Linda Ronstadt isn’t singing anymore, since she was diagnosed with a neurological disorder in 2019. But she remains musically and culturally active, including an extensive partnership with Los Cenzontles, a Mexican cultural arts academy in the East Bay city of San Pablo. Ronstadt traces her own Mexican heritage through her paternal great-grandfather, an immigrant to Mexico from Germany in the mid-19th century, and as far back as the 18th century, through her great-grandmother.
A visit to the headquarters of Los Cenzontles a week before the first of two interviews with Ronstadt illuminated the rightness of the connection between the academy and the former rock star. Founder Eugene Rodriguez, 61, reveals the source of the group’s name which translates from Spanish and Nahuatal as “the mockingbirds”: “I found a poem in a book on Aztec poetry, which in English goes, ‘I love the song of the mockingbird, / bird of 400 voices; / I love the scent of the flowers / and the color of jade. / But more than anything, / I love my fellow man.’”
Rodriguez explains the avian significance. “This bird listens to sounds of other birds, and integrates them into its own voice, not mocking them or making fun of them. And that’s what we do.”
It’s also what Ronstadt did, from the time she and her sister and two brothers were growing up on a ranch on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Her father, Gilbert Ronstadt, had inherited, along with the city’s premiere hardware business, from his Sonora, Mexico-born father, Federico Ronstadt, an affection for Mexican popular music, which he sang in a pitch-perfect baritone.
Gil and his wife Ruth Mary also encouraged their offspring’s listening to recordings and radio broadcasts of opera, operetta, jazz, and country music. Like the mockingbird, Linda would return to those genres later in her career, after her reign as a folk rock goddess.
Relaxing in the living room of her home near San Francisco’s Sea Cliff neighborhood, Ronstadt, about to celebrate her 77th birthday, recalls singing along as a child with Maria Callas, whom she calls the best “girl” singer ever. “I think she put her own life into the things she sang. She really understood how the vocals integrated with the orchestration. Sometimes she got screechy in the upper reaches of her voice, but I didn’t care; it just added to the emotion. The pop music on the radio back then, “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” I didn’t like any of that stuff.”
Ronstadt sang in her high school’s choir and in a family band, the New Union Ramblers, with siblings Peter and Suzy, at Tucson’s only folk music coffeehouse, propitiously named the First Step. Their sometime bassist, Bobby Kimmel, relocated to Los Angeles and called Linda, in 1965. “He said, ‘Come over and stay with us.’” she recalls. “Bobby was living with Malcolm Terence, who was working for the LA Times, in Pacific Ocean Park, with just a parking lot between us and the beach. The Doors lived around the block, Tim Buckley lived up the street, and Pete Seeger’s father [Charles Seeger] lived across the street from us. It was a one-bedroom house. I slept on the floor, under the dining table. I knew if I were under something, nobody would step on me. Malcolm slept in the bedroom. I eventually moved into the bed, with Malcolm.”
Baby boomers were finding their musical direction and each other in a profusion of LA clubs, including the Ash Grove, the Troubador, and the Trip. “The Byrds were the first people I ever saw doing folk rock,” says Ronstadt. “Jackson Browne was close to that; I met him right after I moved there. I thought, if they could do that, I could do that. And I just thought, wow, they got some great songwriters over here in California! I think I’ll stay.”
With that decision, Ronstadt advanced past “Different Drum,” her first hit with the Stone Poneys, to a solo act, spawning The Eagles out of one of her touring bands and launching the first of an unprecedented string of gold and platinum albums, accompanied by a slew of radio and jukebox hits and worldwide tours. She didn’t write her own songs but was steadfast about selecting what she sang. “It could be just a line that expressed something I felt strongly, or the way the chords are voiced, that made me feel a certain way. Randy Newman is famous for writing that way, beautifully voiced with a question, or tragedy, or passion, or craziness. And I loved the McGarrigle sisters. Anna’s ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ just said everything I felt, about something that you’re stuck in, but you’re gonna get out. Which is a hard place for me to get to, because I’m not so trusting of fate. I never bought the god thing, the separate anthropomorphized sentient being, sitting there with his beard, looking at us as individuals. But I once saw this quote I liked: ‘God admires me when I work, but he loves me when I sing.’”
John Boylan, who managed Ronstadt early in her career and is managing her again, lauds what he terms her natural bel canto, which stood up under electrified rock accompaniment. “Those early years on the road, there weren’t good sound systems, so I just screamed as loud as I could,” she comments. “It was when I learned to sing softly that I really got control of my voice, I could sing way better with half the energy, half the pushing.” She credits informal sessions in hotel rooms with her longtime friend, Emmylou Harris. “I learned a lot about singing from Emmy. But it wasn’t until I was in Pirates of Penzance that I got voice lessons, with Marge Rivingston. Then my high voice took up some of the muscle of my chest voice. I didn’t sing Pirates with completely proper technique, but it strengthened my voice immeasurably.”
Joseph Papp and the Public Theater’s production of the Gilbert & Sullivan favorite opened at Shakespeare in the Park, in Central Park in 1980 and moved onto Broadway and to film in 1983. Ronstadt pleased and surprised audiences with both her singing and her comic acting, alongside male leads Kevin Kline and Rex Smith. “I’m not naturally inclined to be an actor; it made me self-conscious,” she maintains. “But acting is singing, or singing is acting. When you’re singing, you’re tapping a feeling and expressing it visually as clearly as you can, and that’s what acting is, I think.”
