For whatever reason these things happen, Rolling Stone magazine’s 2008 list of the 100 greatest singers in rock history somehow resurfaced on Twitter a month or so ago. Immediately, people began relitigating the order: This person should have been way higher, this person should have been lower, Lou Reed shouldn’t be there at all. But there was one notable omission: Linda Ronstadt was nowhere to be found.
To a person of a certain age, Linda Ronstadt created an indelible, formative memory: Her incredibly powerful, versatile voice was nearly inescapable on the radio from the mid-’70s through the mid-’80s, and her face… well, let’s just say that she made a lot of Gen-X boys (including one who may or may not be typing this right now) realize that some girls might be worth the risk of cooties. She was one of the biggest names in the game until she got bored with pop superstardom and arena crowds and decided to follow her own muse. Sadly, Parkinson’s disease permanently ended her stage career in 2009.
2019’s excellent documentary on Ronstadt’s career, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, traces her upbringing in Tucson to her move to Los Angeles, her early success with the Stone Poneys and their hit rendition of “Different Drum,” to her solo success (initially backed by the band that would become the Eagles), superstardom and a tabloid-ready relationship with California governor Jerry Brown, and restless late-career forays into opera, musical theater (starring opposite Kevin Kline and earning a Tony nomination in the Gilbert & Sullivan musical Pirates of Penzance), a torch song project with legendary arranger Nelson Riddle, an informal country singing trio with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and finally, the traditional Mexican folk music she grew up on. This dedication to doing what felt right to her — while admirable and clearly of a piece with her overall down-to-earth sensibility — also kind of killed her career.
So it’s a revelation to watch live footage of the young singer utterly crushing her smash hits “You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Hurt So Bad,” and my personal favorite, “Blue Bayou.” It’s easy to forget how totally effortless Ronstadt was, how easy she made it look to project stunning vocal power and pivot to heartbreaking, delicate sincerity, often in the same breath, even the same phrase.
Kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s will be transported back to childhood (at least, I was) and the young bloods will see that the history of badass female vocalists goes farther back than Beyonce and Gaga. And everybody will be reminded that in the history of rock singers, Linda Ronstadt is one of the all-time greats, no matter what Rolling Stone — who put her on their cover six times — has to say about it.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is available on demand on CNN until January 30, 2020.