By LAWRENCE DOWNES
We are driving outside Naco, Ariz., near the Mexico border, on a two-lane blacktop under a half-moon and stars. The distant mountains are lost in shadow, and there’s not much to look at beyond the headlight beams and the rolling highway stripes.
In the middle seat of the minivan, Linda Ronstadt is talking about her childhood.
“We used to sing, ‘Don’t go in the cage tonight, Mother darling, for the lions are ferocious and may bite. And when they get their angry fits, they will tear you all to bits, so don’t go in the lion’s cage tonight!’ We had really good harmonies worked out for that.”
“We” is her sister, Suzy, and her brother Peter, who used to terrify her when she had to go to the woodpile at night.
“My brother would load me up as much as he could then he’d tell me, ‘There’s a ghost!’ and then he’d run and then — Aaaaaah!! — there’d be kindling spread all over the ground.”
The ghost stories — and howling coyotes and pitch-black landscape that surrounded her family’s home — left an impression. “I am really scared of the dark.”
Actually, as we drive through the night in the Sonoran Desert, what she really seems to be is delighted. She can’t stop laughing.
When Linda thinks of home — meaning where your soul inhabits the soil, wherever else your body might be — it’s not Southern California, the place forever associated with her professional life, as Queen of Rock in the land of Byrds and Stone Poneys and Eagles. Nor is it San Francisco, where she lives now.
Her home lies in dryer, poorer country.
It’s in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, in Tucson and points south, where giant saguaros, slender and humanoid, signal touchdowns all over the hills and beside the highways. It’s where the mountains are jagged islands in a blue ocean of sky, where the rock-and-thorn terrain is hostile to people but friendly to cottonwoods, organ-pipe cactus, green-skinned palo verde trees and mesquite. It’s fertile range for cattle and horses, and well cultivated in alfalfa, peanuts and agave.
It’s the cowboy-and-Indian West. It’s a deep vein of Mexican-America, a rich stretch of bicultural borderland from Nogales to Agua Prieta. It was where Ópata, Yaqui, Pima and Apache Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, Basques and Jesuit missionaries converged and collided in the 17th and 18th centuries.
It’s where Linda’s great-grandfather Frederick, an immigrant from Hanover, Germany, settled in the 1850s, becoming a mining engineer and a colonel in the Mexican Army. His son Federico, Linda’s grandfather, was born on a Sonoran hacienda and brought his family to Tucson in 1882. Tucson is where Linda was born, in 1946, second daughter to Gilbert and Ruth Mary Ronstadt, sister to Peter, Suzy and Mike.
You may not have thought of Linda as a Mexican-American singer, but if you’ve heard her, you’ve heard her deep Sonoran roots. Hearing the ranchera singer Lola Beltrán for the first time can bring the shock of recognition to a Linda fan; there’s influence and long tradition behind that lustrous voice. Those old Mexican songs in Linda’s hit 1987 record “Canciones de Mi Padre” were ones she learned before she was 10.
Linda, who is 67, published a memoir this fall, “Simple Dreams,” which touches only briefly on her Arizona girlhood before moving on to her recording career. I knew about Linda the rock ’n’ roll sex bomb, who just made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I’d gotten to know her through her work in Arizona for civil rights and immigration changes. But after reading her book, I wanted to know more about little Linda the pony wrangler and devotee of Hopalong Cassidy, and the place she grew up in the 1940s and ’50s.
I emailed her this summer and asked if she was up for a memory trip. She was — she still has a house in Tucson, and many relatives and friends to see. (Other families have family trees, she told me. “We have a family anthill. Tucson is just swarming with Ronstadts.”) And she was eager to go back down into Sonora, a journey she’d made only a handful of times. We hatched a plan: We’d meet in November, when it’s cooler, see points of Ronstadt interest in Tucson, cross into Mexico at Naco, then head down the Rio Sonora valley to grandfather Federico’s hometown, Banámichi. She wanted to bring some old friends along as guides: Bill and Athena Steen and their son Kalin, who live in Canelo; and Dennis and Debbie Moroney, who raise cattle in Cochise County, near the border. Linda and Bill would meet me in Tucson, and we’d pick up the others on the way, for a truck-and-minivan caravan down memory lane.