Before the Pirates movie, Ronstadt revived her fantasy of performing and recording material from the pre-rock American Songbook. “[Journalist] Pete Hamill suggested, ‘Why don’t you just call Nelson Riddle?’ It didn’t occur to me that he was still alive. His daughter told him it would be a good idea if he worked with me. I began to feel free to do the sounds that I’d heard growing up. And it came naturally, when I started studying the singers who came before me. I found my high voice had taken up some of the muscle of my chest voice, from singing in Pirates. And learning to sing standards made my voice ready to sing Mexican music. My falsetto was stronger. I learned circular breathing. I had a whole voice!”
Joseph Papp returned to recruit Ronstadt for a 1984 New York Shakespeare Festival production of La Bohème, in English, which she’d grown up singing along with, in the original Italian. This wasn’t so well received by critics or public. “I was singing it in my high voice, but it was unsupported,” she recalls. “I loved the part [of Mimi] and I loved the music, but I had this corset on and I couldn’t breathe. I wished every night that I’d be hit by a bus and wouldn’t have to sing the show.”
Her return to Mexican music was more auspicious. “I’m a kamikaze singer,” she points out. “I can take my chest voice all the way up, or I bring my head voice into my chest voice and let it yodel. I get that with Mexican music.” 1987’s Canciones de Mi Padre still stands as the biggest-selling non-English American album ever. “It was important for our community,” testifies Eugene Rodriguez. “You could hear it on the streets of Richmond and San Pablo, and in Mexican families, all the girls were trying to sing like Linda.” By then, Ronstadt had moved to a home on Jackson Street in San Francisco and hired Michael Smuin as stage director of her mariachi tour.
Also in 1987, Ronstadt’s Trio album with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton topped the country music charts. “Emmy’s got the purest sound imaginable,” says Ronstadt, “and Dolly lives in this crystal place. So when you’re with them, you’re riding upwards on their draft.”
In the 1990s, Ronstadt adopted two children, Mary and Carlos. In 2000, “I was standing on the stage in Phoenix, singing a real high note in a Burt Bacharach song, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart.’ And my voice just shredded! Then I started noticing that I could sing the beginning of a note, but it wouldn’t hold.” She did nothing about it “until it got to where my hands were shaking so badly. I thought I had a pinched nerve or something.” Ronstadt recorded her last album, Adieu False Heart, in 2006 with Cajun musician Ann Savoy, “my singing sister; we like all the same stuff.”
A friend sent her to a neurologist who “gave me medicine for Parkinson’s, but it made my symptoms worse.” That reaction was explained by her diagnosis, in 2019, with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), which is caused by accumulation of a different protein in the brain but shares several symptoms with Parkinson’s. “My biggest problem is that I’m losing my hearing. My brain is not keeping up, so I lose words. It’s like having this series of things taken away from you. At first I couldn’t sing, then I couldn’t knit. That was really cruel.” She explains the loss of her singing voice as PSP’s systemic handicapping of repetitive motion, “which with your vocal cords is thousands of times per second, especially on high notes for women.”
A genetic disposition can be traced to Ronstadt’s maternal grandmother having suffered from Parkinson’s. “But I was a perfect storm for it. I grew up around a lot of pesticides, trucks with DDT came down and fogged the roads, and we used to get on the backs of the trucks and ride in the fog. My dad put chlorine in the pool. And my dad had mercury in his workshop because he did silver and gold work, and we used to play with it. Later, I was real sick from a tick disease that I got in Africa.”
Ronstadt benefits from the Bay Area’s superlative specialized medical care and physical therapy, as well as the attention of her longtime personal assistant, Janet Stark. She enjoys visits from her two nearby children, former ballerina Paula Tracy Smuin, and manager John Boylan, and, on holidays, former governor Jerry Brown. She attended a performance of La Traviata at the San Francisco Opera and was hooked into the Opera’s sound system, but “I got a very indifferent mix of what was going on. I can’t hear above certain pitches. But I’m going to try again. I think it might go better with the ballet.”
Ronstadt has been featured in an award-winning 2019 CNN documentary and in numerous TV interviews following publication of her two books, Simple Dreams (2013) and Feels Like Home (2022, co-written with Lawrence Downes). She says she had no interest in authoring a kiss-and-tell, “but I knew if I didn’t say something about Jerry Brown, it would be noticed. I mean, honest to God, it’s almost 40 years ago now that we were together! We’re really good friends, and I love his wife. She improved his manners. I wasn’t cut out for marriage, but I envy a good one.” The Browns have been guests at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Feels Like Home, in addition to featuring 20 delectable family and regional recipes and showcasing her beloved ancestral Sonoran Desert, bespeaks Ronstadt’s cultural and environmental activism. There’s an account of the bus voyage she arranged in 2019 for herself, her grand-niece, Eugene Rodriguez, and 22 youthful members of his Los Cenzontles Academy. They journeyed to Arizona and to Ronstadt’s grandfather’s hometown in Mexico, performing for locals along the way. Ronstadt’s fellow folk rock veteran Jackson Browne was along for the ride, learning and joining the regional music.
Rodriguez has completed his own book, Creating Los Cenzontles: Roots of Resilience, which will be published by film actor Viggo Mortensen’s Percival Press early next year. One of the chapters is titled “Linda Ronstadt.” “It’s about all the ways in which she’s impacted our trajectory,” he recounts. “For almost 30 years now, her friendship and support, her ideas. She helps us cultivate donors. If I’m working on a song, I can send her a mix. She helped support our exchange in the revival of music from Santa Cruz.” There’s no end to Linda Ronstadt’s life in music. Los Cenzontles will present their newest project, Son Con Son, at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on July 9.