M U S I C
N e w s w e e k
October 20, 1975
But with last year's album, "Heart Like a Wheel" (which yielded the hit singles "You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved"), and with her new one, the just-released "Prisoner in Disguise." Ronstadt probably never has to worry about arithmetic again. At 29, thanks to a voice with the richness and cutting edge of a muted trumpet, she is pop music's latest superstar. Once known as a high priestess of heartache, she is now happily digging into her heritage of Mexican and bluegrass music and applying their country spaciousness and relisience to the little-punk-lost rock of Phil Everly, the musings of James Taylor, the mellow ballads of J.D. Souther and Dolly Parton and the Celtic-Southern songs of Anna McGarrigle.
Lean: "It took me a lot records to learn how to do what I wanted." says Ronstadt. Growing up outside Tucson, Arizona in a musical family that included a father who knew "every Mexican revolutionary song" and a sister who doted on Hank Williams, she found singing irresistible. At 18, she left college- "I just wasn't a student; I'd come to class occasionally in my nightgown"- and took off for Los Angeles to form a group called the Stone Poneys. After several lean years and one 1967 hit- "Different Drum"- Ronstadt, frustrated and confused, went out on her own.
"I was so unwilling to take chances," she recalls. "In my first shows I always felt I was cheating the audience. And I was paranoid in the recording studio." But three years ago, she picked up a guitar and began to take charge of her music and, eventually, to practice with musicians whose roots were close to her own, like country music's celebrated Dolly Parton and Emmy Lou Harris. "You can really learn from people who sing in your own key," she says. "For years I tried to learn from Ray Charles and it was impossible."
"Prisoner in Disguise" shows the success- and occasional failure- of Ronstadt's struggle to balance tradition, eclecticism and originality. Two Motown songs miss because she fails to catch soul music's sly, sassy phrasing. But she turns J.D. Souther's "Silver Blue" and "Prisoner in Disguise" into languorous, finely shaded country laments; makes J.B. Coats's "The Sweetest Gift," sung with Emmy Lou Harris, an artfully naive folk antique, and brings to Neil Young's "Love Is a Rose" a zestful punch that shows she has as much pluck as heartache.
Ahead are plans for albums of Mexican and bluegrass-inspired music. "I don't just want to retread old songs," she says, "but I will continue to go backwards to go forwards." In a field where success if often based on no more than quick-study ventriloquism, Linda Ronstadt stands out. She is no fad's prisoner; her compelling voice wears no disguises.
M A R G O J E F F E R S O N with S U N D E S M I T H in Los Angeles