The dusty, friendly little Tucson where Linda used to ride to the drugstore in a pony cart is mostly gone. Linda’s father once ran the F. Ronstadt Hardware Company, selling windmills and farm machinery to ranchers. The site is now the Ronstadt Transit Center downtown bus depot.
Some points of interest on the Ronstadt trail remain. There’s the Fox Tucson Theater downtown, where her father sang, billed as Gil Ronstadt and his Star-Spangled Megaphone. Singing is simply what Ronstadts do. Her father wooed her mother with mariachi tunes. Her grandparents cherished opera; her mother loved the American songbook and taught her children those comically bloody lullabies. Peter was an accomplished boy soprano. He, Suzy and Linda used to sing in local clubs as a folk trio, the New Union Ramblers.
That early ’60s club scene is gone, and the Fox, which now screens movies and presents an eclectic mix of musicians, wasn’t quite the place to start.
Our trip began with a deeper time plunge: to Mission San Xavier del Bac, 10 miles south of downtown, on the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation. Linda calls it her “spiritual center.” (It’s also a line in Paul Simon’s song “Under African Skies”: “In early memory mission music was ringing ’round my nursery door.” Linda supplied that image, and sang harmony.)
The original mission was founded by the Jesuit Padre Kino in 1692. The existing church, begun in 1783 and never quite finished, is an astoundingly intact example of Spanish colonial architecture, alive with saints and angels. Linda performed a Christmas concert there in the ’90s, the sanctuary washed in candle-glow.
We met Linda’s friend Bob Vint, an architect who has been guiding a 25-year restoration of the mission, a project that has some years to go. He led us into the choir loft, where we marveled at the opulence below: the intricate geometries of trompe l’oeil frescoes, the wood carvings, the statue saints in hand-sewn clothing. Dogs from the reservation ambled in and out of the front door and lounged in the nave.
I rejoined Linda and Bill the next day, and we headed to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, west of downtown. Built subtly into a hillside in the 1950s, it’s a marvelous place to be dazzled by desert wildlife, minerals and plants. Linda’s father was a founding member. We strolled the walkways, saying hello to pensive prairie dogs, and pored over exhibits of gems and reptiles. Linda gave me a tutorial on cactuses and birds, though we did not ramble too far. Linda learned not long ago that she has Parkinson’s disease, which has made it harder to walk and impossible to perform. Though there is little that’s frail about her, she trembles slightly and treads deliberately, using hiking poles to keep steady.
Later, she and Bill guided me to another revelation: Sonoran hot dogs. Imagine a sausage noble enough to be given a Viking burial, wrapped in bacon, placed in a longboat-shaped bun, laden with beans, tomatoes, onions, peppers, salsa, radish slices and other treasures. We had a few at El Güero Canelo, a Tucson landmark, and staggered off to resume the Journey.
We talked about music and Mexico. Linda is dauntingly well read; her thoughts and associations spool out fast, the names pile up. The year she took her grandfather’s 1898 Martin guitar and left home for Los Angeles, soon to be opening for Odetta at the Troubador, I was more or less being born. I hid my post-boomer ignorance as best I could.
As we neared what’s left of the tiny town of Canelo, Linda noted the geological skyline. “See that hump in the mountains, that Brahma bull hump? That’s when you know you’re getting closer.”
We stayed a night in Canelo, at the Steens’ rambling complex of exquisitely plastered and tinted straw-bale buildings and work sheds (the family teaches straw-bale construction and plastering). Ducks and cats wandered around as the sun fell and a chill settled over the cottonwoods.
Linda put her poles aside and lay back on a bench to watch the stars. As Venus sank to the horizon, the rest of us drank shots of home-distilled bacanora, smooth Sonoran mezcal, from a Bud Light bottle, and talked about things I’ve forgotten.
The next morning we reloaded the minivan for a while. (Linda had a lot of bags.) I said it was like being on tour. “Except nobody’s looking to score drugs or get laid,” said Linda.
