Linda Ronstadt On Making Music: 'I Knew How To Sing My Whole Life' | KALW

Linda Ronstadt On Making Music: 'I Knew How To Sing My Whole Life'

Sep 13, 2019
Originally published on September 17, 2019 10:21 am

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Linda Ronstadt is the subject of a new documentary that opened today called "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice." We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with her in 2013, a month after she revealed that she had Parkinson's disease and could no longer sing. The disease had ended her singing career years before it was diagnosed.

Ronstadt recorded her first hit in 1967, "Different Drum," under the name of her band, the Stone Poneys. She went on to sell more than a hundred million records. Her best-known recordings include "Heart Like A Wheel," "Desperado," "You're No Good," "Faithless Love," "When Will I Be Loved," "Willin'" and "Blue Bayou." Her rise to stardom coincided with the height of the counterculture and the music associated with it, making her a focal point in a world far removed from her Catholic upbringing in Tucson.

But she didn't remain tied to the popular music of her time. Against the recommendations of her record label, she recorded an album of standards with arranger Nelson Riddle that turned into a surprise hit and led to a couple of other albums from the American Songbook. And she recorded albums of the Mexican songs she learned from her Mexican grandfather and her father.

When we spoke, she'd just written a memoir called "Simple Dreams." Let's start with a song that was a No. 1 hit for her in 1975.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “YOU'RE NO GOOD”)

LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) Feelin' better now that we're through. Feelin' better 'cause I'm over you. I learned my lesson; it left a scar. Now I see how you really are. You're no good. You're no good. You're no good. Baby, you're no good. I'm going to say it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Linda Ronstadt, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a great pleasure to have you on our show.

RONSTADT: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Well, I want to talk with you about your childhood and your family tree. Reading your memoir, I was just astonished (laughter) by the richness of your family tree. So let's start with your grandfather who was born in Mexico and...

RONSTADT: Right.

GROSS: ...Had a hardware store in Arizona.

RONSTADT: In Tucson. Yeah.

GROSS: And had a lot of business that came across the border from Mexico. Tell us about his music background.

RONSTADT: He was the one in Tucson who taught everybody how to play their instruments and assembled a band and wrote the arrangements and wrote a lot of compositions for the band. And he was like the music man except he really knew how to play music and how to read and he was an autodidact. He had quite a rich education.

He only went, I think, seventh grade in terms of formal schooling. But he was a wide reader and loved opera, loved art and all those elements were there, you know, in his life. It was a rich life artistically. He was a rancher. That's how he made his living in Arizona. It's a tough gig because it's the desert and sometimes there's no water and then there are no cattle. (Laughter) You know?

So he went through some tough times. He went through the Depression. But he was an apprentice to a blacksmith when he was a teenager. And so he had the reputation in southern Arizona for making the most beautiful wagons and buggies, you know, like the equivalent of a Mercedes, that you would drive around a horse and carriage.

GROSS: Did he do a lot of Mexican songs?

RONSTADT: Oh, yeah. You know, if you wanted to serenade your sweetheart, you'd get my grandfather's band to go and serenade her at 2 in the morning. And if you had to have a military parade, well, my grandfather's band was the one you get, you know. And if you had a wedding or a funeral, well, (laughter) they'd show up for that.

I mean, in those days, you had to make your own music. You couldn't get it off the radio. You couldn't get it from YouTube. You couldn't. download it. You had to make it yourself, and that's what he did.

GROSS: So while we're talking about some of the music he introduced you to and the music he played, let me play a track from the first of, I think, three albums that you did of Mexican and Spanish songs. And...

RONSTADT: They're Mexican songs. Yeah.

GROSS: Mexican songs. And the title of the album "Canciones De Mi Padre" is the same title that your aunt gave a collection of songs and stories that she published.

