Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar
August 15, 1999

They Can't Help It if They're Friends

Back in the '70s, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt could have become rivals, but, the two supported each other. Now, those ties have resulted in a duet album.

By ROBERT HILBURN

One of the most endearing things about interviewing Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris over the years has been the way they spend half their time talking about other artists they admire.

And nothing's changed.

Instead of relentlessly promoting their first-ever duet collection, due in stores Aug. 24, the pair were eager in their latest interview to turn the spotlight to their favorite artists. Even more striking was their affection for each other.

Ronstadt will remind you that pop artistry isn't a horse race, but it's easy to see how the two could have become fierce rivals.

Thanks to such country- and R&B-styled pop hits as "You're No Good" and "Blue Bayou," Ronstadt was one of the biggest-selling pop artists of the '70s and '80s, someone whose vocal qualities were much admired by critics.

Though not nearly as big a seller, the country-based Harris was a much more adventurous artist, reaching out for rock, folk and R&B material in a way that opened doors in Nashville for such maverick songwriters as Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett.

Despite the potential for conflict, the two bonded in the early '70s and have remained friends. Ronstadt, too, ultimately showed daring of her own by taking on such challenges as a Broadway production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance" and by recording traditional Mexican tunes in Spanish.

Though they have recorded two albums with Dolly Parton, "Trio" and "Trio II," the new collection, titled "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions," is their first duet package--and the album's highlights remind you why they are among the most evocative singers of the modern pop era. (See review, below.)

Both single, Ronstadt, 53, lives with her young, adopted daughter and son in her native Tucson, while Harris, 52, has two grown daughters and lives in Nashville.

In an office at Elektra Records in Beverly Hills, the women spoke about how their lives have been intertwined for nearly a quarter of a century and about the challenge of women in the pre-Lilith Fair age.

Question: Let's start with you, Emmylou. Do you remember the first time you heard Linda's voice?

Emmylou Harris: I do, though Linda wouldn't, because we didn't meet at the time. It was in the late '60s at the Bitter End in New York, when she was still going onstage barefoot. I was living in New York, trying to get started in my music career, and I was pretty full of myself. I thought I was pretty good. But when I heard Linda do this a cappella thing, I thought that no voice could be that beautiful.

Q: Did it intimidate you?

Harris: Absolutely. I knew I could never sing like that. It really shook my confidence. So, for a while, I thought I'd concentrate on writing songs. Then I went to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and I heard Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. I thought, "How can I compete as a songwriter?" because Joni was singing my heart and my soul. She was singing about primal things I didn't even know. Then Bonnie got up there, playing slide guitar and singing great. At that point, I sort of gave up pursuing a career for a short period of time. My daughter was about a year and a half, so I just concentrated on being a mother.

Q: How about you, Linda? When did you first hear Emmylou's voice?

Linda Ronstadt: I remember hearing about her long before I ever actually heard her. Chris Hillman [who was with Gram Parsons in the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers] kept telling everybody about her. So, I was on the road with Neil Young [in the early '70s], and we wound up at some club in Texas, and all of us went down to hear Gram and Emmy. . . . And she just blew me away.

Q: Did you feel intimidated in any way--or at least did your competitive instincts surface?

Ronstadt: It was really a crisis for me. I felt she was doing [country-rock] much better than I was. She was so much farther down the road. It was a time where I had to say I can either let this make me feel really terrible and I won't get to enjoy the music or I could accept it as really great and enjoy it. And that's the choice I made. And it was a great lesson, because music isn't a horse race and you can't have it be a competition. . . . There's room for us all, and we all have our own stories.

Harris: When Gram died [in 1973], it was a traumatic thing for me on every level. Linda brought me out to L.A. to sing with her at the Roxy, and then she brought me to New York to sing on "I Can't Help It" [which appeared on the 1974 album "Heart Like a Wheel"]. She was nurturing and very generous, and I think that had a lot to do with me getting a record contract.

Q: What did you admire so much in what Emmylou was doing? Ronstadt: Emmy has always been a trailblazer. She was the most uncompromising singer . . . where I would compromise. If I needed an up-tempo song to balance off a record, I'd do it, and the result is I made a lot of records that I didn't like. I always wanted a song like "Heart Like a Wheel" to be the hit. . . . When I look back, I think the music my voice was most suited for was the Latin jazz stuff that I sang on [1992's] "Frenesi."

Q: But you made some wonderful records in the '70s, plus you opened a lot of doors for female singers in those pre-Lilith days by doing quality work in a mainstream arena. Did you think of Linda as a trailblazer, Emmy?

