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A Visit With Linda Ronstadt

The singer and author shares her thoughts on culture, home and family

Linda Ronstadt
Portrait by Jake Stangel

It’s a breezy Tuesday afternoon in San Francisco, and on the north side of town, Linda Ronstadt waits in the living room of the unassuming home she shares with her daughter — a piano to one side, shelves loaded with books and mementos. It’s a luminous space; the singer clearly favors soothing colors and the kind of placid energy that fuels creativity.

Ronstadt relaxes, barefoot, on a recliner as we begin. Her speech and movements show subtle signs of the degenerative illness that forced her to retire from performing in 2009. But the feistiness that propelled her to the top of the male-dominated music scene in the 1970s still thrives, and soon enough Ronstadt, 76, is talking breathlessly — laughing, analyzing and reminiscing.

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The occasion for our meeting is the release of her new book, Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands. Cowritten with journalist Lawrence Downes, the book focuses on the emotional and physical landscape of Ronstadt’s childhood in the American Southwest, as well as on her Mexican heritage and the connections between the two countries.

“There’s a specific area of the Sonoran desert where I grew up that has a border fence in it, but I didn’t particularly notice the division,” she explains. “When I go to Mexico now, the energy is still there, in full bloom. People in the little town where my grandfather was born ride horses because it’s so hilly. ... It’s a really interesting community down there. It seems almost enchanted.”

“I didn’t like living on the road — it was too lonely. It makes it hard to keep relationships together, because you keep getting interrupted.”

— Linda Ronstadt

The Stone Poneys
Linda Ronstadt (middle) performs as a member of the Stone Poneys in New York City in 1968.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Leading a musical life

For a cultural icon of her stature — hands down the most successful female singer of the ’70s, thanks to rare vocal talent, transcendent concerts and a slew of top-selling albums — Ronstadt is disarmingly humble. When I mention my music-journalist obsession with the three albums she released in 1967 and 1968 with the Los Angeles folk-rock trio the Stone Poneys, she chuckles. “Oh, God! We were terrible,” she says. “I don’t think I began to sing very well until 1980.”

The record-buying public had other ideas — the Stone Poneys’ 1967 cover of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” reached number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and launched the band’s young singer on her stellar solo career. But it was in 1980, at the top of her stadium-tour success, that Ronstadt took on a surprising singing challenge: She played the lead in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in New York City’s Central Park. And she crushed it. “Using my high voice gave me a lot more dimension,” she recalls. From there, Ronstadt collaborated with former Frank Sinatra arranger Nelson Riddle on a trilogy of Great American Songbook albums, before returning to her family’s roots with the 1987 Spanish-language album Canciones de Mi Padre, an international hit that is still the biggest-­selling non-English-language album in the U.S.

“I knew these songs because they were on the old records my dad had,” she recalls. “What I wanted to do was not to copy the songs so much as emulate the feeling of great Mexican singers like Lola Beltrán and Amalia Mendoza. I wanted to get that feeling, so I recorded their songs.”

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As a child, Ronstadt lived with her family in Tucson, Arizona, on the last 10 acres of what had been a sprawling cattle ranch. “I felt very connected to both my grandparents,” she says. She grew up on their ranch, the same land that they had lived on most of their lives. “We still lived like ranch owners, with horses and chickens. It was their way of life, and it became my way of life too.”

Stardom brought a different way of life to Ronstadt, and it didn’t particularly suit her, she says now. “I didn’t like living on the road — it was too lonely,” she admits. “It makes it hard to keep relationships together, because you keep getting interrupted.”

Ronstadt sighs. “Marriage wasn’t for me anyway.” Her high-profile romantic partners over the years included California Governor Jerry Brown, film director George Lucas and singer Aaron Neville.

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An illness changes the future

But if marriage wasn’t in the cards for Ronstadt, motherhood was. Far less public than her relationships was her adoption of two infants, whom she purposely kept out of the limelight as they grew up. Mary Clementine, now 31, and Carlos, 28, are a constant source of joy to her, Ronstadt says, and her face beams when I ask about them.

“My daughter didn’t know that I sang in English until she was about 6. She had only heard me sing in Spanish,” Ronstadt says. “She is a visual artist and does strange things, like the paintings you see here,” she adds, pointing to an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe portrayed with the face of a cat. “I call her the Catalupe. I’m an atheist, but I love the Virgin of Guadalupe. She’s my special pal.”

Ronstadt’s son — who lives just a mile from his mother and sister — works in IT. “He has a really nice girlfriend that I like a lot, and they come over for Sunday brunch,” Ronstadt says.

When Ronstadt’s children were young, the family lived in Tucson, but they moved to San Francisco in 1997 for reasons both practical and cultural. “In Tucson you have to drive forever to get to where you’re going,” she says. “We were spending a lot of time in the car. But it was also the schools.” Once, when her son was in middle school, she overheard a friend of his ask what church the family attended. “We don’t go to any church,” the boy said. His friend responded that this meant he’d be going to hell — a place Ronstadt doesn’t believe in. She moved the family to San Francisco and put her son in a new school.

It was in 2000 that Ronstadt first began to experience the symptoms of the disease that would end her career: Her throat would tense up while she was singing. “I lost strength really fast,” she says. “I used to exercise on tour — lift weights, do yoga and all that stuff. But then I couldn’t do it anymore.” She was misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and it was years before doctors were able to provide the correct diagnosis: progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare disorder that attacks the part of the brain that governs physical movement. There’s no cure for the disease, though treatment can alleviate some of its symptoms.

For Ronstadt, the diagnosis has meant a life far more circumscribed than the one she had been planning. “The things I expected to be doing at this point in my life — gardening, knitting, traveling for pleasure instead of work — I can’t do any of those things now,” she says. Still, she adds, the process of writing offered her a chance to travel in a different way — to revisit the places of her past and the beloved people, now gone, whose still ring in her memory.