Bonnie Raitt can pinpoint exactly how she has impacted her most devoted listeners.
And it has little to do with her eight Grammy Award wins between 1990 and 1992, her 2000 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Lifetime Achievement Grammy she received earlier this month, or her being the first female musician ever honored by Fender with a signature series of Stratocaster electric guitars back in 1995.
“The two greatest compliments I get, to this day, are: ‘You are one of the few musicians my mom and I can share’,” Raitt said, her voice tinged with pride.
“The other is: ‘I’ve never seen my husband cry, until we go to your show, and you sing ‘Angel from Montgomery’ or ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me.’ They send me handwritten letters, and it is absolutely gratifying.”
Raitt may soon be getting a fresh slew of fan mail from grateful listeners.
“Just Like That …,” her first new studio album in six years, is both one of the most heartfelt and most daring works in her storied 51-year recording career.
Raitt’s always-expressive singing is more soulful and nuanced than ever, while her songwriting achieves new levels of craft and sophistication. The music is exquisitely crafted but also isn’t over-thought or over-played. It sounds very much like the work of an iconic artist who is at the top of her game and still pushing to forge new creative paths that build on her past accomplishments.
As an added bonus, the almost telepathic interplay with her band members belies the fact they could not make music with each other for an extended period because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Raitt and her fellow musicians reconvened last year in a woodsy recording studio north of San Francisco, they had a shared sense of gratitude and celebration that is evident in each note that is played and sung on “Just Like That…”
‘I am so thrilled’
“I can feel it in the tracks on the album how thrilled we are to be playing together again,” said Raitt, whose “Just Like That …” tour with fellow Rock & Rolla Hall of Fame inductee Mavis Staples is her first since 2019.
“You can’t underestimate the impact of having canceled four or five tours, or of two years of not playing together. Now we’re getting ready for a tour, and we all have vaccines in our bodies.
“So many times, it looked like we would have the record done and go out on a tour, but didn’t. As sad as I am about all the things there are to be sad about in the world, I am so thrilled we now have that chance again.”
Raitt is quick to note that the pandemic did not affect her nearly as much as the concert tour production crew members and theater, arena and club employees whose livelihoods evaporated overnight.
“Forget the joy of collaborating and being on the road, although that’s a huge loss,” she said. “But the loss of all the income and security for the people I work with was much bigger. So, the least I could do is take the income I have earned over the years and spread it to the people I worked with.
“Because we thought we were going to tour Canada three or four times with James (Taylor), I had to reserve and hold my tour crew, which works six to eight months in a normal year. When my tour was postponed several times, paying them was the right thing to do. When the tour was canceled altogether, it was still the right thing to do.
“We’re all a family. And I can’t think of a better use of my income than to spread it around to the people who helped me get here in the first place.”
On the road again, finally
With her 2022 “Just Like That …” tour, Raitt is looking forward to reconnecting with her crew and fans in person. It will be her first opportunity to perform songs from her new album live, and the first for audiences to hear her new material in person.
Four of the standout numbers from “Just Like That …” — the title track, “Down the Hall,” “Waiting for You to Blow” and the Rolling Stones’ flavored “Living for the Ones” — rank among the most moving Raitt has ever written.
Set to a vintage jazz-funk electric piano vamp, “Waiting For You to Blow” is a wry song about resisting the temptations to backslide into unhealthy lifestyle choices. That’s a particularly resonant topic for Raitt — who has been clean and sober since 1988 — although the song addresses various temptations with a knowing wink under its serious message.
“I’m really proud of ‘Waiting For You to Blow’ because I wanted to try something new for me, a mixture of ‘70s funk and jazz,” Raitt said. “l love Eddie Harris, Les McCann and The Crusaders, and I wanted to hybridize that style of jazz-funk and put to lyrics about a serious subject that had a sardonic satirical bent to them.
