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Singer Linda Ronstadt reflects on her roots in new book


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And a new book out this week offers a different window into the life of singer Linda Ronstadt, who has sold millions of records. She's performed over four decades and made history as the first woman to have three consecutive platinum albums.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with Ronstadt recently for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In 1987, Linda Ronstadt, one of the biggest pop stars of her era, did something extraordinary, recording an album of traditional Mexican music.

It was called "Canciones de Mi Padre," songs of my father, and looked back to music that had moved and influenced her since childhood. It would become a surprise barrier- and record-breaking hit.

Is it true that record companies didn't want you to record the Mexican...

Linda Ronstadt, Musician: Oh, they were horrified.

Jeffrey Brown: They were horrified?

Linda Ronstadt: I was oblivious. But I also knew I had the clout to do it. And it didn't occur to me that it would be successful or not successful. I just I knew I had to make the record. If I didn't make the record, I would die.

Jeffrey Brown: At her San Francisco home today, some things are different. Beginning in the early 2000s, Ronstadt's movement slowed, her speech at times slurred by a condition first diagnosed as Parkinson's, later as progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare disorder with no known cure.

Her favorite activity now, at age 76, reading.

Linda Ronstadt: They sing, so the subsequent generations won't forget what the current generations endured or dreamed.

Jeffrey Brown: But with a sharp mind and a plentiful sense of humor, she is still returning to her ancestral home, physically, as in the 2019 documentary "The Sound of My Voice" and in a new book titled "Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands."

Co-written with Lawrence Downes and featuring photographs by Bill Steen, it is a celebration, complete with recipes, of place, including Tucson, where she grew up, and of people, past and present, on both sides of a beautiful, but harsh border.

Linda Ronstadt: It's my impression of the desert as I was traveling in it with my family and the years that I have gone back and visited it.

It's a hard trip. It's a five-hour trip through real mountainous terrain. It's beautiful, but, boy, if your car gets in trouble on the road, you better hope that somebody comes by.

Jeffrey Brown: Throughout the book, traditional song and dance, then and now.

Linda Ronstadt: Spanish was what you sang in, and English was what you spoke.

Jeffrey Brown: And the music of her mixed Mexican and European ancestry -- a great-grandfather had come from Germany to Mexico in 1839 -- and her own upbringing in a family that loved all kinds of music from traditional mariachi to opera.

Linda Ronstadt: My mother played banjo, ukulele. She played the piano. My dad played the guitar and sang. I learned all those songs. I don't know why. I just learned them by osmosis.

Jeffrey Brown: She was 18 in 1964, when she left home for Los Angeles, and became part of an exciting rock scene.

But, as she tells it, it didn't come easily to her.

I watched the recent documentary about your life, and there are people like David Geffen. He said that, early on, you didn't have a lot of confidence, that you didn't...

Linda Ronstadt: I didn't have any.

Jeffrey Brown: You didn't have any?

Linda Ronstadt: Later on, I didn't have confidence either.


Linda Ronstadt: I was very consistent in that way. But I got there to where -- to a place that satisfied me.

Jeffrey Brown: Everyone else heard something very special, a voice that stood out in songs like "You're No Good" and "Blue Bayou."

Twelve Grammys, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, she has won them all and was a major celebrity, also known for her one-time relationship with California Governor and presidential candidate Jerry Brown.

Never known as a songwriter herself, her strength was the ability to shape a song and make it her own.

Linda Ronstadt: I will start to sing a song and I will -- a new song, and I will think, well, I will -- it will be like this or like this in my imagination.

And when I actually get there and start to sing it, stuff comes up that I never would have thought of. I just -- it's like watching myself saying. And I go, oh, she did that.

Jeffrey Brown: She did that?


Linda Ronstadt: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Not I did that? She did that?

Linda Ronstadt: Yes.


Linda Ronstadt: Well, it was somebody working in there in my brain that doesn't consult me before, just does it. And, sometimes, it's really good, and, sometimes, it's really awful.

Jeffrey Brown: But Ronstadt always wanted more when it came to the music she was singing. And she regularly and bravely stepped way out of her comfort zone. She recorded three albums of American songbook standards with legendary arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle.

She appeared on stage and film in the Gilbert and Sullivan classic "The Pirates of Penzance."

Linda Ronstadt: My ambitions were for the music. I thought, there's certain music, if I could master it, then I'd be standing on firm ground. I really felt that way about Mexican music. I wanted to sing it so badly.

Jeffrey Brown: At the time, many fans weren't even aware of her Mexican heritage. She says she wanted to change that.

Linda Ronstadt: Well, I wanted to own it. I wanted to possess it musically, because it was such -- such emotional music, and it moved me so much to listen to it.

Jeffrey Brown: She was performing the Mexican songs in the 2000s, when she began to feel her voice and body changing.

Linda Ronstadt: It was suddenly hard to do things that had been easy to do for me before.

Jeffrey Brown: In her backyard garden, we talked about those changes.

You knew it was time to quit?

Linda Ronstadt: Yes.

All my -- you know, they say your life passes before your eyes before you die. My whole concert life flashed before my eyes when I was on stage doing that show. I knew it was the last one.

I don't miss performing, but I miss singing.

Jeffrey Brown: Did it make you feel differently about yourself, about who you were?

Linda Ronstadt: I'm still the same person. I'm just diminished.

Talking is really hard and pulling my thoughts together. I can see them, but when I go to talk, it gets jumbled. And that's Parkinsonism.

But the good part is that I have a lot of help and I have good friends. I have really good friends.

She also continues to have millions of fans.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in San Francisco.

Judy Woodruff: Not diminished at all.

Linda Ronstadt is a portrait of courage.

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