The 68-year-old was presented with the medal by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony.
She was honored for her “one-of-a-kind voice and her decades of remarkable music”.
The White House added she helped “pave the way for generations of women artists”.
Ronstadt, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, was brought into the East Room at the White House by wheelchair with the help of a military aide, but walked to the stage to receive the award.
When presenting the singer’s medal, President Obama revealed he “had a little crush on her back in the day”.
Best known for hits such as It’s So Easy and You’re No Good, her success in the 1970s – at a time when rock was dominated by men – is credited with inspiring women in the genre for decades.
She has released more than 30 studio albums covering a range of genres including country, jazz and big band.
The singer has sold more than 100 million records, earning her 11 Grammys and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
The Medal of Arts is awarded to individuals and groups who “are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States”.
“The arts and humanities aren’t just there to be consumed when we have a moment… we need them,” President Obama said at the ceremony.
Eleven other arts figures were honored, including Dreamworks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, novelist Julia Alvarez, documentary film-maker Albert Maysles and choreographer Bill T Jones.
Linda Ronstadt is a 11-time Grammy Award winner and superstar of both pop and country music. Her 1974 album, Heart Like a Wheel, sold more than 1 million copies.
Singer Linda Ronstadt was born on July 15, 1946, in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up surrounded by music. One of Ronstadt’s early musical influences was the Mexican songs her father taught her and her siblings.
Her mother played the ukulele and her father played the guitar. Following in her father’s footsteps, she learned to play guitar. She also performed with her brother and sister as a trio.
After graduating from Catalina High School, Ronstadt enrolled at Arizona State University where she met Bob Kimmel.
The pair left college to move to Los Angeles where they formed the Stone Poneys with Kenny Edwards. This folk trio released their first album in 1967. The group enjoyed a modest success with their second album Evergreen Vol. 2, which was also released in 1967. Their only hit was “Different Drum,” which was written by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees.
By the end of the 1960s, Ronstadt had become a solo act. She put out several albums before finally landing on the charts with Heart Like a Wheel (1974). The album had several hits, including “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved.” The recording went platinum—meaning it sold more than one million copies. Ronstadt quickly became one of the music superstar of the 1970s.
In 1975, Ronstadt continued to enjoy success on the album charts with Prisoner in Disguise. The recording featured the Neil Young cover “Love Is a Rose” and her take on the Smokey Robinson classic “The Tracks of My Tears.” With 1976’s Hasten Down the Wind, Ronstadt took on the Buddy Holly classic “That’ll Be the Day” and “Crazy” by Willie Nelson. Simple Dreams (1977) featured the Roy Orbison-penned “Blue Bayou,” which became a major hit.
In the 1980s, Ronstadt tried her hand at pop standards. She worked with famed arranger Nelson Riddle, with whom she put out three albums: Lush Life (1982), What’s New (1983) and For Sentimental Reasons (1986).
She also explored her Hispanic heritage by recording a Spanish-language album, Canciones de Mi Padre (1987), which was filled with traditional Mexican songs like the ones her father loved. Two other Spanish-language albums followed: Mas Canciones (1990) and Frenesi (1992).
In 1989, Ronstadt won a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program, for her work on the television series Great Performances (1970), which has been airing on PBS since the early 1970s.
Ronstadt continued to experiment with different musical styles. In collaboration with Ann Savoy, she took on Cajun music in her latest album Adieu False Heart (2006). Since then, Ronstadt has focused more on her personal life, choosing to spend more time with her family. She adopted two children, Clementine and Carlos, when she was in her early forties. For many years, she lived in her hometown of Tucson with her kids.
She now lives in San Francisco. Despite relationships with former California governor Jerry Brown and filmmaker George Lucas, Ronstadt never married. She told The New York Times that “I’m very bad at compromise, and there’s a lot of compromise in marriage.”
In August 2013, Ronstadt revealed the reason she had been absent from the music scene in recent years. She has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which she says has prevented her from singing. “I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t figure out why,” Ronstadt explained to aarp.org. “I think I’ve had it for seven or eight years already, because of the symptoms that I’ve had. Then I had a shoulder operation, so I thought that’s why my hands were trembling.”
That fall, Ronstadt delved into other aspects of her life in her autobiography, Simple Dreams. The book follows her journey to becoming a music legend, but it does not touch on her illness. Despite the physical challenges she faces with Parkinson’s, Ronstadt went out on a book tour to promote her memoir. The book provides readers with an inside look at her youth in Arizona, her early days in the L.A. music scene and her life as a pop star in the 1970s and 1980s.