RONSTADT: Yes, my aunt was a singer and a dancer. And she was a music scholar, you know, in the teens and '20s of the 20th century. And she traveled all over Mexico and also into Spain. And she collected all these different regional songs and dances. And she wrote a letter home to my grandfather saying that she discovered a guitar player that she thought was absolutely wonderful, and he could hold the attention of the audience when she left the stage to change her costumes. And she wanted to bring him to the United States because she was sure he would be a huge hit there and become a star in his own right. And the guitar player was Andres Segovia.

GROSS: And did he come here because of her?

RONSTADT: I don't know. I mean, I'm sure she encouraged him to. But I mean, he, you know, people with that kind of talent, they make it on their own.

GROSS: Right. Right.

RONSTADT: She just didn't get in the way, you know.

GROSS: So the song that I want...

RONSTADT: Kind of like being the Eagles, you know. I didn't get in their way. They...

GROSS: (Laughter) Because they were your backup band before they became famous.

RONSTADT: They were my backup band, and I just got out of the way.

GROSS: So the song I want to play from your first album of Mexican songs is - and I'm going to say this wrong - "Rogaciano El Huapanguero"?

RONSTADT: Huapanguero. Yeah.

GROSS: Yes.

RONSTADT: "Rogaciano El Huapanguero."

GROSS: This is a beautiful song.

RONSTADT: "Rogaciano" is a certain kind of song. It's a style of singing.

GROSS: It's just - there's so much emotion in the song. Just say a few words about it before we hear it.

RONSTADT: Well, this music is typical of the mountain regions. And I guess in mountain regions people develop a kind of a yodeling style because they can throw their voice across - you know, they don't have a telephone, so they yodel. And so there's a beautiful kind of a haunting, romantic kind of break in the voice that makes it typical of Huapango. They're my favorites.

And there's a rhythm underneath that is - would be written in European time signature as 6/8. But it's not really 6/8. It's a 6/8 with a kind of hitch in the gate. You got to grow up in that region and sort of know how to count it. It's very much an indigenous Mexican rhythm.

GROSS: OK, so this is Linda Ronstadt from her first album of Mexican songs - "Canciones De Mi Padre" - from 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROGACIANO EL HUAPANGUERO")

RONSTADT: (Singing in Spanish).

GROSS: That's my guest Linda Ronstadt recorded in 1987. We were talking about how your grandfather introduced you to these kinds of songs and sang these kinds of songs. Your father sang, too. I was surprised to read that Paul Whiteman invited your father to be the boy singer in his band. And, I mean, that's where Bing Crosby got his start.

RONSTADT: Yeah. That was a huge deal because in those days he was the most well-known bandleader in the country. So that was quite an honor. My father had a beautiful, beautiful baritone voice. He sounded like a cross between Pedro Infante and Frank Sinatra. And he just had wonderful stories in his singing.

And always, you know, if there was a dinner party or something, he'd get the guitar out, you know, about 10 or 11 o'clock. And everybody would start to listen, and he'd just sing. And then people would talk for a while, and then he'd sing a little bit more. And I also fall asleep in somebody's lap listening to my dad sing some beautiful song, you know...

GROSS: And on...

RONSTADT: It was beautiful memory.

GROSS: On your mother's side of the family, her father was Lloyd Copeman, who was an inventor. And...

RONSTADT: He was a - yeah. He was a famous inventor. He invented, well, the electric toaster, the electric stove, all the timing devices. He invented the thermostat for Westinghouse, basically.

GROSS: Whoa (laughter).

RONSTADT: And he invented the pneumatic grease gun. And he invented a dripless paint thing that you put on your paint can so it doesn't drip down the side. It's still in use today. He invented a tamper-proof envelope for the FBI - all kinds of things that he did. You know, he was kind of the Gyro Gearloose of his time.

But he worked alone. He was the third to Thomas Edison in the number of useful inventions in the - sometime in the '50s, you know, that he had made. But he worked all by himself. Thomas Edison worked with teams and teams of people. So I always said my grandfather kind of beat him a little bit.

