When Linda Ronstadt Became a Star

Too clean. Too perfect. Too soulless. Those are a few of the most common phrases I've heard over the years from the enemies and detractors of the Southern California country rock scene of the 1970s. It's hard to believe that such laid-back music engenders such vehemence but even the Eagles' Hotel California, an audiophile favorite you were once sure to hear ad nausem at any Hi-Fi show, can split listeners in two: while they like the recording quality, they hate the music.

To come clean up front, I've always been a sucker for the stuff. From Gram Parsons and the Eagles to CSN&Y and the Byrds to Jackson Browne and of course, the one and only Warren Zevon, it all holds a hallowed place in my music collection.

While the Eagles, in particular, take the worst pounding when it comes to slagging SoCal rock—too slick, too pop, couldn't do it live—there are two female singers who lived, recorded and became stars in that time, whose talents are undeniable.

While the records appeared on the country music charts and she now lives in Nashville, Emmylou Harris's reputation lies in the recordings she made in Los Angeles with then-husband Brian Ahern producing and his Enactron recording truck sitting in the driveway of a Beverly Hills home.

The other person, and in many ways the most genuine talent in the SoCal story, is Linda Ronstadt. A native of Tucson, Arizona, that wonderful desert burgh that, appropriately enough, I am visiting this week, Ronstadt moved to Los Angeles, where there was a thriving music scene and a record business eager to document it.

Interestingly enough, both women followed similar paths. Both found a key whisperer; Ahern for Harris and producer Peter Asher, once of duo Peter and Gordon, for Ronstadt. Also, both women specialized in fashioning carefully sequenced records filled with an impeccable and adventurous mix of covers. Finally, both women recorded with incredibly talented bands. The core of Harris's Hot Band was the same group of players that formed Elvis Presley's band: drummer Ronnie Tutt, pianist Glen D. Hardin and guitarist James Burton. In Ronstadt's case she used the cream of the SoCal folk and country rock community: Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Andrew Gold, David Lindley, Kenny Edwards, and others.

After several records with the band the Stone Poneys, and then a couple tentative solo records (one of which features an ill-advised cover shot of her in a pig pen), Ronstadt began working with Asher in 1973 on Don't Cry Now. On their next outing, 1974's Heart Like A Wheel, they perfected the formula and the album made Ronstadt a superstar. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, who have been on something of a roll lately as far as picking worthy titles to reissue, have just released a high quality 180 gram LP reissue of Heart Like A Wheel. According to the folks at MoFi this reissue was sourced from a 1974-made, flat, one-to-one, ¼" analog copy tape. Aided by a dead quiet pressing, the sound is gorgeous, with wide dynamic range, a warm, rich low end and impressive detail on Ronstadt's mighty voice.

While the two singles from the record, "You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved," made the album a hit, as is so often the case, the inner cuts, those hallowed "deep tracks" in today's vinyl-centric parlance, are what make the record such a classic. The album's jaw-dropper, the cover that proves Ronstadt could literally sing anything and make it her own is her rendition of "Dark End of the Street," made famous by soul singer James Carr, whose deep voice is firmly at the other end of the vocal spectrum from Ronstadt.

After that, the middle tracks on side two are my favorites beginning with "Willin'" by the great Lowell George, ("I've been from Tucson to Tucumcari . . ."), after which she goes SoCal country in Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You" with a harmony vocal from Emmylou Harris. Finally, in the bittersweet ballad "Keep Me From Blowing Away," she shows that along with being able to project and belt out tunes, the real core of her talent is her way with nimble, feathery, often sepia-toned singing. While few have ever been able to roar through Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" like Linda, it's in the slow stuff that her gifts shine brightest. Now tragically silenced by Parkinson's disease, Ronstadt's 1970s catalog is peerless pop music.

dalethorn's picture

Back around the time she released When Will I be Loved, we were living near the University of Akron, and we went to see an indie movie at the campus theater. Members of the football team had taken up the seats in the first row, and just before movie time the theater played that particular track. The football players did something I can only describe as a seat dance, to the music. Absolutely unforgettable.

Bkhuna's picture

I've seen people at high end shows who don't care for the Eagles. They're easy to spot. They're the ones wearing short sleeve dress shirts and a 40 year old skinny tie, black shoes with white socks, and trudge from room to room clutching their favorite Zamfir recording to test the systems.

doak's picture

'Nuff said.

ps: Have most all of the original LPs and the production/sound are, mostly, of very high quality. PLUS: the more recent 24/192 digital remasters are, generally, EXCELLENT.

volvic's picture

Bought the vinyl and the cd, just because I wanted both formats, and not disappointed- the vinyl is excellent and so is the cd played through the computer audio setup. A worthy purchase.

Lincolnmat's picture

I have been critical of some of your previous columns Robert, so I must say when I totally agree with you as I do here. Coincidently I came across this column right after listening to this disc. I totally enjoyed it. The normal quite MFSL surface and lovely dynamics.

One surprise though. This is the first MFSL release I have that doesn't say that it is half speed mastered. I have all the other Ronstadt releases and they all state on the back cover and deadwax that they are half speed. This release has neither. It still is a great record, I'm just wondering about a major shift in MFSL production/marketing.


Anton's picture

Does this record have that contemptible Glenn Frey playing on it?

Too bad a lot of the music on the recording was 'played literally to death by the radio,' to quote some random internet critic.

Does this album have a few key guests like David Sanborn and Jim Ed Norman to answer 'the question about how anyone who was alive during their heyday can still listen?'

The only possible joy left in listening to Heart Like a Wheel 'is to explore the inner, non-single cuts, the deep tracks in satellite radio lingo, that were not beaten into complete and utter annoyances by the radio.'

hnickm's picture

It was 1986 and living in DC. The local, premiere band, The Seldom Scene, were going to be celebrating their 15th anniversary at the Kennedy Center. Figured I'd go 'cause, well, New Grass at the Kennedy Center!! Linda and Emmylou were there as "singers" with the band. !!! Jonathan Edwards also joined in. It was quite a concert.

ok's picture


rosiemax's picture

This song seems backwards.It seems like she is saying that the guy is really good (sexually),in a teasing,backwards way,but the lyrics don't bear this out. I always interpret this song as meaning that no good means very good.