Album of the Week, March 5: Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtwheeleyesLinda Ronstadt grew up in Tucson, AZ, the daughter of pioneering Arizona ranchers of mostly German and Mexican descent. Her whole family loved music, and she absorbed a wide array of styles by the time she was 10. She credits significant influence from artists as disparate as Hank Williams and Maria Callas. At 14, she and two of her siblings formed a folk trio. She grew increasingly interested in merging folk and rock, eventually dropping out of college to join friend Bobby Kimmel in L.A. They hooked up with Kenny Edwards and formed the Stone Poneys, whose Different Drum gave Ronstadt her first hit. After three Poneys discs, she went solo, recording a series of albums blending pop, country, and folk and touring with artists ranging from the Doors to Jackson Browne. Her albums met with limited success, but she gradually developed a distinctive style and a significant circle of like-minded musical friends and collaborators. Her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now found her working with J.D. Souther, future Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and — significantly — British pop singer and producer Peter Asher. They meshed well in the studio, with Asher understanding Ronstadt’s broad tastes and talents. He signed on as producer for her next album, which proved to be her breakthrough.

Title Heart Like A Wheel
Act Linda Ronstadt
Label Capitol Release Date November 1974
Producer Peter Asher (with Andrew Gold)
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You’re No Good [#1]
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like A Wheel
  6. When Will I Be Loved? [#2]
  7. Willin’
  8. I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)
  9. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  10. You Can Close Your Eyes

Heart Like A Wheel set up the formula that launched a superstar career. Asher and Ronstadt rounded up a collection of classic rock and R&B covers, songs written by her friends and contemporaries, and new songs suited to the country-pop flavor of the album from a variety of writers. The result was a smart, cohesive adventure in music. It was also a showcase for Ronstadt’s vocal power, showing off more range and depth than her previous solo work. Asher also brought in multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold — who assisted with production on some tracks — and engineer Val Garay; the three would be mainstays of Ronstadt’s music for nearly a decade.

Things kick off in high fashion with a song Ronstadt and her band frequently used to close her live shows. You’re No Good is a smoldering song of romance gone wrong, a classic R&B track written by Clint Ballard and recorded a handful of times before Ronstadt perfected it. A very different sound than her previous more country-tinged tracks, it’s a smart choice and a great introduction to the disc. It also became her first big hit and her only Hot 100 chart-topper.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore — another classic cover written by Paul Anka and made famous by Buddy Holly and the Crickets — is more like her earlier work, but sounds fresh and inviting after the strong lead-in. Souther’s Faithless Love is a great country-pop torch song with a charming arrangement and a passionate vocal. Pop chestnut Dark End of the Street finds new life with Ronstadt’s restrained vocal and sudden, urgent surges of sorrow. The title track is and inspired choice, a quirky, literate look at the challenges of love written by Anna McGarrigle. Ronstadt channels the distinctive energy of the song, adding a pop standard vocal that differs completely from the McGarrigle version, working just like a good cover should.

Side two opens with another classic song that became another big hit. The team transform the Everly Brothers’ quietly wistful When Will I Be Loved into a demand for the love the singer deserves. Short and powerful, it works nicely and shows of the clever sequencing of the album. Lowell George’s Willin’ is an even odder choice than the title track, a song about trucking written from a very masculine point of view. Ronstadt mines the essential humanity of the song, however, and the production is flawless. Up next is a tribute to one of her main influences, a solid cover of Hank William’s I Can’t Help It. Ronstadt offers a respectful interpretation, crafting an homage rather than a surprise, and it works well. Keep Me From Blowing Away is a lovely song of loss written by fellow Williams fan Paul Craft. It makes for a solid pairing.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous You Can Close Your Eyes. Written by James Taylor about his relationship with Joni Mitchell, it’s a modern lullaby of aching beauty. Taylor himself has recorded it solo and with both Mitchell and Carly Simon, and dozens of other artists have interpreted the song over the years. Ronstadt’s may be the finest approach, however, with the production discovering the hope in the sorrow, the possibility in the leaving. It’s a perfect way to wrap up a stunning album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Heart Like A Wheel matched the chart success of its lead single, becoming the first of Ronstadt’s three #1 albums. It propelled her to stardom, and over the course of the following decade she became one of the best-selling pop artists in the country. Her next six discs were fairly similar in approach, gradually taking on a more New Wave flavor as she entered the 80s. Since then, she’s offered up a variety of sounds, ranging from traditional Mexican music to pop standards to country-pop gems (often in collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris). She stopped recording in 2006, revealing in 2013 that Parkinson’s disease made singing difficult. All of her albums offer something charming. Besides Wheel, her most consistent album (and a sentimental favorite of mine) is 1982’s Get Closer. Hasten Down the Wind is a good showcase with some strong tracks, and Simple Dreams is her second-best pop-rock set. With 21 Top 40 hits, her chart career distills nicely. If you’re mostly interested in her radio material — which is solid but misses many of her finer moments — The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt is a solid collection.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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