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by Mike McGuirk

October 16, 2012

Linda Ronstadt Rules

by Mike McGuirk  |  October 16, 2012

I'm going through a major Linda Ronstadt phase right now. Unfortunately for my poor roommates, this translates into a lot of late-night crankings of "Blue Bayou" and almost daily spins of her 1977 tour de force, Simple Dreams. Not surprisingly, it all started with "Blue Bayou," but in the last couple weeks I've delved deeper into her catalog and history and I've decided, well, Linda Ronstadt rules.

Maybe because she had her better-known lite rock-ish hits in the later '70s and eventually her style morphed into that of a sort of jazz-y torch songstress, her legitimate country rock beginnings get forgotten. But if you listen to her sweet spot years -- 1969 to 1979, roughly -- she's kind of an L.A. version of Emmylou Harris mixed with some of the sacred Nashville moves of Dolly Parton (it's fitting that those three recorded an album together, 1987's Grammy-winning Trio). In addition to impeccably chosen classic country covers, her early records bear the unmistakeable sound of Sneaky Pete Kleinow's pedal steel -- that's the guy all over the Flying Burrito Brothers records -- putting her squarely in the original and ground-breaking country rock scene.

On top of all this, there is a legend about her that's pretty awesome. In 1969, she was making her first appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, a country/folk variety show that ran from 1969 to 1971. It was taped at the Ryman Auditorium (mega-famous and cool in country circles) and featured performances from Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Reed -- everybody. Ronstadt showed up in a serious '60s getup -- as in, a scandalously short mini skirt -- and, uh, no panties. Johnny's wife, June Carter Cash, noticed, approached the show's makeup people and said, "Somebody get down the street and buy her some bloomers, she's out there showing herself!" (IPod generation: "bloomers" is a term for underwear from back in the olde timey days.) Ronstadt's explanation was, "I sing better bare-butted," to which June reportedly responded, "Not in front of my Johnny!" Johnny Cash's totally freaked-out face in the YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-QMxn6vvh4" target="_blank">clip] may be the best part. Plus, Ronstadt looks like hoop earrings were invented for her alone.

This says something about the (possibly misguided) free-spiritedness of that era, but it's Ronstadt's staunch unwillingness to give a damn about what other people thought that really matters. Strangely enough, we live in a time when Britney Spears does something similar and it's trumpeted as the behavior of a nutjob and she's chased down like a dog by paparazzi. Aren't we supposed to be more evolved than we were in 1969?

Okay, this got a little off-topic. More important is Ronstadt's voice. She possesses a Whitney-level power that she unleashes with prejudice, and an instinct for subtlety that puts her on the list of pure singers. Her love for nailing covers and her gift for jazz, pop and soul standards cement the fact that this woman was made to sing and loves to do it, and we're lucky for it. Though she is still singing, the playlist attached focuses on some of the highlights from her '70s heyday. Please enjoy, and don't miss her totally awesome take on "Crazy Arms" at the end.

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