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Linda Ronstadt opens up about the rare brain disorder that took her ability to sing

The 76-year-old rock icon reveals how she experiences music now.

She's known as the First Lady of Rock, a pioneering singer-songwriter whose distinctive mezzo soprano voice rang out on chart-topping hits, including ‘70s classics “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou.”

But Linda Ronstadt doesn’t sing at all anymore — at least not in a way that her fans are able to hear.

“I can sing in my brain,” the 76-year-old explained when she recently sat down with TODAY’s Maria Shriver.

In 2013, after years of struggling with her vocals, Ronstadt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. However, she later learned that she actually had a Parkinson’s-like disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the uncommon condition, which is caused by the deterioration of brain cells that control thinking, movement and coordination, mimics many of the same symptoms of Parkinson’s and dementia. And those symptoms worsen over time.

For Ronstadt, the disorder took away her ability to sing aloud, leaving her with only the music in her mind.

“It’s not quite the same,” she said of singing in her head. 

Especially since she doesn't always pick the tune when it comes to the songs only she can hear.

"Sometimes, I choose the song, and sometimes my brain chooses the song," Ronstadt told Shriver.

Adding to her frustration is the fact that it's often songs she would never select for herself.

"My brain chooses the worst music," she continued. "It just blares away in my head, like really bad Christmas carols."

Linda Ronstadt On Stage
Linda Ronstadt performs at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 7, 1983. Paul Natkin / Getty Images

Ronstadt, who’s sold more than 100 million albums over the course of her career, also remembers a time when she could still sing, but she struggled to be heard by a record executive. It was the 1980s, when she decided to honor her Mexican heritage with a Spanish-language album.

“He said, ‘Please don’t do this. It’ll destroy your career, what’s left of your career,’” she recalled. “And I, I just couldn’t hear him. ... It made me feel like we were being marginalized, and that Mexicans are invisible in this culture. They’re invisible. They’re expected to be in the kitchen, washing dishes or cooking for you or cleaning your house. But they don’t seem to have another context.”

In 1987, she went on to release “Canciones de Mi Padre,” a collection of traditional Mariachi music and the first of several Spanish-language albums from Ronstadt.

The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2021.