With a career that spans rock, pop, country and everything in between, Linda Ronstadt knows no genre, only what her voice can accomplish. Her most famous recordings include "Heart Like a Wheel," "Desperado," "Faithless Love," and many more. But last month, Ronstadt revealed that she has Parkinson's disease and can no longer sing.
Her new memoir, Simple Dreams, reflects on a long career that was ended by the disease years before it was diagnosed. Her conversation with Fresh Air's Terry Gross finds Ronstadt offering her frank insights on sex, drugs, and why "competition was for horse races and it never belonged in art."
On letting go of perfection in the studio
"It's always like that when you record: You always think that you can do a better [job]. You know, the whole thing with recording is you have to know when to turn off the tape machine and just stop recording because you want to keep fixing, fixing, fixing, you know? In those days, we didn't fix anything."
On why she never got married
"The culture supports serial monogamy, and I think I had plenty of that, and I think I was reasonably monogamous in a serial way. But I'm not a good compromiser. I think I don't have the knack for that kind of compromise. I admire people's marriages, and I think it's a wonderful thing to have, but I don't think it's the only way to live. I think there are many ways to live and many ways to establish intimate support in your life that can be from family or friends or great roommates that you like. It doesn't have to be someone you're sleeping with. I figured that out pretty early on; that was sort of how I felt. I was trying to sing; I was never trying to get married. I think you have to be pretty deliberate about getting married."
On the other female artists she admires
"I always thought competition was for horse races and it never belonged in art. I never felt that competitive with other girl singers, really. I admired them; if I really admired them, I would try to find a way, if it was appropriate, to figure out a way to sing with them. I liked Maria Muldaur when I first started out. Now, there was somebody who was really sexy on stage. In fact, Janis [Joplin] admired her, too — she loved her. And I got to sing with Maria a little bit. It was really fun; we got to do some harmonies together.
"Mainly, when I ran into Emmylou Harris, that was it, you know? We could finish each other's sentences musically, and personally, too. We have a very shared, similar sensibility. And that was a friendship that really opened up a tremendous number of musical doors for me."
On sex and vulnerability
"Men are very delicate. They don't like being rejected. I mean, the whole game of sex, it's difficult. I feel sorry for everybody. You really put yourself on the line, it's a tremendously vulnerable position to be in, and we have this biology that drives us in this direction, and we have this culture that puts all these stupid rules on it. Puritanical, idiotic, rigid structure around it that doesn't have anything to do with nature, and it's a wonder that anybody ever gets laid or has a baby."
On wanting to leave Capitol Records
"I just didn't think they really got who I was, and to their credit, how could they know? Because I was still shaping who I was; I was morphing into something. It took me 10 years to learn how to sing, really, and to figure out who I was stylistically. But I had always loved Hank Williams, and I had always loved country songs; I could play them on the guitar because there were three chords. I liked singing them and they were good harmonies and they had great sentiment. Again, I had this manager that said, 'That's too country for rock or too rock for country; you'll never sell any records.' But I liked those songs, so I sang them."
On her avoidance of drugs
"I'm a person who is too sensitive for drugs. I'd smoke pot and I'd be hopelessly confused and hungry and sort of paranoid and want to hide under the bed. I just felt like I couldn't cope. If I tried to do it on stage, I couldn't remember the words, and I thought, 'Well, who needs this?' And cocaine just made me real jittery and made me really nervous and talk really fast, and I talk fast enough already. And also, what I'm really truly addicted to is reading. I love to read, and reading was my hedge against boredom on the road, because you're always just flying on a plane or riding on a train or riding on a bus, and it's just endless hours of boring travel, and I always had a book. I was never bored, because I could always find out something really interesting. If I tried drugs, I couldn't remember the sentence I had just read. It just wasn't a thing that worked for me."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Linda Ronstadt, revealed last month that she has Parkinson's disease and can no longer sing. Today her new memoir was published, reflecting on her long career, a career that was ended by the disease years before it was even diagnosed.
Ronstadt recorded her first hit in 1967, "Different Drum," under the name of her band, the Stone Poneys. She went on to sell more than 100 million records. Her best-known recordings including "Heart Like a Wheel," "Desperado," "You're No Good," "When Will I Be Loved," "Willin'," and "Blue Bayou."
Her rise to stardom coincided with the height of the '60s counterculture and the music associated with it, making her a focal point in a world far removed from her Catholic upbringing in Tucson. But she didn't remain tied to the popular music of her time. Against the recommendation of her record label, she recorded an album of standards with arranger Nelson Riddle that turned into a surprise hit and led to a couple of other albums from the American songbook. And she recorded albums of the Mexican songs she learned from her Mexican grandfather and her father.
