Linda Ronstadt is sitting in a record company office, dressed in white, looking peaceful despite the frustration of making her new album.
First, it was going to be another country-oriented “Trio” record with Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, but Parton withdrew because of time constraints. Then it was going to be a duet record by Ronstadt and Harris. Then, finally, it ended up as a solo Ronstadt record with Harris harmonizing on half the songs.
Either way, the new “Feels Like Home,” which comes out today, ended up a masterpiece. It’s Ronstadt’s best record in years, with a broad reach aimed at pop-rock listeners and country fans alike.
“It was enormously difficult trying to stay calm in the face of every adverse disaster that can befall a record,” says Ronstadt, curled up in a chair. “People ask me why I called this record ‘Feels Like Home.’ Well, because it sounds better than ‘Despair,’ which is what we wanted to call it at times.”
The stop-and-go genesis of the album, which cost nearly $1 million, did not harm the music. Ronstadt, who has sung opera, Latin jazz and Mexican music in recent years, returned to the pop/rock and country sound that she did so well in the early ‘70s, when she even made a record with the Eagles as her backup band. She later reeled off classic ‘70s hits such as “You’re No Good,” “Hurt So Bad,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (by Warren Zevon) and “Blue Bayou” (by Roy Orbison).
Recently Ronstadt applied her studio workaholic tendencies (“I live in the studio”) to create new sounds and textures that set her latest record apart. The disc features 15 multitracked guitars on the boppy “Walk On” (written by Nashville’s Matraca Berg) as well as the ethereal, synthlike sound of rubbing crystal bowls, which appears on a luminous remake of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”
The glass bowls make a hypnotic, droning sound that reminds Ronstadt of her youth.
“When I was a little girl, the B-29s all flew home from World War II, and they parked at an Air Force base in Tucson,” says Ronstadt, who grew up on a ranch nearby. “And I heard the B-29 sound droning on year after year for some reason, which explains why I have a lot of airplane sound in my arrangements.
“I always have a lot of grinding and thunder. And it’s appropriate in ‘After the Gold Rush,’ because the song is about flying away to another galaxy.”
It’s also fitting that she cover a Young song, because they have a longtime friendship.
“There are a zillion tracks I’ve done with Neil over the years,” she notes. “I’d go over to his ranch and sing with him. Some of the stuff came out and some didn’t. I don’t really know what finally surfaced, except for what’s on (his) ‘Harvest Moon’ record.
“But I love Neil’s music. It’s all good to me.”
Another pop song on the new disc is a glimmering remake of Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” featuring mandolin rather than the 12-string guitar of Petty’s version.
“The thread on this album is the mandolin,” says Ronstadt. “That’s the glue between the two different kinds of music - the very traditional, prebluegrass, old-timey parlor music that would have been the complete record with the trio, and the very modern songs like ‘High Sierra’ or ‘The Blue Train,’ which the trio would not have done but are songs that I really like.”
Ronstadt, who produced the record with veteran accomplice George Massenburg, also showed fine taste in hiring backup musicians. They include vocalist Valerie Carter, mandolinist David Grisman, organist Booker T of the MG’s and Grammy-winning fiddler Alison Krauss, who is on two tracks.
“Alison poured her heart and soul into this,” Ronstadt says in praise. “Most bluegrass musicians rush the groove. They sit on top of the pocket, but Alison doesn’t. She’s got terrific rhythm.”
Despite how hard Ronstadt worked on the record - it took six months to make - she knows that country radio, at least, probably won’t play it.
“My record company said, ‘We think you ought to listen to the drum sounds that are on modern Nashville records, because this doesn’t sound like the kind of drum sound they play on country radio.’ So I said, ‘OK, let me hear some of those sounds.’
“Then I realized that a lot of that is done by a rhythm machine. And I’m not going to do that. I can make a better drum sound than that.”
Ronstadt just finished another record that will come out soon. It’s a Randy Newman musical about a “modern Faust” story. It casts Newman as the devil, James Taylor as God, Ronstadt as “the good girl” and Bonnie Raitt the “bad girl.” Also, Don Henley is Faust and Elton John an archangel. (Newman hopes to take it to Broadway, but with a different cast.)
Meanwhile, Ronstadt will tour this spring (her first tour in five years), but she admits she now prefers the studio to the stage.
“I’d stay in the studio if I could,” she said. “I’m just going to tour for three weeks.
“In three weeks, you almost break even, so profit is not the motive,” she says. “The motive is: ‘Hello, this record is here. We worked hard on it and hope you like it. We’re extremely proud of it.”’