“Linda Ronstadt — The Sound of My Voice” is the Story of a Restless Cry

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Linda Ronstadt in 1977

When you fall in love with a singer — with their voice, their persona, their passions — it’s not necessarily a rational matter. Like many infatuations, you respond instinctively. With a vocalist, you are awakened to a tone, a way of phrasing, the songs they choose, and of course, the mysterious draw of their voice. Sometimes, though, you can point to something more primal or particular that draws your ear and which has a genuine logic to it, though it’s a reasoning you may discover over time.

When I was a kid in the seventies, I developed from a casual fan of Linda Ronstadt in high school (her “Heart Like a Wheel” album was in high rotation in our student lounge) into a highly devoted one by the time I was in college. When friends would ask why I went to each of her concerts, and even to LA clubs like the Roxy or Troubadour in the hopes of glimpsing her, I would try to explain what it was that so attracted me to Ronstadt and that distinctive, powerful voice. I finally began to realize that what stirred me so much had roots in my childhood.

Though Ronstadt was singing what came to be known as “country rock”, every time I heard her I traveled back in time to Sunday mornings in my Pico Rivera home. My father would make us both pancakes and menudo, and as he cooked, he played mariachi records and sang along at full volume. I preferred the songs broadcast by my transistor radio — I knew the words to songs by The Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds, even The Archies, but I wasn’t a particular fan of this Mexican folk music. Yet my father’s vibrato as he crooned along with Mariachi Vargas, wavering in and out of tune, and my mother’s humming as she dressed for church gave these well-worn “Mexican music” albums an affectionate association, and as I would come to discover, they had their comforts. Many of the singers my father played were men, but occasionally, a woman would lead those mariachi orquestas, and they sang loud and strong enough to be heard over horns and guitarròns.

As I left my primarily Mexican-American community for a high school and college that were predominantly white, I often felt unmoored — these were days long before inclusion and diversity were social or school policy goals. If I felt the pressure of what we now call ‘code switching’ or if I noticed discrepancies in my two cultures, I soon learned it was best to keep it to myself. When I finally ventured forth to assert to friends and fellow music fans that I loved Linda Ronstadt’s voice for many reasons, but significantly, because of its connection to my Chicano roots, I was often met with blank stares or occasionally even ridicule. (“Mariachis — like those guys who sing too loud at brunch at El Torito?”)

What I heard in Linda Ronstadt’s timbre and artistry, and which would become more evident when she actually started releasing best-selling records in Spanish, was the same kind of yearning but powerful soulful belting I’d heard on records from singers like Lola Beltrán, Chavela Vargas, Aida Cuevas and even from the non-Mexican but beloved Eydie Gorme on her popular records with Trio Los Panchos. To be clear, this was a specifically Mexican-American, Chicano, border kind of soul. The titanic strength in those voices has a constant companion: Sorrow. It’s woven through the horns and guitar strums like a ranchera singer’s braid. It’s a particular form of the classic descriptor: a “cry in the voice.” The irony these women portrayed is that even though they were singing with male mariachi bands and musicians, and their soaring vocals were full of vigor and a thrilling power, they were crooning stories of heartbreak, of women who had been repeatedly wronged by men, even of women plotting crimes of passion. Melodramatic, yet masterfully technical, these were the Mexican version of “torch singers”, and even if you didn’t understand the lyrics, you could understand that the women were wise and world-weary yet not ready to give up on life and love.

Linda Ronstadt had that same ‘cry’ in her voice. It’s there already in her early ballad hits, like “Long Long Time” and particularly in “Love Has No Pride.” It’s part of the attraction of her version of Lowell George’s “Willin’” as well as “When Will I Be Loved.” She was able to slide it in to songs by The Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, even Elvis Costello’s “Alison.” Mostly male and mostly white music critics of the time referenced American country music as they tried to capture Ronstadt’s superstar appeal and review her multiple best-selling records. The common descriptor at the time was that Ronstadt was helping to pioneer “country rock”, a nebulous genre that grouped in everyone from The Eagles to the piano-driven Jackson Browne or the bluesy Bonnie Raitt, as long as a steel guitar was somewhere in the arrangement. And it’s true…Ronstadt was a longtime fan of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Americana folk music.

But calling her a “country-rock” singer was incomplete, and too-easy shorthand. Far more complex to ask, “which country” was she embodying, and as we learn from her biography and from the new documentary, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”, she was embodying at least three. As Ronstadt herself says in a recent interview, “People don’t realize that there’s Mexican, there’s American, and then there’s Mexican-American. They’re three different cultures, and they all influence each other. And they all influence our culture profoundly.”

