’s musical legacy covers six decades and multiple genres, from pop standards to the Mexican music she sang while growing up in Arizona. An 11-time Grammy winner, Ronstadt earned her first gramophone, for Best Country Vocal, Female, in 1975, with her cover of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You).”
Thirteen years before Ronstadt was born, the Carter Family was in a Camden, New Jersey studio recording A.P. Carter’s arrangement of a traditional folk song, “The Constant Lovers.” The song, which is also known as “I Never Will Marry,” tells the mournful, tragic story of a woman whose lover has left her. With nothing to live for, the woman, who is standing by the water, plunges her “fair body in the ocean so deep.”
Although the structure of the song is basically the same, the lyrics of many of the modern versions of “I Never Will Marry” forsake the suicidal theme of the original for the still rather depressing tale of a lovelorn woman watching the object of her unrequited affection as he gets on a train, never to be heard from again.
This version of the song entered pop-music history in 1977, when Ronstadt included it on her enormously successful LP, Simple Dreams. A Number One album for five consecutive weeks, Simple Dreams put Ronstadt in the same league as the Beatles (on the charts, anyway) when two of the singles released from it, Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and the Buddy Holly and the Crickets hit “It’s So Easy,” were in the Top Five at the same time. With songs from the Rolling Stones (“Tumbling Dice”) and Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” a later country hit for Terri Clark) included on it, the LP was even more of a departure from country music than 1976’s Hasten Down the Wind, but Ronstadt continued to pay homage to traditional country and folk music, also covering the cowboy tune, “Old Paint” on the album.
On June 21st, 1969, eight years before her recorded version (and a decade before Ronstadt and Parton would join Emmylou Harris to finally release their first Trio LP), the Tucson-born singer would make the first of four guest appearances on ABC’s Johnny Cash Show, to perform the death-centric version of “I Never Will Marry” with the Man in Black, who also accompanied on guitar. Having recently ended her association with folk-rock group the Stone Poneys, Ronstadt released her Hand Sown… Home Grown LP two months before the show aired and from that album also performed her gender-switching version of the Waylon Jennings hit, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” during the episode. Wearing a shiny (and very short) purple and gold-striped mini dress, Ronstadt accompanied Cash’s vocals on the first verse with some ethereal, folky “oohs and ahhs” before singing the chorus and joining Cash on the next verse.
Although the action onstage was beautiful and harmonious, an incident during that time at her hotel room was much less so for the singer. In her 2013 memoir, Simple Dreams, Ronstadt recalled that one of the show’s producers showed up at her hotel intending to talk to her about the upcoming segment. Once inside her room, however, said producer removed every stitch of clothing he had on, she alleges. After threatening to call security, the man left, but (presumably after getting dressed) warned her not to tell anyone since they probably wouldn’t believe a “non-bra-wearing girl’s story.”
Ronstadt has had several high-profile romantic relationships in her lifetime (among them California Governor Jerry Brown, director George Lucas, actor Jim Carrey) and has two adopted children. But with this song in 1969, she predicted the future. She never has been married.