@1999 by Bill DeYoung
It took more than 25 years, two divergent careers and plenty of false starts, near-misses and might-have-beens, but Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris have finally made an album together. Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions is the kind of eclectic statement only two supremely talented – and supremely confident – artists could make.
It’s also the work of two very good friends.
“I don’t know if Linda enjoys making records on her own so much, and it’s a shame because she’s probably got the most beautiful voice, bar none, of any singer in the 20th century,” said Harris. “Her and Maria Callas.”
In a separate interview, Ronstadt had equally kind words for her partner. “When Gram Parsons died I thought, ‘Gee, I wish she didn’t miss Gram so much. I’d like to ride off into the sunset and be a duet with Emmy.’ I wanted us to be The Everly Sisters.
“But her career really heated up, and so did mine. But I would’ve been happy to do it then.”
The two met in 1973. Ronstadt was just beginning her ascendancy to the top of the pop-star mountain; Harris was ex-Burrito Brother Gram Parsons’ duet partner and still two years away from her big solo breakthrough with Pieces of the Sky.
They have sung on each other’s projects over the years, then tried and failed and finally succeeded in making the Trio album with Dolly Parton, which was an enormous hit in 1987.
Meanwhile, Ronstadt recorded albums of pop standards and Mexican folk songs and all but abandoned the country/pop style that brought her to prominence in the ‘70s.
“I admire her so much for her fearlessness,” Harris said. “Wanting to do what she wants to do without worrying about whether it’s going to be commercially successful or not. I’ve always honored that. I think it’s really important.”
Harris herself consistently explored new avenues of folk, bluegrass and country, culminating in the sparse, spooky, genre-defying Wrecking Ball album with producer Daniel Lanois. “I think we shared that,” Harris continued, “but I tend to kind of plough around more the same area. I’ve never done anything as drastic as Linda has.”
Talk about a duo project heated up in 1998 when Ronstadt contributed to Return of the Grievous Angel, a Parsons tribute anthology executive-produced by Harris.
Western Wall, perhaps understandably, has no stylistic borders. Ronstadt loved the fact that each track on Wrecking Ball created a different atmosphere and couldn’t wait to use the same approach.
“Plus,” she said, “Emmy’s just a great song-finder. She stays up late, and she hangs out with writers, and she plays her guitar…she brings it home and turns it into her own thing.”
The new album brings together diverse material from writers including Patty Scialfa (“Valerie”), Leonard Cohen (“Sisters of Mercy”), Rosanne Cash (“Western Wall”), Andy Prieboy (“Loving The Highway Man”), and Sinead O’Connor (“This is To Mother You”).
They decided to cut Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer” after hearing the author sing it at a memorial concert for the late Nicolette Larson in February. Larson had recorded with both Ronstadt and Harris and was a close friend.
Song selection was easy, Harris said. “We just had to fall in love. You have to just be at the point where you can’t stand the idea of not recording a song. You just want it. You almost lust after it. We had a list of about 30 songs, then we just kept whittling down, whittling down and got down to 14 songs, of which we were about to record 13.”
Producer Glyn Johns brought in “He Was Mine,” penned by Harris’ ex-husband Paul Kennerley, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Across the Border.” Harris herself wrote three of the album’s best songs: “Raise The Dead” (she plays electric guitar on the track, too), “All I Left Behind” (cowritten with Kate and Anna McGarrigle) and “Sweet Spot,” on which she collaborated with Jill Cunniff of Luscious Jackson.
“She brought every single one,” said Ronstadt. “I don’t think I chose one. Not because I wasn’t trying, but because Emmy came with so many songs that were so good – including the three that she wrote, that I would’ve been heartbroken if we’d had to leave any of them off.
Harris contended that all of the songs, from David Olney’s brittle World War I ballad “1917” to Patty Griffin’s ghostly reverb-y “Falling Down” (which would have fit in nicely on Wrecking Ball), are small parts of a bigger picture. “I believe that there’s a poetic thread that holds them together,” she explained. “I think they all deal with very deep issues about life and love and longing and loss.
“For me, an album has to be a string of pearls, but they’re all slightly different. They’re not perfectly matched pearls. They’re not cultured pearls; they’ve all been in the oyster.”
Johns, of course, had produced the Eagles in their early days, after they’d resigned as Ronstadt’s backup band to strike out on their own. Harris had only worked with him once, on Kennerly’s The Legend of Jesse James in 1980.
