For those who grew up with Linda Ronstadt’s voice (like me), for those who had her career span their primary dating years (like my father), for women in music, for humans who love music in all it’s possible beauty — the just theatrically-released documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” will re-inspire your spirit, your muses, and your playlists.
What Linda Ronstadt Means To Me
I was born in Tuscon, Arizona, as was Linda Ronstadt, twenty-six years earlier. My father had arrived there care of the Air Force just a few years before Linda left for the promise of Los Angeles, which would eventually become my home too.
Dad knew her cousin, Carlos Ronstadt, who was in University of Arizona’s Air Force ROTC, and would eventually realize he had dated a classmate of Linda’s a few times. Not many years later, he would marry my mother (also a lovely Linda), and Linda Ronstadt would become and remain my father’s favorite female artist.
Today I took my father on a very special father-daughter date to see the new Linda Ronstadt documentary in a movie theater. Though he’d usually prefer to remain in the comfort of his living room and wait for movies to be available on TV, I knew this was an event that must break that mold. He reported at the end through both our tears that he wouldn’t have wanted to see it any other way. Though looking forward to the film, neither of us were prepared for how deeply moving, frankly surprising to the point of shocking, and awe-inspiring it was.
It’s not that I had forgotten, or hadn’t listened to Ronstadt on my phone many times in recent years, but there was something distinctly precious about the giant stereo sound of her voice and her sweet gorgeous face spanning the movie screen. Soon emotion was crushing my throat. Clearly my heart hasn’t been broken quite enough lately and I needed a good cry.
For both my dad and me, “The Sound of My Voice” was a little or a lot of a this-is-your-life — with scenes of Tucson, the retrospective of her pop chart years that had stocked both our music collections, and the harsh reminder of how a disability can rob a person of the use of their own creative instrument.
Parkinson’s Disease had taken Linda Ronstadt’s singing voice circa 2010, and Narcolepsy continues to threaten to permanently take my writing voice. It won’t. It can’t. But it tries. So I sobbed for Linda, because her artistry was both a genius gift to humanity, and a rich joy for her to express — and yet she’s been living through its departure and its absence.
My earliest memory of this songstress was that I’d had this poster of her on my wall so early in my life I can’t remember ever not loving her. Her hair was done in a romantically messy victorian-style up-do. Her eyes and mouth were doll-sweet but she was all grown woman. I dreamed I’d one day be as soulful, as talented, as femininely beautiful, and as badass as Linda Ronstadt. Little luck on any of those fronts, but today I learned it’s never too late to work work on the badass part, nor to pull out my mom-jean bin and rock ’em. Thanks for the cool poster, Dad.
What Linda Ronstadt Means To American Music History
Linda was a grounded feminist, a confident re-interpreter, a key trailblazer as a solo woman in the rock music industry, and a master of harmony, genre melding, and genre migrating.
She didn’t white-knuckle her grasp on the successful pop career that made her a superstar, but rather followed her musician heart again and again, using her angel-given talents to explore new project after new project.
Since neither my dad nor I had followed non-pop portions of Ronstadt’s career, “The Sound of My Voice” was an in-our-face reminder that (as Dolly Parton put it), “Linda can sing anything.” Our collective jaws were dropped as we watched her sing, to stunning effect, the traditional Mexican folk music of her father’s heritage, the seemingly impossible lead-soprano libretto of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” and the roots-music harmonies of her project, Trio — with Parton, and with Emmylou Harris.
If you’d lived in a cave (or hadn’t yet been born in your cave), and missed what a huge success she was — Linda Ronstadt has released over 30 studio albums and 15 compilation or greatest hits albums, many of which certified gold, platinum, or multi-platinum. She charted 38 Billboard Hot 100 singles, with 21 reaching the top 40, 10 in the top 10, three at #2, and “You’re No Good” at #1. She has earned 10 Grammy Awards, three American Music Awards, two Academy of Country Music awards, the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 [achievement citations per Wikipedia, 2019].
Linda Ronstadt: Mistress of Rock ‘n Roll Reinvention
My dad had loved her rock ‘n roll, so I did too. I had the Living In the USA (1978) album on cassette and played it till it broke. Linda looking fine on the cover in her roller skates fueled my fantasies of finding love at the roller rink, and in fact I then had my first romantic kiss at one, with Leon, in Sacramento. He wore a corduroy jacket and his mom drove us in a 3rd-generation El Camino. Bitchen.
