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On the road to Sonora with Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt thanks a dance group teacher after a performance in the Mexican town of Banámichi. William Steen/NYT slideshow

New York Times editorial writer Lawrence Downes appears to be an admirer of Linda Ronstadt, although he admits he's too young to know her musical arc firsthand. In any case, through a previous association with Ronstadt he nabbed a fun NYT Travel assignment: tour Tucson with the native daughter whose family name has been heard there since 1882, then drive down through southern Arizona into Mexico and accompany Ronstadt as she visits friends and her grandfather's Sonoran birthplace, Banámichi. Before leaving Tucson, they visit Mission San Xavier del Bac, a stunning survivor of the Spanish colony that Ronstadt calls her “spiritual center,” and indulge in Sonoran hot dogs. "Imagine a sausage noble enough to be given a Viking burial, wrapped in bacon, placed in a longboat-shaped bun, laden with beans, tomatoes, onions, peppers, salsa, radish slices and other treasures," Downes writes. Ronstadt's vegetarian diet, he notes, is adaptable.

Of knowing so many people in town, Ronstadt says that where others have family trees, “We have a family anthill. Tucson is just swarming with Ronstadts.”

Sample from the story:

When Linda thinks of home — meaning where your soul inhabits the soil, wherever else your body might be — it’s not Southern California, the place forever associated with her professional life, as Queen of Rock in the land of Byrds and Stone Poneys and Eagles. Nor is it San Francisco, where she lives now....

It’s in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, in Tucson and points south, where giant saguaros, slender and humanoid, signal touchdowns all over the hills and beside the highways. It’s where the mountains are jagged islands in a blue ocean of sky, where the rock-and-thorn terrain is hostile to people but friendly to cottonwoods, organ-pipe cactus, green-skinned palo verde trees and mesquite. It’s fertile range for cattle and horses, and well cultivated in alfalfa, peanuts and agave.

It’s the cowboy-and-Indian West. It’s a deep vein of Mexican-America, a rich stretch of bicultural borderland from Nogales to Agua Prieta. It was where Ópata, Yaqui, Pima and Apache Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, Basques and Jesuit missionaries converged and collided in the 17th and 18th centuries.


We talked about music and Mexico. Linda is dauntingly well read; her thoughts and associations spool out fast, the names pile up. The year she took her grandfather’s 1898 Martin guitar and left home for Los Angeles, soon to be opening for Odetta at the Troubador, I was more or less being born. I hid my post-boomer ignorance as best I could....

Linda put her poles aside and lay back on a bench to watch the stars. As Venus sank to the horizon, the rest of us drank shots of home-distilled bacanora, smooth Sonoran mezcal, from a Bud Light bottle, and talked about things I’ve forgotten.

The next morning we reloaded the minivan for a while. (Linda had a lot of bags.) I said it was like being on tour. “Except nobody’s looking to score drugs or get laid,” said Linda.

Since all the news broke this summer about Ronstadt's voice being quieted by Parkinson's Disease, she was selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The formal induction ceremony will be April 10 in Brooklyn. Ronstadt's bio is already up on the hall's website:

Linda Ronstadt dominated popular music in the 1970s with a voice of tremendous range and power. She was one of the most important voices in the creation of country rock, in part because she understood how to sing traditional country songs like “Silver Threads And Golden Needles.” She regularly crossed over to the country charts in the ’70s, a rarity for rock singers. Working with producer Peter Asher, Ronstadt crafted a repertoire of songs that roamed throughout rock history that she interpreted with beautiful, precise phrasing. Ronstadt was especially good at singing early rock and roll; she had a long string of hits that revived interest in rock’s pioneers: Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” the Everly Brothers' “When Will I Be Loved” and Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” among them. She was equally comfortable with Motown music and the beginning of new wave. Her finest work was the run of four consecutive platinum albums in the mid 70s: Heart Like A Wheel (1974), Prisoner In Disguise (1975), Hasten Down The Wind (1976) and Simple Dreams (1977). In the 1980s, she expanded her musical vocabulary by recording songs from the classic American songbook (What’s New, Lush Life) and Mexican music that she heard growing up in Tucson, Arizona (Canciones De Mi Padre). That work proved as successful as her rock albums; she is the only artist to win a Grammy Award in the categories of pop, country, Mexican American and Tropical Latin. That diversity reflects her approach to singing: she was always looking for the best song, regardless of category.

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