Though Rolling Stone and mainstream music journalism only emphasized the “American” features in Ronstadt’s music, she couldn’t be anything less than what she was and what would eventually be seen as by all — a young woman who as a girl listened to standards and classical music influenced by her Euro-American mother, and who also sang along to the ranchera and huapango ‘border music’ of her Tucson upbringing, as personified by her father and grandfather of Mexican-German background. Her childhood was informed by small ambulatory Latino orchestras who could combine accordion ‘oom-pah-pah” with the mestizo version of a string section. Recognizing this blend in her singing — filtered as it was through the Laurel Canyon, Southern California singer-songwriter culture of Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies — gave me, a Mexican-American kid trying to make his way in an ‘anglo’ world, a considerable lifeline. I awaited each album with fervor, and was among the first in those old Ticketron lines to get tickets to Linda Ronstadt concerts.

In its essence, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is the story of a stubborn persistence and fierce artistic vision that started in the Arizona ranch house living room of a young woman who instinctively opened herself up to the music being sung around her. When she finally pursued a career (leaving home at 18!) and opened up her mouth to sing at the Troubadour’s microphone, cultural multitudes emerged. This is the narrative that Ronstadt tells in her autobiography and which the filmmakers Ron Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (the team behind very moving documentaries on Harvey Milk and the AIDS Quilt) replicate in the film; that Ronstadt’s desire to sing what she was introduced to as a child and loved from her eclectic musical home community eventually resulted in a career that remarkably did exactly that, and in so doing, enlarged that community to a global level. (I belong to two Linda Ronstadt very devoted fan Facebook groups, and members comment from around the world.)

Though not a strict singer-songwriter like many of her peers, Ronstadt still, as Jackson Browne notes in the film, became an auteur, and her statement as an artist was to fight to sing what she curated and knew had cultural value. She had that elusive quality of taste, and loved good songwriting so much that she helped bring new audiences to Warren Zevon, Karla Bonoff, The McGarrigle Sisters, The Roches, Jimmy Webb and many others. She added a female perspective to songs by established rock artists like Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Jagger/Richards. Working with longtime producer Peter Asher, she revitalized R&B ‘oldies’ and plucked obscure folk Americana songs like “I Never Will Marry” from obscurity and put them next to rock and roll rave-ups. Eventually, as the movie makes clear, her restlessness and desire to explore good songs no matter what their origins, led her to star in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” and then do a sharp, unexpected u-turn into the pre-rock past: three albums of big band and jazz era songs associated with Gershwin, Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

These three albums of gorgeously-recorded Nelson Riddle arrangements hit the charts with unexpected sizzle; nearly everyone had predicted that abandoning her proven success with arena rock would be career suicide. (In truth, the rise of punk and ‘power pop’ swept her unfairly into what appeared to be a fresh generational divide, and her 1980 album “Mad Love”, though still full of powerfully sung cuts, had the tiniest air of desperation about it; even the pink, black and white cover art looked like she was trying to evoke punk and “new wave” in order to stay relevant.) Ronstadt was a humble student of the standards she attempted, challenging herself to do justice to Riddle’s classic arrangements and find her own voice within them. Her concerts switched from stadiums to proscenium theaters, and the music industry was confounded by how swiftly her past audiences went with her, and how quickly she attracted new ones.

This pattern kept repeating through the eighties and early nineties. The record company wanted her to keep doing what brought the money in; Ronstadt kept wanting to change. Long before Madonna and other pop acts made a habit of ‘reinvention’, Ronstadt’s artistic restlessness manifested itself into new forms with each recording. She returned to roots country music with the magical and pristine harmonies she created with longtime friends Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton in the ‘Trio’ album. Would audiences accept her sudden trading of taffeta evening gowns for Western shirts and skirts? ‘Trio’ topped the charts and won Grammys.

But this was all paltry compared to her biggest risk: Ronstadt wanted to abandon English-language singing altogether and finally reclaim her years singing Mexican folk music. (She’d flirted with Spanish-language in an earlier album with “Lo Siento Mi Vida”; curiously, her Spanish accent was decidedly anglicized on that recording, despite her longtime exposure to the language.) Country music? Made some sense. Classic jazz standards? A stretch, but she made it work. Audiences and record-buyers showing up for an album of mariachi and ranchera music? That was surely a career-killer, when so many were waiting for her return to the rock and roll.

But, as was said in later years about political women, she persisted. Ronstadt traded on her many years of success for a chance at making this record, and as usual, she enlisted sterling musicians. Her Spanish was flawless. And I was thrilled. Mexican-Americans like me finally had the chance to hear her sing what we knew she was capable of, and as she united with her earliest home memories, so did we.