“Sometimes, it’s nice to take life’s boogie-man, set it to a good funk groove and laugh at the human condition. So, if you have a little devil on your shoulder, whether you’re in recovery or not — those things that make you eat too much or not tell truth — this song addresses those little character defects that say to you: ‘Come on, nobody will know you stayed up an extra three hours last night.’ “
“Down the Hall” was inspired by a prepandemic New York Times magazine article Raitt read about a prison hospice program, while “Just Like That’s” title track grew out of a Bay Area news report that chronicled how two families beset by tragedies were connected by an organ transplant.
“I was inspired by those two stories and putting myself in the third person,” said Raitt, whose late father was Broadway musical star John Raitt.
“I usually write my ballads on electric piano. I wanted to go back to the power of doing all those acoustic guitar songs, which brought back how much I loved all those early John Prine, Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan records where they played their guitars and told those stories.
“I was also inspired by growing up watching my dad sing in his touring musical theater companies. He sang those beautiful Rodgers and Hart songs where you can crawl into those characters.”
She paused for emphasis.
“I didn’t write ‘Down the Hall’ and ‘Just Like That’ to be connected, but they are two songs about the power of redemption and grace. The last few years have had so much vitriol, hatred and toxicity in this country, more than I’ve ever seen. These stories I based the songs on moved me so deeply and I’m so proud to share them.”
Raitt is a great believer in giving each song she records — whether written by her or someone else — ample time to gestate and evolve.
The fact that, since 2011, her albums have come out on her own label, Redwing, ensures she does not face the deadline pressures that are often a fact of life for many artists in the music industry.
“Like I would have let a record company tell me anything!” Raitt said with a laugh. “I told both labels that I was with (before Redwing): ‘I’ll decide what I write, what I record, with who, when it comes out, and be in charge of my music. And I will work my tail off, tour and do a lot of interviews.’
“In terms of my own songwriting, I write on assignment. When I know that I have seven or eight songs of other people’s that I want to do, I have them percolating for as long as they need to.
“Like, (NRBQ band co-founder) Al Anderson’s ‘Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart,’ I’ve had waiting for 30 years for me to put on the right record. The Toots and the Maytals’ song, ‘Love So Strong,’ which is on my new album, I’ve had (waiting to do) since 2016.
“When I have a batch of songs (by other writers) framed out, I look at what other things I want to say. And one of the ways I stretched on this album was with the ‘story songs’ — ‘Down the Hall’ and ‘Just Like That.’ I mostly write for myself.”
On the song “Living for the Ones,” which she co-wrote with her longtime guitarist George Marinelli, Raitt was also writing for family members and close friends who have passed away. The music rocks with fervor, while the lyrics examine issues of mortality with sensitivity and insight gained from personal experience and loss.
“ ‘Living for the Ones’ is the one song on my new album that I wrote during the pandemic,” she said. “That’s how I started feeling when I lost my brother in 2009 and he couldn’t walk or see in last six months of his life. Whenever you’re living with somebody who is losing the ability to live, you very quickly stop complaining about your own pains. So I had a lot of practice (for the pandemic).”
A storied career, etched in blues
Raitt was just 21 when her self-titled debut album was released in 1971.
She earned almost instant acclaim for her impassioned singing, her striking instrumental prowess as a bottleneck guitarist and her precocious command of earthy American music styles, from Delta blues, folk and honkytonk to Dixieland, vintage R&B and country.
Equally impressive was her ability to deliver definitive interpretations of songs written by other writers, a talent that has been a constant throughout her career.
Raitt’s command at performing a variety of blues styles with such conviction and skill came from her love for the music, but even more so from being mentored by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace and other masters she befriended as a blues-obsessed teenaged musician.
Or, as Raitt explained in a 2000 Union-Tribune interview: “I just loved Delta blues. I never looked at it in terms of musical genre or gender. It did tickle Fred McDowell that I was so passionate about blues. I already knew how to play, so he was mostly shaking his head in wonder, as did most of the blues people. They got a kick out of it. It didn’t bother them that I was a girl. They liked it any time White kids picked up on the blues.
