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.
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.