When an icon drops her first album in six years, you sit up and take notice. Bonnie Raitt made her earliest record a half-century and more ago, in August 1971. She was 21 and could easily have been carded; the face on the cover of Bonnie Raitt—that first album—has yet to shed all its baby fat.
Eighteen albums followed, through 2016’s Dig in Deep, before Raitt took time off to rest, take stock, then wait out the pandemic. In summer 2021, she put the call out to her longtime band, and work commenced on her 20th album. Like its predecessors, Just Like That is roots-inflected pop of the highest order.
The arc of Bonnie Raitt’s life is common knowledge: daughter of a not-quite-top-tier star of the golden age of the Broadway musical (footnote 1); Radcliffe freshman besotted with the blues; Radcliffe dropout taking the blues on the road; hitting the bottle in emulation of her hard-living heroes; growing a small but ardent following; dumped by her label due to sluggish sales; kicking the bottle and tapping into the anxiety of her graying fellow boomers to vault into a megastardom that has long outlasted her years in the wilderness. Twenty million albums sold; 10 Grammys; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2000; feminist, anti-racist, bearer of political witness.
Given this now-familiar throughline, Stereophile chose to go not with a personal but, rather, a musical narrative: a 50-year memoir in eight songs, from 1971’s “Big Road Blues,” a classic by one of the Mississippi Delta Johnsons—Tommy, not Robert—to the new album’s “Waitin’ For You To Blow,” the unsparing self-examination of an individual in ever-present danger of backsliding.
At 72, Raitt is striking out in a new direction as a songwriter: fictional narrative. In what to these ears are the most affecting songs on Just Like That, the title track and “Down The Hall,” Raitt imagines her way into two very different situations, to deeply moving effect.
If her voice is noticeably frayed, it’s been ridden hard for 50 years; if her sound has few surprises, the band still cooks, in a nourishing piece of work from a smart, gutsy woman whose music has worked its way into the souls of multiple, and counting, generations.
We spoke by phone in March, Raitt at her Marin County, California, home, busy making preparations to finally get back on the bus. The road is Bonnie Raitt’s middle name.
#1: “Big Road Blues” (from Bonnie Raitt, 1971)
Tony Scherman: Why on earth would someone record an album at a summer camp in the Minnesota woods?
Bonnie Raitt: Because it was the only place that would rent to a bunch of hippies and black people. In rural Minnesota in 1971, do you think you could just drive up with long hair and have someone rent you their house? I was living in Cambridge, but I wanted to make my record in Minneapolis because of its music scene. Willie Murphy and “Spider” John Koerner had made one of my favorite albums, Running, Jumping, Standing Still, and I wanted Willie to produce and his band, the Bees, to back me up (footnote 2). We wanted a place where we could all sleep and camp out and not have to get up and get 15 people to a studio. And we had a very limited budget.
We finally found a guy with a remedial reading summer camp about an hour outside of Minneapolis. I don’t think the camp even existed anymore, but that’s what it was, on a place called Enchanted Island on Lake Minnetonka, which we later found out was probably an Indian burial ground. Or there was one right around there. We all had gigs, so we were in and out of there for a month. It was a riot. I’d gone to summer camp in the Adirondacks, so it was really fun for me to be back in that setting, cabins on a lake. Junior Wells went fishing every day (footnote 3).
Willie produced and Dave Ray engineered and we recorded in the garage. We deliberately wanted to record live onto four-track, not in a regular studio, and Dave had a four-track recorder.
Scherman: What was the recording setup?
Raitt: Four-track recorder in the attic, and we ran the lines down into the garage. We brought in an upright piano for Willie to play. Piano in one corner, electric guitar in another, and me. There wasn’t room for everybody, so the horns were out in the driveway. And there were lots of bugs.
Scherman: So it was recorded more or less live.
Raitt: It was recorded absolutely live. We used what we had, which was microphones and stands. The horn section was part of Willie’s band, so they were used to working together. Which was good, because every time we recorded it was all of us together.
I always record live, more or less. Since 1979, I’ll do a couple of vocal takes and pick like the second verse from the third take. But everything’s pretty much live. Percussion and horns are overdubbed, and some guitar solos are overdubbed. If it’s one keyboard player, he’ll put in another organ part or something. But this session was absolutely live.
