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Linda Ronstadt Talks Bluegrass Part 2

By Dan Mazer

…Our conversation moved to a discussion of Alison Krauss’ musicianship. Krauss seems to have an incredible variety of influences, which come out when she wants them to. “And in an appropriate manner,” Ronstadt continued. “There seems to be a general agreement among all the people that I know – whose various subjectivities are very strict and very demanding – that Alison has the best taste of any of those people.

“Every fiddle player that I’ve ever worked with will be tempted to play sound(s) like donkeys braying; or just play too much – play ‘flash’ licks in an inappropriate manner. (I call it) ‘The Paganini Syndrome.’ And Alison never is.

“Her pitch is completely stunning! I’m a pitch nazi, and she’s even a little more strict than I am, in terms of pitch. And the thing that I like the very best about her playing is her rhythm. She’s got that great, easy, loping sense of the groove that bluegrass players generally don’t have. When it’s right, of course, it’s got a great swing to it. But bluegrass players have a tendency to get a little stiff and a little on top of the groove. And she never does! I don’t think she’s played with drummers that much, but we put her together with Jim Keltner, and it was just an amazing thing. She’s got the same sense of the groove that he does, and he has the effortless pocket. I consider her as good as any musician I’ve ever worked with. My cousin (David Lindley) said she was his favorite fiddle player ever. And I love her. And also, she owns Maria Callas’ bed! (Laughter) I don’t know why, or how she managed to get her hands on it, but she did. I was jealous. I wanted to be the one to get it. Emmylou Harris and I are both Maria Callas fans. Slobbering, drooling Maria Callas fans!”

When asked to comment on other bluegrass acts, Ronstadt confessed that she doesn’t listen to any modern music of any style. In fact, she was unfamiliar with many of the major country acts. Nor had she ever heard of the IBMA. “Honestly, the only ones I know (are) Ricky Skaggs, Alison, and (the) Seldom Scene,” she said. “But before that, it really was those original guys (Flatt and Scruggs and Monroe). I mean, it was such a short-lived era. And before that, the Blue Sky Boys, which wasn’t really bluegrass, but which really sorta fed right into it. I love those guys, and I listen to the Louvin Brothers a lot. So I listen to all the stuff that led right up to it.

“I know very little of any kind of contemporary music. I just don’t. I listen to NPR, and I listen to Maria Callas and them, and I listen to a lot of Mexican music, and that’s about it. And if it penetrates through that it’s usually because Emmy calls me up, or John Starling calls me up, or Quint Davis. Quint Davis is the guy that runs the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and he put on that thing on the Mall for the inauguration. That’s where I saw Alison. I was just blown away by her!

“I don’t know modern stuff. I haven’t a clue. It seems like when we did the ‘Trio’ record, nobody was interested in traditional music. And then that record was pretty successful, and at that point, Ricky Skaggs was extremely successful, but all of a sudden, I don’t know. I don’t watch this type of stuff on television. I haven’t got the vaguest idea, and I don’t listen to the radio. I have a great respect for anything that anybody does. I mean, I think it’s just so hard to make a record – any record – that I don’t like to put myself in the position of, ‘This is good, and that’s not good,’ like a bean-counter. But I have to say that (modern country fails) to capture my interest.

“There’s always music in front of my face. If I was gonna sit and listen to Mozart, (and) someone said, ‘OK, this is gonna be it (you can only listen to Mozart) forever,’ I’d go, ‘OK.’ And if someone was playing me some Mexican traditional music, and they said, ‘This is gonna be it forever,’ I’d go, ‘OK.’ Because there’s enough in any of those things, to (keep me interested).

“Somebody came over to my house the other day with some musicians from Madagascar. They sit down in my kitchen and played this Malagassi music, and it just blew me through the wall! So, if they had said at that point, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to sing a little Malagassi now,’ I would’ve said, ‘Well, OK. Fine!’ I could’ve got right down and sung with them, and had no problem at all. But I can only concentrate on one thing at a time, and if that thin is interesting, I just don’t have any particular need to shift my attention.

“When John Starling comes out to visit me, he sits down at my kitchen table with his guitar, and we start singing. I get pried back to English. But I’d really rather sing in Spanish or Italian. Because all that stuff (bluegrass and country) is based on rural southern pronunciation. And in Spanish – if I’m singing a Latin jazz thing that’s a Caribbean base, I have to push myself from my northern Mexican rural accent into a Caribbean accent, which is painful for me. I find it an unpleasant way to pronounce the language, but I have to do it in order to get the rhythms right. So I do it. I really push myself into that other accent. But I prefer singing in my own accent – the accent of my family’s region. I can just get so much more sound out of my voice in that language.”

Over the course of a career, an artist makes many decisions based upon the age-old dilemma of commercialism versus artistic merit. What the public wants to buy is not always what the artists likes [sic] to paint, play, or sing. Ms. Ronstadt has lately recorded opera, Big Band and Mexican music, none of which usually sells platinum in today’s market. It seems that she has reached a point in which she doesn’t have to worry about selling a certain number of records; her musical decisions are now totally artistic. “Well, they were to start with, too. It’s just that I wasn’t as good at executing them!” She protested with a laugh. “And I find that now. I’m making my choices based on an artistic thing, but I am also finding that my choices were made for me when I was a baby. It’s getting harder, though. I do find that the record companies have a tendency to stick their oar in a lot more now. It’s very nervous-making. Although, the one person that I’ve allowed to submit material and give advice – I don’t always take it, but I always consider it – is (Asylum Records President) Kyle Lehning. He’s an amazing guy! He really, genuinely likes music, first of all, which is rare for a record person. Second of all, he’s extremely knowledgeable, and he has great taste in songs. And he seems dedicated to the idea of trying to save what he can that’s quality, and nurture it.

