Midway through the 70s Linda Ronstadt was in no way disguising her talents. On September 27th, 1975, she released her studio album titled, “Prisoner In Disguise.” It would soon peak at no. 4 on the Billboard 200.
Looking at the hit songs from this album, for the Billboard Hot 100, “Heat Wave” peaked at 5, “Love Is A Rose” at 63 (5 on the Country Singles Chart), and “Tracks of My Tears” at 25 (4 on Adult Contemporary). “The Sweetest Gift” also peaked at 12 on the Country Singles Chart.
Right off the bat, what is cool about the design of this album is the small square you’ll find Ronstadt sitting in. It is just Ronstadt, and a cement wall and floor, nothing else. This picture goes hand in hand with the title. You see someone sitting in an empty space, nothing else is there, which sets the scene for the prisoner. You’ll also see her palm resting up against her cheek to show that she is in a bleak mood.
Another part of the design that catches my eye is the inside of the album, which features photos of the session musicians. It also has pieces of paper that have lyrics to the songs written on them. I like to think that having the lyrics written on these pieces of paper fits the scenario where someone writes a letter to someone that is in prison.
Zoomed in look at the album artwork (click on images to enlarge)
To show some of the impact this album had, according to a piece from countryuniverse.net, Country artist Trisha Yearwood once took this album to her producer and said, “This is the kind of music I want to make.”
“Prisoner In Disguise” followed what was her first no. 1 hit album “Heart Like A Wheel,” released in 1974. The fact that it managed to peak in the top 5 on the billboard charts shows that she still had what it takes. I doubt this was the deal breaker, but maybe what helped the continued success was covering James Taylor and J.D. Souther once again. After covering both of them in ’74, this album included “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox” by Taylor, “Silver Blue” by Souther, and the title track “Prisoner In Disguise” by Souther.
“Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox” is one of the more unique song titles you’ll find on this album, and the lyrics are distinct. What is interesting about the lyrics is that you think it’s cool to witness someone pick your song to play on the jukebox, but this protagonist isn’t having it that way.
Hey mister that’s me up on the jukebox
I’m the one singing this sad song
And I cry everytime, that you slip in one more dime
And play me singing the sad one, one more time – Chorus in “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox”
“Silver Blue” and “Prisoner In Disguise” mark the 4th and 5th song, of 7 Souther songs that Ronstadt would record in her career. At a time in the 70s, Both of them were dating, and Souther found himself on harmony vocals for both songs. When comparing the two, they are both easy going, and Souther can be heard more clear on “Prisoner In Disguise.”
It’s tough to prefer one song over another with this album, but at the end of the day “Tracks of My Tears,” and “The Sweetest Gift” take home a tie for first. “Tracks of My Tears” has a catchy beat, catchy lyrics, good use and timing of instruments, and perfect locations for the background vocalists to show what they’ve got. The melody for this song is something, and I can be found attempting to learn this song on acoustic guitar.
Ronstadt performing “Tracks of My Tears” in the studio
“The Sweetest Gift” is originally by James B. Coates, and Ronstadt’s version features Emmylou Harris on background vocals. This charming song’s best feature is the lyrics. It is about a mother who visits her son who is in prison. The mother still loves her son although he is in prison, and the gift she brings him is nothing flashy. Her gift to him is a mother’s smile.
In 1976, people got to see Dolly Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt perform “The Sweetest Gift” on Parton’s variety show. What is also ironic about this trio performance is that 11 years later, these three would release their first of two trio albums together.
Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt performing “The Sweetest Gift.” Rollingstone.com has an insightful look at this performance.
Next we have the up-tempo songs “Heat Wave and “Love Is A Rose,” then “Roll Um Easy.” The country classic by Neil Young “Love Is A Rose,” is the first song you’ll find on the album. Comparing Young’s version to Ronstadt’s, Young’s version isn’t seen as being up-tempo. You might just find yourself playing an invisible banjo, fiddle, tambourine, shaker, or harmonica to the song. Now the tables turn with the Motown classic, “Heat Wave,” wrote by Lamont Dozier, and Brian and Eddie Holland. This song was made popular by Martha and the Vandellas, while Ronstadt’s version received a warm welcoming of its own.
“Roll Um Easy” zeros in on a cool flow to the beat, and Ronstadt’s voice takes control of the song. A nice surprise is that Nigel Olsson who has worked with Elton John, was on drums for the recording of this song.
Crossing over to “Many Rivers To Cross,” it has an enjoyable guitar solo about halfway through the song. As the solo comes to an end, the background vocalists belt out “I’ve Got!” which leads into Ronstadt.
Ronstadt would record a Parton song for this album, “I Will Always Love You.” You may also know this song from Whitney Houston as she recorded it for the film The Bodyguard. Ronstadt is brilliantly elegant, and dazzling with her recording of the song.
The 11th and final song from this album, “You Tell Me That I’m Falling Down,” is originally by sisters Anna and Kate McGarriggle. This is a beautifully wrote song that really makes this album as a whole, the platinum selling album it deserves to be.
If anyone ever received this album as a birthday present, I wouldn’t be surprised if they thought it was their ‘sweetest gift.’