100 Greatest Women, #21: Linda Ronstadt

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June 9, 2008

100 Greatest Women

#21

Linda Ronstadt

She has a restless musical spirit, recording so many different styles successfully that no genre can fully claim her as their own. But it is her country recordings that have had the most lasting impact, and her seminal seventies work permanently changed the female approach to country music.

She got her start in the country-rock scene of Los Angeles in the sixties, and she quickly became adept at fusing classic country with elements of the rock music of the day. With a handful of fellow musicians, she fronted The Stone Poneys. The band became a big hit on West Coast country and folk circuits, and the exposure earned them a recording contract. Their first album in 1967 didn’t go anywhere, but their second album featured “Different Drum”, a song clearly intended for a man to sing but in Ronstadt’s hands became an anthem for female liberation (“I’m not ready for any person, place or thing to try and pull the reins in on me.”)

When “Different Drum” became a pop hit in 1968, it was Ronstadt’s voice that garnered most of the attention. After the group released three albums, they disbanded, and Ronstadt went solo. She had a clear musical vision from the start. Her early albums reveled in traditional country music, featuring classics like “I Fall to Pieces,” “Lovesick Blues” and “Mental Revenge.” She added fuzzy guitar to her first recording of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” But she drew on other genres as well, covering R&B and gospel songs alongside the country songs she tackled.

Her second album Silk Purse showed she could also do pure pop, and she scored her first solo hit with the orchestral “Long Long Time.” She also began to draw on the contemporary rock stars of the day, covering Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water” and Neil Young’s “Birds” on her third solo set, Linda Ronstadt. In 1974, she had top twenty country hits with her fiddle-laden revisit to “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and “When the Morning Comes,” a duet with Hoyt Axton.

But it was in the mid-seventies where her presence was most felt in country music. Her landmark 1975 album Heart Like a Wheel effortlessly fused country and rock, with Ronstadt as convincing covering James Taylor (“You Can Close Your Eyes”) as she was tackling Hank Williams. Her version of the latter’s “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” featured harmony support from then-unknown Emmylou Harris, who would become her musical partner many more times in the future. That performance won her the Best Country Female Grammy, and went to #2 on the country charts. Her spin on the Everly Brothers classic “When Will I Be Loved” was from the same album, and it went #1 on the country chart.

Ronstadt continued to push the genre boundaries with her 1975 set Prisoner in Disguise. She twanged up the Neil Young song “Love is a Rose”, another big hit, and she had the good taste to cover Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from the previous year. At the time, Ronstadt was telling anyone who’d listen that Parton was her favorite girl singer. She paired up again with Harris on “The Sweetest Gift,” an old-time country song that demonstrated both her knowledge and understanding of mountain music.

Ronstadt would continue to record country, but it became less dominant on her later albums. Still, she scored hits with covers of Patsy Cline (“Crazy”) and Roy Orbison (“Blue Bayou”), while bringing attention to rising writers like Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.”) In 1978, Parton harmonized on her final solo country hit, “I Never Will Marry,” which Ronstadt had sung on the Johnny Cash Show a few years earlier.

Ronstadt spent the early eighties exploring new rock sounds, before switching over to standards and Mexican music. But she returned to country in a big way in 1987, when the Trio album with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris was released. The platinum disc won the group several awards, including Album of the Year at the ACMs and the first CMA award for Vocal Event. Of the four top five hits the set produced, Ronstadt sang lead on one, the pleading “Telling Me Lies.”

Ronstadt has since released a few more country records, including another Trio album, a Western set with Harris and the solo set Feels Like Home. But more importantly, Ronstadt became the archetype for almost all of the major female artists in country music back in the nineties. She was cited as an inspiration by everyone from Pam Tillis to Martina McBride. When Trisha Yearwood met with her producer to plan her debut album, she walked in with a copy of Prisoner in Disguise and said, “This is the kind of music I want to make.” When Ronstadt cut Matraca Berg’s “Walk On,” the writer demanded silence from all as she played the track for the first time and called it one of the biggest honors of her career.

