Prisoner in Disguise
(Original Master Recording)
Anyone looking for the prototype of the modern female country singer can turn their attention to Linda Ronstadt’s classic 1975 album Prisoner in Disguise. Of all of her seminal albums from the seventies, it is this one that best illustrates her groundbreaking fusion of country, rock and pop. It’s a collection of songs culled from all over the musical map, with contributions from writers as diverse as Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Jimmy Cliff.
But it isn’t diversity for its own sake, and Ronstadt doesn’t simply record the songs in the style they were originally presented. Instead, she adapts the songs to her own vision, resulting in some stunning performances. She was savvy enough to pick up on the transcendance of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, which she sings as a simple piano ballad that showcases her vocals. Neil Young’s “Love is a Rose” is turned into a bluegrass romp, the sonic cloth from which Patty Loveless would weave the bulk of her own classic album, When Fallen Angels Fly.
Hearing Prisoner in Disguise decades later, it is obvious just how influential Ronstadt’s approach to production and selection of material was on the work of Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis and Suzy Bogguss. This album came a good two years before Ronstadt’s more vocally adventurous records, though those overpowering performances would do some influencing of their own. Listen to “Blue Bayou” and you’ll find out pretty quickly where Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood learned how to whisper the verses and belt the choruses.
But Prisoner captures Ronstadt at her country-rock artistic peak, and this new audiophile release is a revelation. A major source of frustration for Ronstadt aficiandos is that most of her classic albums from the seventies were on Elektra, and they have done a shoddy job of managing her catalog. If you’ve only heard the original CD release of Prisoner in Disguise, as I had before this reissue, you haven’t really heard it at all.
The original CD pushed Ronstadt’s vocals up to the front, and the music behind her is a muddy, cluttered mess. The audiophile CD is from the original master, and the sound is absolutely exquisite. The musicianship behind her is masterful, and you can now hear how Ronstadt used her voice as an intertwining instrument. Hearing Herb Pedersen’s banjo on “Love is a Rose” alone makes this set worth its premium asking price. Fans who’ve already savored Emmylou Harris’ harmony vocal on “The Sweetest Gift” can now hear the intricate acoustic guitar work on the track by Andrew Gold and James Taylor.
This is a limited-edition release, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s the only way to hear this seminal album in the way that it was intended, and the regular issue of it is so inferior to this that it borders on travesty. The only quibble I have is with the packaging, which faithfully recreates the LP release but features no liner notes retrospectively discussing the record. Hopefully, a similar release of Hasten Down the Wind will follow.
I’ve always liked this album although I regarded it as a wildly inconsistant. I always felt she owed Orbison an apology for the way she murdered “Blue Bayou” and there were one or two other songs that I don’t feel quite came off. I am looking forward to hearing the remastered version, because, as you noted, the sound on the original CD was poor; in fact, quite inferior to the original vinyl release
No, Elektra really hasn’t done a very good job of remastering Linda’s classic albums from the 70s, like PRISONER IN DISGUISE; and given the fact that she was their most successful solo act the entire twenty-eight years she was there, to call this a travesty would be understating the matter. It would seem now, though, that they have “come to their senses” (to borrow a phrase from “Desperado”).
It is also important to point out (again) that Linda’s crossover appeal, with this album and all the other studio albums she released between 1973 and 1978, was not a mere marketing ploy. She felt that mixing the traditional spirit of country with the street-smart rock of Los Angeles was an artistically viable thing to do, and it paid off wildly for her. PRISONER IN DISGUISE hit #4 on the overall Billboard Top 200 album chart, and #2 on Billboard’s Country Album Chart, really proves this (IMHO).
Another track on PRISONER IN DISGUISE worth noting is her version of Little Feat’s “Roll Um Easy”, where Linda shows just how much the blues have influenced her. She shows a kind of spunk and durability, not to mention a husky and sometimes snarling approach that is almost scary, that should make every female artist of today, particularly in the country field, take notice.
“Blue Bayou” was not murdered. It was rescued from oblivion. If I had ever heard the original, it made no impression on me, and radio never played it. Nowadays, you can hear Orbison’s original version, which was a commercial flop, on oldies radio. That would never have happened if not for Ronstadt bringing the song back into our consciousness. No wonder Roy proclaimed Linda’s “Blue Bayou” his favorite cover version of any of his songs.
This remastered Prisoner in Disguise does sound fantastic. It’s an album I rarely listened to until this reissue. But I would instead consider “Heart Like a Wheel” to be the prototype for the modern female country artist.
I’m sure Orbison was quite appreciative of Ronstadt’s version, as he was co-writer of the song and she brought in a ton of royalty money for him!
I should specify though, for readers unaware of Ronstadt’s catalog, that “Blue Bayou” isn’t on Prisoner in Disguise. I mentioned it in the review because it’s representative of the late seventies work that influenced Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood. The earlier era that included Prisoner was more influential on Loveless, Yearwood, Tillis, etc.
Yoou’re right Kevin – I’ve always associated Blue Bayou with Prisoner in Disguise, because my copy was a European issue of two of her albums in a gatefold. I always tried to get European pressings where possible because they were on better quality vinyl and better mastered.
I have a bunch of German RCA pressings of American country artists(Charley Pride, Jim Ed Brown, Jim Reeves, etc) and they are of unfailingly better quality than their US counterparts, particularly during the “dynaflex” era
Linda has always had her way of doing things, of course, which is one reason why so many female country artists of today respect her, even though she has never considered herself a country performer, not in the Music Row sense anyway. And as those albums of the 1970s show, Linda can never be accused of not putting herself out there in service of the song, especially in concert where her shyness is quite well-documented. She just goes out there and does it, without any of the gimmickry, the lasers, or smoke bombs; and that is at the heart of what makes her so significant to so many of her peers.
Well said Erik
To this day my favorite Linda Ronstadt recordings are the ones she did with Nelson Riddle. Those songs and arrangements require a very good vocalist to pull off, and few would be able to do so, certainly not the Taylor Swifts, Miranda Lamberts and Faith Hills of this world