I don't remember when there wasn't music going on in our house: my father whistling while he was figuring out how to fix something; my brother Pete practicing the "Ave Maria" for his performance
with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus; my sister, Suzy, sobbing a Hank Williams song with her hands in the dishwater; my little brother, Mike, struggling to play the huge double bass.
Sundays, my father would sit at the piano and play most anything in the key of C. He sang love songs in Spanish for my mother, and then a few Sinatra songs while he remembered single life before children, and responsibilities, and the awful war. My sister sang the role of Little Buttercup in a school production of H.M.S. Pinafore when she was in the eighth grade, so she and my mother would play from the big Gilbert and Sullivan book that sat on the piano. If they were in a frisky mood, they would sing "Strike Up the Band" or "The Oceana Roll." We would all harmonize with our mother on "Ragtime Cowboy Joe." When we got tired of listening to our own house, we would tramp across the few hundred yards to the house of our Ronstadt grandparents, where we got a pretty regular diet of classical music. They had what they called a Victrola and would listen to their favorite opera excerpts played on 78 rpm recordings. La Traviata, La Bohème, and Madama Butterfly were the great favorites. On Saturdays they would tune in to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast or sit at the piano trying to unravel a simple Beethoven, Brahms, or Liszt composition from a page of sheet music.
Evenings, if the weather wasn't too hot or freezing, or the mosquitoes weren't threatening to carry us away to the Land of Oz, we would haul our guitars outside and sing until it was time to go in, which was when we had run out of songs. There was no TV, the radio couldn't wander around with you because it was tethered to the wall, and we didn't get enough allowance to buy concert tickets. In any case, there weren't many big acts playing in Tucson, so if we wanted music, we had to make our own. The music I heard in those two houses before I was ten provided me with material to explore for my entire career.
Our parents sang to us from the time we were babies, and one haunting lullaby was often included in our nighttime ritual. It was a traditional song from northern Mexico that my father had learned from his mother, and it went like this:
Arriba en el cielo Up in the sky
Se vive un coyote There lives a coyote
Con ojos de plata With silver eyes
Y los pies de azogue And feet of mercury
Mátalo, Kill it,
Mátalo por ladrón Kill it for a thief
Lulo, que lulo Lulo, Lulo
Que San Camaleón Saint Camaleón
Debajo del suelo From underneath the floor
Que salió un ratón There goes a rat
Mátalo, Kill it,
Mátalo, con un jalón Kill it with a stake
Our mother had brought her own traditions from Michigan, and her songs were even grimmer. She sang us a song about Johnny Rebeck, whose wife accidentally ground him up in a sausage machine of his own invention. After that, she sang:
Last night my darling baby died
She died committing suicide
Some say she died to spite us
Of spinal meningitis
She was a nasty baby anyway
We would howl with laughter and chorus back at her in threepart harmony:
Oh, don't go in the cage tonight, Mother darling
For the lions are ferocious and may bite
And when they get their angry fits
They will tear you all to bits
So don't go in the lion's cage tonight
My favorite place for music was a pachanga. This was a Mexican rancher's most cherished form of entertainment. It was a picnic that took up an entire afternoon and evening and could last until midnight. Preparations would begin in the late afternoon, to avoid the worst heat of the day. A good site was chosen under a grove of cottonwood trees so there would be cool shade and a nice breeze. Someone would build a mesquite fire and grill steaks or pork ribs or whatever the local ranches provided. There would be huge, paper-thin Sonoran wheat tortillas being made by hand and baked on a comal, which is a smooth, flat piece of iron laid over the fire. Fragrant coffee beans were roasted over the fire too, then brewed and served with refried beans, white ranch cheese, homemade tamales, roasted corn, nopalitos, calabasitas, and a variety of chiles. Around sunset, someone would uncork a bottle of tequila or the local bacanora, and people would start tuning up the guitars.
