Adios, Compadre

Saying goodbye to Michael J. Ronstadt

A gathering of the tribes was held Saturday at the ranch of a life long friend of the Ronstadt clan to remember a musician, historian, father and all around solid guy – Michael J. Ronstadt.

Ronstadt passed away Sunday, Aug. 7 in hospice care, surrounded by loved ones at his side, playing and singing music to carry him out of the world.

The song seemed to continue last weekend at the family gathering. With horses grazing peacefully in the pasture behind them and a big-screen view of the Catalinas in bright sun and rain, a few hundred family members, closest friends, musical compadres and children gathered to sing the old songs their fathers and grandfathers sang on the old family ranch, and to experience the joys of pot luck communion before sending balloons skyward toward building giant cloud castles. The old songs that Federico Ronstadt brought from Mexico, and which Mike Ronstadt and his sons sang to fans around the globe—Cancion Mixteca and A La Orilla de un Palmar—brought the whole family of cousins, nieces and nephews and more to sing out in that perfect Ronstadt harmony that is as instinctive as effortless with this bunch.

There was no speechifying, no tearful remembrances or holy orations. Just the honoring of the spirit of a quiet, thoughtful man who all who met came to love.

Among those there were his closest boyhood friend, Jim Brady, with whom Michael started an underground radio station in high school, worked with on many projects in record studios, and who visited him every day in hospice as he slipped away. His close friend Aspen Green, wife Deborah, cousins stacked to the ceiling, brother Pete, sons Petie and Michael G. Ronstadt and nine-week-old granddaughter Annabella were also on hand.

Even as mounting pain made it difficult to speak, Mike would sing and always say a special hello to that little baby when she came to visit.

Musical partners from every stage of life also turned out, from the cover band Sunspot through all of the various configurations of the Ronstadt cousins groupings, Ted Ramirez from the Santa Cruz River Band and the newer members of Ronstadt Generations with his boys. Fans and people he met along the way from Mexico, Europe and various parts of America and Canada also came out. Family—traditional and extended—all gathered not to mourn, but collectively remember Mike in a place his family has gathered for many decades to sing and eat and share their lives.

His older sister, singer Linda Ronstadt, was in San Francisco, but visited him in hospice. Speaking by phone she recalled the younger brother who tested at a genius level but never spoke a word of it. "He built a rocket when he was a boy and attached a camera to it to take a picture of our place from way up," she recalled. "And it worked. He was always doing little experiments of all sorts."

Aspen Green recalled his love of birds and plants. "He fed the critters in his yard," she says. "He was so appreciative of nature. Of weather, of clouds. He had an app on his phone that tracked earthquakes and he would always tell me where it was."

Mike Ronstadt was very astute politically as well. He watched the news with keen interest, and sometimes anxiety. Linda recalls him reaching out to California governor Jerry Brown decades ago to talk about hydrogen cars and urge him to look at renewable energy resources more seriously.

Even as the old Ronstadt Hardware family business faded, where he and various cousins worked with Mike's father, Gilbert, and Uncle Edward, Mike started a pump company on Speedway Boulevard and was promoting solar power. It was there, talking about solar that a friendship with photographer Bill Steen struck back up in the 1980s and led to some excursions together to Banámachi, Sonora, Mexico where both the Ronstadt and Steen families have deep roots.

"Michael was an incredibly generous person in terms of what he could give musically and otherwise," Steen recalled. "Michael really connected with people down there, and he always wanted to move there. He had that deep passion for history and the music of his grandfather. I don't think anyone did more to keep that continuity alive."

With the passing of his uncle, Edward Ronstadt, who in many ways had been the family historian, Michael made the family history his mission, personalizing it especially with the musical connections that dated back to his grandfather—Federico Ronstadt—and beyond to the life in Sonora Federico left when he moved to Tucson in the late 19th century.

Linda elaborated on Michael's talents. "One of the things he was able to do was take music from a very distinct region and take it to places that weren't anything like it and still present a beautiful picture of that region. He could take songs about the Mexican desert to Wales where they don't have a desert and make a picture of what it was like to live here. He was a genuine troubadour in that sense."

Ted Ramirez would agree. Ramirez sees Ronstadt very much in the lineage of Travis Edmonson, Lydia Mendoza, Lalo Guerrero and others who needed no more than a guitar, a song and their own intellect to transport an audience in place and time.

"What was important to us (during Ronstadt's time in the Santa Cruz River Band) was to make people understand the southwest—the beauty of the Mexican culture, the beauty of the Anglo culture, the beauty of the indigenous culture—and the importance of all of this," Ramirez notes. "It's not what you read in the papers or in history books. Michael understood that."

"There are the types of musicians who breathe it," Michael's son Petie added. "Everything they think is music. Everything they do and say is music. I think my dad falls into that category. Every time he sang somebody else's song, much like my aunt, it became his own. That same gift came through in his songwriting. He had the ability to take three chords and tell you a story in a way you're never going to forget it. He could entrench emotion into anything he sang."

Along with that innate talent came a great sense of humor. In the studio, when he kept screwing up the same passage over and again it became an occasion for clowning and mischief to lighten the mood. He'd sing in goofy voices, add strange rhythms and inflections, then settle back in to deliver the bull's eye performance.

But there was also a clear-eyed passion to what he was doing that was not lost on either audiences or his sons.

"My dad toured the last 15 years of his life with the traditions of the Ronstadt family and our heritage and that music to people around the world," Mike's son Michael G. Ronstadt notes. "He wanted to encourage people to find their own heritage, learn about it and know it."

For Jim Brady, making the final Ronstadt Generations recording was something truly special.

"Having him with his sons in the studio was just an extraordinary treat," Brady says. "They're excellent musicians, and this is his legacy. This latest CD (In the Land of the Setting Sun) is in many ways his best. I've heard him since we were eight years old in every context there is – with his dad, his sister, his cousins, with his sons. But there was something in this last recording – a vocal maturity that was at its peak. It's so ironic, but then going out on top – there's nothing like it."

Those that knew him could not help but be forever pulled in Michael Ronstadt's orbit.

"I can't say enough about Michael as an individual, as a friend," Ramirez says. "I never met anyone who didn't fall in love with Michael. He was that kind of person. He wasn't the loudest voice in the room ever but his presence was always felt."

And while he is physically no longer present, the ripple effect of this quiet, often solitary man will resonate even as a new generation of the Ronstadt clan overlaps his own final days.

"At some point it will hit me that I saw the first eight weeks of Annabella's life coinciding with the last eight weeks of my dad's," said Petie Ronstadt. "It's a strange but enlightening illustration of life."

Gracias Michael J. Ronstadt. See you on the flip side.