Even after all these years, I am still not sure what to make of Linda Ronstadt, who began her career in the 1960’s as part of the southern California country/folk rock scene that also produced artists like Jackson Browne, The Eagles and Warren Zevon. Ronstadt had early success with her band The Stone Poneys, and then went on to a successful multi-decade career as a solo artist releasing music in a wide variety of genres until she had to retire from singing in 2012 due to Parkinson’s disease.
Listening to Ronstadt now, one might say she was nothing more than a talented cover artist. With only three partial song writing credits to her name, Ronstadt made a career for herself singing songs from different artists, genres and eras during a time when her close friends were writing and releasing some of the finest music of the day.
There are many artists who have made a fine career by only singing the songs of other artists, but more often than not those cover versions are tepid interpretations at best. The song is being sung to highlight the vocal abilities of the singer rather than serving the song. The listener is only hearing a faded carbon copy of a song they loved rather than a song re-imagined by another artist.
However, when Linda Ronstadt sang a song, that song became hers. She brought to the songs she sang new passion and artistry. We heard a new story through her vocals. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” went from an upbeat Buddy Holly teenage love song to a sad reflection of a failed love affair. “Rescue Me” went from being a bass driven funky dance song to a hard driving guitar fueled garage band punk explosion. Every song Ronstadt sang became something new, with new inspiration and energy.
Ronstadt’s career began in 1967 with the sublime “Different Drum” performed with the Stone Poneys band. Though “Different Drum” was also a cover, it was not a widely known song before Ronstadt’s recording. Interestingly enough, “Different Drum” was written by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees, and previously recorded and released by a bluegrass band in 1966.
“Different Drum” immediately became Linda Ronstadt’s song, a song that gave permission to a generation of young people to be exactly who they wanted to be, all through the lens of a traditional sounding love song. The lyrics of “Different Drum” are really not anything so remarkable. A solid love song, but nothing too groundbreaking,
What sets “Different Drum” apart for me is the momentum. This song moves. And after the song starts, it doesn’t stop. The energy builds, it wanes, but it never lets up. It is a perfect piece of rhythm, beat and momentum paired with a passionate vocal, and it’s all Ronstadt. It is a cover version that never had a chance to be an original.
Wonderful though Ronstadt is, below is an absolute horrible lip synced performance, followed by an amazing Carrie Underwood performance when Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Written by Mike Nesmith
Performed by The Stone Poneys, featuring Linda Ronstadt