back-to-blue-bayou-an-interview-with-linda-ronstadt
(Promo Photo Courtesy of Elektra/Asylum Records.)

Back to Blue Bayou: An Interview With Linda Ronstadt

In her exclusive interview with PopMatters, Linda Ronstadt revisits Simple Dreams just in time for Rhino's 40th anniversary edition of her classic number one album.
Linda Ronstadt
Simple Dreams (40th Anniversary Edition)
Rhino
2017-09-15

A traditional cowboy song and a ballad redolent of the 19th century. Is it possible that Linda Ronstadt released them on the same album? Yes, though a trace of wonder shapes her memory. “I can’t believe I’ve got ‘Old Paint’ on a record with ‘Sorrow Lives Here’,” she chuckles. “I mean, talk about eclectic mania!” Indeed, the singular artistry of Simple Dreams (1977) is steeped in Ronstadt’s exploration of different musical spheres, whether harmonizing with Dolly Parton on a country-tinged lament or sparking a combustible rendition of the Rolling Stones “Tumbling Dice”. Her voice channels the universality of emotions that are deeply felt but seldom ever spoken.

Simple Dreams arrived ten years after Ronstadt debuted as the lead vocalist of the Stone Poneys, who scored a major hit with “Different Drum” on Capitol Records. She ventured solo in 1969, denting the Top 40 a year later with “Long Long Time”, and introduced the newly formed Eagles on Linda Ronstadt (1971), produced by John Boylan. After a trio of albums for Capitol, followed by the singer’s Asylum debut Don’t Cry Now (1973), Peter Asher began producing and managing Ronstadt. His partnership with the singer propelled her from LA’s close-knit community of artists, musicians, and songwriters to the top of the pop charts in 1974 with “You’re No Good”. She became the first female artist to earn two consecutive platinum albums: Heart Like a Wheel (1974), which signaled her brief return to Capitol, and Prisoner in Disguise (1975).

A pair of Grammy Awards bookended the release of Hasten Down the Wind (1976) and Ronstadt’s first Greatest Hits (1976) collection, but it was Simple Dreams that set a new benchmark in Ronstadt’s career. Her fifth consecutive platinum set supplanted Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977) from number one for five weeks and spawned the platinum-selling “Blue Bayou” as well as “It’s So Easy”. Remarkably, both singles shared the Top Five for three weeks in December 1977.

“Linda’s legacy gives us so much to celebrate and contemplate,” the late Glenn Frey said during Ronstadt’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (2014). Simple Dreams underscores the sentiment of Frey’s statement. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” pulsed with spirited irony while songs like “Maybe I’m Right” gently led listeners down a mirrored corridor to their own heart. In her exclusive interview with PopMatters, Ronstadt goes back to “Blue Bayou” and the Vieux Carré just in time for Rhino’s 40th-anniversary reissue of Simple Dreams.

Like a magnetic force, Ronstadt had always drawn exceptional musicians into her orbit, a quality that would later flourish in her work with Nelson Riddle and Rubén Fuentes. During the early ’70s, the cream of players who held court at the Troubadour in West Hollywood furnished the pulse of Ronstadt’s albums. Of the musicians who played on Simple Dreams, Kenny Edwards (bass), Waddy Wachtel (guitar), and Dan Dugmore (steel guitar) had also played on Hasten Down the Wind as well as the album’s accompanying tour. “It was the band that traveled with me, so we had a chance to develop our ideas,” says Ronstadt. “Waddy was an up-and-coming studio player and I’d played with Kenny since the Stone Poneys. Dan really understood pop music and rock & roll. He wasn’t strictly country, so he was very flexible.”

Guitarist Andrew Gold, an integral force to the singer’s first three albums with Asher, departed the lineup to pursue his solo career, while New York-based session pros Don Grolnick (keyboards) and Ricky Marotta (drums) were the newest additions to Ronstadt’s band. “Don had played with James Taylor and Ricky came along with Don,” the singer adds.

Working with engineer Val Garay, Peter Asher gathered the band at Sound Factory in LA. “We’d gotten a little bit tighter,” says Ronstadt, noting how her rapport with Asher had evolved since Heart Like a Wheel. “Peter was very good at hearing little inner parts of music. He didn’t like to overdub vocals. I liked to overdub vocals, but we hadn’t worked a method for it particularly, so a lot of those vocals are live.” Asher’s approach to producing Ronstadt would craft one of the era’s most evocative portraits of Southern California pop-rock, winning him “Producer of the Year” at the Grammy Awards for his work on Simple Dreams and James Taylor’s J.T. (1977) album.

