Back in the 1970s, Linda Ronstadt was, literally, the poster girl for the Southern California country-rock movement, palling around with all the hot young musicians in the drug-soaked scene, while recording several sweet albums of cannily crafted country-folk-pop. The Eagles were originally her backing band, and her clique of collaborators included talents such as songwriter J. D. Souther and others. Like Emmylou Harris, Ronstadt was known for her track record spotting talented songwriters, and for championing their work... By the end of the decade, Ronstadt had become more of a pop singer, with a more overt emphasis on rock and disco, but for country fans, her early albums hold a lot of gentle jewels...
Linda Ronstadt "The Very Best Of Linda Ronstadt" (Rhino, 2002)
Hard rock fans and disco freaks alike took great pleasure in trashing Linda Ronstadt throughout the 'Seventies, but you gotta give the gal credit where credit is due. When the Southern California country-rock scene started to bubble up into the national consciousness, Ronstadt was there as an able interpreter and spokeswoman. She recorded definitive versions of many important songs and turned her star power towards helping establish many up-and-coming songwriters. She also had a relaxed, girl-next-door warmth and natural ease that lent itself well to slick studio production, making possible the sleek blending of styles that blurred the lines between genres, subtly bringing twang back into the rock idiom, while making country music accessible to non-country audiences. This disc covers her career from 1967-93... The last third of the CD (the later stuff) you can skip, but the rest of it -- mainly from her '70s heyday -- is pretty fun.
Linda Ronstadt "Greatest Hits" (Asylum, 1976)
Although it has fewer tracks -- "just" twelve -- this best-of set is solid gold. The standard-issue best-of from back when Ronstadt's star was at its highest, this is a very listenable, very rewarding set, which I can put on and enjoy, no problem. Her fame may have made her the target for plenty of snide comments, etc. but on song after song, Ronstadt simply nails it, delivering a perfect mix of twang and pop. Sure its goopy, but its also some of the best music to come out of the LA country-rock scene of the 'Seventies. Recommended. Seriously.
Linda Ronstadt "Greatest Hits, v.2" (Asylum, 1980)
The country vibe is all but gone on this second best-of set, and the Ronstadt clique seems to have run out of some of its creative steam. Drawing on her 1976-80 hits, this album is packed with less-than-stellar rock oldies cover tunes, such as a coked-up cover of Chuck Berry's "Livin' In The USA," a milky version of "Just One Look" and a hamfisted, monotonous "It's So Easy." Then again, her rendition of "Blue Bayou" is still as evocative as ever, while "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and "Tumblin' Dice" are both pretty swell. It also includes her "punk" cooptation, "How Do I Make You," which is actually kind of fun because it's so absurd and ineffective an attempt to tap into the punk-New Wave vibe of the times. Nowhere near as good as her first hits collection, but it has its moments.
Linda Ronstadt "Duets" (Rhino, 2014)
Linda Ronstadt "Hand Sown, Home Grown" (Capitol, 1969)
This debut disc was about evenly split between Judy Collins-ish wimp-folk warblings and unconvincing (but interesting) covers of more rugged country and blues oldies. Her version of "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" is a career highlight, while her gender-flipped remake of "Only Mama That'll Walk The Line" is a cute curio, but an unconvincing blues performance (as is her laughable cover of "Break My Mind.") Still, even if the results were mixed, it's the far-flung, roots-oriented eclecticism that matters: the girl had a good ear for a good tune, and once she hit her stride, it would all fall into place and finally click. Here, she's just getting started. Oh, and this also includes a properly kitchsy cover of the Bible-thumping novelty number, "We Need A Lot More Of Jesus (And A Lot Less Rock & Roll)" as well as a nice freakadelic version of Fred Neil's "Dolphins."
Linda Ronstadt "Silk Purse" (Capitol, 1970)
Well, maybe this disc isn't actually one of her best, but it has its moments, particularly her mournful, sappy spin at "Long, Long Time."
Linda Ronstadt "Linda Ronstadt" (Capitol, 1971)
Ronstadt taps into classic country roots with updated versions of oldies such as "I Fall To Pieces," "I Still Miss Someone" and "Ramblin' Round," while on the rock'n'roll side of things, "Rock Me On The Water" is pretty fun, while her cover of "Rescue Me" is pretty lame. Motown, country, folk and rock -- her basic template is set, and from here on out it's a matter of steady improvement, then sudden decline. Oh, but along the way, what fun stuff she came up with!
Linda Ronstadt "Don't Cry Now" (Capitol, 1973)
Delving into country oldies such as "Silver Threads And Golden Needles" (re-recorded and pumped up a bit from her first version in '69...) along with the cream of the LA pop/country/rock sound, songs like "Love Has No Pride" and "Desperado," from the up-and-coming Eagles. Both as a patron and a performer, Ronstadt was really coming into her own... Some of the tracks are kind of indistinct and iffy, but the classics are still pretty cool.
