‘It’s About Being Loved’: Linda Ronstadt Celebrates Her Mexican-American Heritage with New Book


Jeff SlateCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

Linda Ronstadt, the queen of California cool, recalls her heyday and the formative years that inspired her new book Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands — published in early October, amid Hispanic Heritage Month.

When I apologize Linda Ronstadt for having to reschedule our interview after what turned out to be a relatively mild strain of COVID blew through our household, she tells me not to worry.

“We had it here too!” she says, in a warm voice that immediately puts me at ease. “I didn’t get it bad, but everyone else did.”

Ronstadt was a global superstar in the 1970s and ’80s of a magnitude not really imaginable in today’s ultra-niche marketed world. In those pre-internet days, at the zenith of her superstardom, Ronstadt was a pop culture darling the likes of which don’t really exist anymore.

Today, the recipient of 11 Grammy Awards as well as the 2016 recipient of the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Ronstadt is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, in 2014, she was honored by President Barack Obama, who awarded her the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony.

Five years later, she was celebrated with a Kennedy Center Honor.

But, as the 76-year-old icon recalls, she has some regrets. 

During the first decade of her career, despite releasing hit singles “You’re No Good,” “Blue Bayou” and “Heat Wave,” which began her path to selling 100 million-plus records, Ronstadt insists she did just about everything wrong.

“I didn’t really understand how to sing — how to use my voice — until much later, about 1980,” she tells Rock Cellar. “And I was always so nervous!”

Her singing voice, of course, has been silenced. A decade ago, Ronstadt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (her last public performance was in 2009). But in 2019, that diagnosis was changed to progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative, Parkinson’s-like disease that has made it hard for Ronstadt to walk, grip everyday things around her house and even brush her teeth. Most significantly for the rest of us, perhaps, it’s made it impossible for her to channel that magnificent voice that once enraptured millions.

“Actually, I miss harmonizing,” Ronstadt says with a chuckle when asked if she misses performing. “That’s how I started out — singing with my family — and the albums I made with Emmylou [Harris] and Dolly [Parton] were just an extension of that. Those are some of my happiest memories.”

After years living in the Los Angeles area — in fact, she was L.A. royalty, collaborating with friends Jackson Browne and Don Henley, and dating then-California Governor Jerry Brown — Ronstadt now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I got tired of L.A.,” she admits. “It’s quiet here. And I love my home, which is good because I spend most of my time here now!”

Click here to pick up Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands book from our Rock Cellar Store  ON SALE  

Click here to pick up Feels Like Home: Songs from the Sonoran Borderlands on CD from our Rock Cellar Store — ON SALE

The occasion for our conversation, however, is Ronstadt’s new book, Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands. (A companion album of Ronstadt’s songs and collaborations with her famous friends is also available.)

Originally envisioned as a cookbook of sorts – “except I don’t cook” – the book, a follow-up to her 2013 best-selling memoir, eventually became a mission of sorts for Ronstadt.

“I passed for white, growing up in Tucson, when it was very segregated,” she explains. “My name; the way I look. So, this was a way for me to more deeply explore my Mexican heritage, and to help humanize a culture that is part of me and that I truly love.”

A folk fan as a kid, Ronstadt’s early views were shaped by the musicians she admired, like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. As a celebrity in her own right, Ronstadt has used her platform over the years to speak out against issues like everything from nuclear power plants to, these days, the truth about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

“The book is built around Mexican ranch cooking recipes,” Ronstadt explains. “But most Americans don’t really understand Mexico. It’s really diverse. And being Mexican or Mexican-American, it’s a kind of like being invisible. And also, there’s a [sense of] community that makes for good moral behavior. It’s the backbone of everything in Mexico. So, the book’s about that, too.”

It’s also about much more than that, though.

“It’s about being loved,” Ronstadt admits. “And it’s about having a sense of place, and knowing who you are, I think.”

As a child in Tucson, Ronstadt recounts in Feels Like Home, she would hear her mother sing Gilbert and Sullivan show tunes as she accompanied herself on the piano, her father play the music of his Mexican ancestors, her sister spinning the music of Hank Williams and her grandmother listening for hours to the opera she loved so dearly, and that Ronstadt says she now prefers over the Hit Parade.

But the Arizona community Ronstadt was raised in was so close to the U.S.-Mexico border, she says, moving between the two countries was “like nothing at all.”

She describes the border then, and the cross-cultural pollination, as “fluid,” something she hopes she’s captured in Feels Like Home.