Ronstadt: “There are different kinds of producers. Some producers work in a way where they carry out your whim. I’ve always worked with producers that basically carried out my whim. For better or for worse. And I have to say I don’t think I’ve made records that are quite as good as Glyn can make at his best.
“With Glyn, it’s his picture and you’re a crayon. That’s fine too. That’s a different way of working. It requires one person or another to butt out. So that was me, because Emmy was really tied into the tracks ’cause she was playing on them. And Emmy understood the songs really well. She sang lead on a lot of ’em.”
Harris said she’s surprised when Western Wall is compared to Wrecking Ball. “There’s not two people more on the other end of the spectrum than Daniel and Glyn. I will say this: Dan doesn’t use any reverb or anything on my vocal, but there’s effects on the other instruments so it sounds like there is. And it is true that Glyn doesn’t believe in using a lot of reverb or anything like that. He really goes for the dry, organic sound.”
The new album was recorded in the dining room and library of the Arizona Inn, not far from where Ronstadt lives with her two small children. Built in the 1920s, the historic building had a vibe that the two women loved; Eleanor Roosevelt had been a frequent guest in the ’40s, and not much has changed. Ronstadt continued her long-standing tradition of finding something good to read during the lulls in the recording process (in this case, it was Rebecca West’s war-crimes journal, The New Meaning of Treason).
Ronstadt contracted bronchitis just as Western Wall was getting underway; it turned into laryngitis, and in the end all her vocals were cut later, after Harris had done her own lead work. For a while, Ronstadt said, laughing, “I’d sing and everybody would say, ‘That’ll be fine, dear. Why don’t you go make a salad or something? We’ll finish up here.’”
Her laryngitis, she believes, might have been a blessing in disguise. “Emmy was completely hypnotized into the track. That’s what it takes. I was worried about getting my kids to school and wondering whether to fix them meat loaf or tuna casserole for dinner.”
When she got her pipes back, it wasn’t hard work to match Harris on the tapes. “I know what her voice does,” Ronstadt said. “I know her voice so well at this point, while I can’t do what she does, I can ride along on the upper deck of the bus there, and I know where she’s gonna turn.”
The recording process was much more pleasant than it had been for Trio II, done in 1994 but just released last year. That had started out as a Ronstadt/Harris project, but once Parton came aboard to add some guest harmonies, the Trio was properly rolling again.
“I thought to myself, any chance we have to get the Trio together, we should always take advantage of that because it’s such a beautiful sound,” said Ronstadt. “And it’s not like anything I’ve ever heard before.”
But Parton cancelled one session after another, often at the last moment, and just before Trio II was nearing the finish line she announced that she wouldn’t be able to tour or do any promotion for the record.
An intense argument followed, after which Ronstadt replaced all of Parton’s vocals with those of other singers. The doctored tracks appeared on Ronstadt’s Feels Like Home album; Parton subsequently lambasted her singing partners in a ladies’ magazine. In a 1995 interview with the author, Ronstadt said of Parton: “I can’t work with her…she was very unkind and uncharitable to both me and Emmy, and I think she owes us both an apology.”
And that’s exactly what Parton did. “She wrote us each a letter and said that she was sorry for the way things had happened,” said Ronstadt, “and that it would be nice for the record to have a chance as it was originally intended. We settled our differences, and that’s that.”
Harris is more circumspect on the matter. “Life is too short for that,” she said. “And ultimately, when it comes down to it, we’re all really fond of each other. There were just some misunderstandings that got out of hand.
“I think everybody regrets that, because we really are fond of each other, and we love the music that we make. I’m so glad that the Trio II record came out. But more importantly, I’m glad that we all got into a room and spoke our minds. We all cleared the air, and we got back to where we can be friends. That’s the most important thing, because these are two of the most extraordinary women. The three of us share something very special.”
The success of the restored Trio II in 1998 was a pleasant surprise for Harris, whose contribution to the project put her one step closer to the termination of her contract with Elektra/Asylum (Western Wall closes the door for good).
“I had done Wrecking Ball, and I was out on the road for almost two straight years and actually was having a pretty great time,” she explained. “It kind of lit a fire under me. But then I decided to take some time off to do some writing for my next solo record, so I left the record company, I left my management, and I let the band go.”
A live album, Spyboy, was released last year on the independent label Eminent.
