In 1965 aged just 20 Linda Ronstadt left behind her Arizona home and headed off to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming a success on the folk music scene. The night she left her father took gave her a gift of a Martin acoustic guitar and told her what his Mexican father had once said to him: “Ahora que tienes guitarra, nunca tendras hambre” (Now you own a guitar you will never go hungry). Those words would prove true. Ronstadt’s long and illustrious career is explored in Simple Dreams, her excellent self-penned memoir which takes us from the deserts of her childhood, to her chart success and beyond.
Raised in rural Arizona, Ronstadt was schooled in the Mexican folk songs of her grandfather, as well as Hank Williams and other country music greats but it was the sixties folk pop scene which really called out to her. She got her start in LA playing open mics at the Troubadour and formed the Stone Poneys which gained attention and a record deal, releasing their first album in 1967. Ronstadt outlines how she would look for the right songs for the band to sing, discovering Different Drum and turning it into a hit. Not being a songwriter herself has often counted against Ronstadt when assessing country music history but her talent for finding songs is second to none.
Going solo was inevitable for a singer as good as Ronstadt and it was this decision which would lead to her pivot towards country music. With no songs of her own she began to look back to songs from her youth, recording them with in her distinctive Californian country rock style. She invented that sound and again, you think she deserves more credit for seeking out the musicians and songs to fuel her artistic vision.
The story behind recording the song ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ is an interesting one, illuminating her talent for finding that perfect song. Ronstadt knew immediately on hearing it that she wanted to record it saying ‘I felt like a bomb had exploded in my head’. The song, written by Anna McGarrigle ‘rearranged my entire musical landscape.’ She calls the McGarrigle Sisters ‘heart music’ and you can understand why she was so desperate to have the song (and eventually name her best album after it).
Early in her solo career she was given a chance to support Neil Young, an experience which she says ‘was a huge part of my musical education and an enduring pleasure.’ It was also on this tour that she saw Emmylou Harris play live for the first time. Initially conflicted as she thought Emmylou was ‘doing what I was trying to do, only better’ she soon put her envy to one side and struck up a lasting personal and professional relationship with her.
Then of course the two friends began singing with Dolly Parton and together their voices created a sound that ‘stunned’ Rondstadt. Finding time to record an album was problematic and Trio did not get made until 1987. I would have liked to know more about the mid-70s project that was shelved and why it took so long to release a record but this memoir does not go in for secret spilling or dragging up problems of the past. What she gives us is an insight into the difficulties of releasing an album of ‘old-timey’ music in the over produced 80s and you can’t help but cheer at its eventual award-winning, chart topping success.
Later chapters deal with her Broadway career, her albums of standards with legendary Nelson Riddle and her forays into traditional Mexican music. It is the Mexican shows which she says were her most ‘happy’ and ‘relaxed’ performances of her career.
Unfortunately for nosy people like myself Ronstadt does not really discuss her own personal romantic life really at all and I found myself with a lot of questions, for example she mentions her two children but only briefly. We do find out that she was an early adopter of that very LA craze, the personal trainer, and she lived her life pretty much drug free, despite the free love hippie world around her. More personal revelations are avoided and consequently she does not discuss her recent health problems either or the fact she can no longer sing.
That’s a small quibble as overall this is a music memoir and therefore it deals mainly with her career. She finishes off the memoir by describing why humans sing, explaining:
They sing for many of the same reasons the birds sing. They sing for a mate, to claim their territory, or simply to give voice to the delight of being alive in the midst of a beautiful day…They sing so the subsequent generations won’t forget what the current generation endured, or dreamed or delighted in.
Ronstadt was a singer of such versatility and style she has few equals in music. Some may find the changes in style across her career dizzying in their eclecticism but you leave the book with only admiration for her desire to explore every possibility of her instrument.
I have complied a playlist of the songs mentioned in the book so you can listen as you read along – it is as varied as Ronstadt’s career:
If you’ve read the book let me know what you think in the comments or on social media.
Next month I will be discussing the book ‘From Cradle to Stage’ by Virginia Hanlon Grohl, a project which tells the story of the rise of some of music’s most successful stars through the eyes of the women who gave birth to them, with contributions from the mothers of Miranda Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Haim and many more! Read along if you can and I will post up my review at the end of the month. This book club aims to promote women writing about music and will give a monthly review and recommendation, previous selections have been Rosanne Cash’s memoir and the biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.