We drove on, out of the Coronado National Forest, live oaks greening the mountainsides, and through Fort Huachuca, an Army base. We got coffee in Bisbee, a town that reminds Linda of San Francisco — hilly, with hippies and tourists, though also with an open-pit copper mine.
Once we crossed the border at Naco, it was open road: the sprawling West of childhood books, grassland, mesas, cactus and agave. The countryside immediately lost the American fixation with right angles; now we were among free-form mesquite fences, lush underbrush in shades of gold and green, barriers of half-buried tires, road cuts freely shedding rocks and gravel. A highway sign said, mysteriously: “Hassle-Free Vehicle Zone.”
“It feels so much like home, more like Tucson than Tucson,” Linda said. “These mountains look so familiar to me. I just feel like they’re old faces that I know and love.”
I saw raptors gliding by, and roadrunners in the brush. We tuned to Mexican radio and heard banda music, whose shrill oompah sound owes so much to German immigrants. When we stopped for gas, guys with piles of bootleg CDs approached. We bought two by Chalino Sanchez, folk-hero of narcocorridos, old-style ballads celebrating modern-day drug culture. Chalino is known for having a terrible voice that people feel compelled to listen to anyway.
“He sings kind of like a goat,” Linda said, though she admires him, too.
Far sweeter was Trio Calaveras, a ranchera group founded in the 1930s, whom Linda knew from 78s her father brought back from Mexico. I had brought CDs. On the song “Crucifix of Stone,” a prideful man, betrayed in love, stands in misery in the moonlight beneath Christ, who cries with him. Linda listened in bliss.
“It’s that delicate combination of pleasure and anguish,” she said. “Singing on the edge of tears, holding it in, then the falsetto release — there’s incredible tension and dynamics in it. That’s pure indigenous Mexican.”
We stopped for lunch at the home of Lupita Madero, a friend of Bill’s. The simple meal was as pure Mexican as it gets: caldo de queso, fresh cheese soup, with refried beans dusted with wild chiltepin chiles, quince preserves and Sonoran flour tortillas, so thin you can see your hand through them, and coffee that Lupita roasted in her backyard, near the ristras of dried chiles and caged parakeets.
Then we were back on the mountain highway, and soon there lay below us a broad vista of the Sonora River valley, ancient thoroughfare for conquerors, missionaries, Indians and immigrants. In the cool of November, the mountains were crumpled velvet, the farmland green patches and stripes running this way and that.
The cliffs were turning pink as we raced against the setting sun. Driving in rural Mexico at night can be dangerous, Linda said: Livestock like to loiter in the dark on the warm asphalt.
The towns had Indian and Basque names — Bacoachi, Arizpe — and their welcome signs bore founding dates in the 1600s. Reaching Banámichi at dusk, we stopped at La Posada del Rio Sonora, run by a couple from Alabama, Darrin and Cheri Jones. With its boldly painted walls and tilework, potted cactuses and palms, it’s one of the loveliest inns I’ve ever seen. I relished the tropical feel, the rooftop terrace, my deep tile tub and the Wi-Fi.
We sat out on the roof and ate flan and drank bacanora. Dogs barked in the night. Linda held forth on music and politics, as the tabletop filled with peanut shells and the bacanora bottle slowly emptied.
Linda and I walked across the town plaza for 9 o’clock Mass the next day at the Church of Our Lady of Loreto, where her great-grandparents were married. The priest gave a stern homily about getting the kids to unplug the computadora. Between his rapid Spanish and the muddy speakers I missed most of it, so I concentrated on silent prayer. (Dear Lord, thank you for letting me go to Mass with Linda Ronstadt.)
Linda pointed to the statue of the Blessed Virgin above the altar. “I like that they have La Virgen at the top,” she whispered. “Girl power!” Linda went to Catholic school, but it didn’t take. “I was an atheist by third grade,” she told me, though there is a Haitian goddess she prays to, for President Obama.
