By David Speranza
She’s not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She’s shockingly absent from Rolling Stone‘s list of Top 100 Singers. And yet in the 1970s she went where no woman had gone before, a female superstar in a male realm, clearing the way for the generations of pop, rock, and country superstars to come. She was featured on six Rolling Stone covers, the covers of Time and Newsweek, and received such appellations as “queen of rock,” “first lady of rock,” “rock’s superwoman,” and “top female pop singer of the decade.”
She was the first artist since the Beatles—and the first woman ever—to have two Top Five singles at the same time. Her string of multi-platinum albums and unprecedented (for a woman) arena rock shows made her the highest-paid female musician of the decade. Critical approval included a satchel-ful of Grammys, multiple Vocalist of the Year awards, and a date singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Game Three of the 1978 World Series. Her voice was a technically perfect yet heartfelt instrument capable of expressing a multitude of emotions in an intimidating array of styles. Where female rockers were concerned, there was Linda Ronstadt—and there was everyone else.
Not that you would know it today. While history may be written by the winners, rock history is written by the critics. That’s not always a bad thing. Defining a decade’s music by its most influential and groundbreaking work—as opposed to simply its most popular—keeps the 1980s, for example, from being called the “Decade of Lionel and Whitney” (for which we can only be thankful). But a reverse distortion can also occur, where the cultural or historical impact of a popular artist can be overshadowed by a perceived lack of originality.
That seems to be the case with Linda Ronstadt, whose example set the stage for every female superstar from Pat Benatar to Taylor Swift. And yet in today’s musical cosmos, where woman performers rule the roost, it’s easy to forget how remarkable, and hard-fought, Linda’s success was—or how much her genre-hopping collection of hits informed and influenced the ’70s soundscape. But what was that soundscape? Like the decade itself, it’s never been easy to define. With its reputation as a messy, painful bridge between the idealism and unrest of the ’60s and the greed-is-good ’80s, did the 1970s begin with Led Zeppelin and end with the Village People? Or was it the Jackson 5 and Blondie? You could just as easily make a case for it coming full circle, from the Beatles to the Knack.
But even if you acknowledge the duality of its hard rock/bubblegum pop beginnings and its disco/New Wave end, what about the decade’s fertile middle? What about all those great Rolling Stones albums? The parade of Elton John and Jim Croce hits? The John Denver and Aretha Franklin tunes? Even forgetting the Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers, and Steely Dan, what to make of all those hits by (gasp) Tony Orlando and Dawn?
There will always be straight-ahead pop music to reflect a decade’s character, of course. But even allowing for all the infectious tunes that regularly populated the Top 40 (I’m looking at you, Captain & Tennille), the ’70s had an especially diverse musical arc. With the dominance of AM radio ceding ground to FM’s more eclectic, album-oriented tastes, the decade learned to embrace a vast range of genres, from the leftover folk and rock of the ’60s, to country, R&B, disco, oldies, punk, hard rock, and New Wave.
One of the more popular genres was country-rock, an outgrowth of the growing acceptance of country and western music in radio’s Top 40. Looking back from this post Shania/LeAnn/Taylor vantage point, it’s surprising how many country artists regularly scaled the pop charts in the early 1970s. Along with John Denver, there were Glenn Campbell, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Pure Prairie League, Charlie Rich, Jessi Colter, and a pre-Grease Olivia Newton-John, among others. So it was only natural for artists to begin fusing country music with rock & roll’s sensibilities and rhythms. The Eagles, the Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, ZZ Top, and Charlie Daniels were among this new music’s genre-straddling pioneers.
But there was also a female voice, belting its way up through the testosterone—a voice that would go on to devour genres whole and spit them back out in one unlikely hit after another. Riding the tail end of the folk-rock movement that formed the roots of country-rock in the late ’60s, Linda Ronstadt and her trio The Stone Poneys managed a Top 20 hit with “Different Drum” (written by The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith) in 1967. But less than a year later the band split up, leaving Linda a solo act in search of a direction. The one she chose was country, although even by 1970 she was known for stretching the boundaries of any single genre. Her first few records were not commercially successful (with the exception of the single “Long, Long Time”), but she achieved her goal of establishing credibility with the C&W crowd—the first to fully embrace her—along with a growing reputation as a musical magpie with one of the premiere voices in country, folk, or pop (depending on which magazine you read). Among her fans were Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell, both of whom featured her on their network television specials.