“And my relation with them was really on a personal level, as buddies and mentors. It was more like hanging with them taught me some life lessons about how to be a woman. There were lessons about how they treated women and how they acted as parents, so what I learned from them had more to do with life than music. To have access to that many (blues) legends was the greatest gift in my life.”
Raitt built a devoted following that grew with each new album and tour. But broad mainstream success eluded her until her 10th album, “Nick of Time,” came out in 1989.
It earned her three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, Best Female Rock Vocal and Best Female Pop Vocal. She accepted a fourth Grammy the same day for Best Traditional Blues for her sizzling duet on “I’m in the Mood” with blues legend John Lee Hooker.
On April 13, “Nick of Time” was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. On April 3, Raitt received her Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in Las Vegas. It was presented a year late, because of the pandemic, and minus any ceremony or speech.
“I’m glad that I’m getting this award when I’m still mobile,” said Raitt, 72. “I know that I am appreciated whether anybody gives me the (Lifetime Achievement Grammy) or I make a speech.”
In March, she received Billboard magazine’s Women in Music Icon Award in Los Angeles. It honors artists of “extraordinary accomplishment, who have made historic contributions.”
Raitt, who co-founded Musicians United for Safe Energy in 1979 and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1988, used her Icon acceptance speech to speak out on issues near and dear to her.
“Let us keep fighting to bring more equity and opportunity to women in all aspects of our industry and society at large,” she said, before thanking “my mom and dad for inspiring my love of music and standing up for what’s right.”
A longtime social activist who was raised as a pacifist by her Quaker parents, Raitt also addressed the war in Ukraine during her Icon speech, telling the audience: “My heart is heavy for the people of Ukraine, and I know the Russian people are not in agreement — so many of them — with what’s being done. I pray for all the people who are working hard for peace, (and for) the man who started the war. May he have a transformation.”
She concluded her remarks by saying: “I can’t think of a better tribute to thank you than heading back out on the road soon doing what I love, with a new album and finally over this pandemic. Stay safe everybody. … Here’s to the people of Ukraine. Here’s to all of you celebrating women in music.”
This year’s Billboard awards ceremony was postponed from 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event also spotlighted such young artists as Olivia Rodrigo, Phoebe Bridgers, Karol G and Summer Walker.
“Billboard honored me because I’ve been around 50 years and been an example for women guitar players and, hopefully, band leaders, and for mixing music with activism and championing (other) songwriters and the blues and rhythm-and-blues that we, as artists, owe so much to,” Raitt, a Burbank native, said.
“I’m very proud of my being acknowledged if it makes people pay attention to those things. Not that I take it for granted, but it makes it important to ring those bells again. And I hope that younger people, who don’t know who I am, will say: ‘Wow, look what she accomplished. She didn’t worry about speaking out. She didn’t compromise’.”
Raitt’s multigenerational appeal was underscored in her conversations with some of the other honorees at the Billboard event.
“To have all these younger women, who are from much more commercial music genres than I’m involved with, come up and say to me that their moms played ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me,’ and that they grew up singing it, made me very proud,” she said.
In a 1998 Union-Tribune interview, Raitt — then 48 — said: “I feel much more secure at this age than I did in my early 20s.”
How does she feel now, 24 years later?
“Iconic! But you have to write ‘Iconic, she said with a laugh’,” said Raitt, who indeed was laughing. She then grew more serious.
“I feel very appreciated and respected, and that is really a beautiful way to feel at any time. I probably felt like that in 1998 because of the ‘Nick of Time’ Grammy-win, and the ensuing greater appreciation of who I am and what I do has never stopped meaning so much to me.
“So, I feel confident I’m appreciated. And that’s a great way to feel no matter what job you have or what age you are. And with my getting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys, I could (pass away) tomorrow and know I would have been appreciated.”