Ronstadt's new memoir is called "Simple Dreams." Let's start with a song that was a No. 1 hit for her in 1975.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE NO GOOD")
LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) Feeling better now that we're through, feeling better 'cause I'm over you. I learned my lesson, it left a scar. Now I see how you really are. You're no good, you're no good, you're no good, baby, you're no good...
GROSS: Linda Ronstadt, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a great pleasure to have you on our show.
RONSTADT: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Your book about your life and music is being published soon after learning that you have Parkinson's, which explains why you've been unable to sing for several years. Is it hard to talk about your music career now that you can't sing anymore?
RONSTADT: Well, not really. I mean, you know, everything comes in its season. And I will say, I had a long turn at the trough. So that's what I - you know, I'm grateful for the time I had. I got to live a lot of my dreams, and I feel lucky about it.
GROSS: Was it a relief to have an explanation, even though the explanation means that you won't be able to sing again? And you have - you know, you have a bad disease. But still, did it help to know...
RONSTADT: Well, at least - I mean I would be saying for years I was struggling onstage. I was having such a hard time singing because I didn't have any muscle control. And, you know, you have exquisite muscle control when you're singing. There's just a lot of things that have to be coordinated on an exquisite level. So I just couldn't do it, and I didn't know why. I knew how to sing all my whole life.
RONSTADT: So yes, it was a relief to know, but I'd rather it had been measles or something I was going to get over. But, you know, that's the breaks.
GROSS: How's the rest of your body? How's walking?
RONSTADT: Well, walking isn't too much fun these days. I'm really slow. I've got that, you know, bradykinesia. I'm very slow with my hands too. It's hard to brush my teeth. It's hard to wash my hair. The worst thing is, I love to knit - and I can't knit. So that - you know, there are just things that I have to - you know, I have to find some other thing to do to make myself useful, and it's important to do that, I think.
GROSS: Well, I want to talk with you about your childhood and your family tree. Reading your memoir, I was just astonished by the richness of your family tree. So let's start with your grandfather, who - correct me if I'm wrong - was born in Mexico and had a hardware store in Arizona.
RONSTADT: In Tucson, yeah.
GROSS: And had a lot of business that came across the border from Mexico. And tell us about his music background.
RONSTADT: Well, he was the one in Tucson who taught everybody how to play their instruments and assembled a band and wrote the arrangements and wrote a lot of compositions for the band. And he was like the Music Man, except he really knew how to play music and how to read. And he was an autodidact. He had quite a rich education. He only went to I think seventh grade in terms of formal schooling, but he was a wide reader and loved opera, loved classical music, you know, loved art.
And all those elements were there. You know, and his life, it was a rich life, artistically. He was a rancher, that's how he made his living in Arizona. It's a tough gig because it's the desert, and sometimes there's no water, and then there are no cattle, you know.
RONSTADT: So he went through some tough times. He went through the Depression. But he also was - he was apprentice to a blacksmith when he was a teenager, and so he made - he had the reputation in southern Arizona for making the most beautiful wagons and buggies, you know, like the luxury - like the equivalent of a Mercedes that you would drive around in a horse and carriage.
GROSS: Did he do a lot of Mexican songs?
RONSTADT: Oh yeah. You know, if you wanted to serenade your sweetheart, you'd get my grandfather's band to go and serenade her at 2:00 in the morning.
RONSTADT: And if you had to have a military parade, well, my grandfather's band was the one you would get, you know. And if you had a wedding or a funeral, well, they'd show up for that. I mean, in those days you had to make your own music. You couldn't get it off the radio. You couldn't get it from YouTube. You couldn't download it. You had to make it yourself, and that's what he did.
GROSS: So while we're talking about some of the music he introduced you to and the music he played, let me play a track from the first of I think three albums that you did of Mexican and Spanish songs. And...
RONSTADT: They're Mexican songs, yeah.
GROSS: Mexican songs. And the title of the album "Canciones De Mi Padre," is the same title that your aunt gave a collection of songs and stories that she published.
RONSTADT: Yes, my aunt was a singer and a dancer, and she was a music scholar, you know, in the teens and '20s of the 20th century. And she traveled all over Mexico and also went to Spain, and she collected all these different regional songs and dances. And she wrote a letter home to my grandfather saying that she had discovered a guitar player that she thought was absolutely wonderful, and she thought he was so brilliant.
And he could hold the attention of the audience when she left the stage to change her costumes. And she wanted to bring him to the United States because she was sure he would be a huge hit there and become a star in his own right. And the guitar player was Andres Segovia.
GROSS: And did he come here because of her?
RONSTADT: I don't know. I mean, I'm sure she encouraged him to. But I mean, he - people, that kind of talent, they make it on their own.
GROSS: Right, right.
RONSTADT: She just didn't get in the way, you know.
GROSS: So the song I want...
RONSTADT: Kind of like being the Eagles. You know, I didn't get in their way. They...
GROSS: They were your backup band before they became famous.