Her powerhouse vocals have been endlessly imitated, though rarely matched. Along with Emmylou Harris, she demonstrated how songs from all different genres could be pulled together to form a cohesive album. She proved that any great song could also be a great country song, provided the arrangement and the sincerity are there. Quite simply, Ronstadt revolutionized what a female artist could be in country music.

Linda Ronstadt

Essential Singles

  • “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” 1974
  • “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” 1974
  • “When Will I Be Loved,” 1975
  • “The Sweetest Gift,” 1976
  • “Blue Bayou,” 1977
  • “I Never Will Marry,” 1978
  • “Telling Me Lies,” 1987

Essential Albums

  • Don’t Cry Now, 1973
  • Heart Like a Wheel, 1974
  • Prisoner in Disguise, 1975
  • Hasten Down the Wind, 1976
  • Trio, 1987

Industry Awards

  • ACM Most Promising Female Vocalist, 1975
  • ACM Album of the Year (Trio), 1988
  • CMA Vocal Event (Trio), 1988
  • Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)”), 1976
  • Grammy: Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (Trio), 1988
  • Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“After the Gold Rush”), 2000

==> #20. Rosanne Cash

<== #22. Wanda Jackson

100 Greatest Women: The Complete List

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  1. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I can see her placement here as being something of a point of contention, just because she had a (relatively) limited impact on mainstream country at the time of her commercial peak– as a solo artist, she only scored 6 top 10 hits at country radio. But Ronstadt is one of the best examples (like Wanda Jackson, who placed just below her on this list) of how chart success and real influence are two completely different animals.

    Along with Emmylou Harris, she demonstrated how songs from all different genres could be pulled together to form a cohesive album. She proved that any great song could also be a great country song, provided the arrangement and the sincerity are there. Quite simply, Ronstadt revolutionized what a female artist could be in country music.

    That’s a sharp assessment of Ronstadt’s place within the genre and an excellent bit of writing, Kevin– though I don’t necessarily agree that any great song necessarily translates into a great country song. But one of the key points that justifies both Ronstadt’s inclusion here at all and her high placement on the list is that, at least on her best albums, she had an excellent ear for precisely which great songs also make / made for great country songs and sang them as such. It’s another way that she and Harris are such kindred spirits as country artists– they understand the genre well enough to pull from a wide range of influences and still keep their work grounded in “country” when they choose to do so. And country music is all the richer for it when they make that choice.

    As I commented on the Connie Smith thread, the Dolly Parton quote about the only three real singers in the world is terribly short-sighted, but you can’t argue with a voice like Ronstadt’s. As essential as her best studio cuts are, my favorite performance of hers is this absolutely killer, powerhouse reading of “The First Cut is the Deepest.” That she never cut a studio version of it (as far as I can tell, anyway) is a shame.

  2. RickNo Gravatar says:

    I remember the first time I ever heard of or saw Linda was on a country music TV variety show hosted by Johnny Cash (or was it Glen Campbell or The Smothers Brothers Show? Boy, my memory is so gone…) back in the 1960′s. Here was this gorgeous little gal in bare feet and a simple dress that had one of the most powerful female voices I had ever heard! I was amazed by her performance as was everyone in the TV studio audience. After Linda had finished her song all I could utter was “wow”. I knew right then and there that she was going to be star…….

  3. LynnNo Gravatar says:

    I have to admit that I grew up hearing the songs of Linda Ronstadt, but I never knew until I started reading country blogs that she was considered a country singer! She definitely crosses genre boundaries…and she does it beautifully.

  4. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    As a staunch fan of hers, I think it should be pointed out that a large part of her success with both pop and country audiences rests not so much on the hit singles she has had, but on the albums as a whole. Each studio recording she made between 1973 and 1978 reached into the Top Five on the Billboard Country Album Chart, with three of those going to #1, and two of those #1 country albums (HEART LIKE A WHEEL; SIMPLE DREAMS) also being simultaneously #1 on the overall Billboard Top 200 Album Chart. And in terms of songs, she also managed to get a lot of country airplay for decidedly non-country songs like “The Tracks Of My Tears” (a cover of the Miracles’ 1965 Motown classic), and “Back In The USA” (the 1959 Chuck Berry hit).