“Everything was built around community,” she recalls. “But my favorite thing was our all-day family picnics. We would cook and sing. It was very relaxed. It wasn’t like performing. But I guess that’s where I got my love of it.”

It led to long nights harmonizing with her siblings.

“We’ve got the shared genes, and I think that made the voices blend better,” she says. “Plus, we had an ideal range of vocal ranges in our band. I was a soprano, my sister was an alto, my little brother could be tenor or bass — he had a wide range — and my other brother’s a baritone. That worked out perfectly for harmonies. But the level of music when I was at home wasn’t particularly a professional level. It was just what you did to enjoy music. When I went to California, it wasn’t the same as it had been when I was at home.”

In California, of course, Ronstadt was quickly on the path to stardom. In the ’70s, she had hit after hit. But by the ’80s, things had changed. After a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in New York City’s Central Park, and three wildly successful albums with Harris and Parton, Ronstadt was looking for yet a bigger challenge.

“The eighties wasn’t known for its great songwriting,” she recalls. “Except for Tom Petty, he’s a great songwriter and a great singer. I love Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. So, that was when I started thinking about the old standards I knew when I was young, because that was a time that was known for melodies you could croon on your way out of the theater. And [Nelson Riddle and his] orchestra are so rich, the songs are so singable, anybody can sing them. You can really fly with those. You can do all kinds of things. The emotions are layered, and so I just had to sing them.”

Not long after the huge success of those American Songbook albums — long before Rod Stewart and a host of other rockers took them on — Ronstadt went back to the music she grew up with.

She released a string of albums of Mexican mariachi and Spanish music, earning a clutch of Grammys in the process. And Canciones de Mi Padre, her 1987 collection of traditional Mexican songs, went on to become the biggest-selling foreign language album in U.S. history.

So, seemingly, it all led back pretty naturally to Feels Like Home, the way Ronstadt sees it.

How did she go about choosing the recipes?

“They’re what I eat at home,” she freely admits of the recipes she learned as a child from her family. “Beans, tortillas, cheese, squash, fresh chilis, dried chilis, and whatever meat there is. As a kid, we had a garden, and we grew our own corn and our own squash, our own watermelons. We had a salad bowl we planted. So, I grew up eating fresh food. And the beef we ate was all grass-fed. We got it before it went to the slaughterhouse. I grew up on clean meat, and it tastes completely different.”

When I say that I think many Americans, and certainly those who think of themselves as health-conscious, think of Mexican food as heavy and fattening, Ronstadt is quick to point out that the recipes in Feels Like Home are very healthful.

“If you eat whole foods, you do better,” she says, flatly. “And my recipes are based on whole foods. It’s true a lot of Mexican food has highly refined ingredients and isn’t healthy. It’s all starches and fat, and it’s nasty fat, like canola oil. So I use olive oil a lot. I use lard when I can get it, and that actually has less cholesterol than butter. The problem is, the store-bought lard now, it isn’t good, because it’s taken from those poor pigs who live in sheds and live in misery all their lives. It tastes like pig gristle.”

The subject raises Ronstadt’s ire, who shows the fiery political side she was known so keenly for in the 70s and 80s.

“You know, we’re heading for a war!” Ronstadt exclaims, before explaining her seeming detour. “What I mean is, we’re heading for water wars. And maybe the Central Valley will be against the West Coast, the coastline, because the farmers here in California take 80 percent of the water, and they’re growing things like almonds and cotton, really thirsty crops. California is a desert. So, they’re going to kill the fertility of the Silicon Valley sooner or later. And we’ll also be fighting over the water because they need to plant drought-powered crops.” 

And a lot of those farmers are corporatized farmers, I point out.

“Yeah, they are,” Ronstadt says with a sigh. “They’re not family farmers. They plant on such a massive scale, they’re trying to industrialize agriculture, and agriculture doesn’t like to be industrialized. It should really be the agriculture non-industry!”

Comments

  • robert willhoit says:

    Up until now we’ve mostly heard about the influential men in Linda’s impressive family tree. In Feels Like Home we get to know some of the women who nurtured that tree and held the family together. Her own mom was one of those lovely and strong women whom we learned about in her first memoir Simple Dreams. While there are many talented women singers in this world the difference between Linda and those who haven’t met their full potential is Linda’s dogged perseverance. That’s one trait-like apple that didn’t fall far from her family tree. Living among the quiet beauty of a desert land where every plant and critter can cause you harm and the sun burns you on the coldest day instills a toughness rarely found elsewhere. I think there’s a movie somewhere in here or maybe a PBS miniseries about families of the Borderlands worth capturing before all traces of this beautiful Sonoran Desert disappear.



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