Linda Ronstadt and Glen Campbell crossed paths on the pop chart in late 1967, when “Different Drum” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” both on Capitol Records, hit the top 100; it was the first time in the top 40 for both artists, although Campbell had been kicking around for years, cutting records, being a temp Beach Boy, playing guitar on innumerable sessions with the estimable Wrecking Crew. She was from Arizona, he was from Arkansas, and each played a major role in shaping west coast country-rock in L.A., blurring some of the lines that had been drawn between the genres, discovering songs by some of the best then-little-known writers.
Over the years, they’ve drawn from the same well on occasion: early on, John D. Loudermilk’s “Break My Mind” appeared on her Hand Sown…Home Grown (’69) and his Hey Little One (’68) albums, and Dylan pops up on those LPs as well (“Baby You’ve Been On My Mind” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” on hers, “I Don’t Believe You” on his). Later, they had joint custody of some great Jimmy Webb songs (“Still Within The Sound of My Voice,” “I Keep It Hid,” “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress,” and others). And they sang together on TV at least a couple of times, doing “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and James Taylor’s “Carolina On My Mind.”
That’s the capsule version, but there are so many other degrees-of-connection things going on (Campbell played guitar on Monkees records; Ronstadt’s debut hit with the Stone Poneys was with a Mike Nesmith song: we can play this game for a quite a while). What’s so damned heartbreaking is that neither Glen nor Linda will be doing any more singing, which only underlines that we are all one doctor visit away from getting devastating news, and that it’s taken their health setbacks for people to realize just how significant they are.
You might argue, as a cabal of some of my rock critic colleagues in the ‘70s did, that essentially their contribution was more popular than artistic, that they didn’t always discriminate between levels of schmaltz and (in Linda’s case especially) that there was altogether too much polish and not enough nuance in their interpretations. So, ok, I don’t need to hear Linda sing Motown — not that she does it badly, but a little redundantly — or Glen do Brel or (Sonny) Bono. And I suppose you could blame her for the Eagles, and him (indirectly) for the likes of Mac Davis, John Denver and the resurgent Bobby Goldsboro, but I give them a pass on that, since after all, she was also an early champion of Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, and it’s not his fault that others saw his road as a lucrative one.
I thought the first time I saw Linda was at the Bitter End in the early ‘70s, in her J.D. Souther phase (she did “The Fast One,” that I know for sure), but I came across an ad (above) for a show in ’70 at the Academy of Music where she was on the bill in between Tim Buckley and “special guest star” Van Morrison, and I’m pretty sure I was there as well, because I was a fan of both of those guys and was utterly besotted with her. She’d turn up on TV, with Dick Cavett, Johnny Cash, Bobby Darin, Campbell, Hugh Hefner in his welcome-to-my-swingin’-pad hosting days, and even before she broke superbig with Heart Like A Wheel, she had endearing combination of moxie and shyness (less charitable critics called it coyness). Sometimes she’d go into a woeful zone (“Long Long Time”) but she was more fun when she was rowdier, like on “Break My Mind” or “The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line.” I realize, of course, that once she started working with producer Peter Asher the albums got better, but I fell for the more rag-tag country-folk on those first three Capitol solo albums.
When I started doing A&R at Verve (stop me if I’ve told this one), I wanted to make an album with Linda, even though people at the label who’d worked on Hummin’ To Myself told me she probably wouldn’t be interested. I thought I’d take a shot. So I Amtracked down to Philadelphia to see her at the Mann Theater in the summer of ’07, and after that instant “I’m meeting Linda Ronstadt” moment, I pitched her on a few ideas. She listened, and couldn’t have been nicer, but she said that after her short tour she wanted to get back home and rest and hang out with her family. Then I went into the audience and watched her set, and how beautifully she sang (a tender version of The Orioles’ “It’s Too Soon To Know” was a highlight) and how the audience adored her. She never did cut another album, and now she most likely won’t.
Campbell did get to go into the studio after his diagnosis, and made some strikingly emotional music. And he went on a Goodbye Tour that came through New York City, and I went to Town Hall. I won’t say there weren’t shaky moments, but those songs — the string of Webb ones especially — are stunning, and every time he took a guitar solo, it was as though he was back on Shindig, or in one of those Los Angeles studios, graceful and fluid. and I got more teary when he played than when he sang. That tone.There have since been tributes, and testimonials, and I’m glad he’s still around to see them.
One of my favorite new singers, Rumer from the U.K., drew the “Still Within The Sound of My Voice” straw on a new album of Jimmy Webb duets, and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to hearing that. She’s a bit of terrific, and I’m guessing she’ll nail it. But I’m also going to hear Linda and Glen in there.
“I am calling like the echo of a passing train that cries
One last time before it fades into the distant hills and dies.”