Linda Ronstadt Admits She Wasn’t Ready for Early Stint With Neil Young: Exclusive Interview
For Linda Ronstadt, singing was always the easy part.
After all, she had such a powerful instrument that Ronstadt recalls Randy Newman calling her “Mighty Mouse,” because she “sang so loud.” That commanding onstage presence is spotlighted all over again on the just-issued Live in Hollywood, recorded in 1980 for the HBO network.
Other things, however, presented their own distinctive challenges – most notably an early-career stint opening for Neil Young in 1974. She was still terribly inexperienced, having just released her fourth album Don’t Cry Now, and the crowds were there to see someone else.
“As a club act, we weren't really ready for Madison Square Garden, but we did our best,” Ronstadt says in an exclusive interview with UCR. Larger venues ended up becoming a persistent issue, she notes. "They did a pretty good job of trying to make it all work," she recalls. "But in those hard, huge cavernous spaces, it’s hard to do really, really quiet, subtle music. You need a small theater for that."
Still, Ronstadt describes touring with Young as a positive experience. “It was good exposure for me. It really helped the record,” she says. In time, everyone developed a deep sense of camaraderie, as well.
“You know, when you’re finished with your show, you just want to get out of there and go home and do something else,” Ronstadt says. “I stayed every night for his show, which was almost two hours long. He had great players. He had Kenneth Buttrey for part of that tour playing drums, [and] Tim Drummond. It was really a great band.”
Listen to Linda Ronstadt Sing With Neil Young
Ronstadt had already scored a No. 25 pop hit with the Grammy-nominated "Long Long Time," but initially gained wider exposure in rock circles while singing backup on Young's "Heart of Gold," the chart-topping single from 1972's Harvest. That kicked off a series of well-received collaborations, even as her solo star soared.
“Neil and I first met at the Troubadour, I think. But we did the Johnny Cash Show together and he was recording, so he asked me to come along and sing harmonies. James Taylor was doing the same show and James came along and we recorded on 'Heart of Gold' and 'Old Man' for the Harvest album. It was a great record and friends of mine were playing on it,” she recalls. “Kenneth was playing drums, so we were there all night long. We came out the next morning and it was snowing. I remember singing all night long and never getting bored. I love Neil’s music.”
Don’t Cry Now eventually went gold, producing the Top 20 country hit “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Later in 1974, Ronstadt released Heart Like a Wheel, scoring her own No. 1 pop smash with "You're No Good." She returned to work with Young again in the early ‘90s on his Harvest Moon album.
More recently, Ronstadt has battled a new challenge: Parkinson's disease. She retired from music after revealing her diagnosis in 2013, and released her memoir Simple Dreams that same year.
A sporadic series of events called A Conversation With Linda Ronstadt followed the arrival of the book, and continued through last year. Ronstadt now says that it’s unlikely she’ll be doing any more. “It’s too hard for me to travel. It takes a lot out of me,” she admits. “I do best if I stay at home, in sort of a horizontal position. Vertical activity is not my favorite thing anymore."
But as an avid reader, she can point to at least one positive. “It’s so fun to do nothing,” Ronstadt says, with a laugh. “You can read all day.”