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Bonnie Raitt has plenty to talk about

An in-depth chat with the music legend

on October 15, 2009 No comments

Julio Diaz • jdiaz@pnj.com • October 15, 2009

Bonnie Raitt didn’t intend to go into the music business. But 40 years later, it’s hard to imagine the music business without her.

The music legend, who plays the Saenger Theatre on Tuesday, said she music was a hobby until she needed to make a little extra money in college.

“I got the idea that maybe I could open for some of my heroes at a local folk club,” Raitt, 59, said during a telephone interview with the News Journal. “I auditioned, and through some connections of people that I knew, I got the gig. I wasn’t expecting to do music as a career, I kind of fell into it.”

It’s hard to argue with the results. Raitt is one of the most respected women in the music business, with multiple Grammy Awards, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a string of hits such as “Something to Talk About,” “Love Sneakin’ Up on You” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to her name.

In an extensive interview, she talks about her long and storied career, her faith and her passion for politics.

Q: You’ve been a part of the music scene for so long. How did it start for you?

A: Well, I did music as a hobby. I grew up in a very musical family. My dad was a well-known Broadway star, leading man in “Carousel” and “Pajama Game.” So I had a very musical background, and I just naturally fell into folk music. It was kind of a craze around the country in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The Kingston Trio and Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan were all blasting open across colleges and getting on the cover of Time magazine. So really, I’m a child of my era in the sense that I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll and folk music at the same time everybody else did. I picked up the guitar at about 9 years old and taught myself to play Joan Baez songs and folk music, and then I fell in love with the blues when I was a teenager and I heard some country blues records. And like everybody, I loved the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — especially the Stones, because they turned me on to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. So music was kind of a hobby for me.

Q: What was it about the blues that first really grabbed you?

A: It’s hard to put it into words, it’s one of those things that you either like or you don’t. A lot of people like to put blues in kind of a box and have it have to be it in its purest form. For me, I don’t see a big difference between soul music and Chicago blues and Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones are just as valid as Son House and Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker. I just like it because its so soulful and funky. I love the rhythms, I love the scale of it — meaning not size, I mean the musical scale of it. There’s something about it that just calls to me, I’ve always just loved it.

Q: You were one of the first female guitarists who was widely recognized as an amazing guitarist, and it still seems to be rare that women are recognized as great guitarists. Why do you think it can be hard for women guitarists to be recognized?

A: Well, I think first of all there’s a lot of excellent guitarists that just aren’t lead guitarists or not necessarily in the genre of blues. Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading and Nancy Wilson from Heart — there’s a lot of great women instrumentalists who happen to be songwriters as well that are very innovative on guitar, Joni being one of the main ones. Shawn Colvin comes to mind, as well. It’s no small feat to accompany yourself in a way that allows you to play a song even without a band and make it interesting and have a lot of different voicing. So I just want to go on record as saying I think there are more great women guitarists than are given credit.

But in terms of rock and blues, which is kind of what my field is, there certainly are more coming up all the time. Susan Tedeschi’s really making a big dent as a singer and songwriter, but especially as a guitar player as well. Rory Block is a contemporary of mine who has always just nailed the blues. She’s an incredible blues guitar player.

I don’t know, it’s probably just because there’s so many men that play guitar, and it was kind of a man’s music back in the days of plantations and playing at juke joints. It was just a little too rough for women to be able to be in the bars and not expect men to hit on them, I guess. Memphis Minnie was one of the first women, and she had to disguise herself as a man a lot of times to sit on street corners and play for money. But she was a big star back in the ’30s and ’40s. There’s been a lot more women than have gotten press. So I’m happy to be in that tradition.

Who knows why there’s not more that are getting up to the level of Stevie Ray Vaughn or Jimi Hendrix? But I expect that one day, we’ll see somebody on that capability.

Q: You’re almost as well known as a political activist as you are as a musician. What drives you to get involved in political causes?

A: The way I was raised. I was raised Quaker, and my parents were very active in the peace and civil right movements. That’s kind of what was going on in the time of my childhood. It was the Cold War, and Quakers were always very involved in trying to get a Ban the Bomb test ban treaty, and that came about in 1963. The march on Washington for civil rights was a big part of my childhood. From that, I went into college, where we were all very active against the Vietnam War. So music was a hobby of mine, and politics was a passion of mine.