GROSS: So that leads me to wonder. I mean, did you grow up wealthy? Did your mother inherit a lot of money? That's a lot of inventions.

RONSTADT: No. My grandmother had Parkinson's disease, and it took all his money. He had - he was wealthy from time to time...

GROSS: Oh.

RONSTADT: ...You know, at certain times. But he spent all his money trying to find a cure for Parkinson's disease.

GROSS: Which is what you have now.

RONSTADT: It's what I have now, yeah. It's a gene, I guess. I mean, I think that's - a gene is one of the things that you - they don't know what causes it. But I think that genetic is one of the ways you can get it.

GROSS: Wait. You mean - so he tried to invent a cure as an inventor - to come up with a cure for...

RONSTADT: Well, he tried to find - you know, he searched everywhere. And people would say, well, you know, we can cure it. Give us this much money. And he just went through his money trying to find a way to fix her, I think. He loved her so much.

GROSS: So you form a band with friends, the Stone Poneys, which eventually has the hit "Different Drum" in 1967. But that was their second album. The first album, it was a harmony group. And you weren't, like, the lead singer, Linda Ronstadt. It was a band. You sang harmonies. I hadn't heard that early work until I was preparing for this interview. And I was really interested in hearing how the early Stone Poneys sound. So I want to play the first track from that first album.

RONSTADT: Oh, my God.

GROSS: This is "Sweet Summer Blue And Gold." And just want to say a few words about this and about what the band was about in those early days?

RONSTADT: Well, Bobby Kimmel was a guy that I met in Tucson. He was kind of a blues guitar player, but then he'd write stuff that wasn't bluesy. He wrote songs and stories about his own life and his own experiences for his own vocal register, which was very different from mine. So, you know, they weren't songs that would be good for me to sing as a soloist. So we just, you know, we put them together.

And we had Kenny Edwards, who was a really wonderful guitar player and a good musician that I met really early on. And he was part of the group, too. And so he hadn't thought of himself as a singer. But we just put the harmonies together. We just kind of fit them together. And sort of like throwing it against the wall (laughter), you know and see if it stuck.

GROSS: All right. So this is Linda Ronstadt with the Stone Poneys, the first album that they released.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SUMMER BLUE AND GOLD")

STONE PONEYS: (Singing) Look out your window. The rain is turning into snow so the time has come, you know. You must decide to stay or go. Oh, how you love me - sweet summer, blue and gold. Will you stay with me long winters, gray and cold? Go, love, open up the door. You'll see the winds aren't warm anymore. The birds we heard all summer long were chased away by winter's storms Oh, how you love me - sweet summer, blue and gold. Will you stay with me long winters, gray and cold?

GROSS: So that was the Stone Poneys with my guest, Linda Ronstadt. And that was before "Different Drum." This was from their first album. So that soul-folk influence, was that the direction you were heading in?

RONSTADT: On the radio in those days, the radio was so wide open. You could hear a jazz song, the Singing Nun, a country song and then, you know, Peter, Paul and Mary, you know, doing sort of what was considered commercial folk music. And we heard a lot of that stuff. And we were really influenced by it, you know, that kind of finger-picking guitar style and stuff like that. So that's what we were chasing then.

GROSS: You got a manager. And your manager thought you should really be, like, the soloist. He wasn't that hot on the band. But he liked you and thought he could really promote you. And then you're ready to record "Different Drum." And you show up to the studio and, like, your band's not there. It's these different musicians. Tell the story of what happened.

RONSTADT: Well, originally, we had recorded - I'd heard it. It was a song called "Different Drum." I'd learned it off a bluegrass record by The Greenbriar Boys. And I thought it was a hit. But I wanted to record it in a folky way (laughter). So we recorded it with a guitar and a mandolin. And of course, you know, the record company didn't like it.

And they said, well, we want to do it again, but we're going to get a different arrangement. I had no idea there was going to be all these musicians. It turns out they were all good players. Don Randi was playing. Jimmy Gordon was the drummer - a wonderful drummer. And...

