With more than 100 million albums sold and 12 Grammy awards under her belt, over five decades, Linda Ronstadt is undoubtedly a music icon. While the effects of Parkinson’s disease forced her into premature retirement after her final performance in November 2009, the world’s love for her has not waned. In ways big and small, Ronstadt’s fans continue to share their admiration and introduce her music to new generations: from the release of two recent documentaries, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” honoring the singer’s legacy, and “Linda and the Mockingbirds,” which features a road trip to her grandfather’s birthplace, Sonora, Mexico with the band Los Cenzontles; to an indie-rock star wearing a shirt that reads, “Linda Ronstadt Is Queen of LA,” in a social post; and this month’s PBS SoCal and KCET broadcast of “A Tribute to Linda Ronstadt at The Soraya” on “Southland Sessions” featuring notable Mexican and Mexican American musicians. Clearly, Ronstadt is as influential as ever. But ever the humble queen, Ronstadt doesn’t hoard her gifts. “I don’t consider any songs ‘my songs’ — once they’re out there, they belong to everybody,” she says by phone from her home in San Francisco.
Born in Tucson, Arizona, and raised in a household where Mexican music was played and taught by her musician parents to their children, Ronstadt first started performing as a teenager in the early 1960s in a trio with her siblings. She moved to Los Angeles to join the band Stone Poneys in the mid-’6os, with whom she had her first taste of stardom when their version of the song “Different Drum” became a hit. Her voice’s appeal was undeniable and led to the release of numerous solo records, starting with 1969’s “Hand Sown…Home Grown,” which showed her folk, rock and country influences. This was just the beginning of her musical journey. Over her five-decade career, she would successfully traverse many other musical genres, including standards, pop, lullabies, R&B and mariachi. Most notably, in 1987, Ronstadt released “Canciones de mi Padre,” a landmark album of traditional mariachi songs that sold 2.5 million units in the United States. It still is the biggest selling non-English language album in U.S. history. She and her music continue to open doors and pave the way for many other young performers, just as she had with now-veteran performers early in their careers, having brought together Glenn Frey and Don Henley, who would form the The Eagles, and inspiring Trisha Yearwood to become a singer.
One of her main lines to a younger generation of musicians is Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, a school that helps bolster pride in Mexican American youth through music and dance. “[The school] teaches children from ages 6 or 7 to 19 how to play traditional Mexican instruments, how to sing traditional songs, how to dance traditional dances and visual arts also. And they do an amazing job,” she says of the school, with whom she’s nurtured a relationship nearly 30 years strong. “They learn music slowly and they learn it right. It’s a joy to go over there and be a part of their world.” Based in San Pablo, California, the school is run by the core adult members of the Los Cenzontles band that accompanies Ronstadt to Mexico in the just-released documentary, “Linda and the Mockingbirds.”
The singer became involved with the group after seeing them play on the streets of San Francisco: “They were little kids, they played so well, I wondered, where do they come from? They came from the East Bay.” When she describes her role there, Ronstadt shares, “I actually go there to learn. I learn a lot from the kids. They’re good players! The instructors teach them to be performers, or to have music as a career, for soloists, or to express your joy, to express your feelings in some kind of private way, or if you can, some way to do it publicly. We don’t need to be professionals to do our own singing, painting and dancing. Professionals are the heroes, and we can emulate them, but we should all do our own dancing and playing and singing.”
While a few of the kids have gone on to have music careers, she emphasizes, “That’s not the point. The idea is to play music, sing and dance so they can socialize. It’s an amazing thing, and it even brings about things like courtship.” As someone who treasures her Mexican heritage, Ronstadt adds, “It’s really important to connect with other generations with your parents and grandparents, and what they did, so you can have that continuous thread. It doesn’t mean they have to be professionals, as I said, it just means they have to be able to play in time with their friends.”
Many generations of Mexican and Mexican American musicians represented in The Soraya tribute concert to Ronstadt see the singer in the same way she views Los Cenzontles: as an inspiring creative force who celebrated their heritage and opened doors for them in the music industry — and she returns their admiration in kind. The performers include multi-award-winning “Queen of Ranchera” Aida Cuevas, singer La Marisoul and band La Santa Cecilia, singer-songwriter David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, the group Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar, and the tribute’s music director and producer Cheche Alara, as well as singer-songwriter Sara Watkins and the CSUN Honors String Quartet.
Ronstadt calls Cuevas “a wonderful, very beautiful singer” whom she had the opportunity to perform with in the past, and she is “in awe of” Marisol (“La Marisoul), saying “if I could sing, I would be doing what she’s doing, singing in the prisons and the migrants who are stuck in detention,” praising Marisol’s ability to “sing anything.”
Marisol revealed in an interview with “Southland Sessions” that she was a kid when she was first saw Ronstadt on TV. “I realized this is a woman that conquered American pop music and country rock music. And then she came back home [to do Mexican music],” said the L.A.-based musician. “I just wanted to celebrate her…because maybe there’s a lot of other people that are younger than me now that might not know…there’s artists like Linda Ronstadt that have been doing this, cross-fading or going back and forth and always returning home. And I love that.”
What Marisol also mentioned was that she didn’t learn until years later after first seeing Ronstadt on TV and hearing her pop songs that the performer was Mexican American. Upon hearing this, and that others are still unaware of her Mexican heritage, Ronstadt says, “That’s funny.” After all, she did release three albums in Spanish: “Canciones de Mi Padre” (1987), “Mas Canciones” (1991) and “Frenesí” (1992), and over the years has talked about her Mexican upbringing and mentioned her Mexican musical influences, including Trío Calaveras and female musicians Amalia Mendoza, Chavela Vargas and Lola Beltrán. She realizes her Mexican ancestry may not be common knowledge because “I have a German surname and because I’m light skinned,” but she’s pleased to learn that her legacy continues to motivate others to pursue a similar musical path — one that explores many genres and traditions.
As for those of who are new to her music and don’t know which of her 30-plus albums to start with, she suggests her country rock album “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind,” because that’s when “I knew how to sing better.”
Top Image: Purple and blue stage lights | David von Diemar / Unsplash