A PAIR OF CLASSICS THAT POINT THE WAY TO OTHER CLASSICS
A great cover version of a song can either offer us fresh delights from what we thought was known territory or give new listeners a gateway into the original work. There's a real art to good interpretation. It's something jazz singers understand well working with a shared canon, but lousy covers are a dime a dozen in rock. Despite the familiarity of some numbers, inspired takes are few and far between, and rarer still is someone that morphs into multiple settings over the course of a single album yet still retains their own voice.
Linda Ronstadt is one of the all-time finest interpreters out there with the stirring facility of a great like Peggy Lee at integrating herself into the fiber of a tune. Rather than adopting some variation on the original recording, Ronstadt hollows out a place for herself inside a song, making it live for her, and in turn, come alive for the listener. Even tracks beloved in their original form tend to possess something equally special in her handling of them.
These qualities were never clearer than on Heart Like A Wheel (1974) and Prisoner In Disguise (1975). Ronstadt's fifth and sixth solo albums find her ranging through early rock classics (Buddy Holly, Everly Brothers), the emerging catalogs of her Southern California peers (James Taylor, Lowell George, Neil Young), Motown (Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland), country gems (Dolly Parton, Hank Williams), pop reggae (Jimmy Cliff) and underground finds (Anna McGarrigle). This banquet is increased by the stunning J.D. Souther compositions on these records, a dovetailing of singer and songs that ranks amongst the '70s best. Even with all her vocal flexibility and skill at nuancing known quantities into new shapes, Ronstadt is resolutely rock 'n' roll on these platters, aided and abetted by primo studio talents like David Lindley (fiddle), Russ Kunkel (drums), David Grisman (mandolin), Andrew Gold (keys) and Herb Pedersen (banjo).
During this period, she embodied the broad, bright possibilities in a genre that's grown increasingly codified, forcing adventurous variation like Ronstadt's Wheel and Prisoner into other cul-de-sacs to be chopped and labeled in ways that honor commerce more than art. At heart, Linda Ronstadt is a hard stompin' rocker with wide-open ears and bushels of talent– Just the kind of gal we like around here at JamBase.
Heart Like A Wheel Track Listing (with songwriting credits)
"You're No Good" (Clint Ballard Jr.)
"It Doesn't Matter Anymore" (Buddy Holly)
"Faithless Love" (J.D. Souther)
"The Dark End of the Street" (Chips Moman/Dan Penn)
"Heart Like a Wheel" (Anna McGarrigle)
"When Will I Be Loved" (Phil Everly)
"Willin'" (Lowell George)
"I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" (Hank Williams)
"Keep Me from Blowing Away" (Paul Craft)
"You Can Close Your Eyes" (James Taylor)
Prisoner In Disguise Track Listing (with songwriting credits)
"Love Is a Rose" (Neil Young)
"Hey Mister, That's Me Up On the Jukebox" (James Taylor)
"Roll Um Easy" (Lowell George)
"Tracks of My Tears" (Warren "Pete" Moore/William "Smokey" Robinson Jr./Marvin Tarplin)
"Prisoner in Disguise" (J. D. Souther)
"Heat Wave" (Lamont Dozier/Brian Holland/Eddie Holland)
"Many Rivers to Cross" (Jimmy Cliff)
"The Sweetest Gift" (James B. Coats)
"You Tell Me That I'm Falling Down" (C. S. Holland/Anna McGarrigle)
"I Will Always Love You" (Dolly Parton)
"Silver Blue" (J. D. Souther)
Like Heart Like A Wheel, we kick off our Ronstadt salute with "You're No Good" captured on The Midnight Special.
A clearly smitten Johnny Cash introduces a very young Ronstadt on his TV show, where she tears into "The Only Mama That'll Walk The Line," a standout from her 1969 solo debut, Hand Grown…Home Grown, after leaving The Stone Poneys. The clips also includes a few questions and a duet with Johnny on the Carter Family's "I Will Never Marry."
Next, Linda with one fine lookin' band performing "When Will I Be Loved" on what looks like the set of Road House.
We couldn't resist sharing this cover of the Stones' "Tumbling Dice," done duet style by Ronstadt and Leo Sayer. It's okay to be scared by this one.
She imbues Buddy Holly's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" with inescapable melancholy on this acoustic take with pals The Eagles in 1974.
Banjo fans are encouraged to check out what Ronstadt and her band do with Cat Stevens' "Fill My Eyes" on this clip from a 1973 Stevens TV concert.
They also performed Stevens' "First Cut Is The Deepest" in their opening set.
We conclude this week with Linda singing The Eagles' "Desperado," which is rumored to have been, at least partially, inspired by Ronstadt's early '70s rabblerousing. Her studio version appears on 1973's Don't Cry Now.