The stars blinked on, and the songs sailed into the night. Mostly in Spanish, they were yearning, beautiful songs of love and desperation and despair. My father would often sing the lead, and then aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends joined in with whatever words they knew or whatever harmonies they could invent. The music never felt like a performance, it simply ebbed and flowed with the rest of the conversation. We children weren't sent off to bed but would crawl into someone's lap and fall asleep to the comforting sound of family voices singing and murmuring in two languages.
My brother Peter's beautiful boy soprano voice landed him a soloist's position in the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, which at the time had a national reputation. They would travel by private bus giving concerts throughout the country and return covered in aw-shucks glory. On the nights of their homecoming concerts, my father, mother, sister, and I would troop down to the Temple of Music and Art—a beautiful, small theater in downtown Tucson, modeled after the Pasadena Playhouse—and watch them sing. Our whole family would hold its collective breath while my brother emitted the eerie and mysterious high sounds that only prepubescent boy sopranos can make, praying that he wouldn't be sharp or flat. He was seldom either, but when he strayed, he was more likely to be sharp. I have the identical tendency. We all knew from hearing him practice at home which passages were likely to derail him, and we white-knuckled through them as we listened. The boys were dressed in cowboy hats, silk neckerchiefs, satin-fringed and pearl-snapped cowboy shirts in desert sunset colors (the colors being allotted to sopranos and altos accordingly), bell-bottomed "frontier pants" with rodeo belt buckles, and cowboy boots. The stage was dressed with an artificial campfire, a starry-night backdrop, some saguaro cactus silhouettes, and a beautiful full moon projected from the back of the hall. Now, this was some serious production value, in my six year-old opinion! It had a mesmerizing effect on the audience, and everyone listened in hushed and rapturous delight.
Whenever I imagined myself singing for the public, it would be like that: I would stand on a proscenium stage with a real curtain that opened and closed, and sing those beautiful, high, pure notes and give the audience chills. After all, I was a soprano too and could sing just as high as my brother. I wanted to sing like him. I can remember sitting at the piano. My sister was playing and my brother was singing something and I said, "I want to try that." My sister turned to my brother and said, "Think we got a soprano here." I was about four. I remember thinking, "I'm a singer, that's what I do." It was like I had become validated somehow, my existence affirmed. I was so pleased to know that that was what I was in life: I was a soprano. The idea of being famous or a star would not have been in my consciousness. I just wanted to sing and be able to make the sounds I had heard that had thrilled me so. And then one day, when I was fourteen, my sister and brother were singing a folk song called "The Columbus Stockade Blues." I came walking around the corner and threw in the high harmony. I did it in my chest voice and I surprised myself. Before that, I had tried to sing only in a high falsetto tone, and it didn't have any power. Because my brother's voice was high and his performances were so central to our early family life, his sound was the first I ever tried to copy. All artists copy. We try as hard as we can to sound just like someone we admire; someone who evokes a strong feeling that we would like to emulate. The best part is, no matter how hard we try to copy, we wind up sounding like a version of ourselves.
The elements of voice and style are braided together like twine, consisting of these attempts to copy other artists, or an instrument, or even the sound of a bird or passing train. Added to these characteristics are emotions and thoughts that register as various vocal quirks, like hiccups, sighs, growls, warbles—a practically limitless assortment of choices. Most of these choices are made at the speed of sound on a subconscious level, or one would be completely overwhelmed by the task. When I bend my ear to a singer's performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat "King" Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponselle in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse.
The regional accent one speaks also affects rhythms and phrasing, so someone who is "copying" has to import the accent too. For me, it helps to know the vocal bloodlines in order to decode the phrasing of a song. I once sang a Tom Petty song called "The Waiting," which has an intricate rhythm scheme for fitting lyrics into the music. Petty, an artist I admire, came along later than many classic rockers and so was able to absorb their elements into his writing and singing style. As I studied his vocal performance, it broke down something like this: Tom with his Florida accent was copying Mick Jagger with his British accent, who was copying Robert Johnson from the Mississippi Delta. And in another part of the same song, Tom was copying Roger McGuinn, who was copying Bob Dylan, who copied Woody Guthrie, who was in turn copying someone lost to our generation. These influences can show up in a whole line or just a word, or even the way that part of a word is attacked. As voices age, the vocal twine can become unraveled, and one hears the seams and joins of the laminated sound that has come to be recognized as that artist's style. It can collapse into a heap of ticks and quirks.
