AS LINDA RONSTADT talks about her latest album, a collection of duets with Emmylou Harris titled Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, she repeatedly drops the word "retired." As the singer explains, Harris asked her to delay plans for retirement so the pair could make the album -- a project they've discussed for decades. Her longtime friend also coaxed her into a short concert tour, even though Ronstadt has retired from going out on the road. "I abhor that whole life," she says. "It's a very unhealthy way to exist, very unnatural."
Despite all her talk of withdrawing from the music business, she stops short when asked if the tour marks the last chance fans will get to see her perform. "I'm afraid it might be like one of those Frank Sinatra things, where you say this is the last tour, then two years later you feel compelled to do it again," the 53-year-old singer says with a hardy laugh. "I started trying to retire at age 40. But I've never made an announcement. My feeling is that if something comes up that interests me, then I'll do it. But I'm finding that it's harder and harder to be seduced by something musically."
Not that it can't be done. Once the tour finishes, Ronstadt plans to produce an album for Sony Classical Records featuring an artist playing glass instruments from the 18th century. "There's an incredible amount of music literature available, including scores by Mozart and Bach," she says. "It was never recorded because the instruments were banned. Later they realized it was the lead in the glasses, that the lead poisoning caused players to lose their minds and have other problems. But at the time, because of all the superstitions, people thought it was the devil, that he made these heavenly sounding instruments and used them to put demons in people who played them."
After that project, Ronstadt wants to record an album of choral music written for Spanish missions of the 16th and 17th century. "It was written in native languages, but it has Western chord structures," she says. "There's a whole body of stuff from these missions that I've always wanted to explore."
So much for retirement, then. But she does hope her days on the concert trail end with the current tour. "I love to sing," she says -- perhaps an obvious statement for the woman who may have had more influence on country and pop singers of the last two decades than any other solo artist. "I just want to be able to stay home and do it. Touring and traveling is very hard for me. It always has been. But especially now that I'm mother to two young children, I feel bound to stay close to home. That's when I'm happiest."
Ronstadt returned to Tucson two years ago, after having spent more than 20 years in Los Angeles and 10 in San Francisco. She adopted two children -- her son is now 5, and her daughter is 8 -- and wanted to return to the place she was raised.
"I like routine," she says, explaining that she and her children live without a television and that she has removed "every electronic thing that blinks" from her home. "We have a really simple life. It's very serene. I love working in my garden. I knit. I take my children for walks in the twilight, so that their bodies and minds adjust to the changes of the day naturally. I don't turn on lights at night; we use candles. I read them poetry; my 5-year-old loves Sandburg. I think our children and teenagers are starved for poetry; that's why popular songs mean so much to them. Only then it's shrunk into this 'Baby, baby' stuff. It only deals with romantic love. That's why, by the time they're 15, they think romantic love is the only game in town. If they fail at it, they feel as if they're destroyed."
Ronstadt may have become a household name as a leading Southern California country-rocker in the 1970s, but today she condemns the dominating role the entertainment industry plays in American culture.
"I'm very concerned about the state of our culture and the kind of artists we validate," she says. "The entertainment industry has developed this stranglehold on what we're allowed access to, and it's really frightening. So much of it is determined by television -- by videos and by the image of how someone is seen on the screen or in a photograph. It has such a lopsided influence. Putting music on television is like dipping a gardenia in kerosene. Television and those damn big arenas -- they flatten everything. Everything has to be simpler and broader to work. It's removed all subtlety and all regional flavor from our culture."
Asked a question about her duet album, Ronstadt laughs hardily again. "You mean you want me to get off my soapbox?" She then explains that Harris, whom she met in 1972 while on tour with Neil Young, is probably the only individual who could've talked her into making an album and planning a tour at this time in her life.
Still, to do the album, Harris and producer Glyn Johns had to come to Tucson. They decided to set up a makeshift studio in the Arizona Inn. "I kept banker's hours," Ronstadt says. "I'm a producer and an arranger, but on this album I left all the dirty work to Emmy. She handled all the artist stuff. Glyn tends to paint in large strokes, which is totally different than how I work. I just stayed out of the way. I came in, I sang my parts, I left."
The album is typical of the best-known work of both Ronstadt and Harris in that it's strong on powerful songs, blending those by well-known writers like Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and Rosanne Cash with outstanding songs by lesser-known writers, including Nashville resident David Olney. The production, however, is ambitious and archly dynamic, sometimes overpowering the delicacy of the carefully written words and melodies. "I've heard the album only twice, to be honest," Ronstadt shrugs. "I don't know if I would have done it the same way, but I think it's quite good."
As for touring, she'll make the best of it, saying the only moments she truly cherishes come when she connects with an appreciative crowd and when she gets to share the stage with her good friend. "I would only do this for Emmy," Ronstadt says. "Doing this tour is the price I'm paying for the pleasure of getting to rehearse with her."