The incomparable singer, after first finding fame as lead singer of folk group the Stone Poneys and hitting No. 13 in 1967 with Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum,” proceeded to excel in every genre she touched, from country music albums to country rock, Cajun, mariachi, Afro-Cuban, Gilbert & Sullivan and traditional American pop; indeed, her three splendid 1980s albums of standards with Nelson Riddle paved the way for Rod Stewart and countless other rock artists desperately in need of a career change.
In Ronstadt’s case, however, the Great American Songbook was just one of many song catalogs mined by a vocalist who could sing it all, from the West Coast singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Neil Young to the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and even Elvis Costello, whose “Alison” graced her 1978 album Living In The U.S.A.
Simple Dreams, of course, is also the title of one of her biggest albums. The triple-platinum 1977 set yielded simultaneous Top 5 covers in Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and Holly’s “It’s So Easy,” and a Top 10 country hit duet with Dolly Parton (the traditional ballad “I Never Will Marry”); it also showcased songs by Warren Zevon, Eric Kaz, J.D. Souther and the Stones.
As part of her book promotional tour, Ronstadt will appear in New York on Sept. 18 at 92Y, in conversation with former New York Times chief pop music critic John Rockwell. She recently spoke about Simple Dreams from her home in the Bay Area.
It’s probably self-evident, but what exactly is meant by “A Musical Memoir?”
It follows my musical journey.
A long and winding one, to be sure. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to come up with anyone who has journeyed so far and wide musically, and so successfully.
There are better singers than I am, who made a more significant mark on pop music.
Music fans and historians would certainly beg to differ.
I did different kinds of things and wrote about it--about how they weren’t arbitrary choices: what I had in my musical background that allowed me to choose so wildly. And about how I got to where I am.
Everyone knows where you’ve been, of course, but not much has been heard from you in quite awhile—and your absence has been felt. Where, then, are you now?
I have on just a hoodie, and that’s what I’m wearing these days! If a social situation comes up that demands more than a hoodie and a pair of sneakers, I turn it down—unless it’s something really major. It’s not important to me at my age—and I’m not in good health and I don’t like to travel.
Can you say anything more about your health?
I don’t want it to be the focus of this, but I’ve had to curtail my activities. It’s not easy.
How did you start the book then? There’s so much there. Did you have a concept?
My editor said, “Start at the beginning,” so I did. And he said not to edit my stuff: He was afraid I’d try to rewrite it! He made a couple really good suggestions which I followed. But the first things I sent him started in the present time—and then I’d be reminded of things. He said, “That’s a device. Don’t use it.”
Was it difficult to write?
I write thank-you notes from time to time! I’m a reader, so I can write a clear sentence!
Of course! But was the focus on music acceptable to the publisher? They’re usually after what sells, i.e., sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s not a personal book. Not a kiss-and-tell, or boyfriends--just about the music. They wanted it to be longer, but I made it very clear—and even if it had been about the other stuff, there wasn’t that much supply: I haven’t led a wild life, but a fairly quiet life--even in the middle of everything. Did I try drugs? You bet I did! But I never liked it—and I can’t drink a teaspoon of alcohol!
I like reading—and I can’t remember a sentence if I’m high! I couldn’t get the cat in the carrier and out the door! I’ve been around people who were addicted, but it wasn’t me and it wasn’t my problem.
In your case, it really is all about the music. And there’s just so much of it.
I never tried to do anything that I hadn’t heard in the living room before I was 10! Everything is so firmly rooted in my childhood: Like a writer only writes what he knows, a singer should only sing what she knows: “With love to lead the way/I've found more skies of gray/Than any Russian play/Could guarantee.”
That’s from “But Not For Me,” which Judy Garland sang in the 1943 film version of the Gershwins’ musical Girl Crazy. You sang it on For Sentimental Reasons—the last album you did with Nelson Riddle, in 1986.
You have to know what you’re singing about. I’ve seen Russian plays. I saw Ralph Richardson in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in London. But my family is Mexican: My grandfather was born in Mexico, and I know that culture pretty well. I wouldn’t have tried to sing it if I didn’t.
Speaking of singing, will you be able to sing again?
I haven’t been able to sing for five years. But there’s a lot of talent out there, singers who just scare me to death?
As far as mainstream pop, I think Amy Winehouse was wonderful—the one that got away. She could have been Sarah Vaughan.
Duffy. I also love Adele, who’s incredibly good—one in a million. Alicia Keys—the quintessential American beauty. There’s a lot of good talent. But my favorite these days is Estrella Morente from Spain. A flamenco singer, fantastic and brilliant.
And besides writing the book, what have you been doing?
Staying home! My children are at an age where they’re getting ready to be launched, so I’ve got to hang around. And I’m involved with Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center here. It’s a nonprofit organization that teaches kids very traditional Mexican singing, instruments, dancing, visual arts. There’s no art in schools, and these kids come from Mexican neighborhoods and are really at risk. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
They have a cultural center and a band, and I’ve introduced them to Ry Cooder—who loves them and used them on a record—and The Chieftains and Jackson Browne. They’re learning their own culture, authentically: They’re not learning crap or being performing seals, but how to process their feelings and socialize.
I go there and watch and sit in on sessions, and sometimes give singing tips. Otherwise, I’m 100 percent retired since 2010, and very happy.
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