"I didn't want to go to my old age," says Linda Ronstadt, "without getting to make this record with Emmy."
Sitting in the kind of drab, airless backstage room (in this case, at The Tonight Show) that is a traveling
musician's usual haunt on the road, Ronstadt, 53, gives singing partner Emmylou Harris a long look. The look is friendly,
but with a definite how-did-you-get-meinto-this edge: "When I approached Emmy with the idea of reviving this
project- it had actually been in the works for us before we started on the Trio records with Dolly [Parton]- I knew
that some touring would have to come along with it."
"Yeah," says Hanis, 52, with a laugh. She is a seasoned barnstormer who, unlike Ronstadt, enjoys her time onstage.
"That was the price she had to pau." The project is ladies' Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, a collection of 13
songs on which the duo create soaring harmonies over striking arrangements. It's a CD built, says Harris, "to shine a light
on some great songs," from Jackson Browne's folk-rocking "For a Dancer" through material from such varied writers as
Sinead O'Connor, Leonard Cohen and Bmce Springsteen, with Rosanne Cash's title track epitomizing the darker hues
that seem to hold no terrors for the dulcet-voiced pair.
Though they are in the midst of traveling to 18 American cities, Harris and Ronstadt are also
devoting lots of time to television perfonnances everything from The View and The Martin Short Show
last month to an installment of PBS's Austin City Limits they will tape October 11, the night after their last
tour stop (it's scheduled to air February 5).
It's clear that Ronstadt, never comfortable with her glamour-puss image of old, isn't eager to fight it out with
memories of that image today. Ronstadt recently bemoaned to the Los Angeles Times that even the mighty Aretha
Franklin has to perform "as a sexual being. This particular culture magnifies [attractiveness] to an unholy degree."
What's more, since the single singer began raising her two adopted children, she is even less inclined to step onto the
tarmac or tour bus: "Now that I have young children, I have absolutely no desire to travel. I don't even like to leave
my house. But after 50, I don't get nervous onstage, though I may get unhappy or frustrated. It's not as horrible
when you have somebody else up there with you, I love to sing with Emmy, and she always has wonderful musicians."
The previous evening, onstage at Los Angeles's legendary club the Troubadour, Ronstadt seemed loose and jocular,
wearing a blue-jean shirt and slacks, flipping casually through the lyrics to songs that were arrayed on a music
stand to her left. "Emmylou doesn't brag on herself, so I'll do it for her," she told the crowd, and went on to give
her partner the credit for finding the songs and helping producer Glyn Johns cook up arrangements.
The idea for this musical collaboration was born in an L.A. hotel room in February 1998, Ronstadt, who had been
pondering retirement, made a rare trip from Tucson, Arizona, her hometown, to L.A. to perform at a commemorative
concert following singer Nicolette Larson's funeral. After sharing the stage at the tribute, the singers got together
in Ronstadt's room at Shutters on the Beach Hotel. Harris waS then producing Return of the Grievous Angel, the
lovely memorial album to her musical touchstone, Gram Parsons. Both had been struck by Browne's rendition
of "For a Dancer" at the tribute show. "We heard it in a new context," says Harris. "I'd never realized how strong a
song this was. We sat in Linda's hotel room and played and sang together. We started thinking, 'Well, we should do this
record- what's keeping us from doing this record?' So I started gathering songs, based on what I wanted to hear
Linda sing- it's like little fantasy tapes that I continually make."
The project, begun several months later, enabled Ronstadt to stay near her children. She would turn
up daily for sessions at Tucson's historic Arizona Inn to kibitz- though most of her
vocals were added later while Harris sat steadily playing rhythm guitar and collaborating with Johns and the band on
essentially "live" arrangements.
Harris became happily absorbed in the work.
"A lot of things sprouted that I guess I'd forgotten I planted," says the singer. "You do have to go home occasionally.
But I live in Nashville, and my kids [Hallie, 28, and Meghann, 19] are grown, and I take my dog with me. So basically,
I'm going to keep doing this until I have a reason not to do it."
Ronstadt gives her an amiably contrary look:
"I don't like to travel don't like it. I like to stay home and play in the living room. My relationship with Emmy
has been built around stuff we did in the living room. I could sit here for a while and probably make a case against
recording music- you get so far afield from the natural process."
Harris just smiles. "Yeah-but isn't it nice
to be able to put on the record?" she says.
Given what these two wrought in Tucson, you would have to agree.
Fred Schruers is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.