RONSTADT: They were my backup band, and I just got out of the way.
GROSS: So the song I want to play from your first album of Mexican songs is - and I'm going to say this wrong, "Rogaciano El Huapanguero."
RONSTADT: Huapanguero, yeah, "Rogaciano El Huapanguero." A huapango is a certain kind of song, it's a style of singing.
GROSS: Just there's so much emotion in this song. Just say a few words about it before we hear it.
RONSTADT: Well it's - this music is typical of the mountain regions, and I guess in mountain regions people develop a kind of a yodeling style because they can throw their voice across - you know, they don't have a telephone, so they yodel. And so there's a beautiful kind of a haunting, romantic kind of break in the voice that makes it typical of a - that's typical of a huapango. They're my favorites.
And there's a rhythm underneath that is - it would be written in European time signature as 6/8, but it's not really a 6/8. It's a 6/8 with a kind of hitch in the gate. You've got to grow up in that region and sort of know how to count it. It's very much an indigenous Mexican rhythm.
GROSS: OK, so this is Linda Ronstadt from her first album of Mexican songs, "Canciones De Mi Padre," from 1987.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROGACIANO EL HUAPANGUERO")
GROSS: That's my guest Linda Ronstadt, recorded in 1987. She has a new memoir, which is called "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir." We were talking about how your grandfather introduced you to these kinds of songs and sang these kinds of songs. Your father sang, too. I was surprised to read that Paul Whiteman invited your father to be the boy singer in his band. And, I mean, that's where Bing Crosby got his start.
RONSTADT: Yeah, that was a huge deal, because in those days, he was the most well-known bandleader in the country. So that was quite an honor. My father had a beautiful, beautiful baritone voice. He sounded like a cross between Pedro Infante and Frank Sinatra. And he just had wonderful stories in his singing.
And always, you know, if there was a dinner party or something, he'd get the guitar out, you know, about 10 or 11 o'clock, and everybody would start to listen, and he'd just sing. And then people would talk for a while, and then he'd sing a little bit more. And I always would fall asleep in somebody's lap listening to my dad sing some beautiful song, you know. It was a beautiful memory.
GROSS: On your mother's side of the family, her father was Lloyd Copeman, who was an inventor, and...
RONSTADT: Yeah, he was a famous inventor. He invented, well, the electric toaster, the electric stove, all the timing devices. He invented the thermostat for Westinghouse, basically.
RONSTADT: And he invented the pneumatic grease gun, and he invented a dripless paint thing that you put on your paint can, so it doesn't drip down the side. It's still in use today. He invented a tamper-proof envelope for the FBI, all kinds of things that he did. You know, he was kind of the Gyro Gearloose of his time. But he worked alone. He was the third to Thomas Edison in number of useful inventions sometime in the '50s, you know, that he had made, but he worked all by himself. Thomas Edison worked with teams and teams of people. So I always say my grandfather kind of beat him a little bit.
GROSS: So that leads me to wonder, I mean, did you grow up wealthy? Did your mother inherit a lot of money? That's a lot of inventions.
RONSTADT: No. My grandmother had Parkinson's disease, and it took all his money. He had - he was wealthy from time - you know, at certain times, but he spent all his money trying to find a cure for Parkinson's disease.
GROSS: Which is what you have now.
RONSTADT: It's what I have now, yeah. It's a gene, I guess. I mean, I think that's - a gene is one of the things that - they don't know what causes it, but I think that genetic is one of the ways you can get it.
GROSS: Wait, you mean, so he tried to invent a cure, as an inventor, to come up with a cure for...
RONSTADT: Well, he tried to - you know, he searched everywhere and tried to - you know, people would say, you know, we can cure it. Give us this much money. And he just went through his money trying to find a way to fix her, I think. He loved her so much. I remember seeing her in her declining years with Parkinson's disease, when she couldn't walk, and she couldn't talk. So it's pretty scary, you know, when I think about - Parkinson's works differently in different people.
So I don't really know. I don't have a crystal ball. I don't really know what's going to happen to me, but I hope it's not going to be what happened to my grandmother. But, you know, it could be.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Ronstadt, and she has a new memoir called "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir." Let's take a short break, here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Linda Ronstadt. She has a new memoir called "Simple Dreams." So you form a band with friends, the Stone Poneys, which eventually has the hit "Different Drum" in 1967. But that was their second album. The first album, it was a harmony group, and you weren't, like, the lead singer Linda Ronstadt. It was a band. You sang harmonies.
I hadn't heard that early work until I was preparing for this interview, and I was really interested in hearing how the early Stone Poneys sound. So I want to play the first track from that first album. This is "Sweet Summer Blue and Gold." And do you just want to say a few words about this, and about what the band was about in those early days?