Scherman: What did you learn from the older, classic blues musicians you spent time with, Junior Wells, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, and others?
Raitt: I got a first-hand education in what it was like to be black in Jim Crow America. To tour when you couldn’t use the bathroom or stay in a hotel. In Fred McDowell’s case, to grow up working on a plantation and playing juke joints on the weekends. In Sippie’s case, it was great to get advice about men. And what it was like to be the only woman in a traveling group of guys.
I’d been listening to them on records, but here were the people themselves. I got to hear how they put a set together. I got some guitar tricks from looking at Fred’s hands up close, although I’d learned from his records before I met him. I had developed a pretty good blues collection, especially as I got older and could afford to pay $3 for an album. I loved the music so much, I taught myself to play. I was playing slide guitar by the time I was 16. But I had no intention of doing it for a living. I was just a fan. It was a hobby.
Scherman: Did you know Son House?
Raitt: I did, yes. I knew who Dick Waterman was and Dick managed Son, which is how I met them both (footnote 4). I was in my freshman year in college when my dear friend on the Harvard blues station, a blues fan just like me, said, “You know, Dick Waterman lives in Cambridge, and Son House is in town. Would you like to meet him?” And that’s how my life changed, by going to Dick’s and meeting the great Son House.
Scherman: Did any of George’s production work make it to the final album?
Raitt: Yes. It’s like a movie director taking over partway through, you don’t shoot the whole thing over again.
Scherman: That horn break [1:40 to 2:05] is pure New Orleans–style collective improvisation.
Raitt: Exactly, that was our intent. Otherwise, it would just be a jukebox recreation of the original hit. We wanted a Dixieland romp, just like my song “Give It Up” [from Give It Up, Raitt’s second album].
#3 & 4: “About To Make Me Leave Home” and “Three Time Loser” (from Sweet Forgiveness, 1977)
Scherman: These are two of the first songs where you really step out on electric slide guitar (footnote 7). Who did you learn the most from about playing slide?
Raitt: I loved Son House, and I loved Fred McDowell, but Ry Cooder changed everything. And Lowell, who used a compressor. Those two, Ry Cooder and Lowell George, are the ones I was most influenced by.
Scherman: What makes your slide sound distinctly yours?
Raitt: I have no idea. That’s for the listener and the journalist to figure out. I just put on the guitar and play.
Scherman: Early on, did you have trouble being accepted as a woman slide guitar player?
Raitt: No, if anything, I got my foot in the door and got a record deal because I played slide.
Scherman: Did anybody ever say, “You play just like a man”?
Raitt: No, because I probably would have slapped them.
Scherman: I wonder why you didn’t take the route that someone like Rory Block did and become a full-time blues player (footnote 8).
Raitt: Because I have very eclectic taste. The mix of songs I’ve done over the years is not that different from one album to the next. There’s a little bit of R&B and some torch songs and a couple of folk ballads and singer/songwriter songs and maybe some ethnic. Rory’s her own person and focuses on blues.
#5: “Nick of Time” (from Nick of Time, 1990)
Scherman: Let’s jump ahead to your commercial breakthrough. What was the impact of being sober on the making of the album?
Raitt: Well, it wasn’t like I’d been hammered all the time. I didn’t record my records drunk or anything. It was more like having a better lifestyle and more self-awareness. I mean, I’d been sober a couple of years. I was in a really good place physically and emotionally and mentally and was happy to have a record label that was excited about me.
Scherman: From the first time I heard this song, what struck me was what I heard as a late-’80s, smooth-groove, Sade sort of feel. Was that what you and [producer] Don Was were going for?
Raitt: No. Philadelphia soul was the inspiration, the Philadelphia International sound. All those Spinners and Stylistics songs. Actually, Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was the first time that basic groove was used. It was just a type of soul music that we all grew up with; I was touching base with the kind of R&B that I love.
Scherman: I hear several different musicians providing what you’ve called the song’s “heartbeat” groove, that sinuous boom-chicka, boom-chicka.
Raitt: Right, Ricky Fataar, my drummer, took a burlap sandbag, the kind you use to hold down a mike stand, put it on his lap and played it with his hands with a mike nearby. The percussionist Paulinho da Costa came in and overdubbed conga, and Ricky laid down a great drum part.
#6: “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (from Road Tested (live, 1995))
Scherman: Your voice simply soars on this, especially when you hold that one note—”I will give uuuup this fight”—for what feels like forever [3:00–3:05]. I consider this your best vocal on record.
