“I feel if I were to organize it correctly I would try to sing like a Mexican and think like a German. You know what I mean? I get it mixed up,” Linda Ronstadt joked to Rolling Stone in 1978. The quip was a comical reference to her Mexican-German heritage but also, in retrospect, a reflection of Ronstadt’s many musical influences and interests, along with the self-deprecating humor she has employed throughout more than five decades of music stardom. Born in July 1946 in Tucson, Arizona, where her father, Gilbert, the son of a German-born rancher who served in the Mexican army, ran a hardware store, Ronstadt would join her brother Peter and sister Suzy in a folk trio called the New Union Ramblers in 1963. While she was a senior in high school, Ronstadt signed a recording contract with her siblings, but by 1966, she had taken off for Los Angeles, singing with the Stone Poneys, a trio that also included Tucsonan Bob Kimmel and guitarist Kenny Edwards, who would serve as her longtime guitarist when she embarked on a solo career. With the Stone Poneys, Ronstadt notched her first Top 20 pop hit, “Different Drum,” written by the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith.
In 1979, after a string of Rolling Stone cover stories, sold-out tours, multi-platinum-selling albums and massive crossover hits including the pop Number One “You’re No Good” and country chart-topper “When Will Be Loved,” Ronstadt took a bold step with Mad Love, with half the tracks coming from English rocker Elvis Costello and Mark Goldenberg, guitarist of American power-pop band the Cretones. With its assault of heavy synth and electric guitar on several tracks, the album represented departure-by-design for Ronstadt and in many ways freed her creatively to explore the Nelson Riddle-orchestrated pop standards of What’s New, the traditional Mexican fare from Canciones de Mi Padre and her onstage appearances in The Pirates of Penzance and La Bohème.
Ronstadt, who played her last show in 2009 after experiencing issues with her voice, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. Unable to sing at all now, the hopes for anything new from the once-powerful vocalist have been forever dashed. But with the recent discovery of audiotapes from a concert filmed for HBO in April 1980, Rhino Entertainment has released Live in Hollywood. The album documents, for the first time, Ronstadt’s thrilling live show, as she tears through full-throttle versions of Mad Love cuts as well as classic hits like “It’s So Easy,” “Back in the U.S.A.” and a blistering “You’re No Good,” backed by a band that includes ace guitarists Edwards (who died in 2010) and Danny Kortchmar.
In a thoughtful and humor-laced conversation with Rolling Stone, Linda Ronstadt provides a snapshot of her life at home in San Francisco, explains why Mad Love proved a pivotal moment in her professional life, and recalls a particular album that turned out to be a rarity — a record of hers she actually wanted to listen to.
This is your first-ever live album. Why did it take so long?
It didn’t take so long; it just never occurred to me to put one out. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to put this one out either, because it was recorded for television, so the sound got mushed a little bit. But, you know, record companies have their own ideas about that. [Laughs]
What do you remember about filming in the TV studio for the concert that this album documents?
I just remember it was really, really hot. It was too hot for humans. It was probably 110 degrees on stage. I grew up in the desert, so I know heat. We were suffering from that. We had to keep stopping to cool off. And there was a great audience. The audience didn’t have as much heat, because they didn’t have the lights on them. But they were pretty warm, too. But they were very good-natured. You know, you make the best of it.
You had quite a band on this record. What were some of the memorable things these particular players contributed to your records and live shows?
Danny Kortchmar’s solo on “Hurts So Bad” is my favorite electric guitar solo on any of my records ever. Not that I ever listen to that record, but I just remember it being particularly good. He’s a really fine guitar player. Especially when he has some structure to play around. And I had Billy Payne from Little Feat on keyboards, Dan Dugmore, Wendy Waldman. Wendy’s such a good singer. I go on YouTube all the time and just listen to her stuff. She was a true prodigy. When she was 17, she was writing songs like “Waiting for the Rain” and “Mad, Mad Me.” I just thought she was tremendous. She continues to write good songs and hits, too.
“You’re No Good” gets an extended treatment on this record, showcasing the band really well. What do you remember about recording that song?