“(The latest project) started with several nagging phone calls from John Starling!” She laughed. “John Starling doesn’t get down behind traditional Mexican music! And then Emmy calling me, because Emmy and I are such fans of the McGarrigle Sisters. We were talking about doing some television stuff. We were just trying to think of how we could get in the living room together again with John Starling. So we started working on tunes, like the Carter Family songs that only Emmy and I would be interested in. And maybe John Starling or Claire Lynch, or somebody. John had, a long time ago, sent us Claire Lynch records, saying, ‘You really gotta sing with this girl. She’s real wonderful.’ So claire and Emmy and I have done some stuff together.

“And then, I’ve been working with Valerie Carter. She put a record out in the ‘70s. Everybody in Hollywood was after her. She’s an extraordinary singer, and she was exceptionally beautiful. She was about 19, I think, then. Lowell George and Mick Jagger and Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther and Danny Kortchmar – everybody wanted to work with her. Everybody tried to, and then George Massenberg, who is my production partner – who I met through John Starling – did produce a record from her, and so did Lowell George. I sang on it. Then she just had some problems, and she dropped out of sight for about 15 years, which was really a tragedy for us. ‘Cause she’s one of those girls that can sing as well as Whitney Houston. She’s got that kind of chops. But it doesn’t sound like her. It’s a very distinctive voice. But that kind of ability. It was too bad, ‘cause she was (a) really interesting singer. So she’s now been singing on the road with James Taylor a lot. I used her to sing a lot on my last record, that I put out. The blend between her and me and Emmy was just really magical! So we’ve done some stuff together, the three of us.

“But what Emmy and I wanted to do was just explore. See what we could go find out there. We wanted to push the limits a little bit, and see what we could find in terms of texture, combining styles, of things that we liked that don’t always fit in one little (category). Like the McGarrigle Sisters. Where do you put that? It’s not really traditional folk music, and it’s got traditional roots. It certainly isn’t bluegrass. And the sentiment is too unbridled for current pop, ‘cool’ standards. But it’s very intelligent music.

“There’s other stuff that is kind of like that; that’s kind of ‘out there.’ And there’s some stuff that’s just real, real traditional. So we’ve just been fooling around with various singers. And then I sang with Claire Lynch and my cousin John, who’s got a wonderful voice – on two songs.”

Although she maintains that after a project is finished she doesn’t care what happens, Ronstadt is intensely involved in its creation. “Oh, I mix everything! I do every single thing,” she declared. “I make the record, I do the arrangements, I do the harmony arrangements, I do a lot of the instrumental arrangements. Nothing is done on the record without me being there. But when it’s finished, I never listen to it again. You can take it and throw it off a cliff, for all I care. I’ve heard it and I’ve done it, and that’s the experience; and now I go on to something else. So at that point, I surrender it to the record company, and they do whatever. They can shoot it with a gun if they want to. I don’t care what they do. Long as they don’t shoot me.”

Returning to the topic of bluegrass, Ronstadt commented, “I understand what [the banjo] does, rhythmically. And I appreciate what it does – that syncopated thing; the difference in all those accents.

“I think of the banjo kinda like I think of the trumpet in mariachi, which is: trumpet was brought in about the same time that the resonator was added onto the back of the banjo. It was a ‘radio’ event, and a good one. It was a really good thing; it needed that high end to cut through. But if somebody came to bed and blew a trumpet in my ear, I’d get annoyed! If somebody came to bed with me and started plucking a banjo, I would probably jump right up to the ceiling! But it’s a great instrument in the orchestral blend. It’s really got a great place. And I don’t think the banjo will ever go out of style.

“Those other instruments are a lot more flexible. They can bear a lot more. I’ve really become a complete mandolin fan, ‘cause I’ve been working with David Grisman. I just think he’s a genius. I knew his playing. I knew he was considered a ‘hot chops’ player. I think he plays bluegrass sometimes, but he really predates and transcends all of that stuff completely. I mean, he can play like a classical player. I’ve never heard anybody with dynamics like that, and I’ve never played with anybody that could play with a vocalist; and play little internal harmonies. He just flits around like a little hummingbird – all around the vocal line – and plays a beautiful little harmony for a while, and then he goes off to a rhythm pattern, then he comes back. He has great ideas for voicings, and he has very, very good rhythm ideas. I just love to work with him. I think he’s brilliant.

“You know what I think is missing from bluegrass at this point? And from all that kind of traditional music? Dancing. That’s what I discovered with Mexican music, was that it is dance music. Period. I think, as is fiddle (music). As soon as you uncouple it from (dancing), the music changes. It’s the same way with pop music. As soon as it became recorded music – people started dancing in discos to recorded music – the music stopped being alive, and it stopped changing in a real vital way. Started changing in a more static, strange, mechanized way.

“So my suggestion, to the bluegrass world would be, one should never uncouple that music from dancing. There should always be dancers involved with bluegrass music.” The author commented that singing is also something that’s been taken away from most people and given only to professionals. “Yeah, it’s an outrage! In Mexican culture, everyone sings,” she responded. “Everyone knows all the words, and they all sing. We sing at the dinner table. Whatever you’re doing, you sing. You sing in a funeral, you sing at a birthday, you sing at a wedding. You sing if you’re happy, you sing if you’re sad. It’s a thing you get to do to help you along with your life. Everyone should sing. It’s a biological necessity. Even little babies sing. I mean, even when they’re pre-verbal, you hear them kind of leaning into a sound.”

(Read part one of “Linda Ronstadt Talks Bluegrass” here) Photos and artwork courtesy of Shore Fire Media

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