100 Greatest Women, #25: Linda Ronstadt

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition


Linda Ronstadt

2008 Edition: #21 (-4)

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.

Ronstadt’s country renaissance continued with two further collaborations. In 1999, she released Trio II, which won Ronstadt, Parton, and Harris another Grammy the following year.  Ronstadt and Harris released a duets album with just Harris, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, which was supported by a co-headlining tour.  In 2000, she released the holiday collection, A Merry Little Christmas.  Ever the eclectic, her final two studio albums explored traditional jazz (Hummin’ to Myself, 2004) and folk music (Adieu, False Heart, 2006.)

In 2013, Ronstadt released her memoir, Simple Dreams, and reaffirmed her retirement from music.  First announce d in 2011, she explained that this retirement was due to her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and that she could no longer sing.  The following year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2016, she received her second Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy, having earned the first five years earlier for her contributions to Latin music.

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.  Her broad appeal and unique perspective helped make her one of the most influential female artists in country music history.

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
  • Love is a Rose, 1975
  • The Sweetest Gift (with Emmylou Harris), 1976
  • Crazy, 1976
  • Blue Bayou, 1977
  • I Never Will Marry, 1978
  • Telling Me Lies (with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton), 1987
  • After the Gold Rush (with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton), 1999

Essential Albums

  • Don’t Cry Now, 1973
  • Heart Like a Wheel, 1974
  • Prisoner in Disguise, 1975
  • Hasten Down the Wind, 1976
  • Simple Dreams, 1977
  • Trio (with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton), 1987
  • Trio II (with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton), 1999
  • Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (with Emmylou Harris), 1999

Industry Awards

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Album of the Year
      • Trio, 1988
    • Most Promising Female Vocalist, 1975
  • Country Music Association Awards
    • Vocal Event of the Year
      • Trio, 1988
  • Grammy Awards
    • Best Country Duo/Group Vocal Performance
      • Trio (with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton), 1988
    • Best Country Vocal Collaboration
      • After the Gold Rush (with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton), 2000
    • Best Female Country Vocal Performance
      • I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You), 1976
    • Best Mexican-American Album
      • Mas Canciones, 1994
    • Best Mexican-American Performance
      • Canciones de Mi Padre, 1989
    • Best Musical Album for Children
      • Dedicated to the One I Love, 1997
    • Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal
      • Don’t Know Much (with Aaron Neville),1990
      • All My Life (with Aaron Neville), 1991
    • Best Tropical Latin Album
      • Frenesi, 1993
    • Lifetime Achievement Award, 2016
    • Lifetime Achievement Award (Latin), 2011
  • Primetime Emmy Award
    • Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program
      • Linda Ronstadt, Great Performances: Canciones de Mi Padre, 1989
  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2014

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #24. Dottie West

Previous: #26. Cindy Walker


  1. Finally, some movement!

    Complaining aside, I do love me some Linda Ronstadt. Hearing “Blue Bayou”, all I can think when she gets to the chorus is “the original Martina McBride, sans the issue songs”. I must be something of a fan, given that I’ve got several of her albums on vinyl!

  2. One small correction here: Linda’s memoir came out just before the end of summer in 2013, and just a few weeks after she publicly announced that she had Parkinson’s.

    Among the other things of note, Linda’s 1993 album Winter Light contained her rendition of her good pal Emmylou’s “A River For Him”; Feels Like Home had her cover of super-fan Matraca Berg’s “(Baby) Walk On”‘ and 1998’s We Ran had “Heartbreak Kind”, a bit of retro-C&W/rock written by Marty Stuart and Paul Kennerley, and sung by Linda in a duet with long-time sideman and ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon.

    I had said back in 2009 when I did my 25 Favorites segment on Linda that her approach to country music was much less Music Row than it was Sunset Boulevard. Because of this, and the fact that she clearly was an unabashed hippie when she first came to the attention of country music audiences via her first appearance on Johnny Cash’s TV show in 1969, Linda’s subsequent appearances on the country charts probably should have been much more controversial than they actually were. But what probably caused that not to happen was another characteristic of her that is not often mentioned, that she is a straight-talking and exceptionally candid person about herself and her music. Her ability to connect with country audiences, in my humble opinion, has always been her ability to combine the traditional spirit of the form with the progressive values of her generation.

