Linda Ronstadt on the Disease that Stole Her Voice, Her Mexican Heritage and What's Next

·12 min read

The singing superstar on the disease that stole her voice, celebrating her Mexican heritage and the stories behind her classic songs.

Almost a decade ago, Linda Ronstadt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 2019, her condition was rediagnosed as progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative, Parkinson’s-like disease for which there is no known cure. It robbed her of her distinctive soprano singing voice, ending a career that had made her one of the most popular and accomplished vocalists of her generation. A recipient of 11 Grammy Awards, plus the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, she’s also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.

Regardless of what has happened to her, music remains a key part of her life. “I can still sing in my mind,” she tells Parade. “Sometimes I have to look up the words, because I forget the lyrics. But then I’ll sing a song in my head all the way through, like a hummingbird.”

At the zenith of her superstardom in the 1970s and into the ’80s, Ronstadt was a pre-internet pop-culture darling. And not just for her hit songs. Her romances—with California Gov. Jerry Brown, with filmmaker George Lucas, with comedian Albert Brooks—also made headlines. She never married, and she successfully kept her two children, Mary and Carlos, both adopted in the 1990s, out of the spotlight.

Her career path was a wide-ranging odyssey across various musical forms and formats—pop, rock, country, folk, opera, classical and Latin—all grounded in her passion for music. These days, she says, “I listen mostly to opera. I love opera more than anything. I can listen to music really passionately now.”

Another passion, especially in recent years, has been doubling down to make clear to the world who she truly is. Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, she was steeped in the music and culture of her father’s side of the family, whose roots were deep in Mexico. It frustrates her that, throughout her four-decade career, the media has seldom acknowledged her Southwestern heritage, even when she emphasized it by recording albums like Canciones de Mi Padre, her 1987 collection of traditional Mexican songs that became the biggest-selling non-English-language album in U.S. history.

To help correct that, two years ago she took part in a documentary, Linda and the Mockingbirds, which followed her on an emotional trip she took to the rural Mexican town of Banámichi, where her grandfather grew up. Now, Ronstadt, 74, is releasing the book she wrote with journalist Lawrence Downes, Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands (Oct. 4), which illuminates the culture, food and natural wonders of the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from her Arizona childhood home through a large swatch of northern Mexico. A companion album of songs Ronstadt has admired, sung or recorded over the years, Feels Like Home: Songs From the Sonoran Borderlands—Linda Ronstadt’s Musical Odyssey, will be released Oct. 7.

Parade spoke with Ronstadt from her San Francisco home.

Related: Linda Ronstadt on the Togetherness of Making Music With Someone Else

Your book celebrates the Sonoran region where you grew up. How did the desert shape you?

I grew up in a certain way, in a certain place. There weren’t trees. There wasn’t green everywhere and I got used to that. Even now, I don’t like to live where there are too many trees. I want to be able to see.

The book includes recipes from the area. What’s special about that food?

They didn’t have refrigeration, so the food had to be preserved by drying it or pickling it. They eat a lot of dried meat, dried fruit and pickled vegetables. But there’s very rich soil, so the vegetables taste better. It’s the breadbasket of Mexico. (Try Ronstadt’s Green Chile and Tomato Salsa recipe.)

Can you get that kind of food in Northern California?

I was always flabbergasted that in Mexican restaurants in the U.S. you can’t get good tortillas. What I didn’t realize was that you can’t get them in the rest of Mexico, either. In Sonora and the border states, they fluff them out like pizza dough. It gets so thin, you can see through it. And they taste delicious because they’re made with lard. Unless you grew up with that culture, you can’t make them right.

You have such a love of food, but you write in your book that you never learned to cook.

Well, I was living in a hotel for decades. Being on the road is not conducive to cooking. I was better at needlework, because I could take it with me on the road.

Your heritage has always been important to you but it’s coming to the fore more than ever now. Why?

Because I demand it. I used to give interviews when I was starting out, and they would say, “Where are you from?” And I would say, “I’m Mexican and German,” and they would say, “Oh, are you Spanish?” I would say, “No…Mexican.” That’s like mixing up Americans and Australians. It’s a totally different culture!

Your first album of Mexican songs became an enormous hit. Did that surprise you?

I have to be honest: I didn’t give it a thought. I just thought, I’m going to record these songs and I don’t care what they do with it. I felt I’d earned the right to do a “vanity project” [laughs]. I grew up singing that music, but those songs are hard to sing. I had to learn how to sing them on a professional level. That the album turned out to be a hit allowed me to do another [Mexican album], and it was better because I learned to sing those kinds of songs better.

What are your favorite Mexican songs?

“Mi Ranchito” [my little farm], about the ranch where I grew up. “El Sueño” [the dream], I recorded with my brothers—my older and younger brother. “El Fango” is utterly mysterious and fascinating to me. It’s a straight waltz, beautiful poetry.”

When you released those albums in the late 1980s and early ’90s, you sang with such power that it was almost unthinkable that you would ever lose that ability. But you seem to have been very accepting of that loss and of your disease.

Well, I don’t have a choice. If I had a choice, then I might be pissed off. I try not to live in the future. I live in the present. I mean, we’re all going to die of something, we just don’t know what it is. Even I don’t know what it is. Yes, I have a progressive disease, but I might get hit by a bus next week. I’ve been lucky. I have had a lot of really good help. My daughter is very helpful, so I’m well taken care of.