RONSTADT: Well, Bobby Kimmel was a guy that I met in Tucson. He was kind of a blues guitar player, but he doesn't - but then he writes stuff that wasn't bluesy. He wrote songs and stories about his own life and his own experiences for his own vocal register, which was very different from mine.
So, you know, they weren't songs that would be good for me to sing as a soloist, but so we just - you know, we put them together. And we had Kenny Edwards, who was a really wonderful guitar player and a good musician that I met really early on, and he was part of the group, too. And so he hadn't thought of himself as a singer, but we just put the harmonies together. We just kind of fit them together, and sort of like throwing against the wall, you know, and see if it stuck.
GROSS: All right, so this is Linda Ronstadt with the Stone Poneys, the first album that they released.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SUMMER BLUE AND GOLD")
GROSS: So that was the Stone Poneys, with my guest Linda Ronstadt, and that was before "Different Drum." This was from their first album. And Linda Ronstadt has a new memoir, which is called "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir."
So that's so folk-influenced. Was that the direction you were heading in?
RONSTADT: Well, that's what we came from, you know. That's - on the radio in those days, the radio was so wide open, you could hear a jazz song, the Singing Nun, a country song, and, you know, Peter, Paul and Mary, you know, doing sort of what was considered commercial folk music.
And we heard a lot of that stuff, and we were really influenced by it, you know, that kind of finger-picking guitar style and stuff like that. So that's what we were chasing then.
GROSS: You got a manager, and your manager thought you should really be, like, the soloist. He wasn't that hot on the band, but he liked you, and thought he could really promote you. And then you're ready to record "Different Drum," and you show up to the studio, and, like, your band's not there. It's these different musicians. Tell the story of what happened.
RONSTADT: Well, originally, we had recorded - I had heard it, it was a song called "Different Drum." I'd learned it off a bluegrass record by the Greenbriar Boys. And I thought it was a really strong piece of material. I thought it was a hit. But I wanted to record it in a folky way.
RONSTADT: So we recorded it with a guitar and a mandolin. And, of course, you know, the record company didn't like it. And they said, well, we want to do it again, but we're going to get a different arrangement. And I had no idea there was going to be all these musicians. It turns out they were all good players. Don Randi was playing. Jimmy Gordon was the drummer, a wonderful drummer.
GROSS: Don Randi was playing harpsichord.
RONSTADT: Yeah, Don Randi was playing harpsichord, and he played piano. So I was just shocked. And when they played the arrangement, I didn't know how to fit the phrasing in. I didn't - it suddenly wasn't the way I was used to singing it. So it really knocked me off my stride. And I think we went through it twice, and we kept the second take. And that was it, you know, me sort of going I know how to do this now.
RONSTADT: And it was a hit. You know, what was I supposed to know? I mean, I was just shocked. I didn't want them to use it, because I felt like I was struggling so with the singing, and I thought that showed, you know, so clearly. But it was a hit. So when they put it out, that was a lucky thing for me that they didn't listen to me.
GROSS: So this is my guest Linda Ronstadt, "Different Drum," 1967.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT DRUM")
GROSS: That's Linda Ronstadt, recorded in 1967, a big hit for her, "Different Drum," her first big hit. Did you believe in the lyric about not wanting to be tied down or monogamistic? Like, did that describe you?
RONSTADT: Well, I didn't want - yeah. Yes, it did.
RONSTADT: Yes, it does.
GROSS: Never been married, right?
RONSTADT: No knack for it. You know, I think that the culture supports serial monogamy, and I think I had plenty of that. And I think I was reasonably monogamous in a serial way. But I'm not a good compromiser. I think I don't have a knack for the kind of compromise - I admire people's marriages, and I think it's a wonderful thing to have, but I don't think it's the only way to live. I think there are many ways to live, and many ways to establish intimate support in your life that can be from family or friends or a great roommate that you like, you know. It doesn't have to be somebody you're sleeping with.
I figured that out pretty early on, and that was sort of how I felt. I was trying to sing. I was never trying to get married.
GROSS: Speaking of figuring out, you write in the book about how you had to figure out your image. And you write: Female performers in the folk-pop genre were genuinely confused about how to represent themselves. Did we want to be nurturing, stay-at-home Earth mothers who cooked and nursed babies? Or did we want to be funky mamas in the troubadour bar, our boot heals to be wandering an independent course like our male counterparts?
So, where did you see yourself fitting in between, like, the funky mama and the Earth mama?
RONSTADT: Well, I didn't really fit in there. I was raised to, you know, to a wear hat and gloves and polish the silver, and it wasn't the way I was quite raised. So I was a little bit confused by it. But I was also raised out in the country, you know, where we were sort of rough-and-ready child. I was kind of right out there on my own, rolling around in the desert. So I had a little bit of both.
And my mother, there was nothing pretentious or fussy about my mother, but she had had a very nice upbringing, a very privileged upbringing, and she liked to keep the rules sort of, you know, where we lived, way out in the wilderness in Tucson in the desert, which was pretty uncivilized, compared to what she'd grown up, you know, having.
