Hard news yesterday, with the report that Olivia Newton-John had died at the age of just 73. Rest easy, Olivia and know that wherever you are…a million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star.
Disc 1577 is…. Hand Sown…Home Grown
Artist: Linda Ronstadt
Year of Release: 1969
What’s up with the Cover? Who is this mysterious forest angel flowing toward me, with the morning light cascading behind her?
Fear not my friends, it is Linda Ronstadt. And if she is going to whisk your soul away, you’ll at least get a pretty song out of the experience. Perhaps the whippoorwills will sing backup…
How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Linda Ronstadt since I was a kid, but never knew this particular record until about ten years ago when I was digging through her discography. It was hard to find on CD back then, but not only did I find a copy earlier this year, I also found a “3 in 1” CD with her first three records on it. All the same great music, but less space on the shelves.
How It Stacks Up: I now have five Linda Ronstadt albums (when I last reviewed one I only had two, but I’ve been busy). All those records are from the early part of her career, and competition in that golden era is tough. “Hand Sown…Home Grown is great, but I can’t rank it higher than #4.
Ratings: 4 stars
On “Hand Sown…Home Grown”, Linda Ronstadt opts for a wholesome vibe that lands somewhere between flower power and Tammy Wynette. It is sweet and simple, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it is undercooked; Ronstadt’s voice will roast you alive with its power.
Linda Ronstadt would go on to try on a lot of styles in her career, but the simplicity of her first record is a treat. It’s unadorned, yes, but it has a natural tone and vibrancy that makes it the Helen of Troy of sound. This voice would launch a thousand ships and burn the topless towers of Ilium. So, you know, a classic.
Ronstadt has the same power as Johnny Cash; once she covers one of your songs that song belongs to her. It is fitting then that the opening tune is a Dylan song, “Baby You’ve Been on My Mind” which Cash himself had covered four years earlier on “Orange Blossom Special.” Cash took it from Dylan, but Ronstadt just as deftly wrests it from Cash’s grip. Here she does something few singers can do, belting at full throttle and yet suffusing every phrase with passion and import.
Another standout is her cover of Waylon Jennings’ “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line” as she hits with all the considerable sass and jump that this barroom two-step classic deserves. This song also exemplifies some solid musicianship from the backing band. While “Hand Sown…Home Grown” doesn’t have any memorable hits, at least the studio surrounded Ronstadt with some great players.
Sassy tunes like “Break My Mind” are simultaneously filled with heartache and triumph, both dialed up to 11. It had me thinking of modern acts like Jaime Wyatt, and how much this style of country music owes to the sound of early masters like Linda Ronstadt.
Even songs where the subject feels a bit stilted worked for me. For example, “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus (and a Lot Less Rock and Roll)” is pure preachin’ action. While I wanted to be offended at this offhanded attack on the glory of rock and roll, instead I found myself swaying to the siren’s call of the pulpit, at least if the preacher can sing like this. It helped knowing that on future records Ronstadt would come around to embrace rock and roll after all.
I’m fairly biased in favour of singer-songwriters. I just like the combo, and so for someone to impress me with a bunch of other peoples’ songs requires some top tier stuff. Fortunately Ronstadt is as good as it gets, an iconic voice that can still blow the door down and then break your heart, more than 50 years after she first cut these tracks.
Best tracks: Baby You’ve Been On My Mind, The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line, Silver Threads and Golden Needles, The Long Way Around, Break My Mind