Linda Ronstadt makes Little Feat’s 1971 classic “Willin’” her own
The first time Linda Ronstadt saw Lowell George, he was
singing in a bar in Atlanta, and she fell instantly in love. They embarked on a
torrid romance that came to a sudden end a week later when Linda found out that
Lowell was married, which he’d neglected to mention.
In fact, the news came courtesy of Lowell’s wife Elizabeth,
who showed up at Linda’s door one morning. I’ve never heard Linda tell the story in exactly these words, but I’m
under the impression that Elizabeth opened with something along the lines of, “I bet Lowell didn’t
even tell you he’s married, did he?” Linda made no apologies for her sexuality,
but she firmly drew the line at other women’s men, so that was
the end of that.
For reasons that can best be summarized as “It was The
Seventies”, the three remained friends until Lowell’s untimely passing in 1979
at age 34.
As far as the singles charts, AM radio, and the Grammys are concerned,
Linda’s 1974 breakthrough album Heart Like A Wheel was borne aloft by “When Will I
Be Loved”, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, and especially “You’re No Good”, but I’m
here to tell you that over on the FM band, right after “You’re No Good,” Linda
Ronstadt was allllll about her cover of one of the gems of 1971, from Little Feat’s debut album,
a Lowell George track called “Willin’”.
The fact is that Feat’s 1971 version was a dud. The whole album wasn’t quite as good as it should have been, but “Willin’” in particular was a mess. The first
verse was spoken in a creepily cartoonish drawl that was seriously off-putting,
so the band re-recorded it in much finer fashion in 1972 for their terrific second outing, Sailin’
Shoes. Linda’s version of “Willin’” on Heart Like A Wheel blows the shoes
off both of ‘em.
In a way, it’s one of the ballsiest (sexist language duly
noted) cover versions that a woman had yet recorded. Not only did she keep the
gender as written (including the longing lament that “I see my pretty Alice in
every headlight”), but she fully took on the hyper-masculine dime-store noir persona
of the wounded, wasted truck driver in ways that nobody saw coming from this pretty
(This is Lowell with Linda in a Polaroid taken by her producer Peter Asher; my edit of an original you can find here.)
Linda wasn’t that man in the song, but she KNEW that man,
she knew that man better than Lowell himself did. She grew up with plenty of ‘em
passing through her family’s hardware store in Arizona (still Mexico when her family settled there in 1840), rolling through the grimy
backroads of the southwestern desert before the interstates were finished,
through the small towns that Linda had been through
way too many times herself, riding behind truckers taking longer routes to
avoid paying tonnage fees at interstate weigh stations.
And the drugs! Lord have mercy, the drugs. There’d never
been a chorus like this before. Not that this was at all a glamorous portrait of drug use, but the matter-of-factness made it all the more startling. This wasn’t some groovy encouragement to drop out. This was about doing whatever it takes to finish the job.
Well I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonopah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Ridden the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I’ll be willin’
To be movin’
Those words coming out of Lowell George’s mind are a wondrous
thing, and in Linda’s voice, they’re nothing short of a miracle. When she sings
lines like, “I’ve been warped by the rain, driven by the snow, drunk and dirty
don’t you know” and “I’ve had my head stove in but I’m still on my feet, and I’m
still….willin’” – this is way, way past Rosie the Riveter. This isn’t just a
woman doing a man’s job. This is a woman the likes of whom had never come
bounding out of a radio speaker in human history.
Not that she didn’t get plenty of shit for it at the time,
and in many years since. A lot of men got very upset to find themselves made
redundant in their own songs, which is a story for another day. Lowell,
he loved what Linda did with “Willin’”, and incorporated some of what he learned from her into his own subsequent versions, which is also a story for another day.
For now, I’ve got two tasty live renditions of “Willin’” for
you, in two very different contexts. The first is the one you’ve hopefully already been playing from the top of the post, from 1976, Linda comfortably getting on
top of her game as the biggest woman in popular music (a fact WAY
too easily forgotten), selling records and filling arenas in numbers that no solo artist of any
gender had yet come close to achieving over such a long span (way WAY too easily forgotten).
She’s always been shy, never did
get comfortable talking on stage, but here opens with a great story featuring 70s concert legends Showco, the Dallas-based production company that put on pretty much
every great tour of the era. Those pictures of caravans of 18-wheelers carrying
sound and lighting rigs for people like Led Zeppelin? That was Showco.
tells the tale of them getting stopped at the German border on the way to this
particular show, forced to unload and reload all the trucks for inspection and barely making this show in time,
before launching into a sweet, bright version of what had already become a highlight of
The second version is here below, for Lowell’s tribute concert in 1979.
When he died so young (albeit not too suddenly; a man of too many appetites to
stay ahead of them for long), his friends gathered in Los Angeles to raise
money for Elizabeth and their 5 year old daughter Inara. (Inara has grown up to
be a fine musician herself, btw. I first encountered her as one half of The
Bird and the Bee, and she’s also a member of two other bands: Merrick, and The
Linda was there of course, as were Jackson Browne, Bonnie
Raitt, Nicolette Larson, and surviving members of Little Feat (notably on this
track: Billy Payne on piano). Other versions of “Willin’” were performed as an
anthem of sorts. A ballad yes, but a rollicking tale told by a snake charmer.
This time, Linda and friends slow it down half a beat to underscore the ache of loss that was always there in the song,
and here brought fully into the spotlight.
There are so many great Linda Ronstadt performances, so many
great songs by so many great male writers that she’s made her own, and yet to
me, her version of “Willin’” towers over all of them.
Finally, it’s one thing to say that she used Lowell’s song
to create an unexpected and unprecedented portrait of a hard-working woman, but
it’s striking to see the ways in which women in popular music are still forced
into such a limited handful of acceptable roles, and to contemplate the number
of jobs and lifestyles that still aren’t realistically options for women in the
world, nearly 50 years after this remarkable song’s debut back in 1971.