The country singer discusses her finest work

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris
Trio
Warner Bros, 1987
A project years in the organising, Ronstadt teamed up with two other country giants for a mega-selling collaboration.

Whenever we saw each other in the ’70s, the guitars would come out and we’d start to sing right away, like we always did. The minute we heard the sound of our three voices together we just went, “We have to record together. We’ve got to do it.” But it was hard. Dolly’s career was just taking off then and Emmy had her own touring thing that she was doing, and I was doing what I was doing with rock’n’roll. It was hard to get all of our schedules together and decide who was going to produce it and how it was going to go, what we were going to aim for. Emmy and I really wanted to do traditional stuff, because we had Dolly, who’s such a good traditional singer. It worked out, finally, it just took a lot of years. Dolly was very involved with the television show she was doing, so she couldn’t tour with us. I always thought it was a shame that we never toured together, because we would’ve refined what we were doing on the bus singing together, and that would have made a big difference. And doing it night after night we would’ve gotten really tight. Emmy and I always could finish each other’s sentences, our sensibilities are very similar and both of us were big fans of Dolly. I liked it best, frankly, when Emmy was singing lead, Dolly was singing on the top and I sang on the bottom, that was my favourite configuration of our harmonies. I thought that was really the Trio sound.

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Canciones De Mi Padre
Asylum/WEA, 1987
Exploring her Mexican roots, Ronstadt tries her hand at mariachi – and bags what still could be the biggest-selling foreign-language album in the States.

I have a little rule for myself: I never try to do any kind of music that I hadn’t heard at home by the age of 10. We sang these kind of songs as a family, but we’d know one or two verses and la-da-da-da-da… Sometimes my two brothers and I would sing huapango, which is an indigenous Mexican rhythm, it’s just beautiful, I love it. I had to do a lot of wood-shedding to get up to speed with these songs. Mexican country music was always in my background and really informed my rock’n’roll singing style more than anything. Lola Beltrán was an incredible singer – to Mexico she was like what Édith Piaf is to France. She had that great huge belting style, and that’s what I copied as a child. I was working with the best mariachi group in the world, the Mariachi Vargas, and they introduced me to another band, Mariachi Los Camperos, who are the second best group in the world or the equally best group in the world, and they mentored me. They were living in Los Angeles at the time, working there and they mentored me. I’d go down and rehearse with them and they’d help me. In the mornings, before I’d record, I’d be working with a tape in bed, six o’clock, trying to get the songs into my mouth and into my muscle memory. Because I don’t speak Spanish – I know some words in Spanish, I can do some sentences in the present tense, but I’m not fluent. There’s a lot of Mexican records that sell in huge numbers here, so it’s hard to believe that this album is the biggest non-English-language record to this day.

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Winter Light
Elektra/WEA, 1993
Sales were disappointing, but this is one of Ronstadt’s own favourites – the pastoral, hymnal title track is even a rare co-write from her.

Being a writer wasn’t what I was. Randy Newman says he gets up and goes to his office, sits down and starts writing; that’s what a writer is. I never did that. I got up in the morning and drank a cup of tea. I didn’t think there was any reason for me to go grinding out my own songs when I had people like JD and Jackson and Neil Young around. I did my best singing on Winter Light. It might not have been what everyone wanted to hear, but technically I could sing better. And I had all my voice for Winter Light – after that my voice declined. With the title track, a friend of mine, Fred Fuchs – who was working on a movie called The Secret Garden directed by Agnieszka Holland, who I love – called me up. He said they hadn’t been able to find a title song that everybody liked, and I said, “Send me the soundtrack and the movie and let me hear what it sounds like.” I liked the soundtrack, so I got my friend Eric Kaz and we put two pieces from it together and made a verse and a chorus and a bridge. Then I wrote some lyrics and Eric wrote some lyrics and we put it all together. And the composer really loved it, and Agnieszka Holland really liked it. I love that track. I never listen to anything that I record, but I put that on my baby record [1996’s Dedicated To The One I Love], which I recorded so that I could get my children to go to sleep, and it worked like a charm.

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Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy
Adieu False Heart
Vanguard, 2006
Cajun coda: Ronstadt’s final record, featuring versions of songs by Richard Thompson, Julie Miller and Bill Monroe

Adieu False Heart was the last recording I made before I got Parkinson’s. I was already struggling with it, but I didn’t know that’s what I had. I was having a really hard time singing and I couldn’t figure out why. Ann Savoy was a really good friend of mine and we started singing together. Because Ann’s a true alto to my soprano, it was a nice duet. And her voice is very loud, so I could sing very softly, which is about all I could do at that point. We covered Richard Thompson’s “King Of Bohemia”. Ann and I are both slobbering, drooling fans of Richard. He’s a true original. His son Teddy is great, too. Boy, were I a younger girl I would have worn two coats of mascara for him. Out of all my work, I do have a real soft spot for this record. I felt like I didn’t really start singing with my natural voice until 1980. And then after that, everything I sang, whether rock’n’roll, Mexican music or country music, I thought was better because I was singing with a natural voice instead of it being something I was trying to cobble together with something I’d heard or was trying to imitate.

The August 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring David Bowie on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with The War On Drugs, Steve Earle and Jah Wobble, we countdown Radiohead’s 30 Greatest Songs and remember Gregg Allman. We review Peter Perrett, Afghan Whigs, ZZ Top and Peter Gabriel. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Peter Perrett, Floating Points, Bedouine, Public Service Broadcasting, Broken Social Scene and more.

Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.

 

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