Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like A Wheel” At 50

There are certain albums that define an artist and are a turning point in their careers. For Linda Ronstadt, that record was Heart Like A Wheel, which celebrates its 50th anniversary later this year. By 1974, Ronstadt had achieved success in the music world, as both a member of The Stone Poneys and as a solo artist. She had also established herself as a live performer with standout shows at clubs like The Troubadour. Her early solo albums, including 1969’s Hand Sown…Home Grown and 1970s Silk Purse, showcased her unique talent as a consummate interpreter of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and Neil Young. That trend continued with 1972’s eponymous Linda Ronstadt, which included her lovely take on Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me On The Water.”

1974’s Heart Like A Wheel took things to the next level. The album initiated Ronstadt’s run as one of the most successful female artists of the 1970s. She and producer Peter Asher came together to craft an unforgettable record, offering up a fantastic selection of songs originally recorded by the likes of Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Clint Ballard, Jr., and James Taylor. It featured that gorgeous voice plus the work of an unparalleled backing band, which included Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley, and the talented Andrew Gold. His masterful playing of multiple instruments, as well as his contributions to the arrangements for the album, were the impetus of a long and fruitful musical collaboration with Ronstadt, both on record and during her concert tours.

The record showcases Ronstadt’s incandescent, unforgettable voice, proving she was as adept at rocking out as she was at being an ethereal country-style songstress. The album features an electrifying version of The Everly Brothers classic “When Will I Be Loved,” a heartfelt cover of the Buddy Holly hit “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” and her country-soul take on James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street.” The opening track, a spectacular rendition of “You’re No Good,” is nothing less than a statement of empowerment from an artist truly coming into her own. Ronstadt had been performing the song as part of her live shows in 1973 and belted it out on The Midnight Special later that year.

The album is filled with indelible performances, which linger in memory long after the vinyl grooves run out. Ronstadt’s readings of J.D. Souther’s “Faithless Love” and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” are superb. Her beautiful version of Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like A Wheel,” is truly sublime. But it’s her cover of a classic Lowell George tune that I think defines the record, and showcases her unmatched power as an artist and vocalist. Her enthralling performance of Little Feat’s “Willin” turns Lowell George’s weed and booze-infused road anthem into a heart-rending tale filled with yearning, lost love, and deep emotion. Ronstadt’s sterling work on Heart Like A Wheel illustrates why she would go on to excel at every genre she recorded in, including country, rock, pop standards, and mariachi music.

Heart Like A Wheel was released in November of 1974 and reached number one on both the Billboard Top 200 and Country album charts. “You’re No Good” became a number one hit, “When Will I Be Loved” climbed to number two, and Ronstadt’s versions of the Buddy Holly classic “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” and the Hank William tune “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” made strong showings on the country charts.

The album’s success led to a string of best-selling records including Prisoner In Disguise, Hasten Down The Wind, Simple Dreams, and Living In The USA. Heart Like A Wheel was included on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and also selected by the Library of Congress to be inducted into the National Recording Registry.

-John Visconti

Photo: Fair use image from Heart Like A Wheel

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