The album, “Canciones de mi Padre”, raced up the Latin album charts and still remains the all-time best-selling Latin recording. Buoyed by this success, Ronstadt put together a memorable “Canciones” show and tour that featured Broadway-level production values — large vibrant backdrops, ballet folklorico dancers. Finally, I thought, after years of rushing out the door to a Linda Ronstadt concert, I could pause and ask my parents if they wanted to join me, if I could buy them tickets. My mother, father and I pulled into the Universal Amphitheater and got out of the car beaming. This was a time when representation of Latinos in mainstream American media was far rarer than it even is today.

Could Linda Ronstadt have known that her tribute to her father and grandfather (the album title translates as “Songs of my Father”), her own act of cross-generational generosity, would radiate around to inspire many other young adult children? Because as we walked into that amphitheater, my mother wasn’t the only mamà dressed in her finest dangling earrings and fringed shawls; as I looked around, there were hundreds of young people proudly escorting their mothers, fathers, abuelas y tias into that floral-strewn lobby. A show for us, everyone seemed to be saying and toasting. And when Ronstadt opened her mouth to sing La Cigarra or Por Un Amor in full, unabashed voice, it sounded and felt like thunder, preceding the most refreshing rain.

“Los Laureles” from the “Canciones de mi Padre” tour

Later Ronstadt would continue to follow her instincts, and if the sales didn’t always follow, she was still making choices according to her vision, and pioneered the way for more female musicians to do so. Subsequent albums experimented with jazz combos, the music of Louisiana, antique instruments, Afro-Cuban dance, full duet albums with Aaron Neville and Emmylou Harris, music for children — wherever her heart and taste led her. All until the tragic realization that a specific and difficult to treat form of Parkinson’s took control of her vocal chords, and silenced her singing career.

“Linda Ronstadt — The Sound of My Voice” is careful to portray itself as a “musical biography”, and it’s best to know that is indeed what it is. It sketches out all of the above with panache and considerable dedication to unearthing and pristinely restoring archival performance clips. There are quibbles one can have here. Some of the record chronology is unclear and out of order, and not enough time is given to the greater musical context of the times. And of course, longtime fans would have gladly sat in their theater seats for a few more performances; for this aficionado, I’d have loved a full version of a deep-cut ballad, “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me”, a song that exudes the chill and vulnerability of a nighttime drive down Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible.

Not included in the film, but wish it was

Perhaps more problematic at times is that, as one critic notes, the film can feel like a Wikipedia overview, and as much as I loved the considerable musical footage, the “more” that I was left wanting were the occasional personal insights you can’t get from Ronstadt’s autobiography or journalistic summaries of her career. They don’t necessarily have to be about her storied romance with Governor Jerry Brown, or even about the drug scene that shadowed LA’s sunlit rock scene; fans are used to her reserve about those areas.

But still, more details! You’d never know from the film that Ronstadt has two children. That she was once escorted away from Las Vegas and banned just for expressing support for Michael Moore. That even after her illness, Ronstadt met with and served migrants at the border, and that she currently uses her time in interviews and appearances to advocate for them.

When we do get a few brief moments in the film of friendly disclosures beyond tales of the recording studio or concert stage, they are unpredictable and hint at the generosity of spirit these musicians also shared. These brief scenes are like a type of spiritual manna. JD Souther (her long ago boyfriend who many fans speculate was the love of her life) talks about Ronstadt’s laugh and living with her and it’s a confluence of many felicitous things: a pause for a moment of intimacy, a flashback to the way they used to sing together (Ronstadt sings an aching version of Souther’s “Prisoner in Disguise”, along with the songwriter on harmony), and an intersectional look at the relationship behind the craft. When Emmylou recounts how Linda sustained her after Gram Parsons’ death, the moment has an exquisite tenderness, and speaks about the human and artist in ways that recounting battles with record execs cannot.

Because of course the ultimate poignancy (irony is far too lowly a description) is that a disease has silenced the musical voice of one of the modern era’s most powerfully cathartic, artistically restless singers. And after ninety minutes of hearing her past recordings, thankfully both Ronstadt and the filmmakers quietly let us into a moment of her contemporary reality. Much has been said of this moment, and I don’t want to divulge more for those who haven’t seen it. It involves a guitar, her relatives, and the quality in her voice so many of us have been drawn to for years, though now a hush.

In the end, you do indeed hear the ‘cry’ in Ronstadt’s current voice, and if you can leave the theater without one in yours, you are made of more defensive stuff than me. “Linda Ronstadt — The Sound of My Voice” finally transcends the musical biopic genre limitations it has adhered to and we realize that the songs Linda Ronstadt has curated in her life carry essential truths that have gained meaning and force with time; “Love Has No Pride”, for example, echoes with infinite heartbreak along the night winds of LA’s canyons. It’s title and chorus can be seen as the Linda Ronstadt anthem that all of us, with age, must learn to sing.

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Film, Music, Peak TV, Diversity— Tom Cendejas is sitting on a sofa and unwrapping Pop Culture with a Latino eye, one husk at a time.

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