As kids growing up in the fifties, we tried to copy anything that inspired us from the radio, both in Spanish and English. We would harmonize on Hank Williams songs, Everly Brothers songs, or soap jingles. My father brought home a lot of records from Mexico. Of these, our favorites were the mysterious huapangos, sung by the Trio Calaveras and Trio Tariacuri. These songs from the mountains deep in Mexico had strange indigenous rhythms and vocal lines that broke into a thrilling falsetto. We also loved the urban smoothness of the jazz-based Trio Los Panchos.
I spent hours listening to the great ranchera singer Lola Beltrán. She influenced my singing style more than anyone. "Lola the Great" stood for Mexico as Edith Piaf stood for France. She had an enormous, richly colored voice that was loaded with drama, intrigue, and bitter sorrow. Although she was a belter who sang Mexican country music, her voice had the same dramatic and emotional elements as the opera singer Maria Callas.
I listened to Callas with my grandmother. I read later in a Callas biography that she loved to sing along to the Mexican radio stations during trips she made to appear at the Dallas Opera. Lola was the most played female singer on Mexican radio. I am sure Callas loved her too.
When commercial folk music began to play on the radio in my early teens, we really paid attention. Here was something that sounded much like the Mexican traditional music on which we had been raised. Like the rancheras and huapangos, it was drawn from an earlier, agrarian life, was accompanied by acoustic instruments, and had rich, natural-sounding harmonies.
Peter, Suzy, and I hovered over recordings by popular folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia. We would learn their songs and harmonies and then rearrange them for our own configuration of voices. I would cover the sopranoalto registers, Suzy the alto-tenor, and Pete would sing tenorbaritone. Years later, my younger brother, Mike, would sing whatever extra part was needed, from bass to high tenor. But he was still little then, so we formed a trio and called ourselves the New Union Ramblers. At the time, Suzy worked at the Union Bank, and I had an Arhoolie recording of the Hackberry Ramblers and thought ramblers sounded folky. We tried our best not to sound too treacly but were not always successful. We were having a lot of fun and sometimes played at the local folk clubs.
Bobby Kimmel, soon to become my Stone Poneys bandmate, played bass. He was short, with the dark, bearded look of the Beat Generation, and prone to quoting lengthy selections from his philosophy heroes, who ranged from the Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti to Lord Buckley, the hipster comic of the 1940s and 1950s. Richard Saltus, a preppy, unusually tall and skinny schoolmate of mine, leaned over us playing the banjo and cracking us up with his quirky humor. He was unusually bright, years later becoming a science writer for the Boston Globe. He introduced me to Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Blue Sky Boys. Again, their mountain harmonies reminded me of the Mexican trios and the huapangos I loved. They dealt with the same issues: the grueling work of living off the land and the treachery of misplaced affection.
My brother Pete went to work for the Tucson Police Department while he took his master's degree in government at the University of Arizona. He eventually became the chief of police, but at the time, the department didn't think too highly of my brother hanging around beatnik folk music clubs. My sister had three children and less time for music, so I began to play small venues on my own, sometimes with my cousin Bill Ronstadt accompanying me on the guitar. Bill, the most accomplished guitar player in our family, was a serious student of Brazilian music, but when he played with me, we did simpler American folk songs. The professional demands were not great. I could play a set of four or five songs, and Bill would fill in with Brazilian pieces. We occasionally got paid but felt lucky to get the experience of being in front of an audience.