Amidst uptempo rock ‘n’ roll covers like “When Will I Be Loved” and “Heat Wave”, Ronstadt’s albums also showcased the work of contemporary songwriters like Karla Bonoff (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me”), Warren Zevon (“Hasten Down the Wind”), and Kate & Anna McGarrigle (“Heart Like a Wheel”). She breathed new life into their songs, bringing an authorial spirit to words that resonated on on a visceral level. In JD Souther, she found a veritable scribe for her soul.

Souther first met Ronstadt during his stint as a drummer in Bo Diddley’s band. He’d also formed a duo with Glenn Frey called Longbranch/Pennywhistle. Released in 1970, their self-titled album for Amos Records offered an early glimpse of Souther’s writing. Three years later, he produced Ronstadt’s Don’t Cry Now, which featured several of his self-penned songs. “I don’t think I realized how world-class JD was because everybody that I knew was writing good songs… Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey, Don Henley,” says Ronstadt. “I just figured that they were good, but I didn’t know how good they were going to be.” The caliber of Souther’s songs shone through Ronstadt’s recordings of “Faithless Love” from Heart Like a Wheel and the title track to Prisoner In Disguise.

Simple Dreams featured one of the singer’s most compelling interpretations of Souther’s work, “Simple Man, Simple Dream”. “I love that song,” she says. “It seemed like it was a story of all of our lives. Romance was a dangerous occupation. ‘What if I fall in love with you, just like normal people do / Well, maybe I’d kill you or maybe I’d be true’ — that was definitely the definition of the people we were at that time. We were careless in love and we were all trying to get work. In the course of trying to come up, we’d all been taken advantage of in one way or another.”

Souther had previously recorded “Simple Man, Simple Dream” on his own Black Rose (1976) album, though Ronstadt first heard it when they shared an apartment together on North Beachwood Drive in the Hollywood Hills. “I lived with JD so the song just kind of rolled out like toast popping up out of the toaster: ‘That looks like it’s cooked. I’ll have that one!’ His songs were well-crafted and carefully thought out. They’re not just ‘moon, June, spoon’. He didn’t just rhyme something and then go to lunch. His lyrics have kind of a biting, edgy quality that I like. To write a line like ‘Maybe I’d kill you or maybe I’d be true’ is pretty brave.” Ronstadt wrapped the words and melody in a beautifully nuanced vocal performance, further embellished by David Campbell’s arrangement of violin, viola, cello, and double bass.

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To this day, Souther remains grateful for Ronstadt’s interpretive brilliance on “Simple Man, Simple Dream” and all of the other songs of his that she recorded throughout her career. “It is impossible to overstate the importance of Linda Ronstadt’s place in American music or to exaggerate her importance to me as a songwriter,” he says. “She has the greatest voice of my generation to my way of thinking and every time she sang a song of mine, it got better. ‘Simple Man, Simple Dream’ is one example. Warren Zevon told me it was his favorite song of mine and sang it himself many times in performance, but we were both humbled by Linda’s direct and elegant interpretation. She did this for both Warren’s songs and mine, again and again. I always have and still do consider her presence in my life to be a great gift.”

Eric Kaz was another writer whose songs occasionally found a home on Ronstadt’s albums. She’d recorded “I Won’t Be Hanging Around” on her self-titled Capitol set and scored a hit in 1973 with “Love Has No Pride”, Kaz’s collaboration with Libby Titus. “I’d always sing and play my songs into a cassette recorder for Linda, a piano vocal with all my songwriter imperfections,” Kaz recalls. “She would somehow always ‘get it’. She was always interested in listening for something unique and never forgot a song that interested her.”

Ronstadt brought Simple Dreams to a standstill on Kaz’s haunting, elegiac “Sorrow Lives Here”. “I lived that song,” she says. “It became completely true for me. I remember Eric playing ‘Sorrow Lives Here’ for me and I said, ‘That would be a really good song for Bette Midler.’ Then I said, ‘To hell with Bette Midler, I want to record that!’ [laughs] I just loved singing it. It was like ‘Heart Like a Wheel’. I’m very attracted to stuff from the 19th century and it has such a 19th century feeling to it. It feels like Edith Wharton or a Henry James vignette.”

Don Grolnick accompanied Ronstadt on piano, lending a sparseness to the track that only accentuated the dejection in the singer’s voice. “I was actually leading on that song,” she says. “What Don was really good at was making me think that I was following him when he was actually following me because I was basically insecure — ‘where do I go next?”” The gripping interplay between Ronstadt and Grolnick gradually crested towards a climax — “Everything seems to spin around” — before the lyrics land in near silence.

