Laurel Canyon is a stretch of Los Angeles wonderland that runs through the Hollywood Hills from the Sunset Strip to the San Fernando Valley. That curving, stretching, boulevard of hipness and “California Noir” is where Carole King escaped to create her “Tapestry” masterpiece. It was in Laurel Canyon, while living on Lookout Mountain with Joni Mitchell, that Graham Nash wrote “Our House”. Leading the “Soft Parade” of Laurel Canyon artists, musicians, singers, and songwriters that included Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon, The Mamas and the Papas, the various incarnations of The Flying Burrito Brothers including Gram Parsons, most of The Eagles, along with countless other dream chasers, was Jim Morrison, who wrote the song “Love Street” as an ode to this “Boulevard of Spoken Dreams”, and the birth place of “Country Rock”.
I see you live on Love Street.
There’s the store where the creatures meet.
I wonder what they do in there
With all due respect to Joni Mitchell and Pamela Des Barres, who was also a prominent figure in “The Canyon” at the time, the undisputed “Muse” of the scene and the “Mellow Mafia” movement was Linda Ronstadt. Barefoot and breathtaking with killer pipes, Linda Ronstadt broke on the scene in 1967 as a member of the Stone Poneys with Bob Kimmel and Kenny Edwards. The group’s second album, “Evergreen, Vol. 2”, included the song “Different Drum” and represented, in what turned out to be a wise marketing move, a little bit of a departure for the band with Linda more prominently featured on lead vocals. The song written by Pre-Monkees Michael Nesmith, reached number 12 on the billboard charts, and effectively marked the end of the Stone Poneys as a band, and the beginning of a brilliant solo career for Linda Ronstadt. In the classic “we’ll take you, but we don’t want the band” type of record deal, Ronstadt released her first solo album, “Hand Sown…….Home Grown”, in 1969. This album often referred to as the first Alternative Country album by a female artist, represents a marked departure from her folk-rock musical style, to a more refined country rock sound.
Soon after completing her second album, “Silk Purse”, that included the Grammy nominated song “Long, Long, Time”, Linda began collaborating with producer Peter Asher, who also became her manager, took control of her sound, her image, and her song selections, and began to mold her into the superstar she was to become.
“Heart Like a Wheel”, released November 1974, was the second collaborative effort with Peter Asher, and the first Linda Ronstadt album to reach number one on the billboard charts. The album is considered to be Ronstadt’s best, and a “blueprint” for future Country Rock albums by other artists.
The album’s gets it’s glossy sound from a star studded panel of contributing musicians including Andrew Gold, Glen Frey, Timothy B. Schmidt, and Don Henley from The Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, and others. Practically all of the local denizens of Laurel Canyon participated in the making of this land mark album. Jim Morrison couldn’t make the sessions, he was dead.
The disc won Ronstadt the first of 10 Grammy awards, for Best Country Vocal Performance Female, but lost to Janis Ian and “At 17” for Best Pop Vocal Performance Female, and was ranked #164 on the list of The Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time.
The album features an eclectic mix of contemporary classics as well as older songs that show off Ronstadt’s immense skills in interpreting the works of other artists and song writers. Maria Muldaur turned down the first track of the album, “You’re No Good” citing that the lyrics were “too negative and too neurotic”, for her tastes. Maria’s loss was Linda’s gain as the song hit number one on the billboard “Hot 100” charts, and is a mainstay of Country Rock radio stations to this day.
The second song, the Paul Anka penned, “I guess It Doesn’t Matter Any More” slows the pace down a bit but and shows Linda to be a song interpreter of the highest order. After all, It’s not anyone that can make a Paul Anka song sound sexy.
“Faithless Love” starts with the banjo as a reminder to the listener of the “Country” side to this Country Rock album. It is a beautiful song with soaring vocals and subtle harmonies.
The fourth song “The Dark End of the Street” by the classic songwriting duo of Chips Moman and Dan Penn, would probably sound better in a lower register, however the rising background vocals, with Cissy Houston prominently featured, gives the song almost a gospel feel in parts.
The title cut, “Heart Like a Wheel” is a beautiful piano-based song with string accompaniment that might have been a boring filler song if not for the added production values that Peter Asher brought to the proceedings.