Sometimes Bobby Kimmel would play a set of blues tunes that he had worked out, and I would duet with him on a folkier piece like "Handsome Molly." We played at a coffeehouse called Ash Alley and another called the First Step. They were tiny, seventy- to one-hundred-seat places owned by local folk music entrepreneur David Graham. His younger brother, Alan Fudge, sang and played guitar and was studying acting at the university. He was smart, funny, kind, and political. Alan and I spent most of our spare time at his brother's establishment and became sweethearts. His mother, Margaret, was the first feminist I ever encountered and would scold her sons robustly if they were careless with their girlfriends. She was divorced, and when her son David brought in older bluesmen like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to play at his club, she would cook for them, let them stay at her house, and do what she could to cushion them from the bruising elements of Jim Crow still hovering in the Southwest. This was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there were signs everywhere bragging about a proprietor's right to refuse service.
Conversations at their house were often about the hoped-for civil rights legislation, the Vietnam War (which few Americans were aware of at the time), and the unconscionable shenanigans of the House Un-American Activities Committee. At the public high school that I attended, my civics teacher, a Ukrainian, showed us films on the HUAC and warned us about the Communist threat that lurked behind every cactus. I also had an English teacher from the Deep South who spent one entire class period making an impassioned defense of the KKK, and awarded an A to anyone who read Gone With the Wind. At Margaret's house, I got another side of the story. She was not like any of the Tucson mothers I had ever met. A free spirit who insisted on personal responsibility, she was very kind to me.
Alan taught me songs he had learned from Pete Seeger and the Weavers about the labor movement. He was performing the lead in a university production of Shakespeare's Othello, and we explored that play together. One night he came home with two records: Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely and the first Bob Dylan album. I thought the Nelson Riddle arrangements on the Sinatra record were stunning. It was the first time I had ever heard Bob Dylan sing, and I liked that too. We spent many evenings dissecting those records. Some of my music friends thought those artists were diametrically opposed, one from "the establishment" and the other from the foment of cultural revolution. I thought they were both great storytellers.
In those days, Top Forty radio was still regional and had a wide-open playlist. When I drove to school, I could turn on the radio and hear George Jones, Dave Brubeck, the Beach Boys, and the Singing Nun on the same station. I much prefer that style of radio to the corporate model we have today, with tightly formatted playlists and the total absence of regional input.
Alan's brother continued to try to build a following for folk music at the First Step. He brought in ace bluegrass band the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White and his brother Roland. I would watch Clarence night after night, his face an expressionless mask while he flat-picked notes at speeds not equaled until the invention of the particle accelerator. David also brought Kathy and Carol, a duo who sang Elizabethan ballads and Carter Family songs. They were good guitar players, especially Carol, and their complex, shimmering harmonies were completely original. The two were both natural beauties, innocent and full of wonder. Still teenagers, they had an Elektra Records recording contract, were playing folk festivals around the country, and getting to hear and jam with major folk artists that I had read about in Sing Out! magazine.
I remember seeing blues singer Barbara Dane and guitarist Dick Rosmini at David's club. Dick complimented my voice and encouraged me to go to Los Angeles and see what was happening at the Ash Grove, an L.A. coffeehouse that played traditional music to enthusiastic crowds. Tucson being a relatively small city, the folk music venues always struggled, and the shows were poorly attended. I began to wish I could go someplace that had a richer, more diverse, and more appreciated pool of music.
Alan left Tucson to play Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Bobby had gone east to Massachusetts to spend time with friends in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. He wrote to me about this girl singer they had added named Maria D'Amato, who was gorgeous and could really sing. She married his friend Geoff Muldaur, the other star singer in the Kweskin band, and became Maria Muldaur. Geoff was a great admirer of blues singer Sleepy John Estes and cobbled together his own compelling and original style from that influence. Geoff in turn had a strong influence on the singing style of John Sebastian, later a founding member of the Lovin' Spoonful. After spending some time on Martha's Vineyard with the Kweskin band, Kimmel went to the West Coast and moved in with Malcolm Terence, a friend from Tucson who was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
My mother and I drove to the coast the summer of 1964 to visit my aunt Luisa, then resident hostess at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles. Knowing I wanted to sing, Aunt Luisa had sent me a recording, Duets with the Spanish Guitar, which featured guitarist Laurindo Almeida dueting alternately with flautist Martin Ruderman and soprano Salli Terri. It became one of my most cherished recordings. She and Terri were close friends, and when I told her how much I loved the record, she invited me to meet her. My aunt had helped her research material for her recordings, plus she coached her pronunciation when she sang in Spanish. Aunt Luisa also gave Terri many of the costumes she had worn during the course of her own career. They now belong to the Southwest Museum. She drove us to Olvera Street, the original center of Los Angeles, and showed us the theater where she herself had sung while wearing those beautiful costumes, sometime during the 1920s.
