By Mike Greenblatt
She was every hippie boy’s dream. It wasn’t just because she never seemed to wear a bra. It was her face. Her voice. Her independent spirit. Her amazing ability to go from rock and roll, country and pop, to opera, Mexican music, the Great American Songbook and sweet soul ballads. Linda Ronstadt could sing it all. I was so enamored by her that I carried a picture of her in my wallet for all four years of college.
Now, with the release of Linda and the Mockingbirds (Shout! Studios/PCH Films), despite being in retirement for health reasons, she’s again at the forefront of cultural importance. Filmmaker James Keach, who produced the 2019 documentary The Sound of My Voice about this American pioneer icon, has done it again, working with Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and the young students of a Mexican-American song and dance troupe, Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds) Cultural Arts Academy out of the East Bay area of California in San Pablo.
Keach has captured their 2019 trip to Banamichi, Sonora, Mexico, where Ronstadt's grandfather grew up, where they meet up with the folkloric dance troupe Grupo Danza Xunutzi. The scenes of Ronstadt grooving to the two like-minded student organizations and their joyous way with sound, movement and instrumental prowess are priceless. Ronstadt, who has been a patron of the arts for 26 years, paid for the trip, provided the star power, and is now, through the magic of this film, helping to show off their costumes, their guitars, violins, and traditional percolating percussion.
It is then through the music that the stories of innocent Mexican children, babies and toddlers put in cages at the border comes into play and serious issues like racism come to the fore.
“My great-niece took the trip with us,” explains Ronstadt. “There were three generations of Ronstadts on that trip — a triple-pain for everybody — but my great-niece, especially, was great. She was the pet of the tour. She had so many friends. All the dancers loved her. They were all giving her candy, reading her stories and bouncing her on their knee. And we couldn’t help but think, ‘What if this precious two-year old was taken away from us, separated from her family, got lost in the system and we didn’t even know where she went?’ The anguish that would cause for our family would be unspeakable. This notion of separating children from their parents at the border is deliberate. Deliberately punitive. It’s one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
Linda, always a political animal, wouldn’t deliver her message any other way.
GOLDMINE: Linda and the Mockingbirds made me cry.
LINDA RONSTADT: I’m glad.
GM: I love when you said, “every girl is beautiful when she dances.”
LR: Well, there’s something about being on your spot. Knowing who you are. Being in your body and being able to declare it, plus enjoy its center. I think that’s what dance is all about. It’s like, “this is who I am and this is what I stand for.” Especially in Mexican music which is all so regional. I mean, you can go just across the street in Mexico and change rhythmic cultures, art styles, clothing styles, and you change language often. Los Cenzontles sing in a lot of different languages including ancient ones. Mexicans speak Spanish, sure, but, depending upon the geographical locale, they also speak over 30 different indigenous languages.
GM: You also have a quick wit. You made me laugh when asked why you invited Jackson Browne and you answered, “he likes to eat.”
LR: (laughs) I knew he liked Mexican food. I’ve eaten with Jackson in a million restaurants, but they have a different kind of food in Sonora that I knew he couldn’t get in Los Angeles. Mainly the tortillas and the vegetables. They’re so good. The Senora River Valley has the most fertile soil in Mexico. Thousands of years of alluvial soil built up carefully in the midst of desert and flooding—like The Nile River in northeastern Africa—where there’s an incomprehensibly vast desert on either side that abuts a green verdant strip for miles down-river in the valley. This is where the most astonishing vegetables jump right out! So many beautiful varieties of corn, wheat, chili peppers, pumpkins, squash and tomatoes. It’s a miracle that the food is so wonderful. I’ve known about this and have sampled it since I was a little girl.
I had already introduced Jackson and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos to Los Cenzontles and they’ve both become quite the supporters. In fact, I’ve never had any trouble taking musicians there, where they teach the students the right way. It’s deeply traditional. They learn how to make visual art. They learn how to dance in the time-honored tradition. They learn how to sing these folkloric songs. They learn how to play instruments. This time the students, Jackson and I traveled to the Sonoran Desert together in Mexico with some of my friends and family—30 in all—because, not only is it my ancestral home, but there’s a lot of different reasons for Mexico to make the case that Mexican culture is an important part of American culture.
GM: Who else have you turned on to this?
LR: I took Ry Cooder there, too. He’s a real tough nut to crack. He doesn’t like anything! And even he loved them. He immediately saw the musical value in what these students are doing. I took The Chieftains (from Ireland) there once, they wound up not only taking some of these kids on tour with them but recorded with them as well.
GM: It raised a lump in my throat when the father of the family who was interviewed talked about how they base their whole lives upon hard work and respect. In the film, you say that “people have been embracing Mexican culture for years without even realizing it.”
