Back to Blue Bayou

An Interview With Linda Ronstadt

by Christian John Wikane

15 September 2017

(Promo Photo Courtesy of Elektra/Asylum Records.) 

The Most Gorgeous Sound on the Planet

“It’s beyond the planet. It’s an incredible sound….”

Traditional folk songs like “I Never Will Marry” and “Old Paint” stemmed from the wide range of songs that Ronstadt sang with friends and siblings on any given day. “I learned ‘I Never Will Marry’ from my sister,” she says. “I knew her version. I don’t know where she learned it.” Eight years before recording the song on Simple Dreams, Ronstadt sang a different version of “I Never Will Marry” with Johnny Cash on his television special. “That was hard because Johnny knew one melody and I knew another one,” she says. “I kept falling back to my old melody!”

Cash and Ronstadt’s performance resembled the version popularized by the Carter Family in the ‘30s, where the narrator watches as the song’s “damsel” takes her own life in the ocean. Ronstadt’s recording mirrored the more wistful storyline favored by the Weavers (among other artists). Instead of death, the woman surrenders to a life of solitude as “the only man I ever loved” leaves her side. For Ronstadt, the song foretold her own destiny. “I never wanted to get married,” she says. “Later, I recorded a song called ‘Never Will I Marry’ by Frank Loesser on one of my standards records (Hummin’ to Myself, 2004)… so I did it twice!”

Ronstadt invited Dolly Parton to record harmonies for the song’s mournful refrain. In fact, just prior to recording “I Never Will Marry”, both Parton and Ronstadt had sung background on Herb Pederson’s Sandman (1977) album. They’d met five years earlier when Ronstadt and Earl Scruggs appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. “I’d heard ‘Jolene’ on the radio,” she continues. “Dolly’s such a good singer. I thought it was the best thing I’d heard in years. It’s still really good.” The two would forge a brilliant creative union with mutual friend Emmylou Harris that later blossomed on their Trio albums.

“Dolly has a plaintive quality to her voice, sort of pleading with the world to deal her a good hand and a sense that it never will,” Ronstadt continues. “It’s just devastating, I think that came from growing up so poor. It’s hard to grow up hungry. She has plenty of food now, but she still has that little girl quality in her voice. It’s so touching.” The timbre between Parton and Ronstadt’s voices fashioned three minutes of true inspiration. “I Never Will Marry” even reached number eight on the country singles chart and later won praise from Country Music Magazine as “an important statement about a whole slice of American music history” (October 1978).

Ronstadt played acoustic guitar on “I Never Will Marry”, giving the song a homespun flavor that also governed her playing on “Old Paint”. Ronstadt explains, “‘Old Paint’ is a genuine, real traditional cowboy song. I never heard any recording of that. It was just a cowboy song that we used to sing as kids. We’d also sing ‘Strawberry Roan’. We liked to sing anything that was about horses and cowboys. We lived for our horses. They were our lives. They were our family.”

While “Old Paint” was anchored in Ronstadt’s childhood, the idea to record it hatched during a visit with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. “They were traveling through the country,” she continues. “They came for Thanksgiving. We were singing songs together and we sang ‘Old Paint’. They liked it. I said, ‘That’s a real respectable song. I think I want to record that!’” As the last cut on Simple Dreams, “Old Paint” rocked gently in 3/4 time as Peter Asher, Kenny Edwards, and Herb Pederson joined Ronstadt on the song’s chorus, “Ride around, ride around real slow”.

“Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, however, jolted the proceedings with a dash of irreverence. Penned by Warren Zevon, the song appeared on Jackson Browne’s production of Warren Zevon (1976) for Asylum Records. “I have a cassette tape of Jackson teaching me to sing it,” says Ronstadt, who recalls one particular verse that she excised for Simple Dreams: “I met a girl at the Rainbow Bar, she asked me if I’d beat her. She took me back to the Hyatt House—which is the rock ‘n’ roll hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles—and then he goes, I don’t want to talk about it! Jackson was trying to talk me into singing that. I kept saying, ‘Jackson I can’t sing that verse. I’m not into S&M.’ He said, ‘Well it doesn’t say that you want, it says that she wants it.’ I said, ‘Well that wouldn’t be me’, so I didn’t include that verse.” Instead, Ronstadt chose a new location (the Vieux Carré,) and a more playful rendezvous.

Waddy Wachtel’s incendiary guitar licks on “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” were a clever retort to Zevon’s wry, slightly bent scenarios. “I think Warren was poking fun at the way we take ourselves all so seriously … including Warren,” says Ronstadt. “You get to a desolate place and it’s not fun. Warren had some pretty desolate places to visit. He was a serious guy. I never got to know him that well. I knew him when he was not sober and it was hard to penetrate the alcohol, but he was thoughtful and a really smart guy.”