Harris admitted Wrecking Ball, a bold and daring musical project, will be a hard act to follow. “It is what it is,” she said. “Either I’ve got to retire, or I’ve got to make another record. I did two years on the road, and the gift at the end of that was Spyboy. Which was a lovely surprise, because I only recorded those shows in order to get a version of ‘The Maker,’ with a thought to put it on my next studio record. Because I didn’t want to try and go in and do a studio version of that song – I didn’t want to compete with Daniel’s (Lanois) version, which I think is one of the greatest things ever recorded – and we’d already done it live. I think it’s hard to put that lion back in the cage, if you know what I mean.
“And I think it’s OK to put a few live tracks on an album. I did that on Elite Hotel.”
For her next studio album, “My plan is to write at least half the record,” Harris explained. “And so that, at least, is going to set it apart from at least half of anything I’ve done. Ever since Ballad of Sally Rose, that’s my plan, and beyond that I’m not really worried about it. That’s gonna be enough work. And if I can do that, then I’ll feel pretty confident going in.”
Harris said people ask her all the time, “When’s your next record coming out?” They started asking when the ink on Wrecking Ball was still wet. “In the meantime,” she said, laughing, “all these other projects came up – Willie Nelson’s Teatro, Trio II, the Gram tribute, Linda, Spyboy. What is that, five records? So I figure I’ve deflected the ‘When is your next record coming out?’ I probably won’t get around to going in the studio till next year.
“Everybody is not Steve Earle. He goes out on the road and writes an entire album while he’s out on the road touring his last record. I wish I was Steve Earle, but I’m not.”
Ronstadt is anxious to get out of her own contract with Elektra/Asylum. She intends to make a Christmas album using 18th century glass instruments; she’s also overseeing a glass album for Sony Classical. E/A will issue a boxed set of her classic material in October, and if the singer has her way, that will be the last people hear of the “old” Linda Ronstadt.
Ask her why and boy, does she have an answer ready.
“I did a record every year, for about 30 years,” she said. “I made about 30 records, and I think that’s quite enough. I thnk people have enough records out there of mine. Enough to gag anyone.
“I really don’t mean to work, particularly. I basically consider myself retired as of about four years ago. I just never announced it because why bother, you know?
“What that means is that only an incredible sale on good linens, or a chance to sing with Emmy, will get me to set foot off my property. My idea of a great week is if I don’t leave my property for 10 days or so. But I live right in the middle of town, so it’s not that hard. I just love to stay home.”
Ronstadt and Harris have a six-week Western Wall tour planned; they’ll also appear on the nighttime chat shows and tape an Austin City Limits.
“I think the reason we’re able to do this record and actually do a tour together is because I’ve retired, because my schedule is cleared,” Ronstadt explained. “I’m not accepting things.”
Ronstadt, a single mother, said she is committed to making sure her children grow up with what she feels are the right influences. There is no television in their Tucson home (she refers to it as the “electronic dictator”), and she reads poetry to the youngsters every night at bedtime. In fact, her 1996 Dedicated To The One I Love – which used lots of glass instruments – was an album of lullabies.
“I always meant to be a singer, not a star,” she said. “When it came up, I had no control over it. You can’t order yourself up as a star. You can’t make it happen any more than you can prevent it from happening. And I find that the cult of celebrity that this country is just completely addicted to is just the saddest thing. It just makes me sorry for people.
“We have created a whole nation of borderline personalities that don’t know who they are and can only live through something that’s projected onto the cathode ray tube.
For the record, Ronstadt said she considers her most meaningful music to be the trio of romantic ballad albums she made with Nelson Riddle in the ‘80s, and Frenesi, her third all-Spanish recording.
There’ll be no more “When Will I Be Loved” and “Blue Bayou” from this veteran of the rock ‘n’ roll wars.
“I’m 53 years old and I’m sick of it,” she said. “I’ve just had enough of it. I hate to travel, and I hate the culture, you know? I hate it all. I don’t have a computer. I smile every day without these things.
“I’m not interested in pop music. I’m not even very interested in recorded music. I’m really interested in the kind of music that happens in my living room. I’m really sad that this culture delegates dance, music and art to professionals all the time and that it can’t be validated unless it goes on television. To me, it’s the equivalent of telling a florist they can’t sell their flowers unless they dip them in kerosene before they sell ’em.”
Ronstadt will be re-creating Western Wall in America’s auditoriums through the middle of October. “If I have to go on the road,” she said, “I might as well go hear Emmy sing every night. That’s the compensation.”