An Excerpt From Simple Dreams

From her new memoir, Linda Ronstadt's look at her musical life in Tucson and what took her to L.A.

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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.

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