Linda Ronstadt’s manager peeks in the door of the Elektra Records conference room and hands her a pair of knitting needles he’s bought at her behest. Oops, wrong kind. ”But thank you, that was a really nice try,” she tells him. Ronstadt, 53, is trying to knit socks for her two young children, for whom she ”basically went back to Tucson to retire four years ago,” she explains. ”I had no desire to spend my life calling them on the phone.” But now she’s away from the kids and back in the music industry’s clutches — momentarily — as she and Emmylou Harris, 52, have finally made good on a longstanding threat to record as a duo. The result, due Aug. 24, is Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, a lovely piece of work that knits about as close a combination of Hasten Down the Wind and Wrecking Ball as fans could hope for.
Unlike the two more traditionalist Trio albums they released with Dolly Parton in ’87 and ’99, this collaboration will have a tour behind it. ”I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’m really happy to experience music in my living room and not much beyond there,” admits Ronstadt, who remains extremely gregarious for an aspiring shut-in. ”Some of us don’t want to go on the road anymore, but Emmy’s bionic.” Agrees Harris: ”I’m just a road dog, pulling her along, going ‘Come on, Linda, you’re gonna have fun!”’ Retorts Ronstadt: ”I’m like, ‘I’ve been to that city already.”’ She does like the idea that the duo setup ”takes you off the hot seat,” to which Harris adds, ”It’s kind of like a tag team.”
Without Parton, the two singers’ harmonies stand in starker complementary clarity: ”My voice is very thick and kind of heavy,” Ronstadt offers, whereas ”Emmy’s voice always reminded me of cracked crystal.” Song-wise, Western Wall won’t be mistaken for Trio III, either. ”With the Trio, the discipline of having to stick to traditional stuff — because that’s what the three of us have in common — is welcome,” says Ronstadt, ”but when the two of us are together, it’s Katie-bar-the-door.” Or as Harris less colloquially puts it, ”We can do weird and more left-field things.” They’d tried cutting Andy Prieboy’s ”Loving the Highwayman” with Parton, for instance, but its ”Damned, damned, damned I am!” chorus sounded a little too sweet with that third honeyed voice. For Wall, the gothic & western tune provided the more daring duo a perfect dark opener…even if, outside the studio, Ronstadt’s more attuned to darning than damnation these days.