GROSS: Don Randi was playing harpsichord.

RONSTADT: Yeah. Don Randi was playing harpsichord, and he played piano. So I was just shocked. And they played the arrangement. I didn't know how to fit the phrasing in. I didn't - it suddenly wasn't the way I was used to singing it, so it really knocked me off my stride. And I think we went through it twice. And it was a hit. You know, what was I supposed to know? I mean, I was just shocked.

I didn't want them to use it because I felt like I was struggling so with the singing, and I thought that showed, you know, so clearly. But it was a hit. So when they put it out, that was a lucky thing for me that they didn't listen to me.

GROSS: So this is my guest, Linda Ronstadt, "Different Drum," 1967.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT DRUM")

RONSTADT: (Singing) You and I travel to the beat of a different drum, oh. Can't you tell by the way I run every time you make eyes at me? Whoa. You cry and moan and say it could work out. But, honey child, I've got my doubts. You can't see the forest for the trees. Oh, don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm knocking. It's just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me. Yes. And I ain't saying you ain't pretty. All I'm saying is I'm not ready for any person, place or thing to try and pull the reins in on me, so goodbye. I'll be leaving. I see no sense in this crying and grieving. We'll both live a lot longer if you live without me.

GROSS: That's Linda Ronstadt recorded in 1967, big hit for her, different from her first big hit. Did you believe in the lyric about not wanting to be tied down or monogamist? Did - like, did that describe you?

RONSTADT: Well, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

RONSTADT: Yes, it did. Yes, it does.

GROSS: (Laughter) Never been married, right?

RONSTADT: No knack for it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RONSTADT: You know, I think that the culture supports serial monogamy. And I think I had plenty of that. And I think I was reasonably monogamous in a serial way (laughter). But I'm not a good compromiser. I think I don't have a knack for the kind of compromise. I admire people's marriages, and I think it's a wonderful thing to have. But I don't think it's the only way to live.

I think there are many ways to live and many ways to establish intimate support in your life that can be from family or friends or a great roommate that you like. You know, it doesn't have to be someone you're sleeping with. I figured that out pretty early on, and that was sort of how I felt. I was trying to sing. I was never trying to get married.

GROSS: We're listening to my interview with Linda Ronstadt recorded in 2013. A new documentary called "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice" opened today in theaters. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2013 interview with Linda Ronstadt. A new documentary about her opened today. We spoke after the publication of her memoir.

You write in the book about how to - how you had to figure out your image. And you write, (reading) female performers in the folk pop genre were generally confused about how to represent themselves. Did we want to be nurturing, stay-at-home earth mothers who cooked and nursed babies, or did we want to be funky mamas in the Troubadour bar, our boot heels to be wandering an independent course like our male counterparts? So where did you see yourself fitting in between, like, the funky mama and the earth mama?

RONSTADT: Well, I didn't really fit in there (laughter). I was raised to - you know, to wear hat and gloves and polish the silver. And that just wasn't the way I was quite raised, so I was a little bit confused by it.

GROSS: I remember the rumor about Janis Joplin was - and I don't know if you heard this because you were in the music industry, so - and you actually knew her - but at a distance...

RONSTADT: Not well, but I knew her a little bit.

GROSS: Right. But at a distance, when, like, all of her fans were preparing for, like, the concert, you know, in the college auditorium, like, the rumor that went around was, like, Janis Joplin got so deep into the sexuality of her songs that she actually reached orgasm on stage (laughter).

RONSTADT: Oh, my God. Well, I never heard that.

GROSS: I doubt that was true. But...

RONSTADT: I've never personally had that experience myself, but...

GROSS: (Laughter) I assumed that. But did you ever feel like you had to compete with that kind of image and that kind of, like, level of sexuality that people projected onto her?

