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Linda Ronstadt on the Influence of Her Mexican Musical Roots

She was honored with AARP-sponsored Legend Award at Hispanic Heritage Awards

spinner image Singer Linda Ronstadt
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for NARAS

Ten-time Grammy-winning singer Linda Ronstadt, 74, received the Legend Award, sponsored by AARP, on Tuesday at the Hispanic Heritage Awards (available streaming on Raul Malo of the Mavericks directed a musical tribute to Ronstadt at the show, hosted by Sebastian Yatra and also honoring Jessica Alba, Bad Bunny, the late John Lewis and America's essential farmworkers. Dolores Huerta and Los Tigres del Norte were there, too. We talked with Ronstadt about her long career and how her Mexican roots played a part.

You changed musical styles often. Looking back, what's your favorite period in your career?

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Linda Ronstadt: I started to enjoy singing, really enjoy it, when I started singing standards, and then Mexican music I really loved. And then after I sang those two genres, I came back to the pop music with a lot more ease. I really love singing Jimmy Webb songs and Burt Bacharach, songs a little bit more vocally challenging. I was a little bored with the stuff I did in the ‘70s because it wasn't expansive enough melodically for me. I just didn't feel like I was getting to express all I was.

You had to shout over rock bands all the time: “You got to roll me, call me the tumblin’ dice!"

Yeah, I got really sick of that. A lot of those Southern songs — my family didn't work in the cornfield. I grew up in the country, but it wasn't quite like that. Mexican music was my root music, not Appalachia.

When you made your Mexican record Canciones De Mi Padre (Songs of My Father) in 1987, did executives in charge think it would be a disaster, before it went double platinum and broke sales records?

When I had to perform it, we had no ticket sales. And I thought, I've just done such a stupid thing. I found out Mexicans don't buy tickets in advance, they just show up. And the place was jammed with three generations of Mexican Americans.

Video: Linda Ronstadt Took a Stand to Sing in Spanish

Do you think that Hispanic culture is coming into its own now?

It's been really slow to do so. I think that Mexicans are largely invisible to the public. I have so many friends, people with master's degrees, and we're brilliant in many ways. They're standing in a restaurant and somebody says, “Can you get me the waiter? Bring me a salad.”

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What was it like to go with Jackson Browne and a bus full of young performers to small-town Banámichi, Sonora, Mexico — a trip chronicled in the new movie Linda and the Mockingbirds (Oct. 20, Shout! Studios)?

Well, that feels like home to me. My grandfather was born there. My great-grandfather was a colonel in the German army, then the Mexican army. He [helped] defeat Maximilian [winning Mexico's independence].

And why did you and Jackson Browne take a bunch of kids from California to your grandpa's Mexican village?

I've been involved with this little cultural group [in California's East Bay], Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, for almost 30 years. They run about 300 kids aged 6 to 19 through the center a week. And they teach them the fundamentals of traditional Mexican musics. And I say “musics” because when you cross the street in Mexico, you get to a different culture: different language, different clothing. They take these kids down to Sonora and have them learn from the masters. And they have a way of looking at their own culture with pride and affirmation. And kids that go there have a much better chance of going to college.

In Northern Mexico there's the polka, the waltz and the schottische. I always say that the Mexicans took German culture and made it sexy. So you have banda music, oompah music with a tuba and horns, it's very German, but the Mexicans made it very Mexican. And banda became the most popular music in California. Beat hip hop, classic rock, beat all of them.

A lot of songs come from Mexico. “What a Difference a Day Makes,” remember that song? That's a Mexican song, and somebody wrote English lyrics.

Can you still sing occasionally?

No, I can't sing at all [Ronstadt has Parkinson's disease]. I can't sing a note. I can still walk and talk, but not very well and not very far.

Has Emmylou Harris brought her laundry over to your place lately?

She didn't come to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival here this year. She was greatly missed. That's when we usually hang out together, and she brings her laundry. We're old friends. We have many, many secrets from the past, which we kept very close.

What do you listen to these days?

I have to tell you I listen to a lot of opera on YouTube. I like YouTube because I can see four different sopranos singing an aria from Butterfly that I like, or La Traviata.

Do you ever think, Oh, there was one kingdom of music I should have conquered and didn't! If your voice suddenly healed, is there a style or tradition you'd like to barge back into?

I'd say a lot more of the contemporary composers from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Bacharach, Jim Webb, Brian Wilson. And Paul Simon, his last four albums are just mind-blowing. I've got the records on my iPhone, I never know the titles. They're just killer. I just play them over and over.

Sometimes he gets criticized as an appropriating cultural imperialist.

Of course people influence each other through music. What he did was absolutely genius — in Graceland, he integrated that music seamlessly into American pop music and into his music. He did not just take from it whole cloth and not add anything to it, he made a synthesis.

And isn't the key to America the blend of cultures? Isn't that why our culture is so vital?

That's why it is. You know, the American standard song is like a sandwich with Africans are one piece of the bread and the Jewish migration is another, and then layered in between are the Italian, the Irish.

Maybe you need to write another book, of music criticism and history.

Writing is so hard! I about died when I wrote my book. I had to get up every single morning and sit down on the floor because my back won't sit in a chair, and hunch over my laptop, which I loathe — I hate all electronic devices — and thinking up stuff every day was so hard.

Are you a bit smarter about music and life now that you're in your AARP years?

Well, I have better manners than I did. You know, you get influenced by your peers. I have the world's biggest collection of etiquette books and the worst manners in the world. I'm fascinated by etiquette. I think it's one of the really interesting cultural mirrors. I love Miss Manners. She's my favorite writer in the culture.

Miss Manners should have written an etiquette book for rock kids in the ‘60s, when hippies were not always being quite so sensible.

The hippies had a pretty good ethic. They were kind, I mean, the basic real hippies, you know. They were kind, and they got rid of a lot of the sexual stereotypes. They got us out of panty girdles, for God's sake, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

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