Good Life

9 questions | Stage still belongs to music icon Linda Ronstadt

Legendary country music star Linda Ronstadt can no longer sing due to Parkinson’s disease, but that doesn’t stop her from continuing to inspire audiences. Today, she graces the stage to speak about her struggles with the disease.
Legendary country music star Linda Ronstadt can no longer sing due to Parkinson’s disease, but that doesn’t stop her from continuing to inspire audiences. Today, she graces the stage to speak about her struggles with the disease. Photo provided

Parkinson’s disease may have stolen Linda Ronstadt’s singing voice, but it hasn’t taken away her ability to entertain audiences.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Grammy Award-winning singer, author and 2013 National Medal of Arts and Humanities recipient has continued to tour the country, speaking about her legendary career in music and her courageous spirit as she fights her illness.

In September 2013, Ronstadt’s autobiography “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir” was released, becoming a New York Times bestseller and prompting Ronstadt on a book tour.

Ronstadt, 68, once possessed a great singing voice and performed in styles ranging from folk, country, rock, pop and American standards to Mexican, Latin, jazz and Cajun. In 2009, Ronstadt officially retired from performing and has been battling Parkinson’s disease since 2013.

Although she can no longer sing, she continues to perform with a voice that entertains and educates with knowledge, honesty, humor, wit, modesty, and professionalism — the same qualities that have made her a beloved artist for generations of fans. Ronstadt recently spoke with the Centre Daily Times from her home in San Francisco. 

Q: How different has the experience been for you as a public speaker, now that you are no longer able to sing for audiences?

A: It’s the weirdest thing. I can still sing in my brain. There are a few songs that I’ve heard that I missed back in the day, and I can hear exactly what I would do with them. But I can’t do it. But speaking feels really comfortable. ... It feels very natural because I know how the story goes.

Q: When did you first start to notice the symptoms of Parkinson’s, how did it affect your singing and what did you do to adapt to the changes in your voice?

A: I actually started noticing in the year 2000. It turns out that it shows up in your voice before anything. ... I remember when things started to be different. I was making an album with Emmylou Harris and I noticed when I was in the studio that when I’d go to do certain things that it wouldn’t happen. I’d start to sing a note and my vocal cords would just clench up. ... From then on it was just every day. Then I’d start tripping and falling down, and I couldn’t understand why. I also had terrible fatigue.

I only made one solo album after that, in 2004. My voice was very limited and I knew it was. I just had these songs that I had to get out of my system. But I had these stories and I just thought I was going to have to tell these stories the best way that I could.

Q: Throughout your career in music you never wrote much of your own material, but you chose songs from some great songwriters — songs that described what may have been going on in your life at the time, and songs that you could relate to and that you felt you could do authentically.

A: If everybody tends to write their own songs and sing them you wind up with a lot of mediocre songwriters, because there are only a few really good ones. It’s like it used to be in the old days with the standards, where you would get a great singer like Ella Fitzgerald singing a song that was written by George Gershwin — that’s a pretty good combination there. Then Sarah Vaughan comes along and sings a Gershwin song and sings it in a totally different way. Then Billie Holiday sings it probably better than anybody. Then Frank Sinatra comes along and does it too. So you get a lot of incredible interpretations of very good songwriting.

Q: The 1970s brought you tremendous success, as you became the best-selling female artist of the decade. Do you think you made a great contribution to pop music in that way?

A: It’s a good thing, but I was happiest when I got to work on the standards because I finally had something to do with my voice. I felt like I was holding myself in a strange limbo when I was trying to sing rock ’n’ roll because I never felt fully invested in the attitude. When I started working with Nelson Riddle I felt like I could really find who I was and find a real unlimited expression for my voice.

Q: When you starred in Joseph Papp’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” in 1980, how did that experience prepare you for your later work, particularly the American standards you recorded with Nelson Riddle and the albums of traditional Mexican songs?

A: It gave me a fuller, richer voice because I started working in my upper register, which I had sorely neglected trying to belt rock ’n’ roll. I had that upper register, and working on that exclusively for a year then gave me the ability to sort of pull it down and marry it to my chest voice, and it gave me a complete voice for standards. It was so liberating because I finally felt like I had gotten out of a box that I was in my whole musical life and could finally get out of it.

Q: What have you done to keep yourself involved in the music world?

A: There’s a cultural center here that I’ve been very involved with for about 20 years called Los Cenzontles. It’s a Mexican cultural center in a little strip mall over in a really hard scrabble neighborhood in the East Bay in Richmond, Calif. They teach singing, dancing, instruments and visual art, and they just do a fabulous job with these kids that have been dislocated from their own cultures in Mexico. They come up here and they’re dealing with all the rigors and strains and sorrows of immigration, trying to fit their families in and trying to fit their culture in.

Q: Your modesty throughout your career has been well-documented. For you it has always been about the music, and awards and praises have always been secondary. But being recognized for your achievements and the outpouring of love from fans that you received after your diagnosis has to make you feel appreciated and respected.

A: I know the range of ability and what people did out there. I think I was a pretty good singer, but I don’t consider myself among the greatest. There’s always going to be somebody better than you, but it’s just fine. You just keep doing what you’re doing.

But people have generous hearts and it’s always nice to see that. The best thing is I have really good family support and really good support from my friends, and that’s what gets you through in the end.

Q: In April 2014, the CD “Duets” was released, a compilation of duets you have done with many different artists throughout your career, including Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, J.D. Souther, James Taylor, James Ingram, Aaron Neville and Ann Savoy. Do you have any future plans to release any more compilations of your work or perhaps any previously unreleased tracks?

A: Different record companies always come up with something. There is something in the works, but I’m not quite sure what it is exactly. I’m sure they’ll be squeezing things out of the bottom of the toothpaste tube as the years go by. I’d like to put out a collection of just Jimmy Webb songs. I think he’s one of the most important songwriters in pop music of the 20th century.

Q: What advice would you give for anyone who wants to have a career in music or just participate in music in one way or another?

A: I wouldn’t know where to start because I really don’t know the business anymore. What we get on the radio today is such a narrow view of it. There’s a lot of music that’s just for solitude, and for working out your problems all by yourself. There’s a lot of music that you can do that you can share with other people, and there’s music like choral singing. I think the only thing you can do is to just get on stage and get in front of people. All I ever tell anybody is just plant your feet and tell the truth. ... Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. But you have to do it with whatever tools you have available.