Ronstadt Generations – Rooted In Family
By Mark Mussari
“Though leaves are many,” the Irish Poet William Butler Yeats once observed, “the root is one.”
Sit down to talk with the members of Ronstadt Generations — Michael J. Ronstadt and his sons Michael G. and Petie — and you’ll feel the strength of their roots in Tucson, Arizona.
In the late 1980s, Linda Ronstadt — the family’s most celebrated member and Michael J.’s older sister — explored the family’s Mexican roots in two hugely successful albums, Canciones de Mi Padre (Songs of My Father) and Mas Canciones (More Songs). Her forays into folk-rock, country, and American standards had already made the family name world-renowned by that time.
Today, with Linda retired and unable to sing because of Parkinson’s disease, Ronstadt Generations are keeping the family’s musical legacy alive. Michael J., who has sung harmony with Linda on numerous recordings, calls it “genetic memory.” He uses the desert vegetation that grew at his grandfather’s house as a symbol for their familial musical gift. “They all had olive trees, and oleander, and nopal cactus — and it has carried through to all the houses our family has owned,” he explains.
That grandfather — Frederico José María Ronstadt — was born in Sonora, Mexico and moved to Tucson when he was 14. He brought with him an innate love for and knowledge of music, eventually forming Club Filarmónico Tucsonense, one of the city’s first orchestral ensembles. “He could read and write music, and he taught all the musicians how to play their instruments,” explains Michael J. “He even wrote out many of the arrangements because they had no money to buy sheet music.”
Fred Ronstadt then passed that musical affinity onto his children, including Gilbert Ronstadt, the father of Linda and Michael J. “Music is one of the first sounds we hear,” Michael J. adds, “and I think there has to be a component of nurturing from the family as well.”
“When I think of our music,” muses Petie, who sings, writes, and plays bass guitar, “I think of a mesquite tree root system I saw mounted on a wall at a venue where we played recently. I call our specific sound Tucson Roots in America — all the seeds of our music were planted here in this city.”
That supercharged musical gene has helped to define various members of the Ronstadt family across five generations, providing an undeniable sense of place to everything they do. Singing as a family has always been an integral aspect of their everyday lives. “It gave generations some commonality, something we’ve lost in our fragmented society,” says Michael J., who also writes and plays guitar, mandolin, and mandocello.
Though he plays by ear, his sons are both trained: an accomplished musician and instructor, Michael G. holds a Master’s and Bachelor of Music in Cello Performance, and Petie has studied both bass guitar and upright bass.
Yet, it was a post-Thanksgiving dinner jam session in 2009 that actually gave birth to Ronstadt Generations. Their eclectic music, including original compositions and covers, spans time and genres, including 19th-century folk songs, protest songs, Mexican huapangos, rock, and roots music. “We all ended up doing this because we love the art form of music,” observes Petie. “We love existing in that conversational space.”
A respected studio musician who has appeared on more than 50 albums in the last ten years, Michael G. addresses the effect of his training. “Ultimately, it gives me the tools to understand what I’m doing,” he comments. “Training has given me an extra palette of tones that I listen to — from atonal 20th-century music to the Romantic era and all the way to Beethoven and beyond.”
What he does with the cello, though, is another story. In addition to his striking, emotive playing, Michael G. strums and plucks and invokes sounds from the instrument not usually associated with it, particularly on the folk and rock numbers.
The band’s repertoire runs the gamut from a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” to “El Camino,” a haunting Mexican ballad, to original compositions like Michael J.’s riveting “Mill of Oracle.” Intricate harmonies merge with profound musicianship on all these numbers. “I think there’s room for any type of music,” says Michael G., “as long as it’s genuine and the people are performing honestly with their instrument and voices.”
A moving cover of the 19th-century folk song “Wayfaring Stranger” finds the band doing what it does best, reinterpreting roots music in an authentic yet innovative way. “That’s one of those songs that resonates,” says Michael J. “I’ve seen that song help people time and time again — it’s a sad song that still leaves you with a feeling of hope.”
Petie’s “Will You Fade” offers an indictment of the chemical pollution of our rivers. “How can we allow our rivers to catch fire?” he asks. “Why is that a definition of freedom?” On “Prelude to a Highlife,” with its stomping hoedown rhythms, Michael G. Drives his cello like a country fiddle.
“With any group you weigh all your options and try them out,” Michael G. explains about song choice. “Typically, there’s a collective agreement on what works. It’s usually a group decision after trying a few options. We might record it and play it back and we’ll hear it. In the end, I think everyone tends to agree.”
Still, the band revels in the live playing. “There’s an emotional spark that happens when you’re part of something that can’t be recreated in a recording,” admits Petie. Michael J. adds that people “often come up afterwards saying they have been moved by something we played.”
When the band expands beyond its three core family members, it adds musicians known as Los Tusconenses (the name a reference to Fred Ronstadt’s ensemble). For example, member Alex Flores, a tenor saxophone player, is also the youngest inductee into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame. He too has felt the pull of Tucson. “I went everywhere, traveling with all kinds of bands,” he recalls. “We’re also fifth generation — our Yaqui ancestors came up in the 1850s to escape persecution in Sonora.”
The band’s recordings, available on iTunes, Amazon, and www.ronstadtgenerations.com, include the recently released Epilogue (2014), Prelude (2012), Lulo (2010) — and a collection of Americana (America, Our Home, 2012) and Christmas tunes (Memories of Christmas, 2012). Myriad live recordings are also available.
Ronstadt Generations frequently holds workshops — the most famous of which is their Canciones de Mi Padre workshop, developed for the Common Grounds on the Hill Arts Festival in Westminster, Maryland. Since then it has been held all over the country and abroad.
“The workshop is a living, breathing experience that evolves every time you walk into a new situation,” indicates Petie. “We started compiling a book that goes though the history of the family, some song sheets, technical information — as a guideline for what the workshop can encompass.” The workshop has consisted of three and five-day events, often featuring a concert.
The band also plays at rest homes, especially for Alzheimer’s patients. “As the music is happening, we can see the patients become more aware,” says Michael J. “We played a bunch of these places last summer and then went back last December — and many of the people remembered us.”
At one point, Michael J. alludes to his aunt, Luisa Espinel, a singer, dancer, and actress who even appeared in a film with Marlene Dietrich. Her 1946 book of Spanish folk songs — Canciones de Mi Padre — inspired and lent its name to Linda Ronstadt’s Grammy-winning mariachi albums. Espinel referred to the “wistfulness” of the songs’ melodies.
Perhaps this explains the allure of Ronstadt Generations’ sound. It isn’t simply the accomplished musicianship and arresting harmonies. It’s the reminder that popular music once embraced many genres of music, a wistful sense that what you are listening to is a sound and informed approach fading from the American music scene.
Yes, there’s a lot of the Tucson desert in the music of Ronstadt Generations — and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound of five generations of Ronstadts whispering their very heart and soul in every line.
Mark Mussari, Ph.D., is a freelance writer, translator, and scholar living in Tucson, Arizona.
#1 © 2014. Courtesy of Ronstadt Generations. All rights reserved.
#2 © 2014. Courtesy of Ronstadt Generations. All rights reserved.
#3 © 2014. Courtesy of Ronstadt Generations. All rights reserved.
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#5 © 2014. Courtesy of Ronstadt Generations. All rights reserved.