Related: Looking Back at Linda Ronstadt's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nomination

The Stories Behind the Songs

Your first hit was in 1967 with “Different Drum,” which was written by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. How did you come to record it?

I didn’t know Mike Nesmith had written it. In fact, I didn’t know who he was. I don’t think the Monkees were happening yet. I learned it on a record from the Greenbriar Boys, who were a bluegrass group.

You changed the genders in the lyrics, which turned the song into what has been seen as a feminist statement about a woman who didn’t want to be tied down. Did you mean to make that kind of statement?

No! [Laughs] I don’t think I’d ever heard of feminism at that point! I was too naïve. I thought feminism was not using makeup.

But did the lyric reflect your independent attitude at the time?

Absolutely. I still feel that way. I can’t be pinned down to what carpet color to use. I would change it every week!

You became one of the first artists to record a song by Jackson Browne [1972’s “Rock Me on the Water”]. What drew you to him?

I first met him when he was 16 and I was 17. He was writing really good songs even then. There were really good songwriters in L.A., and he was clearly one of the best. I met him when a friend of ours said he’d be fun to talk to. I heard an acetate of “Rock Me on the Water” from the publishing company he had signed with, and I was just blown away. That first album he did [which featured his version of “Rock Me”] was perfect. He still makes great records.

You also recorded songs by Jackson’s close friend, the late Warren Zevon—three of them, in fact, including “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” Why did you keep coming back to him?

His songs weren’t easy for me to sing, but he was a true original. He had such unusual ideas in his lyrics. He had a grim humor.

“You’re No Good” was your first enormous hit. It went to No. 1. Why do you think it became so huge?

I did that song as an afterthought. We just needed a fast song to perform in the show. It can’t be all ballads or it gets boring. So I had to learn an up-tempo song fast and I had just heard that one on the radio. [The song had been previously recorded and released by Betty Everett, a former gospel singer, and the British band the Swinging Blue Jeans.]

You also had huge hits with covers of Motown songs, “Heat Wave” and “Ooh Baby Baby.”

I recorded “Heat Wave” for the same reason I recorded “You’re No Good.” I needed an up-tempo song. “Ooh Baby Baby” was my idolizing Smokey Robinson. I love his voice and his songwriting. I love him! He’s so charming and sincere and the song fit me because he’s a soprano.

You talked before about your love of opera. Did you record Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” because of the operatic arc of the melody?

I was at a jam session one late night in Malibu, with Jackson and J.D. Souther, and J.D. sang it for me. I thought, I’m going to record that. Roy Orbison sings in my range and this had an excellent melody. In some melodies, there’s not very much for my voice to get hold of, but this had a melody that soared!

Once you started to sing American standards in the ’80s, you had a broader palate to work with than a lot of the rock and pop songs you sang before. Did you find that challenging?

I really learned to sing those songs by polishing up my voice singing on Broadway [while starring in The Pirates of Penzance]. I went into my high range, which is my authentic voice. Before, I was copying somebody else when I was singing. Doing those songs allowed me to put the top part of my range together with the middle of my range. Standards require what they call “the mix,” which combines part of your head voice and part of your chest voice. I didn’t know about that before I went to Broadway. When I learned how to “mix,” it gave me a whole other tool kit.

What was it like to work with the orchestral arranger Nelson Riddle on your three standards albums, beginning with What’s New in 1983?

It was like swimming in cream. He’s just a brilliant arranger. He can put strings on a song without making it sound syrupy. And the songs are so amazing. When you think of what Americans have contributed to the culture of the world at large over the last 150 years, it’s been the popular song. And those are the best of the popular songs.

After your string of hits with the standards, you went back to folk and country with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to record songs like “Those Memories of You” and “Making Plans.” How did that group, known as the Trio, come about?

It was an accident. I went over to Emmylou’s house one day and Dolly was there, so we sat down and started singing a Carter Family song, and we found that the sound we had was different. So we said, “Let’s do an album together.” But it’s really hard to get three careers lined up. One was on the road. The other was recording, and then the record company said, “You can’t put this out if one of you has their own album, because it would compete.” So it took a couple of years to work that out. Emmylou came up with the material. I came in with the harmony arrangements. We’re all natural harmony singers. We didn’t have to fight over not getting to sing a lead. We just went with whoever sang the lead best on that song.

Then you had even bigger harmony hits with Aaron Neville, including the No. 2 song “Don’t Know Much.” Why do you think your voices paired so well together?

He sings up in my key. His style of singing comes from French baroque opera. The Creoles down in Louisiana were people of color who had their own sound. It was a very wealthy and cultivated society. They sent their children to school in France and they’d come back with that style of singing. You don’t belt it, like the Italians do. You sing it as a light falsetto, and it persists to this day. It only happens there. Aaron developed his own distinct sound from it.

You sang in so many styles over your long career. What, for you, ties it all together?

Singing at home with my family is the source of it all. If I hadn’t heard a style of music by the time I was 10, I didn’t try to do it, because I couldn’t do it authentically. I wouldn’t try to sing the blues, for instance. Bonnie Raitt grew up playing blues, so she can do it. Luckily, my parents had a variety of tastes. They gave [me] Gilbert and Sullivan. They gave [Frank] Sinatra and Hank Williams. And my grandparents loved opera. My music comes from everything I heard in our living room growing up.

Related: More Stories Behind Linda Ronstadt's Best Songs