“When Will I be loved” was the second single released from the album. The Phil Everly tune stalled at number two, and never could overtake “Love Will Keep Us Together” for the number one spot. With the Lyric “I’ve been cheated, been mistreated, when will I be loved?” Linda Ronstadt cements her membership in the “My man done me wrong” country diva club headed up by Tanya Tucker, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton.
The 7th song on the album “Willin” is one of my favorite songs by Little Feat, Lowell George, or any other artist (Susannah Hoffs and Matthew Sweet do a fine version of this song on “Under The Covers Vol. 2.). This version far from disappoints, and is in fact, my second favorite version behind the original. Hearing the truckers lament “If you give me weed, whites, and wine, and you show me a sign, and I’ll be willin’ to be moving”, I am reminded of Linda’s version of “Carmelita”, another classic interpretation that causes bone-chilling goose bumps when you are listening to them right.
Song number 8 is the classic “I Can’t Help (If I’m still in Love With You) is pure country, which makes sense since the song was written by Hank Williams. It is here where that “aha” moment arrives where you realize that Linda Ronstadt is a true “Swiss-Army Knife” type of talent, she can do it all.
The second to last song on the album, “Keep Me From Blowing Away” is a slower meandering song that is kind of like sorbet, a good palate cleanser but does not hold a candle to the main course.
The final song on the album “You Can Close Your Eyes” was written by Laurel Canyon inhabitant, James Taylor, with some fine “sweet baby James” style acoustic guitar it is a fine closer that kind of washes over you in a sweeping chorus of strings and vocals, that brings the album to a finish in the crescendo that it deserves.
“Heart like A Wheel” is a major ground-breaking work by a major ground-breaking artist. Peter Asher and the contributing musicians find just the right note for just the right song.
In short, a masterpiece that deserves a casual, play hooky from work, sip an adult beverage, sit on the porch, kind of listen…………………..Like I’m doing right now.
– Walt Falconer
Be sure to check out the video for “You’re No Good” in the video playlist below. It’s a fantastic live recording with a band that includes Little Feat’s Richie Hayward on drums and “Skunk’ Baxter on congas! The instrumental break is breathtaking!
The woman dressed in the gold outfit in the same song was once Bob Dylan’s wife.
- “You’re No Good” (Clint Ballard Jr) – 3:44
- “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (Paul Anka) – 3:26
- “Faithless Love” (J. D. Souther) (also singing harmony) – 3:15
- “The Dark End of the Street” (Chips Moman/Dan Penn) – 3:55
- “Heart Like a Wheel” (Anna McGarrigle) – 3:10
- “When Will I Be Loved” (Phil Everly) – 2:04
- “Willin’” (Lowell George) – 3:02
- “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” (Hank Williams) – 2:45
- “Keep Me from Blowing Away” (Paul Craft) – 3:10
- “You Can Close Your Eyes” (James Taylor) – 3:09
- Linda Ronstadt – vocals, background vocals
- Andrew Gold – guitar, percussion, piano, drums, keyboards, electric piano, tambourine, ukulele, background vocals
- Peter Asher – guitar, percussion, background vocals, cowbell
- Ed Black – guitar
- John Boylan – guitar
- Paul Craft – guitar
- Kenny Edwards – bass, background vocals
- Chris Ethridge – bass
- Jimmie Fadden – harmonica
- Richard Feves – bass
- Glenn Frey – guitar
- Emory Gordy – bass
- Tom Guidera – bass
- Emmylou Harris – harmony vocals
- Don Henley – drums, background vocals
- Dennis Karmazyn – cello
- Sneaky Pete Kleinow – pedal steel guitar
- Russ Kunkel – drums
- Lloyd Myers – drums
- David Lindley – fiddle
- Cissy Houston – background vocals
- Sherlie Matthews – background vocals
- Maria Muldaur – background vocals
- Clydie King – background vocals
- Wendy Waldman – background vocals
- Joyce Nesbitt – background vocals
- Herb Pedersen – banjo, background vocals
- Danny Pendleton – pedal steel guitar
- Dennis St. John – drums
- Timothy B. Schmit – bass
- J. D. Souther – guitar, background vocals
- John Starling – guitar
- Bob Warford – guitar
- David Campbell – viola, string arrangements