From “Just One Look” to Elvis Costello’s “Alison”, to Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender”, this album showcased, as all her work did, Linda Ronstadt’s way of making the great writing of others’ minds come alive as if the songs were all her originals, and this documentary focused on that being the key to the perfection of Ronstadt’s 40-year career.
The public rewarded Rondstadt’s already proven chops time and time again. She made rock hits of Buddy Holly’s 1958 “It’s So Easy” with The Crickets, Martha and the Vandellas’ 1963 “Heat Wave”, Little Anthony & The Imperials’ 1964 best-post-breakup-song-ever, “Hurt So Bad”, the “My Sharona”-inspired “How Do I Make You”, and The Hollies’ 1966 “I Can’t Let Go”. These were from, in order, Simple Dreams, 1977; from Prisoner In Disguise, 1975; and the latter three from Mad Love, 1980.
There’s a local artist we’ve covered many times here in Atlanta that evokes the rock ‘n roll presence of Linda Ronstadt, perhaps on a few quad espressos, and gene-joined too with Ronstadt’s rock contemporary, Tina Turner.
Do check out Hannah Zale, of Zale, and of The Pussywillows, for a taste of modern, sexy star power the likes of an imagined Linda Ronstadt of the 70’s jacked on coke. Btw, I speak for Hannah Zale being able to instantly channel that type of energy entirely sober.
Zale, can you imagine your band’s version of Heart Like A Wheel‘s #1 single (video below) “You’re No Good” (1974, written for Dee Dee Warwick in 1963). I can, and it is SICK.
Linda Ronstadt: Queen of Revitalized Balladry
If you’re not familiar, compare (video below) Linda’s “Desperado” (Don’t Cry Now, September, 1973) to The Eagles’ (Desperado, April, 1973). Penned by previous Linda Ronstadt band members Glen Fry and Don Henley, the now classic Eagles tune, “Desperado”, was actually made popular first by Linda — #funfact. And good god, this performance is So Good.
Compare “When Will I Be Loved” (Heart Like A Wheel, 1974) to the version originally released and popularized by The Everly Brothers (The Fabulous Style of The Everly Brothers, 1960). Linda’s trounced the original on both the pop and country & western charts (ranking #1 and #2 respectively).
Compare Linda’s “I Fall To Pieces” (off her eponymous album, 1972) to Patsy Cline’s (Showcase, 1961). Linda holds her own. And so beautifully on “Crazy”, too (written by Willie Nelson, and also from Cline’s Showcase).
Prepare for another good cry and compare “Love Has No Pride”, originally recorded sweetly with optimism by Bonnie Raitt (Give It Up, 1972), to Linda’s, recorded with resigned angst (on Don’t Cry Now, 1973).
Compare the Smokey Robinson-penned “Ooh Baby Baby” (off The Miracles’ Going To A Go-Go, 1965), to Linda’s (Living In The U.S.A., 1978), and melt (to both of them, frankly). “Ooh Baby Baby” was so divine in fact, it placed Ronstadt on the R&B chart.
Smokey and Linda each produced hits out of Smokey’s “Tracks of My Tears”, too. Linda’s version only reached #25 on Billboard’s Hot 100 compared to The Miracles’ breath-taking #10 [thank you, thank you, to “The Big Chill” soundtrack!] — but my god, (off Prisoner In Disguise, 1975) hers is SMOKEY.
The incredible Carole King sings my utter-favorite version of her tender original “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, with a close-second being the Shirelles’ version [thank you, thank you, to the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack!]. But Linda’s version (from Silk Purse, 1970 ) is even more earnest than King’s, and more rock ‘n roll than the Shirelle’s, and I l.o.v.e. it.
Sweetest of all I think is Linda Ronstadt’s first #1 hit ever — “Different Drum” — perhaps the first “it’s not you, it’s me” break-up song [clever song assessment credit: comedian Whitney Brown)].
“Different Drum” (Evergreen Vol. 2, 1967) was produced with her first and only non-eponymous band, The Stone Poneys. It was written by Michael Nesmith who later became a quarter of The Monkees and continues to perform “Different Drum.”.
In this recent (2014) Nesmith performance, you can hear the influence of the classic music of the city in which Nesmith wrote it, Paris. While he continues to sing “Different Drum” from the heart with his own particular brand of grace, I love that Michael Nesmith thanks Linda for her part in the song’s story, and credits her infusion of her version with “a different level of passion and sensuality.” She was twenty-one at it’s first publishing.