Kenny came up with that bass riff. He’d been playing it some onstage, but it was an amorphous arrangement, so when we went in the studio with Peter [Asher, Ronstadt’s producer and manager at the time], Ed Black, who was the steel player at the time and also played six-string guitar, reinforced the bass riff with the guitar. Then Andrew and Peter got together and put a lot of guitar parts on. I was a part of the beginning, and I was a part of the end but I wasn’t part of the middle. I went out to dinner with my boyfriend. When I came back, they had this amazing guitar solo on it. They spent hours doing it and I was blown away by it. The engineer [Val Garay] accidentally pushed the wrong button and erased it all. [Laughs] We had to go back and re-do it! It took them all night. But they did a great job.
The Heart Like a Wheel album is now considered a classic in the realm of country-rock, but at the time did you see it that way?
No! I was just trying to scrape enough songs together to make an album. Artists now make a record every two years. I made a record every nine months, and there was incredible pressure to do that. I mean, I always chose good songs, I think, but the songs didn’t always like me as much. There were a lot of swings and misses in those days, I thought.
What was your mindset during the making of the Mad Love album and then after making it? Did it feel like a turning point?
It sort of caused me to turn away. [Laughs] I liked that record… I think. I don’t know, I have not heard that record since I did it. I really was longing to do something different. I wanted to do something where I could use my high voice. I wanted to expand my musical horizons in the worst way. I didn’t want to do album, tour, album, tour… After that record I went to Broadway and sang operetta, I did American standards, Mexican music. It was a long time before I came back to pop music. Before going to those others, I didn’t feel like I really started to sing until 1980. And after 1980, after I did Pirates of Penzance and the standards and the Mexican songs, especially, I could come back to pop music with a lot of confidence, and that’s when I did the record with Aaron Neville.
In making the Trio albums with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, what did you learn from both of them?
The thing I’ve always thought about music is that it’s not competitive, it’s cooperative. I thought that was a really good example. We chose the songs because all three of us loved them so much we were afraid we’d get sick if we didn’t record them. Then we’d choose the arrangement by who was going to sing lead, by who sounded best. We’d try it in different configurations — like me on the top sometimes, Emmylou on the bottom sometimes, sometimes I’d sing lead, sometimes not. I liked it best when Emmy sang lead and I sang underneath her, and Dolly came in on top. But we could sing in duets or trios and sound good. That was a really unusual thing for me, to be able to make a record that I actually wanted to listen to [Laughs].
“What they call country music now is what I call Midwest mall-crawler music.”
Did you listen to this live record before it was released?
I tried [Laughs]. I don’t like to listen to myself! I think of it as something frozen in time. It was the best we could do at the time. It’s like looking at old pictures of your old life. You know you’re related to it, but you’re a different person now. There’s been so much music since then. But it speaks for itself. I can’t really speak for it because it’s so long ago and I’m a different person now.
Your influence on singers in rock, pop, country and other genres is substantial. What do you think they’re hearing in you and responding to that has influenced them?
I have no idea. I would hope that it’s a sense of urgency and a sense of an earnest attempt. But that’s all that I can think of. I don’t listen to modern country music. I don’t care for it particularly. I like old country music, when it still came out of the country. What they call country music now is what I call Midwest mall-crawler music. You go into big-box stores and come out with huge pushcarts of things. It’s not an agrarian form anymore. When it comes out of the country, it’s not farmers or woodsmen, or whatever. It doesn’t make much sense. It’s just suburban music.
What do you do with your days now that you’re retired?
I’m mostly horizontal. I don’t like getting vertical very much. My vertical time is marked in seconds. [Laughs] Fortunately, I’m lazy, I love to read, so it suits me. I thought I was going to be doing more sewing and knitting and gardening, but that’s off the menu. But I can see the [Golden Gate] Bridge and the neck of the Bay on the top floor. It’s not a really wide, sweeping beautiful view, but I can see the water, which I like. I like to be able to look out and see if anybody’s sneaking up on me.
In 1978, you told Rolling Stone, “Probably the greatest thing you can aspire to, the highest state of being, is domestic bliss and tranquility…”
I still think that!
Considering the challenges you’ve faced, what do you think the secret is to achieving that state?
Well, you’ve got to work at it all the time. I think being Martha Stewart would help. I like my house that I live in. It’s small. I’ve really downsized. I like the city that I live in. I like the view. And I like my kids. They come over for Sunday brunch and I look forward to that every Sunday.