In my own family and in the artists I love, like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, they were all marrying their music to their political activism. It had to do with doing what’s right and leveling the playing field for people that didn’t get their fair shot. And whether it was Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger singing for the workers, or singing for countries that don’t have the same kind of political clout that we do in America, I just think giving something back and helping folks that don’t have that kind of a voice, that don’t have access to the big, corporate donations, that’s been something that’s really appealed to me. It feels like something that’s part of my life’s work, to be able to raise money and attention for grassroots organizations that are working on behalf of the environment or justice or equal rights.

Q: How are you feeling about the current political situation?

A: Well, it’s kind of a multi-headed monster. The Obama administration came into such an inheritance of two wars and a terrible economic situation and the ongoing problem of global warming. On all of those fronts, it’s an uphill battle because we’ve got so much dissension. I like to say it’s an auction, not an election, because there’s so many lobbyists and so many Congressional seats that are basically paid for by corporate donations. I think without some serious electoral campaign reform, we’re going to continue to have business as usual even though we had an exciting change, in my point of view, from when Obama won last November. It was a chance to get some other opinions heard and hopefully pass some legislation. This health care fight and the Afghanistan fight and the climate change fight and the economy are just huge problems. There are some aspects of decisions being made that I don’t agree with. It’s just important for us to all pay attention to both sides of the argument — not just both sides, but ALL sides of the argument — and try to make sure we hold our elected officials accountable, try to see what we can do to protect the economy and American jobs and the environment.

Q: How did your Quaker roots help to shape you as a person?

A: From the time they were persecuted in England and came to America, Quakers, because of their pacifism, have been not as popular. The way they feel about conflict resolution, that war should be a last resort, and really live it that way, and to keep talking until all sides are heard and there’s some kind of consensus. It comes from a deep-seated faith that there’s that of God in every person. And if you really want to honor love and God, and the teachings…

It’s basically a Christian faith, but it echoes a lot of the faith in Buddhism and Muslim faiths, as well. There’s just tremendous humanity in that you don’t resort to the levels of violence and taking more than you need, to try to do something to be of service, to help people that are suffering, to try to give everybody an equal shot and give something back. That we’re here on Earth to be of service to our fellow man and try to ease suffering where we see it and stop war where we see it. So that’s basically not a great summation of what Quakerism is, but that’s what it’s meant to me. So I really was very happy to be able to devote a lot of my life to doing something for the better good.

Q: You’ve had a lot of turning points in your career, but perhaps the biggest had to be in the late ’80s/early ’90s, with the success of “Nick of Time” and “Luck of the Draw” and all the Grammy Awards you won. What do you think clicked for you in that moment in time?

A: A lot of things conjoined in that time. I switched record labels — I had been dropped by my longtime label because they were taken over by some big corporate guys that felt that Van Morrison and myself and Arlo Guthrie weren’t bringing in enough cash, that they needed to move out the deck and get some other people in that were going to make some more money for them. When you switch from artistic development and staying loyal to the artists who are in it for the long term and your company gets taken over by people that just want to look at the quarterly bottom line — which is a lot of the problem we’re having with Wall Street and our thinking these days in our economy. You’ve got to develop artists and develop businesses and stay by them, and if something’s not working, then you make a shift.

For me, that relationship fell apart and I was picked up by Capitol, and that was an exciting new beginning. So some of it was a new record label that was excited about signing me.

Some of it was that I’d been sober for a couple of years, although it didn’t really get in the way of my music so much, it just gave me a fresh, renewed outlook on life and a lot more energy. I’d had a little break between the previous record, in ’86.

I made a great collaboration with Don Was and Ed Cherney, my engineer. I had found a bunch of great songs to do, and Don was the person to help me shepherd a better record.

Two other things happened, which was that Triple-A radio, or album-oriented radio — AOR, at the time — was developing, so I had a place to get played. And VH1 was coming on the heels of being developed right after MTV, which was really more of a youth-oriented television video programming. VH1 was for people over 30, so coming in at 40 years old, it was really great to be able to have a video that got played. I think the combination of good reviews and a new company and myself being renewed, all of those things conjoined to make that happen.