    Linda is, by any standard, a musical chameleon, and has never considered herself strictly a country performer, certainly not in the Nashville sense (her approach is more Sunset Strip than Music Row, and obviously far more rock-oriented). But as her good friend Emmylou said on a VH-1 special of the 100 Best Women in Rock (where Linda was also ranked #21), she has “one of the most gorgeous voices that’s ever existed” and she does have a natural feel for the genre, having grown up listening to a lot of it as a youngster in Arizona.

    I figured her placement here would probably be a source of contention because of her outsider status. But as a lot of female country performers claim her as an influence, it’s hard to deny the impact she has had.

  5. Beau BradleeNo Gravatar says:

    Linda may have had a limited impact on the country charts, but that is because mainstream country stations just refused to play her music. She did not become a fixture on country radio until she had become the #1 female singer in the world, as a rock singer. But when Linda sings country, it is “real country music”– and when she sings authentic country music, there is no one better.

  6. [...] Country Universe asserts that Linda Ronstadt revolutionized what a female artist could be in country music, which earns her a spot at No. 21 on the list of 100 Greatest Women. [...]

  7. CharlieNo Gravatar says:

    Kevin, I think it is inexcuseable that you left off perhaps Linda’s finest performance, with “Plow King” Barney Gumble

    Linda Ronstadt: When the snow starts a-fallin’
    There’s a man you should be callin’
    That’s KL5-4796,
    Let it ring!

    Mr. Plow is a loser,
    And I think he is a boozer,
    Barney & Linda: So you better make that call to the Plow King!

  8. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    Charlie,

    Could there be a better list of country guest stars than the ones who have been on The Simpsons? The select few – Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Hank Jr, Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson and, best of all, Johnny Cash as Homer’s coyote spiritual guide. “I’m just a memory, Homer. I can’t give you any new information.”

  9. B. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    This is a wonderful capsule, Kevin. Linda Ronstadt was (and still remains) the template for many female country singers, and her influence stretches beyond genre lines. She was a master at blending different styles to create her own musical vision. She is inimitable.

  10. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Ronstadt is in my fellow travelers category. If this is the “template” for female country sings, however, I wish they throw the d***ed thing away and start over.

    Ronstadt is a marvelous all-purpose singer (and I think the albums with Nelson Riddle represent her best work) but she really never was a country singer and here in the Southeast, only 3 or 4 of her singles got any airplay at all on Country radio

  11. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    As I’ve said, Linda’s hits, however many she has had on the country singles charts, only tell part of the story. The albums should be listened to from cover to cover. This is where Linda’s impact, I feel, becomes immeasurable.

  12. B. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    I can see your point, Paul. I could have chosen my words more correctly, and to clarify, think Linda is more of an example in regards to her song selection and diversity than her musical style. While I admire her talent, I would agree that a good portion of her music was not “country”. However, her influence (as shown by comments made by Pam, Trisha, etc.) is most shown in her approach to picking songs and making fully-realized statements with her albums, rather than the stylistic choices she made, ones that often don’t fit the genre.

  13. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    Erik,

    I agree completely. She was an album artist above everything else. That’s why I love the Trisha story that I included in the entry. I wonder if Trisha ever got to meet Ronstadt. I know that in the early years of her career, she felt she wasn’t ready to handle meeting such a big influence on her. Then again, Trisha once said her goal is to make music that won’t make Emmylou Harris cross the street to avoid running into her.

  14. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    Linda and Trisha actually did meet backstage at one of Linda’s shows out here in Los Angeles in 1995; and though their meeting was a short one, it went quite well. Trisha recently admitted to feeling very nervous about meeting her, but evidently Linda was very kind and honest to her–something said by a great many people who have worked with Linda over the years.