Adding “Sorrow Lives Here” to her setlist, Ronstadt continued to refine her performance on the road. “I found a live version at the Buduokan in Japan (1979) that was the best version,” she says. “It’s better than the record. When I was recording, I was still sort of feeling my way through songs. It wasn’t until I recorded them and then worked them out on stage that I got really comfortable with songs.” Nonetheless, for sheer emotional impact, the studio version of “Sorrow Lives Here” remains a stunning document. “Linda has the amazing ability to listen to the symphony I hear in my head and turn it into reality,” says Kaz. “She brought everything to ‘Sorrow Lives Here’. I never wrote anything like it, before or after.”

The seeds of Linda Ronstadt’s musical sensibilities were planted in Tucson during her childhood. A vibrant world of music fueled her passion for singing, whether exploring her father’s 78s of flamenco singer Pastora Pavón (La Niña de los Peines), hearing Rosemary Clooney sing live on the radio, watching her mother and sister play Gilbert & Sullivan on the piano, or tuning into radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera at her grandparents’ house, not to mention the lullabies, country tunes, and mariachi music that regularly accompanied the quotidian tasks of young Linda’s home life.

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.”

99 Percent of Singing Is Listening

“You have to not think, but you have to listen when you’re singing…”

Ronstadt’s searing rendition of “Tumbling Dice” rerouted Simple Dreams in a whole other direction. Delivering what New York Times critic John Rockwell called “a hard-rock war cry of independence”, the singer punched the lyrics with spunk and sass. Originally one of the standout cuts on the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street (1972), “Tumbling Dice” became the perfect vehicle to spotlight Ronstadt’s fluency in rock.

“The Rolling Stones were staying out in Malibu for awhile,” Ronstadt recalls. “Ronnie Wood had a place. Mick taught it to me. I felt like I could sing ‘Tumbling Dice’ because I really identified with the lyrics.” The opening lines on Ronstadt’s version — “People try to rape me, always think I’m crazy. Make me burn the candle right down” — was a blunt comment on the more toxic and invasive byproducts of fame. She explains, “When you’re exposed to a wide segment of the public, somebody’s trying to violate you in some way, but it was nothing like it is now with Internet trolls.”

“Linda sang the hell out of it,” says Wachtel, who’d later join Keith Richards’ X-Pensive Winos. “She’s a great rock ‘n’ roll singer. Every time you see the live performance of ‘Tumbling Dice’, she’s just killing on it.” Ronstadt subsequently joined Jagger onstage for “Tumbling Dice” when the Rolling Stones played her hometown in July 1978. “Mick knew how to make things fun onstage,” she says. “He’s a showman. He’s not going to make the show look bad.” Earlier that year, John A. Alonzo’s feature film FM (1978) had also incorporated footage of Ronstadt performing “Tumbling Dice” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” from her November 1977 appearance at the Summit in Houston.

In fact, both “Tumbling Dice” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” exemplified Ronstadt’s growing inclination to outfit her albums with songs that suited larger venues. Her cover of Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy” rounded out Simple Dreams with another rocker that worked well for arena performances. “That was an afterthought that we threw in,” she says. “We needed an uptempo song because we had so many ballads. The songs like ‘Maybe I’m Right’ didn’t go over in those arenas. Anything with nuance or subtlety got lost. I did ‘Sorrow Lives Here’ as an encore because I loved it so much and I wanted to sing it every night. If I’d put it in the middle of the show, I probably would have emptied the place!”

Of course, Ronstadt had an impressive track record with Buddy Holly. Her version of “That’ll Be the Day” from Hasten Down the Wind had spent four months on the Hot 100 where it peaked in the Top 20 during the fall of 1976. “It’s So Easy” would fare even better than its predecessor, powered by Ronstadt’s capacity to understand what she calls the “vocal bloodlines” of a song. “It’s Texarkana,” she says. “It’s that area of the country (Texas / Arkansas). I grew up listening to that. It’s kind of country, it’s kind of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s kind of blues. It’s a little bit of all those things.”

As the gateway to Simple Dreams, “It’s So Easy” commanded immediate attention. Wachtel (guitar) and Grolnick (clavinet) played off each other as Ricky Marotta primed the beat for Kenny Edwards’ bass. Ronstadt infused her phrasing with a guttural growl. “That came naturally,” she says. “When you push a note in a certain register, you don’t know what it’s going to do until you get there. It just comes out. You have to not think, but you have to listen when you’re singing because 99 percent of singing is listening.” Ronstadt capped “It’s So Easy” with a triumphant cry, kindling a blaze of emotion in just a few notes.

With mastering underway, Ronstadt conceived a very specific vision for the album’s cover art. “I wanted to have something like the early color photographs that were done by exposing the film to the sun over a period of time, getting to that really soft focus thing,” she says. “I wanted something that was kind of timeless: all performers go to the dressing room before they go onstage. I was originally photographed in a little 1920s teddy — camiknickers they’re called — but Annie Leibowitz had taken that picture of me in the red slip (for Rolling Stone) which I didn’t like. Because of that, we changed the cover to me in a kimono.”

