Linda Ronstadt awaits a visit from Emmylou Harris. “It’s nice to see Emmy,” she says of her former singing partner. “She always brings her laundry here when she’s on the road.”
Interviews are no small feat for the 76-year-old, who last performed on stage in 2009, nearly a decade after her voice began to fail her. In 2012, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A late 2019 reassessment changed her diagnosis to a similar but rare brain disorder, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), although she still calls it Parkinson’s disease.
She has mobility issues, speaks in a strained voice, and is “very hard of hearing,” she tells me on the phone from her home in San Francisco.
Last night she saw Harris in concert, alongside Steve Earle, Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne. “I could tell they were good songs, but I couldn’t understand a word they were singing – not a word.”
Ronstadt is a true superstar, the only woman to win five platinum albums in a row. She has 11 Grammys and her covers of “You’re No Good”, “Blue Bayou” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” helped define the sound of the 70s. PSP stole one of the great voices of modern music – singer Randy Newman nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” because of the power of her voice. His last recording, a duet with Jimmy Webb, dates from 2010.
It must be painful not to be able to sing anymore, I thought to myself. “I can still sing in my head,” she replies happily.
The commentary encapsulates the witty, intelligent, and wonderfully direct character that shines through his gripping memoir. It Feels Like Home: A Song for the Borderlands of Sonora.
Ronstadt, born July 15, 1946, in Tucson, Arizona, grew up “saturated with songs.” His father, Gilbert, led a band called The Star-Spangled Megaphone. “Dad liked it when I sang Mexican music,” she says. “I don’t know what he thought about rock and roll stuff.”
Some of their ancestors emigrated from Hanover, Germany in the 1840s and put down roots in the Rio Sonora region of Mexico. The book includes a heartbreaking letter from his great-grandmother Margarita, in 1886, revealing her grief for her three-year-old son, Armando, who died an excruciatingly slow death after shooting a pot of boiling milk at him from a kitchen . table.
His grandfather Fred then moved to Tucson, Arizona, which is why his life is something of a story on both sides of the border.
“We spent a lot of family time in Mexico, visiting Guaymas, a fishing village on the Sea of Cortés, every summer. It was much cooler there. My father, my mother, my sister Suzy and my brothers Peter and Mike all sang harmonies in the car. This was before we had air conditioning, so you needed something to distract you from the heat,” she recalls.
His childhood seems to belong to an impossibly lost world. The cover photo of the book shows a melancholy-looking young Ronstadt, wearing a Hopalong Cassidy cowboy hat, watching a rodeo.
“I went horseback riding from the age of three,” she explains. “There was a stable down the road and I learned on a very gentle horse. I loved riding down to the river or to the pharmacy where we could buy a coke. If I had to ride at horse now, I would just have to ride straight to the hospital.
Ronstadt laments the disappearance of the community spirit around which she grew up. “Mexican ranchers lived in a village and shared pastures. Everyone helped each other. It keeps a very high level of morality, because if you steal from your neighbor, he’s not going to help you with your fence next week. If your car breaks down, someone will come to help you. If you break down on the side of the freeway in Los Angeles, they’ll run you over to get you out of your misery.
Ronstadt’s adopted children, Mary and Carlos, were brought up very differently from her. “I grew up with a lot of freedom,” she says. “But I was a helicopter mother. I hovered over them. My parents were more laissez-faire.
Even as a young child, she joined her family in the hunt for their food. “I don’t have a problem with hunting,” she says, “I have a problem with companies that raise animals like factories. The ranch way of life is to pull your meat fresh, before it spoils without refrigeration. Our family picnics looked like something out of the 1800s. You learned to shoot rabbit or quail. How was she with a gun? “We weren’t using it for anything aggressive and I wasn’t spending a lot of time training, but before I got sick, before I started shaking, I was a good shooter,” she says. laughing.
In her time, therefore, she ate a lot of unusual things, including the rattlesnake (“Urgh, which has an unpleasant and fishy film”) and the white-winged dove (“tender and juicy breast meat and small drumsticks and triangle”), and its savory recipes – made with beans, tamales, chili peppers and melted cheese – are a lovely part of memoir. Given this visit from Emmylou – and the fact that in Ronstadt’s career she worked with some of the most influential artists of the 20th century, and many became good friends – I wonder what she feeds them .
“I didn’t cook for Dolly Parton,” she said. “Actually, she cooked for me. She makes green tomatoes fried in bacon grease. This is delicious. Emmylou makes a nice pound cake. I’m just making a good butter and honey sandwich.
When Ronstadt was 12, she was serenaded by a 17-year-old Mexican named Mario, using an entire mariachi band, as a prelude to a marriage proposal. “Yes, they start early in Mexico,” she says. “I think he was just putting down a marker.
“In Mexico, even in the 1950s, it was a bit like the 19th century. Women didn’t go anywhere without a chaperone. Girls got married young there – at 13 – so when you’re 12, the men are already looking at you. It wasn’t that hard for me, because I didn’t have to live there all year.
I wonder if that childhood experience put her off marriage altogether — Ronstadt is said to have had high-profile romances with filmmaker George Lucas, politician Jerry Brown, musicians Mick Jagger and JD Souther, and comedians Jim Carrey and Bill Murray.
“I think for me, I just didn’t see why I should do it,” she says. “That would have meant giving up a lot.”
I ask Ronstadt if she enjoyed her time in showbusiness, looking back. She did it. “But I found it very awkward and bewildering. Fame made very little difference to my family or very old friends and I didn’t frequent the celebrity world,” she says. “It was a different time. People follow your life now on the internet, they couldn’t do that when I was on tour.
In Ronstadt’s book, she writes that America should now be called “The United States of Who the F**k Are You?”. She is passionate about the plight of immigrants and in 2019 told then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “stop allowing a president who hates immigrants.” She refers to Donald Trump only as “the 45th President”.
“I didn’t mention Trump by name, because I didn’t want it in the book, which would make it dirty,” she says. “It was a horrible experience to have someone so rude and vulgar in the presidency. He is basically without any human qualities.
Was she prejudiced growing up? “No, I was exempt because I have white skin and a German last name,” she replies deadpan. “We need better immigration laws. No one leaves their house on a whim: they run for their lives.
Although she was raised “Mexican-Catholic,” Ronstadt herself finds no solace in religion. “I didn’t believe it from the age of six; I thought, ‘This is bullshit.’ “
Has his philosophy of life changed over time? “I’m not sure there’s much to be optimistic about today,” she replies. “I hope for the best, but I don’t expect it. I always believe in treating people fairly. If I had a religion, it would be compassion.
It Feels Like Home: A Song for the Borderlands of Sonora by Linda Ronstadt and Lawrence Downs, is published by Heyday Books, £24.99