GROSS: Linda Ronstadt will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "Simple Dreams." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Linda Ronstadt. She's written a new memoir called "Simple Dreams." Ronstadt had her first hit in 1967 with the song "Different Drum." Some of her other best-known recordings include: "Heart Like A Wheel," "Desperado," "You're No Good," "When Will I Be Loved," "Willing" and "Blue Bayou." She's also recorded albums of American popular song and Mexican songs.
Last month, Ronstadt revealed that she has Parkinson's disease. It was diagnosed less than a year ago, but the symptoms ended her singing career several years before that. When we left off, we were talking about her difficulty figuring out her public image early in her career, feeling she didn't quite fit into the folk-pop images of the Earth Mother or the Funky Mama.
I remember the rumor about Janice Joplin was - and I don't know if you heard this because you were in the music industry, so - and you actually knew her, but at a distance...
RONSTADT: Not well, but I knew her little bit.
GROSS: Right. But at a distance, when like all of her fans were preparing for like the concert, you know, in the college auditorium, like the rumor that went around was like Janis Joplin got so deep into the sexuality of her songs that she actually reached orgasm on stage.
RONSTADT: Oh my god. Well, I never heard that.
GROSS: I doubt that was true, but...
RONSTADT: I've never personally had that experience myself, but...
GROSS: I assumed that. But did you feel like you have to compete with that kind of image and that kind of like level of sexuality that people projected onto her?
RONSTADT: No. I think competition is for horse races and I never thought it belonged in art. And I never felt that competitive with other girl singers, really. I admired them. If I really admired them, I'd try to figure out a way - if it was appropriate, just figure out a way - to sing with them. You know, I liked Maria Muldaur when I first started out. Now, there was somebody that was really sexy on stage. And, in fact, Janice just admired her too, she loved her. And I got to sing with Maria little bit. It was really fun. We did some harmonies together. But mainly when I ran into Emmylou Harris, that was it. You know, we could finish each other's sentences musically, and personally too. We have a very shared, similar sensibility, and that was a friendship that really opened up a tremendous number of musical doors for me.
GROSS: I love the way you write about first hearing her. That, you know, you loved her singing so much, and the songs that she was singing were the songs you'd wanted to be able to sing, if you record company had let you.
RONSTADT: And just like that, if I could.
GROSS: Yeah. And you said you had a choice. You could either just be like really jealous or meet her and try to sing with her, and you chose to meet her and sing with her. I like that story.
RONSTADT: I remember that so clearly. It was just like running into a glass wall at 150 miles an hour. I just went, oh my god, it was like a slap in the face, you know, and I thought, OK, I can get jealous here or I can just love this person and admire her and just go with it and see what I can learn. And it was just a split second, but I made that decision and it was - I never looked back. It was the best decision I ever made.
GROSS: Yeah. You have a few stories in your new memoir about being propositioned by men who assumed hey, it's a hippie chick singer, free love.
RONSTADT: It's so funny.
GROSS: Yeah. Like...
GROSS: For example, the time when a producer of a TV show that you were doing, you were a guest on the show. He came into your room on the premise that you had to talk about business, and he immediately like stripped off all his clothes.
RONSTADT: He took all his clothes off. I was so shocked because I'm really kind of modest, you know, I had a Catholic school upbringing and we just didn't see a lot of naked bodies. And this guy, I'm telling you, was not the Adonis of show business. He was kind of...
RONSTADT: There was something really kind of exhibitionistic and self-hating about what he was doing.
RONSTADT: I felt sorry for him. I mean it was - clearly he was so troubled. But, you know, he had the power and I didn't have any. And so I just kind of edged to the door and edged to the door and then I just went out the door. You know, and I didn't come back for a couple of hours, I went and sat in the lobby. And I was so bored and I was so mad down there sitting in the lobby, but - because I wanted to go to bed, but I was just afraid to go back to my room. And in those days, you know, when you were kind of low man on the pecking order, or low woman on the pecking order, you didn't dare go and complain. I called my manager and he said don't say anything because, you know, they might kick you off the show. I mean you did the show, so...
GROSS: So while we're talking about this kind of stuff, I thought this was hysterical. In 1971 you perform at Disneyland. And the contract stipulated that you had to wear a bra and your skirt had to be a certain number of inches from the ground when you were kneeling. Which led me to wonder...
RONSTADT: Yeah. Not very many inches.
GROSS: Yeah. They seemed, so your skirt had to be long enough. Had they seen your act and known that, well, sometimes you don't wear a bra and that you kneel in your show?
RONSTADT: No. They just, that was just the rules, that if you wanted to work for Disneyland, you...
GROSS: For anybody?
RONSTADT: And I was laughing. I was going to put the bra my head, you know, it didn't say in the contract. But I really needed to get paid.