Simple Dreams reflected a particular moment in Ronstadt’s career, one where her profile had grown exponentially from recording artist to public figure. She’d begun the year performing at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and sang the National Anthem at Dodger Stadium during the World Series later that fall. In between, she made the cover of Time Magazine for a feature article that quoted Elektra/Asylum executives saying, “Right now Linda is the most successful female singer in record history” (28 February 1977). Other magazine covers proclaimed Ronstadt “The Million Dollar Woman” (Rolling Stone), “Rock’s Hottest Torch Singer” (People), and “The Queen of Rock & Roll” (Circus). Between concert appearances and seemingly constant media coverage, Simple Dreams shipped gold even before it bowed on the Billboard 200 the week ending 24 September 1977.

Elektra had issued “Blue Bayou” in advance of the album’s release. It slowly ascended the Hot 100 until it reached number three in December 1977, with “It’s So Easy” trailing close behind in the Top Five for three weeks. After more than five months on the chart, “Blue Bayou” became the best-selling single of Ronstadt’s career, earning the singer a platinum single and two Grammy nominations, “Record of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female”.

Simple Dreams quickly went from gold to platinum and, eventually, triple platinum. Beginning 3 December 1977, the album spent the first of five weeks at number one on the Billboard 200. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and “Tumbling Dice” kept Simple Dreams on the chart throughout 1978 as both singles climbed the Top 40 and laid the foundation for Ronstadt’s next double platinum release Living in the U.S.A. (1978).

The ’80s embodied both the possibility and promise of artistic freedom in Ronstadt’s career. Some of her biggest gambles, from the record company’s point of view, yielded some of her greatest triumphs: her collaboration with Nelson Riddle on a trio of platinum-selling standards albums (1983-1986), her partnership with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris on their first Trio (1987) project, and her Grammy-winning tribute to mariachi music Canciones De Mi Padre (1987), which set a record as the most successful non-English language album ever released in the US. Her starring roles in the Public Theater’s productions of The Pirates of Penzance and La Bohème only strengthened her vocal technique and developed the upper extension of her voice.

Ronstadt’s pop albums of the ’80s, Mad Love (1980), Get Closer (1982), and Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind (1989), traced a fascinating arc as she piloted other creative endeavors. “I really loved singing American standards, where I found the true core of my voice,” she says. “I had a more authentic voice. It worked for everything — Mexican music, opera, standards, pop music. I could go back and sing rock ‘n’ roll with way more authority. Anything that happened before 1980, I think, I need to work on that. I did my best singing after the ’90s, but I didn’t know the market at that point.”

In truth, the general public’s perception of Ronstadt as, first and foremost, a rock ‘n’ roll singer, has long diverged from the singer’s own manifold allegiances. “When I was singing standards, sometimes I’d miss singing ‘Tumbling Dice’, but not as much as I missed singing ‘What’s New’ when I was singing rock ‘n’ roll,” she says.

Adieu False Heart (2006), Ronstadt’s Grammy-nominated collaboration with Cajun music artist Ann Savoy, marked her last studio album before she retired from singing. “I had more fun making that record than any other record I’d ever made, except for the Trio records,” she says. The album’s vast array of sources — early 20th century folk ballads, Parisian love songs, Richard Thompson compositions, pop chestnuts like “Walk Away Renee” — stayed true to Ronstadt’s musical heart.

However, the enduring appeal of Simple Dreams remains a facet of the singer’s unparalleled legacy in music, specifically evidenced by the all-star group of women who honored Ronstadt at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2014. Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow, and Carrie Underwood each performed classic Ronstadt hits, including two songs from Simple Dreams, “Blue Bayou” and “It’s So Easy”.

That evening, Waddy Wachtel guested as lead guitarist during the Hall of Fame’s tribute to Ronstadt. “It was so great to see all of these people that have loved Linda so deeply and learned so much from her,” he says. “It was a fantastic assemblage. Bonnie and Emmy go so far back with Linda. Stevie came in there and kicked the shit out of ‘It’s So Easy’. They all outdid themselves on each song.” Nicks spoke on behalf of several generations of artists when she thanked Ronstadt for inspiring her to declare, “That’s what I want to do.”

The true meaning of Simple Dreams transcends any one particular style or category. It’s really about songs, and the combination of strength, vulnerability, feeling, and technique that Linda Ronstadt brought to each performance. Perhaps the album title, with its nod to “Simple Man, Simple Dream”, says it all. “When I thought about doing a song, I always felt like it was a dream to do the song,” Ronstadt explains. “It really was satisfying to me when I realized the dream … and so the album was my simple dreams.”

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