Linda Ronstadt is an enigma. This extraordinary singer of Mexican-American descent has become many things to many people throughout her four decade career in the entertainment industry. To some, she’s a Grammy winner, winning a whopping 10 awards and being nominated for 17 of them. To others, she is a Tony Award winning stage actress, recognized as one of the finest singers to ever grace a musical. She is also known for being an Emmy winner, a Golden Globe recipient, and the winner of two American Country Music Awards. While she is many things to many people, to the Latino community, she is ours. Her album “Canciones de Mi Padre” is a testament to her heritage, having become the biggest non-English speaking album in the U.S. with over two million sold to date. Even more telling is her 2007 induction in the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, and her ALMA Trailblazer Award for Contribution to American Music.
Her accomplishments are nothing short of historical, and even more amazing considering the singer’s humble beginnings. Though her early family life on the Ronstadt’s 10 acre ranch in Tucson was filled with music and tradition, the singer was believes that she was just simply immersed into something she loved doing. “I could never quite get used to being a celebrity, or the idea that people were looking at me and I was up there with all the responsibility. It made me so uncomfortable that I would have preferred standing behind the amplifiers,” she says. This same humble singer would go on to cover Time Magazine, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone Magazine and eventually become one of the biggest selling female acts in Rock history, selling out arenas by the top and becoming a superstar in the late 70’s. It did not come without a price, however, as Ronstadt was always put into a box regarding her female gender in a typically male-dominated environment. “I walked differently, I became more foulmouthed. I mean, I swore so much I sounded like a truck driver. But that’s the way it was. I was the only girl on the road so the boys always kind of took charge. They were working for me, and yet it always seemed like I was working for them,” she says regarding her early solo touring days. After working with several backing bands, she found a successful line up with Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner, who would later form The Eagles. That’s right; The Eagles were her backup band. Boasting a vocal range from contralto to soprano, and a genius for interpreting a wide variety of genres and styles, her talent and presence were undeniable, regardless of the music industry’s notorious male bias.
Her initial career beginnings came as she sang folk music in a trio with her brother, Peter, and her sister, Suzy. They performed locally, singing a mixture of folk, country, bluegrass, and traditional Mexican music, a fusion Linda would later be known for. After attending college at the University of Arizona for one year, Linda packed her bags and moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of beginning a successful musical career. She found kindred spirits in the likes of songwriter Bob Kimmel, and guitarist-songwriter Kenny Edwards, and the three became known as “The Stone Poneys;” ultimately putting out three albums for Capitol records before disbanding. The music has cult-like status among Ronstadt admirers, even today. As she began her solo career, she released an album entitled “Hand Sewn…Home Grown” in 1969 and it is widely believed to be the first ever alternative-country album. The combination did not resonate well with all listeners at first. “Rock people thought she was too gentle, folk people thought she was too pop and pop people didn’t quite understand where she was at, but Country people really loved Linda,” quipped an article in Country Stars Magazine. Refusing to be pigeonholed in any type of genre, Linda didn’t care, citing an inspirational reason for remaining true to her influences. “I don’t record (any type of genre or music) that I didn’t hear in my family’s living room by the time I was 10. It just is my rule that I don’t break because….. I can’t do it authentically….I really think that you’re just hardwiring (synapses) in your brain up until the age of maybe 12 or 10, and there are certain things you can’t learn in an authentic way after that,” she states.
This resilience would go on to be her calling card, as her career would explode in the 70’s, thanks to the singer’s unique gift for succeeding in many musical avenues. Releasing eight different albums in that decade alone, Linda found chart success with many different types of songs, including her most widely known hit, coming in the form of 1977’s rendition of the Roy Orbison classic, “Blue Bayou.”1974’s “Heart Like A Wheel” album sold two million copies and produced the hits, “You’re no Good,” and “When Will I Be Loved.” She also saw chart success with many other songs, like “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” and “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” from the albums “Simple Dreams,” and “Hasten Down the Wind,” respectively. Her painfully beautiful and aching vocals are all at once easily recognizable and heart wrenching, attesting to her ability to resonate with many different audiences. The singer doesn’t shy away from her inspiration for singing this way. They haven’t invented a word for that loneliness that everybody goes through on the road,” she says, adding “Music is meant to lighten your load. By singing it, you release (the sadness). And release yourself; an exercise in exorcism. You exorcise that emotion, and diminish sadness and feel joy.” Her music being built off of emotion reflects the fact that she remains as passionate in the life she lives outside of the music industry, as she does on stage.
Beyond the numerous Billboard Awards, Grammy Awards, Tony Awards, Golden Globes, Emmys, ALMAs, magazine covers, sold out tours and critical acclaim, Linda remains a person, rather than just an entertainer with no substance. Her political activism is well documented, most recently in her stance against Arizona’s controversial SB1070 illegal immigration law. She began a campaign against the radical law and joined the lawsuit against it on April 29, 2010. “I think that this law is a devastating blow to law enforcement in Arizona. Without the trust of the community, their job becomes next to impossible,” she stated at the MALDEF conference this spring. “As an Arizona citizen and resident, coming here today I thought ‘Maybe I should have to bring my passport.’ The dirty little secret is that I’m probably not the one who would be pulled over because I’m light-skinned. It means that racial profiling is of course included in this, and we do not have to take this lying down, and the Mexican-Americans are not going to take this lying down. I wish that our leaders would have a little bit more wisdom so that it wouldn’t be coming to things like boycotts, tremendously hurt feelings, and destroyed community relations. We’re not giving good leadership in Arizona.” This same passion echoes in her fights for arts funding, and equality in many different arenas. But you don’t have to take my word for it; the soul searing vocals on “Canciones de Mi Padre” will prove that to you upon your first listen, and do better justice to this amazing woman than I could ever hope to do in a music column. Lowrider Magazine is proud to salute Linda Ronstadt, a true cultural hero and an inspiration for everyone, no matter your ethnic background.