They paid really well at Disneyland, that's why we did those silly gigs. But, you know, they always have these silly laws. I think they were a very uptight organization.
GROSS: In your memoir you write about how when you found the song "Heart Like A Wheel," the Anna McGarrigle song, which she sang with her sister Kate, that that song rearranged your entire musical landscape. First, let's start with why did you musical landscape need rearranging?
RONSTADT: Well, I'd come from this kind of sensibility. My grandfather loved opera, he loved "La Traviata," that was his favorite opera, that's my favorite opera. And he had this kind of, you know, arty, refined sensibility, but he also look traditional music and he loved Mexican music, he was really passionate about that. So, and the same with my father, you know, he liked those things too. So the McGarrigles kind of married this incredibly traditional sort of refined aesthetic with, you know, just telling it like it is - sort of straight out, no bones about it the way they talk about stuff. And it was just this unabashed sentiment. They were unafraid of female sentiment.
And I don't know, there's something in the water up there in Canada because my favorite writers are the McGarrigles sisters, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot - oh my god, what a great ballad writer - Joni Mitchell. I mean, you know, they're just, they're completely unique great writers. And in a lot of ways they're falling in the tradition of what it would be called art song. And that's what I was seeing with the McGarrigles. I thought, I didn't know what to call it then but I just knew it was different from folk music and it wasn't the same as rock 'n roll. It wasn't, there was no place for it in pop music on the charts, but I wanted to sing it because it told my story exactly how I felt at the time about, you know, what I was feeling about my life and my relationships. And I just had to sing it. And I tried it for a couple - and I sang it for couple of different guys. And, you know, my manager at the time, he said, oh, that's just too corny. You know, nobody's going to want to listen to that. And the record company wasn't interested in it. They said, oh, that's not a hit, they'll never play that on the radio. So I just kind of, it sort of hurt my feelings on behalf of the song, and I sort of fold it up tuck it in my pocket.
And then one night before we were going to play at Carnegie Hall and the night before I was rehearsing with my piano player, Andrew Gold, and he had learned the song some other place. I don't know where he learned it. And he was just playing the introduction to it. I said, I know that song, let's do it. So I sang through it and of course, you know, I knew all the words and everything and I said let's put it in the show. We put it in the next night at Carnegie Hall, got a huge response. So that was how I won with that song, I just kept trying, you know.
GROSS: Well, it ended up being the title track of a 1974 album. Let's hear it. This is my guest, Linda Ronstadt, singing "Heart Like A Wheel."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART LIKE A WHEEL")
GROSS: That's my guest Linda Ronstadt, singing "Heart Like A Wheel," the title track of her 1974 album. That also included "When Will I Be Loved," "Willing," "Faithless Love."
I think it was after "Heart Like A Wheel," you go to your record company, Capitol Records, and you basically beg them to let you go because you couldn't record what you wanted to record with them.
RONSTADT: Well, they weren't - I just didn't think they really got who I was, and I mean to their credit, how could they know? Because I was still shaping who I was.
RONSTADT: I was morphing into something. It took me 10 years to learn how to sing, really, and to figure out, you know, who I was stylistically. So, but I had always loved Hank Williams, and I had always loved his country songs. And I could play them on the guitar because there were three chords. And I liked singing them and they were good harmonies and they were great sentiment. So - and again, I had this manager that said, oh, that's too country for rock and too rock for country; you'll never sell any records, you know. But I liked those songs, so I sang them.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more with Linda Ronstadt. She has a new memoir called "Simple Dreams."
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Linda Ronstadt. She has a new memoir about her singing career called "Simple Dreams."
One of the big decisions you made in your career is that you wanted to sing standards. You wanted to sing songs like Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney had recorded.
GROSS: And you wanted to do it with Nelson Riddle...
GROSS: ...who had done arrangements for both of them. And you were lucky enough to actually record three albums with him. So let's go back for a moment. How did you first know the American Song Stan Book? Sorry, Song Book.
RONSTADT: I'm glad that was you and not me.
RONSTADT: Well, I...
GROSS: You're welcome. Yeah.
RONSTADT: I heard it on the - first on the Victrola and then on the big hi-fi monaural record player that my father brought home in the '50s. He brought it home with a bunch of records. He brought Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, duets that were just fabulous. And he looked brought Peggy Lee and June Christy and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. There were a lot of people that could, really knew how to sing that stuff, and those were brilliant songs. They're just, they're, if - I think that if the American - what the United States gave to world culture at large - especially in the 20th century - was the American popular song, and it was a wonder to behold.
GROSS: The title of the album is "What's New." That's a song that so many people have sung. What spoke to you about that song?