Linda Ronstadt "Heart Like A Wheel" (Asylum, 1974)
One of her classics from the 'Seventies... I'll admit the album's opener, "You're No Good," is justifiably reviled; even when is was a hit, that story didn't hold up for long. The same is true for the caterwauling "When Will I Be Loved," which really can get on yor nerves. But the rest of the record is pretty strong. Her versions of "Faithless Love," "It Doesn't Matter Anymore and the Hank Williams oldie, "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You" are all really nice, and her version of the Little Feat song, "Willin'," is a gem. The disc closes with a couple of less-memorable singer-songwriter tunes, but all in all this is a record that's fully deserving of its long shelf life.
Linda Ronstadt "Prisoner In Disguise" (Asylum, 1975)
With her songs on the top of the charts and her career in full swing, Ronstadt delivered this gem of an album, a record that radiates her confidence as a performer, and which has some of the best studio production of any of the super-slick records to come out of the SoCal country-rock scene. There are a couple of duds, like her covers of "Heat Wave" and "Many Rivers To Cross," but with tunes like "Love Is A Rose" and "Hey Mister, That's Me Up On The Jukebox" to balance things out, all else is forgiven. Her slow, countrified remake of "Tracks Of My Tears" is brilliantly crafted and was a well-deserved hit, while the plainspoken acoustic charm of "You Tell Me That I'm Falling Down" provides a welcome contrast of styles. Good stuff; recommended.
Linda Ronstadt "Hasten Down The Wind" (Asylum, 1976)
Linda Ronstadt "Simple Dreams" (Asylum, 1977)
Linda Ronstadt "Livin' In The USA" (Asylum, 1978)
Personally, I think she'd lost it by the time this album came out. Her simple-girl charm had long since given way to a superstar vibe, and her creative arc with producer Peter Asher was headed downhill. That being said, her version of Elvis Costello's "Alison" is just wonderful, and covers of J.D. Souther's "White Rhythm And Blues" and Little Feat's "All That You Dream" are also quite nice. But the explicit softcore sexual come-on of "Ooh Baby Baby" is tiresome, and as far as her championing of Warren Zevon -- "Mohammed's Radio -- goes, well... yawn, who cares? This is a too-slick and at times soulless album: Ronstadt was becoming the showbiz hack that her detractors had long accused her of being. Still, she did help make Elvis Costello famous, so she can't be all bad!
Linda Ronstadt "Mad Love" (Asylum, 1980)
Her attempts to tap into the punk/new wave vibe of the times were pretty silly... To rock music's new rebels, Ronstadt herself was a loathesome icon of big-business, cookiecutter pop, so trying to maintain her hipness quotient by snarling it up on spastic songs like "How Do I Make You" just wasn't gonna work. Plus, for someone who had built a career on soft, sensuous subtlety, trying to pitch herself as a hard rock singer was a dubious proposition. I actually give Ronstadt the benefit of the doubt in that I belive her intentions were sincere -- she'd been an innovator before, so why shouldn't she be able to ride the wave into the new musical style? -- but there's also a sense that this change of style might have had to do with a lack of direction, and that Ronstadt and her posse might have been flailing about a bit, or worse, that they were condescending to their audience with nudge-nudge, wink-wink spins at the "punk" sound. She covers Costello again, on "Girl's Talk," but by this point he'd found his audience, and it wasn't with Linda's MOR fanbase. Skippable, but fun in a campy kind of way.
Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris/Dolly Parton "Trio" (Warner, 1987)
Dolly, Linda and Emmylou had been palling around with each other for years before they made this album, singing backup for one another on various albums throughout the '70s, and horsing around in the studio for a while. Here they set out to formalize the arrangement, and the result sure was nice. Yeah, in the aggregate I guess it is a bit syrupy, but in a sense that's kind of the point. When they hit their mark, though, it's pretty darn nice.
Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris/Dolly Parton "Trio II" (Asylum, 1999)
(Produced by George Massenburg)
The rootsy feel of the first Trio album is subsumed to the sugary side of their musicmaking... Even though the formula is basically the same -- down-to-midtempo ballds with an acoustic backing and fine, three-part harmonies -- the magic doesn't seem the same. I wouldn't say they're coasting, exactly -- everyone seems to have their heart in it -- but they do seem lost n the technical craftsmanlike aspects of the project, neglecting that subtle roughness that makes good country music sound so great. It's an easy trap to fall into, considering how sweet these gals sound together, but it still makes for an overly bland album... Kind of a snoozer, really.
Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions" (Asylum, 1999)
(Produced by Glyn Johns)
What? Dolly had something better to do that week...?
Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy "Adieu False Heart" (Vanguard, 2006)
Going by the name of "the Zozo Sisters," Americana doyenne Linda Ronstadt and cajun chanteuse Ann Savoy resume the partnership that sparkled and shone on the Evangeline Made compilation a few years back. This is a sweet set of uniformly lovely tunes, some more cajun than others, but all featuring gentle acoustic backing and wonderful vocal harmonies. Old-timey picker Dirk Powell lends his talent to the mix, as do a Balfa and Broussard or two, and the cream of the bluegrass studio crew... There's not much variety in the tempo or tone, but if pretty music is what you're looking for, this disc would be hard to beat.
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