When Linda Ronstadt's record label put out her fourth "hits" retrospective last month, she reacted as she always does: by doing nothing.
She didn't advise. She didn't pick the songs. She didn't lend an ear. "I never listen to stuff I'm finished with," she says. "I don't want to hear what I was struggling with back when. That's like staring at yourself in a mirror.
"You know what? If I were forced to sing [the 1974 rock hit] `You're No Good' today, I think I'd bolt for the exits. Sure, it was good material for that time. But I like to move forward. I like to dream today."
Ronstadt, the seven-time Grammy Award winner, takes the stage with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for three Big Band shows this weekend. She has come to be called "first lady of rock" (courtesy of Rolling Stone) less by seeing her career as a succession of albums or eras than by feeling it through as a work-in-progress. Only passion for the present moment could have propelled an artist like Ronstadt through folk, rock, Cajun, bluegrass, sacred, mariachi, Broadway and swing music with nary a wayward step.
"Art is a way of processing emotions," she says. "There's always something current you're feeling, something new, a different story to tell." For 35 years she has shared hers, one passage at a time, mapping out a vista so sweeping it has taken on, in the end, the look of American music itself.
It started in Arizona half a century ago, where Linda, a sensitive child in a musical household, soaked up the joyful Latin folk her father sang and the Big Band standards, Hank Williams tunes and classical and opera epics the family enjoyed on the radio. It might surprise the millions of fans she made in her early hit-making years, but Ronstadt, born in 1946, never heard rock till she was 10. "When I left for California at 17," she said, "I wanted to play traditional music."
She set her sights on the Ash Grove, the already legendary folk oasis in West Los Angeles where Doc Watson and Lightning Hopkins had taught, where bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee honed their chops, and where Canned Heat and the Byrds came into being. When Linda got there, she met finger-picker Taj Mahal and string wizard Ry Cooder, then in a band called the Rising Sons, who played dueling guitars each night, swapping leads on "Roll Out the Barrel." She ran into Kenny Edwards, the guitarist with whom she'd form the Stone Poneys, her first band, in 1965. She sang at jams that gave birth to the folk-rock form.
Even then, though, the brown-eyed girl with the platinum pipes felt some of the tensions that would drive her later career. She stunned young peers like Neil Young and Jackson Browne, but she found that rock-style numbers fared better in L.A. clubs than the down-home bluegrass and ballads she wanted to mine. The Ash Grove faltered; the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go-Go, which booked rock-based acts, prospered. "The pressure was so on to amplify, to do electric folk," she says. She still thinks of her pal Chris Hillman as a bluegrass mandolin picker, not a founding Byrd.
Ronstadt loved young writers like Warren Zevon ("Poor Poor Pitiful Me"), Karla Bonoff ("Lose Again") and Young ("Love is a Rose"), and already knew their work "embraced many genres," but in clubs, she had to work up rousers to cap her act. "You're No Good" and Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" were "fun to do at the time, but weren't quite what I was after." They became her megahits.
When country rock - driven by Ronstadt and unknowns like the Eagles, Browne and Lowell George of Little Feat - took off in the early '70s, she found herself playing huge coliseums, which lent themselves to far broader sounds than she enjoyed making. She loved celebrity and gaining a huge audience, but the lifestyle drained her. "I hated those big arenas," she says. "I have common sense and a firm grasp of the obvious, and those are not appropriate places for music. Your music doesn't grow in them. The shows were more like cultural events, like studies in anthropology. It was one big animal act."
Her career became a treadmill. She sang constantly - in the shower, doing the dishes, on her way to restaurants - and loved rehearsing with her band and jamming in hotel rooms. She thrived on private music - like the kind she found when her tours would stop in Washington and she could sing with close friends like Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and John Starling of the Seldom Scene. At their feet she learned, through endless repetition, the vocal "barbs, arrows and curlicues" that give bluegrass its haunting tones. "It's a rigorous art form," she says, "as exacting as Indian music."
But away from Washington, the grind was too much, the canvas too large. "Make an album; do a tour. Make an album; do a tour," she says. "I wanted to be in a theater, where people were focused. I didn't want to be screaming over an amplifier. I wanted a more musical experience." The solution was simple: Gain access to the right venues.