Harris: Absolutely. I think that any woman who was out there working in a basically male-dominated world, which it was up to the era of Lilith, was a trailblazer. I remember auditioning for someone at a record company when I was getting started, and I did several songs that ended up becoming hits for people, including "Mr. Bojangles" and "Get Together." It was a very eclectic mix of songs. At the end, he gave me a Claudine Longet record and said to come back when I could do that.

Q: Who else struck you as a trailblazer?

Harris: For me, it started with Joan Baez and Judy Collins.

Ronstadt: That's funny you say Judy Collins, because she was also really important to me. She had a certain kind of dignity and artistry, which was important because the culture instructs that you must put on the show in a certain way, and for women, it's very hard. You've got to be out there selling it. I felt like I had to go out onstage in shorts or whatever. There is a certain pressure always to perform as a sexual being.

People like Aretha Franklin would have to go through the whole machinations of these fancy gowns and all that, when really all she had to do was sit down at a piano and sing, and it was like the light of God shining out of her face. That's all she should have had to do. It shouldn't matter whether you have your makeup on right that day, but it's always there, and this particular culture magnifies that to a completely unholy degree and it overshadows everything else. That's why I think we wind up in pop music with so many people who have mediocre talent.

Q: There are some interesting choices on the new album. Why did you decide to do "For a Dancer," which is one of the loveliest songs Jackson Browne has ever written?

Ronstadt: Emmy chose that for me. We were at Nicolette Larson's memorial concert [in 1998 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium] and Jackson sang the song. Emmy really tuned in on it and suggested I sing it.

Q: Another excellent song is Sinead O'Connor's "This Is to Mother You." How do you find that song, Linda?

Ronstadt: Again, that was a song that Emmy knew, though I'm a big admirer of Sinead. . . . I saw her sing one time live and my jaw dropped so far that it still hasn't closed. She is one of the most astonishingly gifted and pure singers I've ever heard.

Q: What about some of your all-time favorite songs--songs that wear so well that they'll probably always be part of your repertoire?

Ronstadt: I'd say [Kate and Anna McGarrigle's] "Heart Like a Wheel," which is a song that seems drawn out of your own experience. It talks about things that follow through your whole life--need, caring, disappointment--so it never seems dated.

Harris: One for me is Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty." It has so many layers that you could write so many stories about it. But, mainly, I think it's about the fact we do things we regret. It's also about the unevenness and unfairness of life.

Q: What about the future for you both? Emmy has tended to keep busy, touring and recording, whereas you, Linda, seem to have cut back quite a bit on your pop profile.

Ronstadt: I love music and I'll never let go of it, but I only sing a little of what I do in public. I don't feel I have to keep making records, and I don't want to tour, except I'm very happy to be doing a few shows with Emmy.

I feel like I've been able to try the things I wanted to do. I think I could have put a better effort into a lot of the recordings, but I got my chance. Now, I want to sing with intimates. I want to sing with a choir or with my brother or sing with my kids or other musicians that flop through Tucson.

Q: And Emmylou?

Harris: Oh, I'll keep on working as long as I have the passion and the ideas. The only thing I live in fear of is drying up, . . . of not having any new ideas. There have been times over the years when I felt that was happening, but I kept working through it because I really don't know what else to do. If I don't work, I don't know who I am.

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved


Sunday Calendar
August 15, 1999

Album Review
Adventurous, Rewarding Ride
*** EMMYLOU HARRIS AND LINDA RONSTADT "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions" Elektra
By STEVE HOCHMAN

Less related to the pair's Trio projects with Dolly Parton, this set of bold song choices and vivid textures is more a payoff of Harris' 1995 "Wrecking Ball" explorations. But where producer Daniel Lanois dominated that noteworthy but flawed set, veteran producer Glyn Johns seems truer to Harris' gifts and vision on "Wall" (which comes out Aug. 24).

Choosing the songs, Harris combined expected sources (Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen) with more surprising ones (Andy Prieboy, Sinead O'Connor, Springsteen's wife Patti Scialfa). There's a similar balance in the way Ronstadt's rich, warm voice complements Harris' desert-angel tones.

That it's not a conventional Harris or Ronstadt effort is clear from the start, as former Wall of Voodoo singer Prieboy's "Loving the Highway Man" sets the mood with dark imagery and arresting dynamics. In contrast, the more familiar approach taken on such songs as Browne's "For a Dancer" seems almost mundane.

At times Ronstadt seems a mere rider on Harris' vehicle, but what a satisfying ride.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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