Linda Ronstadt Takes Turn Toward Classical

Former pop superstar's latest project is of music composed for glass instruments.

Linda Ronstadt may not be touring much these days, but she's still capable of raising eyebrows: The onetime country-rocker who surprised fans by delving into moody orchestral pop and traditional Mexican songs has set her sights on classical music.

And not just any classical music, but music that features glass instruments.

"There's a huge amount of literature that was written for glass instruments — Mozart wrote a bunch of stuff, Beethoven wrote a piece, the Bachs wrote some things. There's just great stuff in the literature and most of it has never been recorded," Ronstadt said.

She's digging through archives of such material for an album to be released in October on the Sony Classical label.

"I know this glass player whose work I love and so I've really, really been researching that and exploring the literature. And I'm such a perfectionist in the studio, it's a perfect project for me to work on!" Ronstadt said, laughing.

In a career now well into its fourth decade, Ronstadt, who's producing the album, describes her musical taste as "rampant eclecticism." And she knows she's far from finished with her musical challenges.

Roots And Family

But Ronstadt, who considers herself basically retired from touring, says she prefers to work at her home studio in Tucson, Ariz. "I'm a stay-at-home mom," the 54-year-old singer said. "I've got a young son and daughter at home, and on a typical day I spend a lot of time thinking about what to fix them for dinner and what things they need.

"We do a lot of music in the family, too," the 10-time Grammy Award winner added, "playing songs and dancing and singing, but it's more private music these days."

Ronstadt's own musical career is rooted deep in her childhood and in the multicultural sounds she was exposed to growing up in the Tucson area, about an hour's drive from the Mexican border.

"That really was the basis — the foundation of my music experience was with that Mexican music, especially what I heard over the radio," she said.

She heard country music early, too. "It was on all the jukeboxes in any little lunch place you'd go into. 'If You Loved Me Half as Much as I Loved You' (RealAudio excerpt), I remember playing that Hank Williams song on the jukebox when I was about 6, and I was just about tall enough to see over the edge of the jukebox. I'd play it over and over, " Ronstadt recalled.

"You know, the things that I was most successful with musically and enjoyed the most are things that I heard before I was 9 years old, before I really came to rock 'n' roll," Ronstadt reflected. "As a kid I heard classical music, too, I heard Gilbert and Sullivan, I heard opera because my brother was a soloist in a world-class boys choir and I heard all the things he was doing."

Ronstadt also credits Mexican singer Lola Beltran as a "huge, huge influence on my singing" and still enjoys Mexican music.

"I like the Mexican style that's known as the huapango, and the son, which are very similar but sort of two divisions of the same basic thing. They're very regional and come from the area of the mountains and around the bay of Campeche. And the area around Vera Cruz has some wonderful stuff. I love all the different directions of Mexican music," said Ronstadt, who explored many of them in her Spanish-language recordings Canciones de Mi Padre and Frenesi.

Keeping It Real

Joining Emmylou Harris for a brief tour last fall in support of Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, she brought down the house at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium when she sang the last verse of "Blue Bayou" (RealAudio excerpt) in Spanish.

Last year she also won a country Grammy for the song "After the Gold Rush" (RealAudio excerpt), a collaboration with longtime friends Harris and Dolly Parton from the record Trio II. She was nominated for another award in the folk category for the Western Wall duet album with Harris.

"Those are the kinds of songs I wanted to include in that tour," she said. "Songs like 'Telling Me Lies' and 'Heart Like a Wheel' (RealAudio excerpt), songs that I feel I could sing with as much authenticity at 70 as I could at 17."