Respect From & Collaboration With Ronstadt Contemporaries
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is filled with incredible way-back machine clips from her live performances, recorded interviews, official videos, and excerpts from her fantastic album catalog — perhaps the film would have been just as perceivably satisfying if that had made up its entire composition. But what makes this documentary special is the bevy of interviews with those that knew, and worked with, and loved this legend.
The interview cast included Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Brown, Cameron Crowe, Kevin Kline, David Geffen, Don Henley, Aaron Neville, and guitarist Waddy Wachtel (who had played with Stevie Nicks for her 24 Karat Gold Tour concert that I’d covered for LibroMusica.com).
These friends and colleagues helped to reveal in this film the preciousness of a singer who couldn’t read music but was a “pain in the ass” about harmony perfection — this person who couldn’t speak Spanish but loved traditional Mexican folk music so much she built an album that became the biggest-selling non-English-language album in U.S. music history — this woman who, unlike contemporaries I respect tremendously like singer-songwriters Carly Simon and Olivia Newton-John, didn’t (with few exceptions) write music but somehow made each song she sang entirely her own — this woman who made her way in a man’s man’s man’s world and garnered deep respect from so many men for doing it.
The Power of a Music Documentary To Influence Continued Listening
Today has been a whirlwind of inspiration. Though I walked in a Linda Ronstadt fan, I walked out excited about all the music I was going to give a re-listen, and all the music I was bucket-listing hearing for the first time.
I couldn’t wait to replay the video for her “Don’t Know Much” with Aaron Neville, and though it wasn’t included in “The Sound of My Voice,” I needed to play “All My Life” (also with Neville, both off Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, 1989), as soon as possible. I’m not even a particular fan of Mr. Neville, but (mad respect) these are two of the most romantic, beautiful pop duets ever. Their performance chemistry is utterly convincing and deeply affecting.
I come from a thick background in theatre and yet I’ve never seen a Gilbert & Sullivan play. Linda Ronstadt garnered Tony Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for her performances in the “Pirates of Penzance” stage and screen musicals respectively — and now my father and I have plans to watch it. What?!
The angel-voiced Emmylou Harris has never been properly introduced to me somehow until today, through the highlighting of her work and friendship with Linda Ronstadt, particularly in their trio projects with the priceless Dolly Parton — and now I’ve added all of Trio’s albums, as well as Harris’ catalogue, to my music service library. Next stop, Joni Mitchell.
I remembered I’d bought What’s New (1983), Ronstadt’s unexpected turnabout album of traditional pop standards, with my own allowance at the age of thirteen. I’m reminded I love this music, haven’t played anything like it in a long while, and I’m now looking forward to dedicating a few listening days to The Great American Songbook sometime soon. I bet someone special would enjoy listening with me.
I’m listening to traditional Mexican songs with a new ear and a new education that thirsts for more knowledge. I’ll be looking for opportunities to explore it, and can’t wait for moments of recognition of virtuosity.
Most surprisingly (and I won’t ruin the what?-really?-moment in the documentary that spurred this), I’ve listened to an album by character actor Harry Dean Stanton today, and I liked it! Crazy!
In Conclusion: Gratitude
I’m grateful for all those who supported Linda Ronstadt’s career, and to “The Sound of My Voice” producers Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman. She’s more of a hero to me as of today than I’d ever thought she’d been.
“Even though Linda Ronstadt’s my favorite female artist…–father, 74, of the author, 46
…and I knew I she was good…
I’m grateful for every time my father thanked me today for taking him to see “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” in the movie theater. It’s one of the special times together we’ll remember to the end of our days. And thanks to Regal’s Tara Cinemas here in Atlanta for showing this fantastic doc. Your popcorn didn’t suck, and I was happy to pay crazy concession prices because we were two of only maybe 20 people in this showing and it was totally worth it.
If you can’t #listenlive, if there’s a music documentary film playing at your local movie theater — go support it and positively reinforce these events with your dollars. Get up off your couch, put your phones completely away, and give it the respect of your focus. Then write me, tell me all about it and make sure I’m going out to see it too. Thank you!
And…. I’m super grateful for my Amazon Music Unlimited subscription. It’s beyond worth it and helped make today (really every day) such a joy.