RONSTADT: No, I think competition is for horse races, and I never thought it belonged in art. And I never felt that competitive with other girl singers, really. I admired them. If I really admired them, I'd try to figure out a way - if it was appropriate - just figure out a way to sing with them. You know, I liked Maria Muldaur when I first started out. Now, there was somebody who was really sexy on stage. And in fact, Janis just admired her too. She loved her. And I got to sing with Maria a little bit. It was really fun. We did some harmonies together.

But mainly, when I met - ran into Emmylou Harris, that was it, you know. We could finish each other's sentences musically and personally too. We had a very shared, similar sensibility. And that was a friendship that really opened up tremendous number of musical doors for me.

GROSS: You have a few stories in your new memoir about being propositioned by men who assumed, hey, it's a hippie chick singer - free love. For example, the time when a producer of a TV show that you were doing - you were a guest on the show - he came into your room on the premise that you had to talk about business. And he immediately, like, stripped off all his clothes (laughter).

RONSTADT: I was so shocked because I'm really kind of modest. You know, I had a Catholic school upbringing. And we just didn't see a lot of naked bodies. And this guy, I'm telling you, was not the Adonis of showbiz. He was kind of...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RONSTADT: There was something really kind of exhibitionistic and self-hating about what he was doing. I felt sorry for him. I mean, it was - clearly he was so troubled. But, you know, he was - had the power, and I didn't have any. And so I just kind of edged to the door and edged to the door. And then I just went out the door, you know. And I didn't come back for a couple of hours. I went and sat in the lobby. And I was so bored. You know, I was so mad down there, you know, standing in the lobby. But - because I wanted to go to bed. But I was just afraid to go back to my room.

And in those days, you know, when you were kind of low man on the pecking order or low woman in the pecking order, you didn't dare go and complain. I called my manager. And he said, don't say anything because, you know, they might kick you off the show. And we needed the show.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2013 interview with Linda Ronstadt. A new documentary about her called "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice" opened today. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And John Powers will review the new film "Hustlers." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my 2013 interview with Linda Ronstadt. A new documentary about her opened in theaters today. Ronstadt had her first hit in 1967 with the song "Different Drum." Some of her other best known recordings include "Heart Like A Wheel," "Desperado," "You're No Good," "When Will I Be Loved," "Willin'" and "Blue Bayou." She's also recorded albums of American popular song and Mexican songs.

I spoke with her after the publication of her memoir, which was a month after she revealed she had Parkinson's disease. It had been diagnosed less than a year earlier, but the symptoms ended her singing career several years before that. She said that early in her career, she had difficulty figuring out her public image. She didn't quite fit into the popular images of the Earth mother or the funky mama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: 1971, you perform at Disneyland. And the contract stipulated that you had to wear a bra. And your skirt had to be a certain number of inches from the ground when you were kneeling, which led me to wonder...

RONSTADT: Yeah - not very many inches.

GROSS: Yeah. Had they seen - so your skirt had to be long enough. Had they seen your act and known that, well, sometimes you don't wear a bra and that you kneel in your show?

RONSTADT: No. They just - that was just the rules, that if you wanted to work at Disneyland, you...

GROSS: For anybody?

RONSTADT: And I was laughing. I was going to put the bra on my head, you know, and say, it didn't say in the contract...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RONSTADT: But I really needed to get paid. They paid really well at Disneyland. That's why we did those silly gigs. But, you know, they always had these silly laws. I think they're very - they were a very uptight organization.

GROSS: In your memoir, you write about how when you found the song "Heart Like A Wheel," the Anna McGarrigle song, which she sang with her sister, Kate, that that song rearranged your entire musical landscape. First, let's start with, why did your musical landscape need rearranging?

RONSTADT: Well, I'd come from this kind of sensibility. My grandfather loved opera. He loved "La Traviata." That was his favorite opera. It's my favorite opera. And he had this kind of, you know, arty, refined sensibility, but he also loved traditional music. And he loved Mexican music. He was really passionate about that. So - and the same with my father. You know, he liked those things, too.