    Another defining aspect of Linda is that she was likely the first female artist in any musical genre, country or otherwise, whose career was defined as much by her complete studio albums as by her hit singles, perhaps even more so. Whereas it is tempting to think of many album releases now as having potential “hits” on them but also a lot of “filler” as well, Linda didn’t think of making albums in those terms. The album tracks, thanks in large part to the reputations of the legendary songwriters that penned them, did a lot to solidify Linda’s reputation as someone who thought in terms of an album being a portrait, and not just a hit-making machine (though she did that too). Even though Linda had to retire, her approach still drives a lot of female artists to strive for that kind of quality today, including, among others, Tift Merritt, Lindi Ortega, Caitlin Rose, and Carrie Underwood to name just a few.

    So while she may never have been (let alone considered herself) a country singer in the strictest Nashville sense of the term, Linda’s impact on the genre, via the country-rock movement she helped spur on in the late 1960s and early 1970s, still impacts a lot of what we see today, and has made her a huge role model for so many women who have followed in her path.

  3. I love Linda Ronstadt. She showcased so much diversity throughout her amazing career. It’s a shame she can’t no longer perform. I going to miss hearing Linda’s lovely voice.

  4. I think I’ll mainly stick to my 2010 comments on Erik’s Fav songs by Fav artists.

    May 30, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Great article about a great singer. One favorite of mine not mentioned is “Adios” written by Jimmy Webb from her 1989 cd “Cry Like a Rainstorm-Howl Like the Wind”. It features background vocals by Brian Wilson. Another favorite is “White Rhythm & Blues” written by J.D. Souther from her “Living in the USA” album which also includes her great cover of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”.

    “Different Drum” was before Linda went solo. It was written solely by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. It’s from the 1967 album “Stone Poneys Evergreen Vol. 2”. On the back of the LP cover it says “Catch a Stone Poney and Take Your Mind for a Ride”.

    I’ll add that other favs include “Blue Bayou”, “Crazy” and “Long, Long Time”. Never like “Love Is a Rose”.

  5. I always use “Long, Long Time” and “Love Has No Pride” as prime examples of how Linda could put so much emotion into a song without the “big note/vocal gymnastics” used by so many singers today to show emotion. Those two songs are perfection to me.

  6. Yes, both of those songs from her formative country-rock years show her ability to put passion ahead of trying to prove something. As it would turn out, Linda proved to have one of the widest ranges of any female singer in American popular music ever, ranging from alto to soprano to coloratura (and at that last one, we are in Opera territory, folks–and opera is something she did on two occasions, “The Pirates Of Penzance” and “La Boheme”).

    But one thing Linda has a well-known disdain for are TV “voice competition” shows like American Idol and The Voice because she believes that “competition is for race horses, not artists”. It doesn’t matter to her that these kinds of shows gave us Carrie Underwood (who sang at her 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) or Kelly Clarkson; she doesn’t believe they have a hell of a lot of artistic merit to them, they are just belittling. Whether you agree with that assumption or not, just remember that this comes from someone who had half a century of practical experience in the music business, none of it involving being competitive with others.

  7. And I should mention about “Long Long Time”, Linda’s first solo hit (second overall, after “Different Drum”):

    Linda recorded the song as part of her album Silk Purse at Cinderella Studios in Nashville in January 1970 with a fairly atypical (for Nashville, anyway) arrangement devised by the great Norbert Putnam, who played both bass and harpsichord on said recording. Weldon Myrick used a device on his pedal steel guitar that mimicked the sound of a gritty string section, which he wittily referred to as the “Goodlettsville String Quartet”, while violin player Buddy Spicher overdubbed his violin part with a viola.

    And to add to that, they only did two takes of the song (the second take is the one that ended up being put on the album and thus becoming a hit), because, after that second take, Linda was reportedly so emotionally exhausted from really pouring her heart out in that way that she came into the control room and fell asleep. You probably would too after doing such a gut-wrenching ballad like that.

  8. I have a Ronstadt question. What’s the best way to get her seventies albums on high quality CD? The Capitol ones sound great, but the original CD’s I had from the Asylum years don’t sound as good. I bought the 40th anniversary of Simple Dreams, which is a big upgrade, but not sure if the equivalent exist for Don’t Cry Now, Prisoner in Disguise, and Hasten Down the Wind.

  9. Don’t Cry Now and Hasten Down the Wind were released in that series, too. But they’re out of print and quite expensive. Simple Dreams had the same quality CD in its 40th Anniversary Package but at a sliver of the price.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.