June 9, 2008
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.
- “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
- Don’t Cry Now, 1973
- Heart Like a Wheel, 1974
- Prisoner in Disguise, 1975
- Hasten Down the Wind, 1976
- Trio, 1987
- 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