Ever since the enormous success of Heart Like a Wheel four years ago, Linda Ronstadt has been by far America’s best-known female rock singer. Before that epochal album, her first with producer/manager Peter Asher, she had enjoyed moderate popularity as a country-rocker and a pop music sex symbol and had had a few hit singles, most notably “Different Drum” and “Long, Long Time.” But she was not a household word.
She is now. She’s had four platinum albums in the last four years, her newest, Living in the U.S.A., shipped double platinum and she’s had a steady stream of hit singles. But with her success has come a raft of problems. When I interviewed Ronstadt two years ago, she was struggling to deal with the terrifying novelty of being a celebrity. She suffered, Ronstadt said at the time, from free-floating anxiety, a serious lack of confidence in her voice and a somewhat scattered personality. And she was quick, perhaps too quick to discuss the details of her personal life (“I wouldn’t say open — I was compulsive.” she says).
Now, two years later, she exudes selfconfidence and a striking sense of purpose and seems to have gained a firm hand over the affairs of her life. She refuses to be pushed around, either by fans invading her privacy or by causes and candidates asking her to donate her services. She’s about to risk a major move, leaving the comforts of L.A., her home for twelve years, for the uncertainty of New York City. She’s less willing to discuss her personal life (“It’s not anybody’s business to air my laundry anymore,” she says).
But as we talked, once at a hotel named the Cross Keys Inn in suburban Maryland and twice at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Ronstadt’s base of operations while she and her band (guitarist Waddy Wachrel, bass guitarist Kenny Edwards, drummer Russ Kunkel, keyboardist Don Grolnick, pedal steel player Dan Dugmore) toured the Northeast, she revealed a stubborn streak of conservatism, a strong need for privacy, a fear of performing and a longing for a kind of settled life she thinks she might never attain. And she talked about her music, which remains the compelling presence in her life.
What kind of family do you come from?
My grandfather was a rancher in Arizona. His father was the first mining engineer in the northern part of Mexico and he was also in the Mexican army. He was born in Germany. My grandfather also owned a wagon-making shop which was eventually turned into a hardware store in Tucson. My dad grew up on the ranch and in the hardware business.
Ronstadt’s Hardware Store?
Right. And he also wanted to sing — he was a wonderful singer. My father had a radio show when he was in his twenties. Oh, he was so dishy, so good-looking, the real dashing type. He rode his horse up the steps of my mother’s sorority house. He was a real cowboy. My mom came from Michigan and my grandfather was a real well-known inventor. He invented things like the grease gun and the electric stove. My mother was not quite East Coast but sort of back East, sort of DAR. I’m starting to learn a little bit more about my family history.
I had thought you had Mexican ancestry, or that was just your father?
Yeah, Mexican-German on my father’s side, and English also — he’s Mexican, German and English. My mother’s side is German, English and Dutch. In my heart I feel Mexican-German. 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 sometimes anyway. I sing like a Nazi and I think like a Mexican and I can’t get anything right.
You have a sister and a brother or two brothers?
Two brothers and a sister.
Did anybody in your family have an outstanding voice?
Well, my older brother actually had a beautiful soprano voice. My father always had a rich, melodious, lovely slow vibrato. He was a baritone, I guess, but he could get it way up to tenor notes. Beautiful voice, just so thick, it’s like honey. His voice has lots of soul and no time. My dad had the worst time in the universe. It comes from not playing with a band a lot — he has got that Creole drag time. I can always harmonize with him because I know exactly what kind of sense of time he’s got. But boy, it really rubbed off on me. My older brother was the one I always tried to copy because he was in the Tucson Boys Choir and he had a glorious soprano. I wanted to sing like that. I can remember sitting at the piano. My sister was playing and my brother was trying out something and I went, “I want to try that.” My sister turned to my brother and said, “Think we got a soprano here.” I was about four and so I remember that real well. So I was a soprano for a real long time and then one day, I was fourteen, my sister and brother were singing some folk song that was probably something they learned off of a Peter, Paul and Mary record. It was called “The Stockade Blues.” I came walking around the corner and I just threw in the high harmony. I did it in my chest voice and I surprised myself. When I started out with my chest voice I could only sing straight, with no vibrato. As I have gotten older, my voice has turned more like my father’s. My older brother really had the most musical talent.
What does he do now?
He’s a cop. He’s good at that, too. He’s a captain now. He always wanted to achieve things like that. He likes to be on the street.
What does your sister do?
She got married and had a million kids.
Does she live in Arizona?
Yeah. She has her hands full with the kids I think. She does probably more than any of us.