RONSTADT: Well, I'd had experiences like that, where you run into an old boyfriend that maybe you're still carrying a little torch for and, you know, you see him and it just kind of brings back all those old feelings and you have a brief little encounter with him on the street and you go on by like nothing ever happened and it's kind of a devastating experience. And that song just describes it in very subtle innuendos, you know, it doesn't, it's not instructive. It doesn't say this is what happened, the story, the story, the story. It just kind of supplies these little details and you put the story together yourself - like a good arguing, like a good trial lawyer.
GROSS: OK. This is Linda Ronstadt from her first album of standards. The album is "What's New."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S NEW")
GROSS: That's Linda Ronstadt from her first album of standards, which was called "What's New," and the first of three albums in which she collaborated with the arranger Nelson Riddle.
Did you, do you feel like you learned things about music or about, you know, how singing fits in with an arrangement by working with Nelson Riddle?
RONSTADT: Well, I learned a tremendous amount. I mean I told Nelson in the beginning, I had the chutzpah to tell him I needed a really custom fit and that I liked to be involved in the way the arrangements were set. I didn't kid my, you know, I can do simple arrangements myself. I've done some very simple string writing and some very simple - and I can to pretty complicated harmony arrangements. But I knew that I was way over my head with anything like this. And he was one of the great masters of the style, if not the great master for pop music.
So - but I said I wanted a custom fit. So he came over to my house in the morning and we would go through things. And he's the only person I ever let - allowed him to correct me on a key. Like I'd usually pick the key out of the air and every once in a while he'd say, no, it'd be better if you moved it up a little bit or down a little bit. And he'd always be right.
But, you know, I remember in one song I asked for a modulation, you know, just to kind of brighten up the arrangement and give it a little - keep it from getting too boring, you know? And he said, oh, I can do a trick. He said I can modulate - modulation usually modulates it up to a higher key and it brightens. He said I'll give it - I'll modulate to a lower key. And it gave it this incredible mood shift, you know?
I was just always floored by the things that Nelson came up with and he always had a real reason for however he cast his arrangements. The woodwinds would have a certain place in the mix. You know, it would be just supporting something or they'd be speaking out more prominently or the strings would be in the background, they'd be speaking out more prominently. He always knew actually where to cast the instruments so that they supported the story and illustrated the story.
GROSS: He - Nelson Riddle died while doing the arrangements for your third album together. That must've been devastating.
RONSTADT: It was devastating because there was only one Nelson Riddle. They don't make any more like him. And you know, it was the end of an era in a certain way. And we still had one track to record after he died and we did. Musicians were crying in the orchestra because they all loved Nelson. You know, he'd given them so much work over the years and he appreciated what, you know, what their abilities were.
And his son was also playing in the trombone section. He was crying. It was pretty tough that day.
GROSS: In your memoir you write about your father's death in 1995 and you write that it changed your thoughts about death, that he faced death with great courage and it changed the way that you feel about death. And you write: While I don't embrace it, I no longer fear it in the same way. Can you - would it be too personal to ask you to talk a little bit about his death and how that changed you?
RONSTADT: Well, we were all with him. His entire family was with him. He was in his own bed instead of in the hospital, you know, which is an enviable way to die. I think he had what I would describe as a beautiful death with people who had loved him all his life and revered him and respected him. And all of his children. There's something about wanting to connect with your children before you die. I don't know what that is.
But there was kind of a peace that happened when he died that went through the room. I was needlepointing and somebody else was doing something else and we were all just sitting there with him, you know? We knew what was going on; he knew what was going on. He had, the day before, recited a 20 verse limerick from memory.
And he was reading - in the three or four days that he was in bed before he died, he was reading to us passages from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book "Love in the Time of Cholera," and it just tickled him. So he was laughing. Because there are a couple of passages that are really funny. He was laughing so hard at them.
And he and my nephews, his grandchildren, were - had his Audubon bird book and they were looking at the birds that were in the yard, coming and going in the yard, looking them up in the book. And it was just a great sharing, you know? But it was a different experience having - being with my father when he died than it was being with my mother.
I wasn't with my mother when she died and I just couldn't quite get it through my head that she was gone out of the world and I was never going to see her again. It was much harder to make a relationship to her as a dead person than it was with my father, who I saw him die and I understood that it was final and that that was going to be it. I knew I was going to miss him but I accepted it better.
GROSS: You've probably...
RONSTADT: It was just an easier burden.
GROSS: You've probably known a lot of people who've died young, and I'm thinking, just to name a few - Gram Parsons, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison.
RONSTADT: Yeah. Well, we had the great culling, you know, of people that took drugs and it was just a disaster and a tragedy. It was just so sad that those people didn't get to live out full lives. And then there was the next one, which was the AIDS epidemic, which was another just terrible tragedy. You know, that all those people had to die. You know, there are a lot of people that are gone from "Pirates of Penzance," most of them, in fact.
GROSS: From the production that you were in?