So the McGarrigles kind of married this incredibly traditional sort of refined aesthetic with, you know, just telling it like it is - sort of straight out, no bones about it the way they'd talk about stuff. And it was just this unabashed sentiment. They were unafraid of female sentiment. And I don't know. There's something in the water up there in Canada because my favorite writers are the McGarrigle sisters, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot - oh, my God, what a great ballad writer - Joni Mitchell.

I mean, you know, there's just - they're completely unique, great writers. And in a lot of ways, they're following in the tradition of what would be called art song, and that was what I was seeing with McGarrigles. I thought - I didn't know what to call it then, but I just knew it was different from folk music. And it wasn't the same as rock ’n’ roll. It wasn't - there was no place for it in pop music on the charts.

But I wanted to sing it because it told my story exactly how I felt at the time about what I - you know, how I was feeling about my life and my relationships. And I just had to sing it. And I tried it for a couple - and I sang it for a couple of different guys. And, you know, my manager at the time, he said, oh, that's just too corny. You know, nobody's going to want to listen to that. And the record company wasn't interested in it. They said, oh, that's not a hit. They'll never play it on the radio. So I just kind of - it just sort of hurt my feelings on behalf of the song. And I sort of folded it up and tuck it in my pocket.

And then one night, before - we were going to play Carnegie Hall. And the night before, I was rehearsing with my piano player, Andrew Gould. And he had learned the song some other place. I don't know where he had learned it. And he was just playing the introduction to it. I said, I know that song. Let's do it. So I sang through it. And of course, you know, I knew all the words and everything. And I said, let's put it in the show. And we put it in the next night at Carnegie Hall. It got a huge response, so that was how I won with that song. I just kept trying, you know?

GROSS: Well, it ended up being the title track of a 1974 album. Let's hear it. This is my guest, Linda Ronstadt, singing "Heart Like A Wheel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART LIKE A WHEEL")

RONSTADT: (Singing) Some say the heart is just like a wheel. When you bend it, you can't mend it. But my love for you is like a sinking ship. And my heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean. When harm is done, no love can be won. I know it happens frequently, but I can't understand. Oh, please, God, hold my hand. Why'd it have to happen to me? And it's only love. And it's only love that can wreck a human being and turn him inside out...

GROSS: That's my guest, Linda Ronstadt, singing "Heart Like A Wheel," the title track of her 1974 album that also included "When Will I Be Loved," "Willin'," "Faithless Love." I think it was after "Heart Like A Wheel," you go to your record company, Capitol Records. And you basically begged them to let you go (laughter) because you couldn't record what you wanted to record with them.

RONSTADT: Well, they weren't - I just didn't feel like they really got who I was. And, I mean, to their credit, how could they know? - because I was still shaping who I was. I was morphing into something. It took me 10 years to learn how to sing, really, and to figure out, you know, who I was stylistically.

So - but I'd always loved Hank Williams. And I'd always loved those country songs. And I could play them on the guitar because they were three chords. And I'd like singing them. And they were good harmonies. And they were great sentiment. So - and, again, I had this manager that said, oh, that's too country for rock and too rock for country. You'll never sell any records, you know? But I liked those songs, so I sang them.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Linda Ronstadt in 2013. A new documentary called "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice" opened today. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "TELEGRAM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2013 interview with Linda Ronstadt. A new documentary about her opened today. We spoke after the publication of her memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the big decisions you made in your career is that you wanted to sing standards. You wanted to sing songs like Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney had recorded.

RONSTADT: Right.

GROSS: And you wanted to do it with Nelson Riddle, (laughter) who had...

RONSTADT: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Done arrangements for both of them. And you were lucky enough to actually record three albums with him. So let's go back for a moment. How did you first know the American Songbook?

RONSTADT: I heard it on the - first on the Victrola and then on the big HiFi monaural record player that my father brought home in the '50s. He brought it home with a bunch of records. He brought Lewis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, duets that were just fabulous. And he brought Peggy Lee and June Christy and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. There were a lot of people that could - really knew how to sing that stuff, and those are brilliant songs. I think what the United States gave to world culture at large, especially in the 20th century, was the American popular song. And it was a wonder to behold.

