Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.
There was never a question that Linda Ronstadt would be the first-ever Throwback Thursday recipient here on B-Sides & Badlands. No one else could possibly deserve such a prestigious distinction. Her voice is caramel smooth, thick and heady and luscious and shattering. In whatever context she is singing–whether fronting the Stone Poneys, teaming up with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris for the Trio discs or performing alongside Johnny Cash–she is commanding and lets the music do the talking. After releasing two albums with Stone Poneys, rounded out with musicians Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards, she went solo with 1969’s Hand Sown…Home Grown. “‘Intelligent’ is a strange way to describe a voice, but it fits; she can, within a song, change more than its physical structure, can twist simple words to fit delicate emotions,” Rolling Stone once reviewed the collection, featuring her impassioned covers of songs like Bob Dylan’s “Baby You’ve Been on My Mind” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins” and Wanda Jackson’s “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” (written by Jack Rhodes and Dick Reynolds).
The album didn’t do especially well on the charts; in fact, its only single “The Long Way Around” didn’t even dent the Top 70. The craftsmanship, however, of not only Ronstadt’s intricate vocal tricks but that of the atmospheric production, as you’ll hear on such standouts as “A Number a Name” and “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line” (a gender-reversed answer song to Waylon Jennings’ 1968 hit “The Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”), are exceptional. With producer Chip Douglas–who worked with the Monkees, The Lovin’ Spoonful, John Stewart and others–at the helm, the full-length heartily blends rollicking country with the folk-rock coming out of southern California in the ’60s and ’70s: allowing her mesmerizing vocal to sit on top of the production. The tear and wail of her voice on songs like “Break My Mind” and “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad” (a Randy Newman song) are among the finest recorded vocals of her legacy career, during which she would later issue the landmark releases Heart Like a Wheel LP in 1974, Hasten Down the Wind in 1976 and (much later), a tribute to her Mexican heritage with Canciones de Mi Padre in 1987.
The impact of Ronstadt on modern country is often tragically overlooked in mainstream music, between lackluster coverage on major primetime award shows and little recognition among the next class of artists. Today’s two leading ladies, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, have paid respectful homage in recent years, however, a little fact of huge importance. During last summer’s CMA Music Festival, Lambert performed the trucker song “Willin’,” which appears on Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel and was originally written/recorded by Lowell George of Little Feat, as part of her set. In 2014, Underwood was selected to perform “Different Drum” (the only Top 20 hit Stone Poneys enjoyed) at Ronstadt’s induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The deeper you get into country music, the more evident and prominent Ronstadt’s skillful influence can be found: from Margo Price, Carrie Elkin and Karen Jonas to Kree Harrison and Chely Wright. Ronstadt’s distinctive tone and approach to lyricism is unmatched, and we probably will never again witness such a delightfully down-to-earth and expert interpreter. Nonetheless, her striking impression on this generation’s music-makers is quite promising; in fact, we might get the next best thing sooner than we thought. Price most closely resembles that rebellious and unfiltered spirit; songs like “Hands of Time,” “Since You Put Me Down” and “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” (from her 2016 debut LP Midwest Farmer’s Daughter) are so jarringly, refreshingly ’70s, the resemblance to Ronstadt is uncanny. From Price’s phrasing to her detailed songwriting, she signifies the next generation, and even without radio’s assist, she is flipping the format on its head.
In 2013, when it was announced Ronstadt suffered from Parkinson’s disease, the entire world was cast in a dark, gloomy grey–one of the greatest vocalists in the history of music had lost her voice, and there was no way we could stop it. We can do our part, though, by championing the real artists who have not lost sight of the past and know exactly where the future is headed. But first, we must begin by honoring those who have come before, through exploring their music and passing it on. That moment starts now.
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