When Linda Was Country

I recently went retro and bought three CDs, small-disc versions of LPs that I owned decades ago but haven’t heard in many years, owing to the fact that I haven’t owned a working turntable since some time in the Clinton administration. Anyway, the three CDs are:

  • Randy Newman—Sail Away
  • Randy Newman—Trouble In Paradise
  • Linda Ronstadt—Heart Like A Wheel

We may or may not get to the Randy Newman discs in due course, but today I want to discuss Linda Ronstadt. (And yes, this is the third post in a row to at least mention her!)

I became a fan in 1976, when I saw her at the Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, Ill. It was my first concert. Over the next few years, I bought just about everything she recorded, but at some point my musical tastes changed and I moved on. I did, however, eventually buy Prisoner in Disguise and Hasten Down the Wind on CD—they were her two best albums, I felt, released in 1975 and 1976, respectively.

Over the last few months I found myself playing them quite a bit. Comfort music, y’know.

Hasten Down the Wind has a very polished, refined sound. If you care to crank up Spotify (it’s free), check out Lose Again. Or try Try Me Again. The only song on the album you might begin to think of as “country” is Crazy, by Willie Nelson. There’s a little bit of slide guitar in it, but that’s the only nod to country in what is a beautiful ballad. The album has a couple of rockers, even a reggae song or two, but for the most part, it’s full of the gorgeous, highly produced torch songs that Ronstadt specialized in.

Stepping backward, now, to 1975, Prisoner in Disguise shows a little more of Ronstadt’s country genes, but not to excess. There are a couple of twangy songs, but they fit in nicely with the rest of the album. Even the Dolly Parton-penned I Will Always Love You doesn’t scream “country” like you might think it would. About the closest you come to needing a cowboy hat is The Sweetest Gift, a duet with Emmylou Harris. Oh yeah, and the Neil Young song Love Is A Rose has a bit of the ol’ pickin’ and grinnin’ as well. Still, it’s not really country. A couple of other great songs from that album: Many Rivers To Cross and Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox.

As I mentioned, I’ve listened to those two records a little more than usual recently; just putting “Linda Ronstadt” on shuffle play on iTunes on my computer. But those two records didn’t prepare me for my first listen in years to Heart Like A Wheel.

Sure, there were the rockers I’d remembered: You’re No Good might be the best song she ever recorded, and When Will I Be Loved was also a huge hit for her. I was also anxious to hear her You Can Close Your Eyes, a James Taylor song that I’ve seen him perform several times since I last heard her version. An absolute gem that I’d almost forgotten about is Willin’, a classic Little Feat song that she made her own. With that song, you begin to hear the country roots that Ronstadt grew out of. All well and good; Willin’ is a truck-driving song, and you’d expect it to come across as pretty country, although her version is much less so than Little Feat’s. But check out the opening notes to I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You. Heck, not just the opening notes, but the whole song; this is country in the vein of Hank Williams. And I’m talking senior, not junior. Or Keep Me From Blowing Away. Or It Doesn’t Matter Any More.

I guess I didn’t notice this as much when I listened to this record way back when, because I was sorta country back then myself: several of the earliest records I owned were by the Eagles, who were a lot more country themselves back then.

Anyway, this post is already longer than I’d planned, and the whole thing is sort of apropos of nothing. Any Linda Ronstadt fans out there with anything to add?

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