    In many ways, Linda is what you might call a “reluctant star”, in that she really didn’t get into the music business to seek attention, she just plain wanted to sing. To a certain extent, of course, it got out of hand; but Linda has used her stardom to just keep putting out great music. Her most noted advice to aspiring singers is as such: “You don’t have to be original, just authentic.”

  15. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve been marginally familiar with Ronstadt’s music, but now I’m convinced to check out a lot more of it. Reading these posts is pretty much just a death sentence to my debit card.:)

  16. JarheadDadNo Gravatar says:

    Saw Ronstadt in college. Unfortunately a bunch of drunk yahoos in the front row kept making lewd remarks and she got ticked and walked off the stage after only three songs. She’s another one I really liked vocally. Blue Bayou would melt butter!

    An influence on country music? Yes but not one I’d call a country artist. Her influence was great enough for her to be included though.

  17. Beau BradleeNo Gravatar says:

    I would disagree with the statement above that “she really never was a country singer.” Linda’s first three solo albums- Hand Sown… Home Grown, Silk Purse, and the self-titled Linda Ronstadt were solid country albums. The fact that country radio ignored them is unfortunate, but she made a whole-hearted effort to make it in country music before turning her attentions to rock. She was just ahead of her time. In addition to her own country records, she recorded versions of a couple of country classics (Ring of Fire, Silver Wings) with the Earl Scruggs Revue, and she and Tracy Nelson recorded a beautiful version of Rock Salt and Nails, none of which received much notice from country radio. There is a wealth of real country in Ronstadt’s early repertoire… the fact that she can sing almost any genre causes her to be overlooked in many of them.

  18. RichardNo Gravatar says:

    I would also add that Linda not only recorded country albums and songs, she also expanded country influences into other songs. Case in point: her pedal steel licked, countrified cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.” She, along with Wanda Jackson, was also one of the first female progenitors of the country-rock genre. And she still continues to record country music. Her 1995 album Feels Like Home is as country of a record as she ever made in the ’70s containing not only a country rave-up of Matraca Berg’s “Walk On” and a pristine, gorgeous version of the Carter Family’s “Lover’s Return”, but also, again, a glorious country inflected version (complete with mandolin from Alison Krause) of Tom Petty’s “The Waiting.” Unfortunately, country radio completely ignored it.

  19. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    It also has to be said that five years ago, in an interview she gave for the now-defunct Country Music Magazine, she lamented that corporate country radio no longer seemed to welcome pioneers and visionaries like it did when she was at the height of her popularity. Though she didn’t single out any artists by name, she did go so far as to call what passes for country music on the radio nowadays by a term that will probably sting–”mall crawler music.” Even her good pal Emmylou shares that viewpoint to a large extent, since both women are very tradition-minded and progressive-thinking when it comes to their approaches to country music. There really isn’t that kind of risk-taking anymore unless you go into the alt-country/Americana genre, which is where much of Linda’s and Emmy’s classic stuff would be today.

  20. CharlesNo Gravatar says:

    I love Linda. I love her bands, her songs, her voice…in short everything about her musicality. the ability to project such intense feeling by just the slightest change in pitch and the lightest of trills or pdal to the metal. her albums an encyclopedia of aaamerican guitar and pedal steel guitar styles in the american songbook. A magnificent acheivement.

  21. daniel r drownNo Gravatar says:

    I believe Linda deserves to be on this list. ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ is a perfect album but she did have many low points too. Her attempt at punk rock, ‘Mad Love’ was a pathetic joke and she milked those bland, big band albums for all they were worth. Not capable of ever writing a song, she still is ,indeed one of the greatest vocalists ever with a great career spanning decades.

  22. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Linda had big band albums? Now, I’m intrigued.

  23. PatrickNo Gravatar says:

    Linda, Dixie Chicks and Johnny were on The Simpsons? I never knew :(

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