“Carmelita” also hailed from Zevon’s Asylum debut. The song juxtaposed a lilting melody with a storyboard that traced the downward spiral of a heroin addict. Ronstadt’s performance evokes a warmth that’s almost incongruent with the bleakness of the material. “I just loved it,” she says. “I just really identified with it. I think there are a lot of ways to be strung out. I’ve never been strung out on heroin, but I’ve been strung out on other things. I know the feeling. I know that desolation.

“Drug addiction is a horrible, narcissistic place to be. I feel terrible for anybody who goes through it because it shuts down, chemically, the parts in your brain that make you inclined to altruism. It reduces you to an id. Until you can get that chemical process reversed, which is incredibly painful, you can’t be a full human being. You might grab onto anybody. I think Carmelita was not (the character’s) soul mate or his true love. It was just who he was able to grab that night.”

A longing for a different kind contoured the singer’s rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”. She recalls, “On that same night that I had the tape of Jackson teaching me ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’, JD taught me ‘Blue Bayou’. He said, ‘I think this would be a good song for you to sing’ and he played it for me. He started to sing it and I started singing harmony. I said, ‘I’m going to learn that.’ That was a profitable night!” Indeed, Orbison’s melancholy yet hopeful tale would become a defining song in Ronstadt’s career.

“Blue Bayou” paints a vivid scene, sumptuous in every detail. Adorned with mandolin, marimba, and a steel guitar solo by Dan Dugmore, several musical elements caress Ronstadt’s vocals like a soft breeze. Don Henley and Kenny Edwards even contribute harmonies to the second chorus. “Originally, I was going to do it with JD as a duet,” notes Ronstadt. “JD must have not been available that night so I had to get Don to substitute.” The grainy texture of Henley and Edwards’ blend complemented the bell-clear ring of Ronstadt’s voice.

In rendering the song’s signature melody, Ronstadt drew from legendary Mexican ranchera vocalist Lola Beltrán. “She was the main influence on my singing,” she says. “Mexican music does that sort of belting thing and then goes into falsetto like I did on the end of the song. I liked ‘Blue Bayou’ so much as a Mexican song that I had my dad write Spanish lyrics for it (‘Lago Azul’). I forgot to bring the copy of the lyrics when I left for the studio in the morning, so I made some grammar mistakes. Mexico was not amused when I sent them my mangled Spanish version of it! Onstage, I used to sing the last verse in Spanish and it was correct.”

While Ronstadt conveyed a sense of yearning on “Blue Bayou” through powerful vocal dynamics, she conjured the anguish in Waddy Wachtel’s “Maybe I’m Right” through a more hushed intensity. She recalls first hearing the song during a jam session with the Rolling Stones. “It was one of those nights when we were up until five in the morning. Everybody was playing music, mostly blues stuff,” she says. “Waddy just somehow plucked up his courage and played ‘Maybe I’m Right’. Ronnie Wood was there and he said, ‘Play it again!’ I knew then that it was a really good song. Waddy’s a real balls-out kind of rock ‘n’ roll player—he turns it up to twelve!—and this was such a delicate ballad. It exposed such a tender sort of feeling in him. I loved that song.”

Wachtel explains the genesis of “Maybe I’m Right”. “It’s quite an eventful tale,” he says. “I was in love with a girl. There was a person in her life, who was a guy she worked for, who inserted himself in between me and this girl. He kept saying, ‘You got to stay away from that kid. He’s a punk. He’s no good.’ I went to Vermont with this band that I had. I was waiting for her to come up and we were going to get married. The next thing I know, I hear from her that she’s not coming and she’s not going to speak to me ever again. I was torn apart by it.” Upon moving to California, Wachtel sat at the piano and turned his heartache into a song.

Peter Asher kept the instrumentation on “Maybe I’m Right” to a bare minimum, with Wachtel carrying most of the tune on guitar, save for Kenny Edwards’ bass lines. Asher and JD Souther’s weightless vocals shrouded Ronstadt as she captured the song’s emotional core with one deceptively simple word: “Why?” She explains, “The essence of the song was ‘Why? Why did this not work? What could I have done differently?’ It’s an awful feeling when a relationship breaks up and you just don’t know why. You’re not quite sure if you could have done something to change it.”

Wachtel, who sang with Ronstadt on the last verse, was duly moved by the singer’s performance. “I told Linda that when she sings softly it’s the most gorgeous sound on the planet,” he says. “It’s beyond the planet. It’s an incredible sound. For example, her vocal on the first two lines of ‘Long Long Time’ is the most gorgeous sound you will ever hear. That’s how she sang ‘Maybe I’m Right’. When she sings soft, it’s enough to tear the world in half. Still to this day, I can’t believe that she actually sang it. I can never thank her enough.”

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