LR: Sure! Whether it’s food, fashion or music. The Sonoran Desert is on both sides of the border. If you grew up there, you disregard the border. The idea of a wall to separate the two is repugnant. Take the Indian reservations, for instance. They’re also on both sides of the border. And they certainly didn’t recognize any damn border fence. It’s one of the most biologically sensitive areas in the world. Sonoran cactus, for instance, doesn’t grow anywhere else on the planet except Arizona and Mexico and the cacti are threatened by the border fence which not only kills plant-life but prevents animals from migrating. It’s just a huge ugly scar in the desert. It should be torn down. Life was so much better before it was built. It makes me cry just thinking about it.
GM: The other thing you said which almost made ME cry was, “I wish I could sing with them.” Have you reconciled yourself to a life where you cannot sing anymore because of your rare form of Parkinson’s Disease? [Note: Ronstadt's diagnosis was changed to progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative brain disease] Are you happy?
LR: Yes, I read a lot.
GM: After your incredible string of great rock and roll albums, you made a sharp left-turn with (the album) What’s New in ’83, which was so radical and different — it was my parents’ music — that I couldn’t wrap my brain around it at first. I remember thinking, “Why is she doing this kind of music?”
LR: Because it’s better music, that’s why. Even as a rock and roller, I didn’t come out of the blues or a Black church background, which rock is based on… or was. I was constantly fighting that battle. I mean, I do love the blues. And I love Black gospel music. But it wasn’t authentically mine. What was authentically mine was Mexican music and standards. And when I sang those standards with Nelson Riddle for the first time, I felt liberated. I was free to learn to really sing. That made me happy.
GM: When I think of great American singers, I think of you, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Harry Nilsson and Waylon Jennings.
LR: Not Elvis. He was good only when he was on Sun Records but he never made anything good after that.
GM: Not even the gospel stuff?
LR: Ugh. I don’t like any of it. Give me Aretha and Emmylou anytime. And Jennifer Warnes and Bonnie Raitt can both leave me in the dust.
GM: Wait a minute! You’re saying that Warnes and Raitt could leave you in the dust, even when you were in your prime?
LR: Yea, they’re both much better singers than I ever was.
GM: Really? Wow. That’s interesting. Do you even realize how beloved you are?
LR: That’s not a tangible thing that I can embrace. If I listen to a record of mine, I can think it so horrible that it’ll ruin my week. It’s best to stay away from it.
GM: I’ll never forget watching with my kids when you went on Sesame Street.
LR: That was so much fun. Those people were so creative and so talented. So effervescent. There’s a real talent in working with puppets. It’s not like when you’re a method actor, and you have an emotion in your body and it automatically comes out in your nervous system. With puppets, you have to do everything deliberately, consciously, and that’s really hard. It takes a lot of thinking. I have a tremendous amount of respect for puppeteers. I loved working with them.
GM: The other thing that stands out for me is when you did that duet with Mick Jagger. You seemed to be so carefree and happy and rockin’ and dancin’ on that stage with him. And I thought you two had a real chemistry.
LR: I did a duet with Mick Jagger?
GM: You don’t remember?
LR: Oh wait, yeah, “Tumbling Dice.” I forgot about that. I only remember things I did over and over again. That was a one-time thing. I remember my duet with Aaron Neville more. He was so easy to sing with. I love his voice. And I love his writing.
GM: I’m of the opinion that he’s one of the great American male vocalists of all-time.
LR: Well, now you’re getting into some stiff competition.
GM: I could listen to him all day. He has no precedent.
LR: I consider Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson better singers.
GM: Bob Dylan?
LR: Yeah. Aaron is a beautiful soul, and he definitely has his own thing. He’s an original. But give me Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Webb, Smokey Robinson and Brian Wilson. I think Brian, especially, is a God amongst men. I love Paul Simon too. There’s so many that I love.
GM: You sang on Graceland!
LR: “Under African Skies,” yeah.
GM: Paul Simon even wrote a verse about you: “In early memory, mission music was ringing ‘round my nursery door/I said take this child, Lord, from Tucson Arizona/Give her wings to fly through harmony and she won’t bother you no more.”
LR: Paul is a brilliant songwriter. I think he’s the best of the writers in the second half of the 20th Century when it comes to pure pop songwriting. It’s so silly, really, when it comes to composition. I mean, how can you compare him to Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Those three are the giants. Now, in the first half of the 20th Century, there were the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart who could write better than anybody. Only Paul Simon reaches that level of quality.
GM: I’ve often said Paul Simon is the greatest living American songwriter but I also said that about John Prine before he died.
LR: He’s the second greatest.
GM: I say that about Kris Kristofferson, too.
LR: He’s the 15th greatest.
GM: You’ve written a grand total of three songs.
