The Peak of an Under-Appreciated Artist’s Career

Linda Ronstadt – Simple Dreams (Asylum/Rhino) review

Simple Dreams was a watershed moment in popular music. It sold 3 1/2 million copies in its first year, something never before accomplished by any female artist. It also spent five weeks at #1, knocking Fleetwood Mac’s juggernaut Rumours off the top of the charts.

In addition, Ronstadt did something that hadn’t been done since the Beatles, placing two singles from the album in the Top Five at the same time, in the fall of 1977. Yet, Simple Dreams never makes the “Essential Albums” lists, and Ronstadt remains one of the most under-appreciated artists in popular music.

For its 40th anniversary, Rhino Records has just reissued the classic album, in remastered sound, along with a trio of live bonus tracks.

We primarily think of Ronstadt as a rocker. Yet, Simple Dreams is heavy on diversity. Her voice is absolutely spine-chilling on J.D. Souther’s ballad, “Simple Man, Simple Dream.” She’s joined by Dolly Parton for a tender reading of the acoustic “I Never Will Marry” – their voices melding perfectly (the two would be joined by Emmylou Harris for a pair of albums under the “Trio” name beginning in the mid Eighties). And, what other popular artist could pull off the cowboy song “Old Paint” with absolute sincerity?

There’s still plenty of guitar-heavy rockers here – she updates Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy,” making it a smash hit (something that Holly himself failed to do). She streamlines Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and “Carmelita,” then has the confidence to go toe to toe with the Rolling Stones on their “Tumblin’ Dice.”

The true standout is her sparse reading of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” which really gives her voice a chance to soar, amid Rhodes piano and mandolins. The single would garner her several Grammy nominations. “Blue Bayou” and “It’s So Easy” would both make the Top Five at the same time in late ’77.

Of the live bonus material, “It’s So Easy” is more aggressive than the studio version, while “Blue Bayou” is slower, and features Spanish lyrics of the last verse. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” is the best of the bunch, really jumping out of the speakers. These tracks come from an HBO special that aired in 1980 and are of fine quality.

So, what’s Linda’s problem? Why isn’t she given the respect she deserves? The answer is a complex one. For one, she chose the absolute wrong time to retire from popular music – walking away in 1983, at the height of MTV, to do string-laden, pre-rock ballads, and traditional Spanish music. Then, she stood by while many of her contemporaries, like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, chose to reunite and launch lucrative tours during the 1990’s. And, she largely disowned her own 1970’s success in her recent autobiography (also titled Simple Dreams).

Despite all this, Linda Ronstadt remains a pivotal figure in the development of women in popular music. She’s also arguably the most diverse singer ever to enjoy high commercial success, tackling just about every genre you could name.

Simple Dreams finds Linda Ronstadt at the absolute peak of her powers and definitely deserves another listen. —Tony Peters