GROSS: The title of the album is "What's New?" That's a song that so many people have sung. What spoke to you about that song?

RONSTADT: Well, I'd had experiences like that, where you run into an old boyfriend that maybe you're still carrying a little torch for. And, you know, you see him, and it's just - kind of brings back all those old feelings. And you have a brief, little encounter with him on the street, and then you go on by like nothing ever happened. And it's kind of a devastating experience. And that song just describes it in very subtle innuendoes, you know? It's not instructive. It doesn't say this is what happened; the story, the story, the story. It just kind of supplies these little details, and you put the story together yourself like a good trial lawyer.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. This is Linda Ronstadt from her first album of standards. The album is "What's New?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S NEW?")

RONSTADT: (Singing) What's new? How is the world treating you? You haven't changed a bit. Handsome as ever, I must admit. What's new? How did that romance come through? We haven't met since then. Gee, but it's nice to see you again. What's new? Probably...

GROSS: That's Linda Ronstadt from her first album of standards, which was called "What's New?" and the first of three albums in which she collaborated with the arranger Nelson Riddle. Do you feel like you learned things about music or about how singing fits in with an arrangement by working with Nelson Riddle?

RONSTADT: Well, I learned a tremendous amount. I mean, I told Nelson in the beginning - I had the gut, the chutzpah, to tell him I needed a really custom fit and that I like to be involved in the way the arrangements were set. I - you know, I can do simple arrangements myself. I've done some very simple string writing and some very simple - and I can do pretty complicated harmony arrangements. But I knew that I was way over my head with anything like this. And he was one of the great masters of the style, if not the great master for pop music. So he came over to my house in the morning, and we would go through things.

And he's the only person I ever let - allowed him to correct me on a key. Like, I'd usually pick the key out of the air. And every once in a while, he'd say, no, it'd be better if you moved it up a little bit or down a little bit. And he'd always be right. I remember in one song, I asked for a modulation, you know, just to kind of brighten up the arrangement and keep it from getting too boring, you know? And he said, oh, I can do a trick. He said I can modulate - modulation usually modulates up to a higher key, and it brightens. He said I'll give it - I'll modulate to a lower key, and it gave it this incredible mood shift, you know? I was just always floored by the things that Nelson came up with. And he always had a real reason for however he cast his arrangements. The woodwinds would have a certain place in the mix, you know? They would be just supporting something, or they'd be speaking out more prominently or the strings would be speaking out more prominently. He also knew exactly where to cast the instruments so that they supported the story and illustrated the story.

GROSS: He - Nelson Riddle died while doing the arrangements for your third album together. That must have been devastating.

RONSTADT: It was devastating because there was only one Nelson Riddle. They don't make any more like him. And, you know, it was the end of an era in a certain way. And we still had one song - one track to record after he died, and we did. The musicians were crying in the orchestra because they all loved Nelson, you know? He'd given them so much work over the years, and he appreciated what their abilities were. And his son was also playing in the trombone section. He was crying. It was pretty tough that day.

GROSS: You've probably known a lot of people who died young. And I'm thinking just to name a few - Gram Parsons, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison.

RONSTADT: Yeah. Well, we had the great culling, you know, of people that took drugs, and it was just a disaster and a tragedy. It's just so sad that those people didn't get to live out full lives. And then there was the next one, which was the AIDS epidemic, which was another just terrible tragedy, you know? That all those people had to die, you know? There are a lot of people that are gone from Pirates of Penzance, most of them, in fact. They're gone people.

GROSS: From the production that you were in.

RONSTADT: Yeah. You know, the music director and a lot of the stars - and they're gone. It's a shame. They had amazing careers, and they should - they had many more years in them. They could have been around. So that was two. So then the next...

GROSS: Well, you're saying that was because of AIDS?

