Every once in a while an artist creates an almost-perfect album — and so it was with Linda Ronstadt and Heart Like A Wheel.
Ronstadt’s career had been on the rise both commercially and creatively but there was no advance notice as to what 1974’s Heart Like A Wheel would accomplish. It would reach the number one position on the United States album charts while spawning number one singles on both the pop and country charts. It enabled her to win her first Grammy Award, appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, all the while selling millions of copies. And it remains one of the best fusions of country and rock music in history.
Peter Asher had produced several tracks for 1973’s Don’t Cry Now. Here he was in complete control and put together a smooth, intimate and brilliant album. He surrounded Ronstadt with some of the best musicians of the day, including Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Emmylou Harris, Kenny Edwards, Maria Muldaur, Timothy B. Schmidt, J.D. Souther, and Andrew Gold. And Asher manages to keep them under control so that they enhance Ronstadt without overwhelming her.
“You’re No Good” is the lead track and with Ronstadt’s powerful vocal out front, it quickly signals that her sound and style have changed for the better. Treading a perfectly fine line between rock and country, the song climbed to the top of the singles charts. As good as that song was, though, “When Will I Be Loved” is probably better, this Everly Brothers cover ultimately reaching number two on the pop charts and number one in country. Her lead-in vocal has a purity and when the instruments kick in everything just soars.
While the two big hits were up-tempo, in many ways the foundation of the album are ballads. “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” was an old Hank Williams tune which she modernized with a smooth vocal, winning a Grammy for Best Country Vocal. She gets Lowell George’s “Willin’” just right as her phrasing is perfect. “The Dark End Of The Street” contains one of the more emotional performances of her career. And James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” makes for the perfect album closer.
Heart Like A Wheel spent a year on the charts and pushed Ronstadt to superstar status. She has released dozens of albums during the course of her career, but if you have to pick just one, this is it.