It was really an incredible blessing to have my so-called uni0n — you know, the Grammys are just 6,000 people that happen to be in the business, and they’re the ones that gave me those four Grammys in one night. I kind of got slapped on the front page of the paper like a Cinderella story, and my record shot to No. 1. I don’t know whether based on sales or how many people in the general population, I don’t think that I would have had that kind of success had it not been for the timing of everything on that night of the Grammys.

Q: What do you think about the way the music industry is changing now?

A: Well, it’s definitely changed completely what the climate of the music business is and what the mechanics are in terms of getting music out to people. It’s no secret that sales of CDs are dropping to the almost negligible point, and many of the big record labels have laid off thousands of people or have closed down. There’s got to be a new model out of this, and there’s already some very exciting ways that artists like myself that are able to tour, it’s more like in service of the tour and the music is being put out on the Internet so that it’ll drive live tickets.

We just finished playing a national tour double-billed with Taj Majal, we did our Bon-Taj Roulet, and we did great business and got terrific reviews. It’s clear that even in these hard times people are really anxious to come out and feel better and get moved by music that has some quality to it. I’m very lucky that I got my foot in the door 40 years ago and still have this strong following. There’s a lot of people who aren’t as lucky and a lot of people in the industry that are out of a job.

But at the same time that it’s distressing, I think that it’s just a reinvention of what’s going to happen. Hopefully, down the road there will be a way for people to get music and realize that artists need to get paid. Everybody would love to get everything for free, but that’s just not the way to look at the music business. If you’re going to have musicians that give up their day jobs to make music for you to enjoy, you’ve got to be able to give them a fair living. That’s the challenge.

Q: You mentioned the tour with Taj Majal. Talk a little more about that.

A: In the summertime, you can play to bigger audiences. You play outdoors, and there’s what they call the shed circuit, which is anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 seats can fit into these big outdoor venues that are outside of most major cities. Usually what happens is if you do a winter tour, an inside tour in the winter, you play to 3,000-seaters and then you double up with another co-bill in the summers. I’ve done that now for 19 albums worth of 40 years on the road.

Of all the people I’ve ever wanted to tour with and just haven’t had the opportunity because he was already on his own tour, or I was headlining my own tour, Taj Majal has been somebody that I’ve admired and been friends with for 40 years, but the timing has never worked out until this summer. I brought the idea that I’ve had for almost 10 years now of calling it the Bon-Taj Roulet, which is kind of a take off on the Cajun expression “let the good times roll — laissez les bon temps roulez.” I said, “listen, this is something that we could start with just our two bands combined, play separate set, and then at the end of the night we bring both bands on stage — we have an incredible array of R&B and reggae and calypso and rock ‘n’ roll tunes to draw from with this powerhouse of a double band.”

So that’s what we did. I think there’s up to 50 songs up on YouTube now from various dates along the 35-city tour.

Q: This concert in Pensacola was originally scheduled before the tour with Taj Majal and ended up being rescheduled. Can you talk a little bit about what happened?

A: My brother was fighting brain cancer since 2001, and he developed another tumor last year. I came off the road to take care of him. He unfortunately passed away in April. So this is a rescheduling of dates because of his illness.

Q: What can your fans expect when they come to see you on Tuesday?

A: Well, it’s been a while since we’ve been there, and we’ve got a terrific band. Most of the guys in the band are the same ones I’ve had off and on since “Nick of Time.” James Hutchinson, my bass player has been since ’83. We have a new guy in our band on keyboards named Ricky Peterson, who’s worked with David Sanborn for 23 years as his music director, but I’ve known him since the late ’70s. He’s an incredible solo artist, as well. He sings some duets with me and plays an incredible array of keyboards.

Each one of the guys in my band are incredible singers and very eclectic in their musical tastes. We’re excited to be able to go back to doing our full show. We’ll be dipping into some songs from the old Warner Brothers days, and doing some blues and a lot of songs from the last few albums, as well as a string of hits that I know people have come to hear me to hear — “Something to Talk About,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and “Angel of Montgomery,” we’ll certainly be doing those as well.

It’s been too long since we’ve been to your town, so I’m really looking forward to it.

Source: © Copyright Pensacola News Journal

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