RONSTADT: Yeah, because of AIDS. And then now is, you know, old age. It's where, you know, people are dropping around my generation. It's like the senior class in high school. Now we're the seniors, and we're looking around going, oh, we're next. But that's the way it is, you know? We're all going to die.

GROSS: Do you still feel like a bit of a survivor because you made it through this far?

RONSTADT: Well, I didn't die young (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.

RONSTADT: So I feel like...

GROSS: You can say that (laughter).

RONSTADT: ...Whatever I've got - I just feel whatever I've got now is gravy. I feel like I was lucky. I got to sing about a lot of my dreams. And I got to, you know, sing with all these wonderful people like Emmylou and Aaron Neville and Smokey Robinson. I mean, the tenors - I sang with Aaron Neville, Smokey Robinson, Plácido Domingo, Dennis Wilson, Ricky Skaggs. I mean, how can you beat that, you know, for tenors? So I was lucky. And having a singing sister like Emmylou Harris - what a gift in my life, you know? She opened doors for me musically that I never would have been able to open by myself because she was as passionate as I was about offbeat, quirky art song and traditional music. She didn't care whether it was going to be hit or not either. She just wanted to sing it. If it really told her story, there was nothing that was going to get away - in the way of her telling her story. So she - that told it the best. She was going to do that song and do it right. It was like going through the woods with, like, Hansel and Gretel, you know, leaving a little trail of breadcrumbs. We left our little notes behind and hoped we could find our way back.

GROSS: I want to close with a song from your final album, "Hummin' To Myself," from 2004. And this is the song "Tell Him I Said Hello."

RONSTADT: Oh, I'm glad you picked that. It's my favorite one.

GROSS: Oh, good. So did you know this would be your final album when you recorded it?

RONSTADT: It wasn't my final album. I made an album after that, but I'm really proud of called the - it was just called "Adieu False Heart" that I made with an Ann Savoy down in the Cajun country. And it's - I had no voice left, and I was just crafting whatever I could craft together. But I hung on to Ann, and we sang this harmony duet. And it was an unusual sound. I was - I really loved that record, but I was also really proud of this record because it was really hard to sing at this point when I was recording. And again, I had had to find a new voice to sing with that I put together, especially for the song just - "Tell Him I Said Hello." But I love the song. It's one of those kind of things, again, where it's just a moment where you're remembering, you know, the regret of a past relationship and you think you want to sort of reach out to that person. And then you realize it'd be better not and so you just leave it alone.

GROSS: When you say you had to, like, refashion your voice, like, what did you have to do differently in these early stages of Parkinson's when you were still singing?

RONSTADT: Well, I was singing on the sort of the flat, lower part of my voice. I didn't have all the color and the breath and the sort of airy halo that comes. There's a lot of different textures that you can dial in and out on an unconscious level when you're singing. And you just bring in these colors and textures, and they all express emotion in some way or another. And I didn't have that with me. I was - I thought of myself as a painter that was painting with a limited palette, so I thought, well, I got some darks and lights here. And I've got some maybe some umber, you know? And I can put that in, and I just have to make a really strong drawing, make the image as bold as I can. And that's what I was trying to do with this song.

GROSS: Well, Linda Ronstadt, it's just been such a pleasure to talk with you. And I wish you the best.

RONSTADT: Well, thank you so much. It's been my pleasure too. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL HIM I SAID HELLO")

RONSTADT: (Singing) When you see him, tell him things are slow. There's a reason, and he's sure to know. But on second thought, forget it. Just tell him I said hello. If he asks you when I come and go, say I stay home 'cause I miss him so. But on second thought, forget it. Just tell him I said hello.

GROSS: My interview with Linda Ronstadt was recorded in 2013, a month after she revealed she had Parkinson's disease. A new documentary about her opened today called "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice." In December, she'll be one of the Kennedy Center honorees. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE AND JAY Z SONG "BONNIE & CLYDE 2003") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.