Consider Linda Ronstadt. No really, consider her. Country singer turned chart-topper. Latina pop superpower. Roller skate wearer. Rock and roll success in an era where most stars were men.
When I talk about Linda Ronstadt, I often automatically start off by being defensive on her behalf. Maybe it’s because at first glance, to a modern-day kid, she doesn’t seem the most legit: she doesn’t play an instrument, doesn’t write her own songs, and was frequently photographed in less than feminist ways. But in fact, her musical prowess is immense, she has managed to be a commercial success with (mostly) control over her own career since the 70s, and she’s always reckoned with being a sometimes scantily clad woman rock singer in honest and interesting ways, in public.
And that’s all before you hear her sing.
Ronstadt often talked in interviews about preferring to record music that she grew up with. Her early albums display a mix of country music with ranchero-style rhythms. And Ronstadt herself was a lot of the music I grew up to.
There’s an impression in my musical memory: my mom sitting on the front steps, probably grading papers or doing accounting work, singing Ronstadt versions of classic songs to me as I circled our small carport on rollerskates, practicing. The carport was the only cement surface in reach near our house; after its small square of smoothness, our long gravel driveway connected to a potholed, barely paved road. I considered myself well-practiced once I could hit a stray gravel rock without falling, instead stopping and catching myself and immediately starting off again for another go around the miniature rink, skinned knees and all.
Nowadays we would call Ronstadt a cover singer—most of her dozens of hits were songs written, and often made famous, by other people. She didn’t play a guitar onstage. She just stood there, singing. “I Can’t Help it if I’m Still In Love With You” (written by Hank Williams; also iconically performed by Patsy Cline). “When Will I Be Loved” (by The Everly Brothers). Her renditions of songs became the go-to ones for my parents’ generation, booting out the performances of such artists as Betty Everett (“You’re No Good”) and Wanda Jackson (“Silver Threads and Golden Needles”) for more decade-appropriate interpretations.
Before the “alternative” rock era ushered in the need for singers to write their own material and “do” more onstage, Ronstadt would have been called “an interpreter of the Great American Songbook.” Whether or not you agree with the limited concept and scope of a “great” “American” songbook (I think it’s both sort of sentimental and totally exclusive of non-mainstream artists and art), Ronstadt’s role in recording popular American songs from the span of the 20th century is not that different from revered vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald or even Patsy Cline. It matters. And it’s so, so singable. Seriously. This woman has sung every song. It’s insane.
Say what you will about the seventies being a decade of odd, derivative, yet oddly influential rock music. Ronstadt managed to provide the requisite interpretation of the “songbook” appropriate to her period of ascendance—slow ballads and easy-swinging rock tunes with guys dropping in guitar solos during which she stood silent. She felt the songs, “Desperado” and all. And she did the songs justice. Hers remain good musical choices, even if the fashions and pretentions of the era may not. (And we all know all eras have pretentions, in hindsight.) Her voice is powerful.
There is something about Ronstadt that is indeed truly seventies, despite her career encompassing every decade since the sixties. She’s not a folk or protest singer, and not a groomed offspring of the fifties and sixties. She was a contemporary of Janis Joplin, yet despite her grounded and powerful tone most of the music Ronstadt performs is much less rockin’ than Janis’s music. Poking around the internet for videos to post, I remember how seventies Ronstadt makes me feel, even down to the fact of my existence being a product of that decade. The softness of the rock with the guitar focus. The girl singer acting tough while being sexy and girly. The retrospective gentleness of popular music. The groovy sexual expression, the return to the personal and the focus on emotion and after the political and game-changing foci of 60s popular music. Ronstadt embodied this all, contradictions and all.
She also remains an anomaly as a mega-selling Latina pop star, having always loudly and proudly credited her Mexican heritage as a formative part of her identity, musically and otherwise. She has released several Spanish-language albums. She’s also performed opera, collaborated with classic composers, and I’m sure more that I don’t even know about. Despite the facts that her hands are empty onstage, the woman is a musician.
I wish I had a Stone Poneys record. I don’t. I have one of her many greatest hits comps, one I probably picked up in a dollar bin somewhere. It was released in 1976, the year I was born. And every time I put it on I’m spinning around the carport again, learning the songs of my century through the robust, emotional, smooth, and sweet renditions of a terrific, trailblazing “lady singer.”