Most of us have a love/hate relationship with our hometowns. For Grammy Award-winning vocalist Linda Ronstadt, the love is inspired by southern Arizona’s rich cultural legacy and the traditions that continue to nourish it. And the hate comes into play when she talks about how 20th-century gentrification has impacted just that. While it’s rock ‘n’ roll that has elevated Ronstadt to the musical heights she has reached, she is also one of the industry’s most versatile performers. Having also successfully embraced folk, country, big band, jazz, and even Cajun music, Ronstadt’s heart clearly lies in the dusty expanses of the American Southwest. And when she returns to Santa Barbara this week with a mariachi band behind her and troupe of Mexican folk dancers in tow, it will be the finer points of Ronstadt’s Southwestern upbringing that will be fuelling her performance.
You grew up in Tucson. How has the place changed since your childhood? When I was little, Tucson was still small. And even when I left, it wasn’t that big-125,000 people at most-and it’s now a million. It’s just sprawl and one big-box store after another, and those suburban neighborhoods offer you neither privacy nor community. Sprawl development is a horrible thing no matter where it is. It’s like a cancer. We’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot, as Joni Mitchell would say.
But there still seems to be a definite tradition to the place. Is that actually the case? I grew up in an area that used to belong to Mexico. Only in the later part of the 19th century did Tucson become part of the United States. People ask me when my family moved up here, and I tell them we didn’t move, the border did. So we held onto our family traditions and values; they’re the only thing you can use against the sprawl and the fact that every place is now looking like every place else.
There’s such a rich history in the Southwest with its successive waves of inhabitants. Do you think people down there have a broader sense of cultural awareness? Absolutely. And Santa Barbara has that, too. There’s the Native American culture, the Spanish culture, the Mexican culture, and the Anglo culture that came in. It’s a layered, multicultural community, much like Tucson. I love Santa Barbara for that reason. I’m excited to come there with the Mexican band because it can connect to that and it will resonate in a meaningful and logical way. It’s not something foreign.
You mention that you’re bringing a Mexican band with you. What’s it like to be on stage in front of a mariachi? The mariachi is indestructible. They’re perfectly fine playing outdoors at a county fair, which is [one of] the most distracting environments there is, and something I used to dread doing with my rock ‘n’ roll band. But the mariachi can come in and it’s like a train. I can take that band from a county or state fair to Carnegie Hall or to the Broadway stage or to a huge arena and it just doesn’t lose its power.
Mariachi music is very powerful and very emotional. How does it compare to fronting a rock ‘n’ roll band? What comes out of the mariachi, sound-wise, is as powerful as a rock ‘n’ roll band, but you can still hear afterward-they don’t send you deaf! And the songs are timeless. There are a lot of songs about the fertility of the Earth and the fertility of people. There’s a lot about love and betrayal and triumphing over sorrow and about being uprooted. There’s a tremendous longing and national pride. That’s all in there. It’s not shallow music. It’s not silly music. It’s not about getting a new pair of shoes that are not the latest style and wanting to slit your wrists. They’re songs about serious issues and real people.
And does the audience response differ? The reaction is quite different, in a wonderful way. [In] the years that I was touring with rock ‘n’ roll, I had a very young audience and they tended to yell at times I sometimes thought were inappropriate. Like when I was in the middle of a ballad and somebody would start yelling for a song like “Heat Wave.” I would be thinking, “Well, wait a minute. Let me finish this song first.” But with the Mexican audience, whole families would come and when they yell it’s at the right time. There’s a place when the emotion begins to surge and it peaks and the audience knows that’s the place to yell, and it pushes the music right along. There’s an explosion of joy, and then when you go to the next phrase it never interferes with what you are doing.
Throughout the course of your career, you have worked in many different genres. Where did such musical dexterity come from? It was growing up in a musical household. Everyone in my family was musical. I didn’t take on any kind of music that I had not heard by the time I was 10 years old in Tucson. But the first stuff that I heard that I really remember were the Mexican records that my dad used to bring back from his business trips to Mexico. That’s what we sang as a family. At celebrations and holidays, we would get together and sing these beautiful songs. Sometimes there would be a mariachi and sometimes there would be a trio and sometimes it was just us.
So where does your musical passion lie? I loved working with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. That was fun. But my favorite, without a doubt, is working with the mariachi. And the dancers are so wonderful. I love Mexican folk dance, so I get to sit at the side of the stage and watch them and be in the audience, too. It just never gets boring.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Linda Ronstadt with Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano at the Arlington Theatre on Monday, November 10, at 8 p.m. For ticket information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.