The cover was a black and white close-up of a woman, her hair windswept, her name scrawled above her in a font usually reserved for truck stops: Linda Ronstadt. I’d retrieved the album and its torn shell of Columbia Record Club packaging from a stack of unwanted mail on the credenza, and I stood now in the doorway of my older brothers’ room. It was 1977. Ralph wore a T-shirt with ironed-on letters that spelled “Piss On Disco.” David sprawled with his high tops hanging off the edge of his bed. Their walls were the color of Circus Peanuts. And their speakers, from which Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” blared, were so large that I’d been able to fit my nine-year-old self inside the frames during their endless construction.
I was enamored of my brothers, and followed their taste in music as if it were religion: the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Dead. And all of those other amazing men in bell-bottoms. What they sang about was women: Missus Cool riding out in her aged Cadillac, Sugar Magnolia waiting backstage, Evil Woman, Black Magic Woman. Even the muse Cecilia was a voiceless figure, a sexy silhouette. When they noticed me, my brothers eyed the record and each other. “Do you have five bucks?” Ralph asked. His meaning was clear: this was the mandatory album of the month, and he’d neglected to send it back. But what I registered was my own worthiness to partake in the currency of music. I handed over the exorbitant fee for what, according to record-club logic, should have cost one-twelfth of a cent.
After he closed the door, they may well have laughed, but I wasn’t listening. Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel was about to rock my world.
In my own room, I placed my new record on the turntable, plopped down on my Holly Hobby bedspread, and was entranced by the steady 4/4 bass line, the quick shift from minor to major as she belted out:Feeling better now that we’re through Feeling better ‘cause I’m over you I learned my lesson, it left a scar Now I see how you really are You’re no good You’re no good You’re no good Baby, you’re no good.
And just when I could barely contain my amazement, she burst forth with a vengeance:I’m gonna say it again You’re no good You’re no good You’re no good Baby you’re no good.
The next song, a cover of Paul Anka’s “I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” with its lone harmonica, slide guitar, and my-voice-can’t-help-but-crack country vocals had me blinking back tears.
Heart Like a Wheel confirmed what up until then had only been an aching suspicion. Nights could be thrown away, days wasted. Love could be a faithless, dark river. This wasn’t a male world of appearances and physical impulses, but a world deeply feminine, where emotions swelled. Where misery had a name in a hall of broken dreams. Older brothers could shut you out, boys at school ignore you, but it didn’t change the truth I understood deep in my girl’s heart.
By the time the title track came along with its soaring strings, I was hooked. “Heart Like A Wheel” is the only song on the album written by a woman, the Canadian folk singer, Anna McGarrigle: “Some say the heart is just like a wheel / When you bend it, you can’t mend it.” And there, singing harmony, was Emmylou Harris, whose voice caught every ache I would know or come to know.
Linda Ronstadt also offered me a way not to drown. There was always a bridge, a point in each song where things shifted, and life went on. I flipped the record over, and “When Will I Be Loved” rocked with the same I’m-not-gonna-take-it vengeance as the album’s opener. When things got too sad, you could get pissed off. You could hold a fake mic and air guitar yourself all over the room until whatever what’s-his-face said just didn’t matter.
Heart Like a Wheel was not only my guidebook for all the ways love could feel, it was an entrance into a world of female performers—not just Emmylou, but also Nanci Griffith, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Rosanne Cash, Joni Mitchell. It turned out, that unlike the world of rock, folk and country had plenty of room for women who didn’t want to wait backstage.
Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” Little Feat’s “Willin’,” Hank Williams’s “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You.” Ronstadt took them all on. I had no idea what weed, whites, and wine were. But I knew she could handle them, and by association, I felt a little stronger. I cleared my throat and sang along.
The album wraps up with “Keep Me from Blowing Away” followed by James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” the one lullaby I’d ever learn by heart. Years later, it poured out of me to my surprise, well-stored and completely intact, on a musty couch on the back porch of my first real apartment, with the sun coming up, and a guy in my arms who made me burst with an emotion I didn’t know I had. And though the words weren’t hers, it was Ronstadt’s voice I heard in my head. Her voice saying you can love someone and still be you, you can step out from the image and open your mouth and tell whoever is ready to listen exactly what you feel.
Unlike my brothers, who have walls of LPs and host bands each year for SXSW, I am no longer an audiophile. Somewhere between teaching and parenting and trying to write, I lost track of all the latest bands, started feeling too old to line up for a keg at Waterloo Records. I still sing “You Can Close Your Eyes,” only now I sing it to my tired four-year-old daughter when I carry her slowly up the stairs: “I don’t know no love songs / And I can’t sing the blues anymore / But I can sing this song / And you can sing this song when I’m gone.” Her tangled hair, grown long through sheer will, brushes my face.
And the truth is I have no idea—without the sweet serendipity of record clubs or older brothers to rebel against—what songs she’ll sing, or keep locked inside her. I just hope for her a moment like mine, when I heard what my heart had to say.