LR: Songs do not come out of me. When you’re a songwriter, you wake up in the morning and a song comes bubbling out. If you’re smart, you’ll learn how to discipline your music so you can capture it when it comes out. It just wasn’t my gift to wake up in the morning with a song. I’d wake up in the morning with somebody’s else’s song in my head. So I’d sing it.
GM: You’re a thief. You’ve taken songs and made them over in your own image. You’ve made them your own. And they’re forever yours. And the originals — in almost every case — sound pale, flat and stiff in comparison.
LR: I’ve always thought the original is the best as a general rule.
GM: Not in your case. I’ve gone back and listened to almost every single song I knew first by the original artist and damn if your version isn’t better every single time. It’s true.
LR: That makes me feel good. Thanks.
GM: The only genre I can’t seem to wrap my brain around is opera. Even your arias from Pirates of Penzance. Sorry.
LR: Oh, there’s so much good opera! You have to listen to the really good opera singers. Maria Callas is my favorite, her and Placido Domingo. Oh, and the big fat Italian guy. He’s the best of all. I can’t think of his name. Wait. Let me think. Oh, I know: Luciano Pavarotti. Listen to him sing “Nessun Dorma.” If you can resist that, you’re hopeless. It’s transcendent. It’s the aria that Aretha sang at the Grammys on a moment’s notice and she nailed it. She sang the shit out of it.
GM: In 1968, you said that ranchero music is Mexican Bluegrass.
LR: It’s more sophisticated than that.
GM: I like that Tex-Mex sound.
LR: That’s different. That’s based on French and German music. Of course, when Europe and Mexican music blend, it’s sexy! Northern Mexican music is different from Mexican music because it has that blue note in it. When it crossed the border, it developed the blue note. That’s why Flaco Jimenez plays differently from some of the other accordionists who live in Northern Mexico. But it’s all great.
GM: I love how you utilized Woody Guthrie’s 1948 protest song “Deportee” within the context of the film. It just fit so perfectly. And a lump came to my throat when Jackson Browne talked of the song he cannot sing all the way through without crying: Joel Rafael’s 2009 “Sierra Blanca Massacre,” written about the 1987 incident wherein 18 illegals were trapped in a boxcar and all died in the heat.
LR: Oh, I know, I know, I wouldn’t be able to sing that song either. There’s been a few songs that I too have not been able to sing without choking up. One song took me 16 years to sing.
GM: Which ones?
LR: “Adios” (by Jimmy Webb) and “Talk to Me of Mendocino” (by Kate and Anna McGarrigle).
GM: When you look back at your amazing career, what stands out for you personally as particularly memorable above all else?
LR: Singing with Emmylou Harris. It was Emmy, not me, who restored country music. When I want a roadmap to true country, I look for Emmy. She holds the reins. She holds the flowers in her hand, too. She was the best thing in that recent PBS Country Music documentary.
GM: You seem so self-effacing considering you’re such a pioneer.
LR: The music that I was able to expand myself in and find who I was musically as a vocalist, was Mexican music. Emmy even opened the door to that as well.
GM: Are there any new young artists whom you find particularly impressive?
LR: I like Billie Eilish. She combines a great presence and style with a unique musicality. It’s very original. That appeals to me. Also, her voice is pure gold. She’s so young. She does a lot of whispering now but her voice is so big, she’ll be able to do whatever she wants. She’s very expressive.
GM: You rebelled against your own image at one point. You refused to be categorized, sexualized, put in any sort of box. But your first flush of fame came with the freedom to be truly yourself onstage. How must that feel to dance around uninhibited in front of thousands and receive their love?
LR: I’m a terrible dancer. And I never thought I was pretty enough to warrant all that unnecessary attention. It was a losing game. My mother always said, “don’t get too attached to being cute because it doesn’t last.” And I wasn’t even that cute. Compared to people now like Taylor Swift and Beyonce, they’re super-models compared to me. They’re talented too. But they’re so gorgeous! I was never so gorgeous-looking. Sure, men always seemed to like me. But that wasn’t my point. I was reaching for the music. And I didn’t want to be limited by that. I wanted to sing grown-up music.
GM: That’s a good point, but I totally disagree. You were — and still are today — much more beautiful than those women you mentioned. Legends like yourself oftentimes downplay their own power because it might seem untoward. I’ll stop gushing now. So what’s next for you?
LR: Nothing. When they open up the world again, I’ll go see some live music. That’s it. There’s a new crop of kids who always seem to give a new spin and a new interpretation on older material. I love that. It’s crazy what they can come up with these days. It fascinates me.
The film Linda and the Mockingbirds is only available on Amazon Prime and other streaming and download services. It had not been released in DVD/Blu-ray format yet.