Alan drove up from San Diego, and he and I spent the evening with Bobby at Malcolm's little place at the beach. Bobby was playing in small clubs and said that if I wanted to come over, he could find us work. There weren't many opportunities left for me in Tucson. David hadn't been able to succeed with the First Step and had to close it. I decided to think about it. I was eighteen and enrolled for the spring semester at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
I made plans to drive to the coast and visit Bobby again during spring break of 1965. I traveled with some friends who were going to get summer jobs in canneries in California and return to school in the fall. We all slept on the sofa or the floor or anywhere we could fit. Bobby was eager to introduce me to a guitar player he had met named Kenny Edwards. He worked at McCabe's Guitar Shop, which was in the front lobby of the Ash Grove, a club on Melrose, then the mecca for West Coast folkies. We jammed all of us into somebody's car and drove to West Hollywood. We found Kenny seated with a guitar, playing a flashy finger-picked version of "Roll Out the Barrel." It was a nightly ritual that he engaged in with another guitarist who worked there. They would try to outplay each other and also show off the guitars they had for sale. Kenny was tall, with the athletic body of a surfer. He was skeptical and intellectual, dark featured and handsome. He dressed like a disheveled English schoolboy, and at nineteen, his guitar playing was impressive. He suggested we move from the lobby into the performing space of the Ash Grove to hear a new band call the Rising Sons. Kenny loved their two guitar players, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Though just young kids, they played like demons, with confidence and skill far beyond their years. They were dead serious about the music.
Driving back to the beach, Malcolm and Bobby started talking about a new L.A. band called the Byrds, who were playing folk rock, a new hybrid taking hold on the West Coast. Eventually, we went to see them at the Trip, a new club on the Sunset Strip that had a light show and was supposed to give you a psychedelic experience with your music. As soon as I heard their creamy harmonies, I was mesmerized. I recognized Chris Hillman from a bluegrass band I'd heard, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. In that band, he had played mandolin. Now he was playing bass guitar in an electric band with Beatle haircuts. It was clear to me that music was happening on a whole different level in Los Angeles. I began making plans to move to L.A. at the end of the spring semester.
I turned in my final exam to my English professor, the noted Arizona poet Richard Shelton. He was also an autoharp player and sometimes joined us at family jam sessions. The final was an essay on something from Yeats that he had written on the blackboard. He said he hoped he would see me in the fall. I told him I was moving to Los Angeles to sing in a folk-rock band. Justifiably bemused, he replied, "Well, Miss Ronstadt, I wish you luck."
I still hadn't told my parents. I knew they would insist that I was too young, hadn't finished school, and had no real way to support myself. I also knew they were right, but I had to go where the music was. I waited until the night I left to tell them. A musician friend had offered me a ride to the coast. He had gigs north of L.A. and offered to drop me off on the way. My parents were upset and tried to talk me out of it. When it became apparent that they couldn't change my mind, my father went into the other room and returned with the Martin acoustic guitar that his father had bought brand new in 1898. When my father began singing as a young man, my grandfather had given him the instrument and said, "Ahora que tienes guitarra, nunca tendrás hambre" ("Now that you own a guitar, you will never be hungry"). My father handed me the guitar with the same words. Then he took out his wallet and gave me thirty dollars. I made it last a month.
The only thing I remember about that long ride through the desert night was searing remorse for having defied my parents. I was still very attached, and they had always been so kind to me. I felt terrible for hurting them and causing them worry.
There was nothing to be done. My new life was beginning to take shape.