RONSTADT: Yeah. You know, the music director and a lot of the stars. And they're gone. It's a shame. They had amazing careers and they should - they had many more years in them they could've been around. So there was two. So then the next...
GROSS: Are you saying that that was because of AIDS?
RONSTADT: Yeah, because of AIDS.
RONSTADT: And then now is, you know, old age. You know, people are dropping around my generation, the senior - it's like the senior class in high school. Now we're the seniors and we're looking around going, eww, we're next. But that's the way it is, you know. We're all going to die.
GROSS: Do you still feel like a bit of a survivor because you made it through this far?
RONSTADT: Well, I didn't die young.
RONSTADT: I feel like...
GROSS: You can say that.
RONSTADT: Whatever I've got - I just feel whatever I've got now is gravy. I feel like I was lucky. I got to live out a lot of my dreams and I got to, you know, sing with all of these wonderful people like Emmy Lou and Aaron Neville and, you know, Smoky Robinson. I mean, the tenors - I sang with Aaron Neville, Smoky Robinson, Placido Domingo, Dennis Wilson, Ricky Skaggs. I mean how can you beat that, you know, for tenors?
So I was lucky. And having a singing sister like Emmy Lou Harris, what a gift in my life. You know, she opened doors for me musically that I never would've been able to open by myself. Because she was as passionate as I was about offbeat, quirky, you know, art song and traditional music. She didn't care whether it was going to be a hit or not either. She just wanted to sing it if it really told her story.
There was nothing that was going to get in the way of her telling her story. So she - and if that told it the best - she was going to do that song and do it right. So you know, we just - it was like going through the woods with - like Hansel and Gretel. You know, leave them a little trail of breadcrumbs. We left our little notes behind and hoped we could find our way back.
GROSS: My guest is Linda Ronstadt. She has a new memoir called "Simple Dreams." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Linda Ronstadt. She has a new memoir called "Simple Dreams." Last month she revealed she has Parkinson's disease, which wasn't diagnosed until a few months ago, even though the symptoms ended her singing career years before that. I want to close with a song from your final album, "Humming to Myself" from 2004. And this is - this song "Tell Him I Said Hello."
RONSTADT: Oh, I'm glad you picked that. That's my favorite one.
GROSS: Oh, good. So is this - did you know this would be your final album when you recorded it?
RONSTADT: It wasn't my final album. I made an album after that, that I'm really proud of, called - it was (unintelligible) called "Adieu False Heart" that I made with Ann Savoy down in the Cajun country. And it's - I had no voice left and I was just crafting whatever I could craft together, but I hung onto Ann and we sang this harmony duet and it was an unusual sound. I really loved that record.
But I was also really proud of this record because it was really hard to sing at this point when I was recording. And again, I had to find a new voice to sing with that I put together, especially for this song, just "Tell Him I Said Hello." But I love this song. It's one of those kind of things, again, where it's just a moment where you're remembering, you know, the regret of a past relationship.
And you think you want to sort of reach out to that person and then you realize you'd better not. And so you just leave it alone.
GROSS: When you say you had to, like, refashion your voice, like, what did you have to do differently in these early stages of Parkinson's when you were still singing?
RONSTADT: Well, I was singing on sort of the flat lower part of my voice. I didn't have all the color and the breath and the sort of airy halo that comes. There's a lot of different textures that you can dial in and out on an unconscious level when you're singing. And you just bring in these colors and textures and they all express emotion in some way or another. And I didn't have that with me.
I was - I thought of myself as a painter that was painting with a limited palette. So I thought, well, I've got some darks and lights here and I've got some - maybe some umber, you know, and I can put that in. And I just have to make a really strong drawing, make the image as bold as I can. And that's what I was trying to do with this song.
GROSS: Do you still enjoy listening to music?
RONSTADT: I love music. I prefer music - always prefer to hear live music over recorded music. Which sounds odd, as I was a recording artist, but of course when I was recording, it was live - so my experience recording was always with live music. But I love to go the symphony. I feel it's a privilege to live in a city that can support a symphony and I feel the same way about the opera. I love the opera. And I love the ballet.
So, you know, those are things I like to see. I love chamber music and I have dear friends that still come over and they play their new songs that they've written and that's my favorite place for music, is just in the living room with some dear friends whose music you admire. And you just get to sit down and really, really, really listen with nothing distracting you. You know? No audience, no stage, no sound system, nothing.
Just that singer and a story. I love that the best.
GROSS: Well, Linda Ronstadt, it's just been such a pleasure to talk with you and I wish you the best.
RONSTADT: Well, thank you so much. It's been my pleasure too.
GROSS: Thank you. And Linda Ronstadt's new memoir is called "Simple Dreams" and here she is from her 2004 recording "Humming to Myself." This is "Tell Him I Said Hello." Thank you again.
RONSTADT: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL HIM I SAID HELLO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.