That afternoon, we took in a show by a high school troupe, performing folkloric dances from Sonora and southern Mexico. A group of us gathered on the balcony of a friend’s house near the hotel, and as the scalding sunshine lowered to a golden glow, a dozen young men and women in brilliantly hued costumes swirled and twirled and stomped, gloriously. Linda noted with pride that Mexicans could take German raw materials — accordions, tubas, polka rhythms — and make them sexy. Watching the men do a difficult stumbling dance in silly old-man masks, Linda laughed as heartily as she had all trip.
The next morning, our last, we stopped by Las Delicias, a few minutes from Banámichi. Linda’s grandfather’s house was abandoned years ago. All we could see behind a barbed-wire fence was a mud-red corner of a structure, barely a shard of adobe, slowly being engulfed by nopal cactus. We gazed a while, then hit the road.
Outside Naco, Linda was in a relaxed mood. Though she hates hearing her old stuff, she surprised me by letting me play a CD of her album “Simple Dreams.” As her younger self sang Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita,” about a junkie “all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town,” Linda asked: “Am I pretty convincing as a gun-toting heroin addict? Are you buying that?” The question cracked her up.
Later, after T-bone steaks and beers in Sonoita (Linda’s vegetarianism, like her atheism, is relaxed), the Steens drove home while Linda and I headed back to Tucson. I had more music to follow. Linda’s memoir lists a dozen performing relatives, like her brother Michael, who records with the group Ronstadt Generations. Linda’s niece Mindy, Peter’s daughter, sings in the All-Bill Band Featuring Mindy Ronstadt (with Linda’s cousin Bill on bass, and another Bill on guitar). You can see them every other Wednesday at a place in east Tucson called the Irish Pub,
That’s where I spent my last night in Tucson. I found Peter there. Over burgers and Bass ale, he told me stories about Linda as a teenager and his days as a young cop (he’s the former Tucson police chief). I listened while keeping one ear on Mindy singing Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and old cowboy songs. Her voice was Ronstadt-pure.
When Mindy got to “Desperado,” the old Glenn Frey-Don Henley song, I got that shivery thrill Hawaiians call chicken skin. On song after song, Peter sang harmony with his daughter. He did it quietly, for nobody else’s benefit. Like Linda, whom I would hear softly singing with the radio on the road to Banámichi, he was just too musical not to. On my way out of town the next morning, I stopped by Linda’s, a 1920s house full of Mexican artwork and delicate porcelain and set about with roses and olive trees. Suzy was there, loading a garden statue, a naked cherub, into her pickup. The three of us leaned over the truck bed and talked awhile. I had asked Linda if she had any old photos for this article, but she hadn’t found any usable prints. She said she’d look over some slides and let me know.
Back in New York, I got this email: “Pete and Suzy and I are loading slides in the projector this minute.”
Then, an hour and a half later, this: “Didn’t find any useful photos, but just for a moment we fell into three-part harmony on a few lines of ‘Fair and Tender Maidens.’ ”
A trip down the Rio Sonora valley of Mexico is a plunge into the past. It’s not quite the 1600s, but in those little colonial towns — strung along the valley like rosary beads, as Linda Ronstadt says — you will find few if any restaurants, A.T.M.’s, gift shops or other tourist amenities. You can find delicious eating, though: peanuts, dried and powdered chiles, and fragrantly delicious quince paste, called cajeta, and other homegrown foods are sold by the roadside.
At La Posada del Rio Sonora in Banámichi, the cooks make the cheese soup called caldo de queso, and eggs with machaca, dried beef, served with feather-light Sonoran flour tortillas. On the table next to the salt and pepper you’ll find chiltepin chiles, which look like holly berries, with a little wooden mortar for grinding them to red-hot tasty flakes. (If you crumble them with your fingers, don’t rub your eyes ever again.) And the bar has bacanora.
If you don’t get out of Tucson, eat at Café Poca Cosa, whose Mexican-inspired menu changes daily, or the Arizona Inn, a gracious old hotel of pink adobe and privet hedges. The huevos rancheros, with chorizo, are not an ancient recipe, but yummy.
Lawrence Downes is an editorial writer for The Times.