Raitt: Well, thank you.
Scherman: Do you?
Raitt: I don’t compare my vocals. But I love that song. I loved recording the original with Bruce Hornsby, and of the takes we recorded for Road Tested, this was definitely a special night.
Scherman: Over the years, how much time have you put in working on vocal technique?
Raitt: None. I don’t think about it. I mean, I’m the daughter of a singer, I grew up in a musical home, I listened to tons of singers growing up, Aretha and Marvin Gaye and Robert Johnson and Sippie Wallace. I just always sang for fun and have a pretty good ear. Now that you mention it, I took some therapeutic lessons when I was losing my voice in the ’70s from singing too many belting songs. Our touring schedule was punishing: on the road 10 months a year, multiple shows a night. So it was nice just to get some advice. “Oh, you might want to do this song earlier in the set and not blow your voice out.” And I warm up now, as I’ve gotten older. In my 60s, I started doing a 20-minute warm-up the afternoon of the show. But no, I didn’t take any lessons on how to sing.
#7: “Ain’t Gonna Let You Go” (from Slipstream, 2012)
Scherman: That’s the song from this album that hits me hard.
Raitt: Thank you. I love that one too.
Scherman: How did you hook up with Mike Finnigan? (footnote 9)
Raitt: Mike was a legend in musician circles since he came out of Lawrence, Kansas. He was in so many bands where he blew it away. He was in Etta James’s band and Joe Cocker’s band, and he was 27 years with Crosby, Stills & Nash, so everybody that ever came to CSN shows was knocked out; a lot of times, Mike was featured. I met him when he was in Maria Muldaur’s band in the mid-’70s. Fantastic band, Earl on drums and Amos Garrett on guitar. And Mike made some great solo albums. He was like Bill Champlin from the Sons of Champlin and Max Gronenthal: great white soul singers. Mike was one of the greatest soul singers, ever, of any race. And he’s considered one of the masters of the B3.
Scherman: I never knew that you worked with Bill Frisell. [The eclectic guitar virtuoso contributes to three songs on Slipstream.]
Raitt: Bill was part of the Joe Henry sessions, and Joe put that band together. [Producer/singer/songwriter Joe Henry produced four of the songs on Slipstream.] The idea of having [guitarist/steel guitarist] Greg Leisz and me and Bill Frisell on three guitars was pretty amazing. Bill is one of the most unique and prolific and wonderful people, right up there with how I feel about Don Was. Just a stellar person, with no overriding ego.
Scherman: Ricky Fataar and [bassist] James “Hutch” Hutchinson have been with you for 30-plus years, more than half your career. What is it that makes this rhythm section special?
Raitt: You mean other than being incredible musicians? They’re just so empathetic with all the styles of music I love, from African to reggae to Celtic to New Orleans to country to the most subtle jazz. They have no boundaries, no affixing of style, they’re just very eclectic and their blend is magical. Thank goodness they still like working with me.
Scherman: Can you say what makes their blend special?
Raitt: I can’t. I just know that I love the way they play together.
Scherman: Your music has always been intensely collaborative. Can you think of one or two instances when you were aware that the interaction between you and another musician, or musicians, had raised the music to a higher level?
Raitt: No, I can’t. Of course, when you get to play with Bruce Hornsby, one of my heroes, an absolute genius on the level of Bill Frisell, and Billy Payne from Little Feat is another one. … When you get to collaborate with people like Jackson Browne and John Prine, to sing with my dad, to sing with Toots Hibbert, to sing with any number of female singers that I love duetting with—those are high moments. But I would say that I wouldn’t be able to trade those special moments for the magic that I have with my band every night. I just know how it makes me feel and how it makes the audience feel.
Scherman: You produced eight of the tracks on Slipstream by yourself. Was it any kind of adjustment, becoming producer? You were captain now; it was your show.
Raitt: I’ve been producing my records, really, since the beginning. It’s just looking for a collaborator that has connections with the record company and can do the diplomacy of organizing who’s going to play on which sessions, doing the meat and potatoes of the operation. A teammate.
And you can’t make a record without a fantastic engineer. When I did Slipstream, I met Ryan Freeland, and we just hit it off. I asked him, “Do you think we’re going to be able to integrate these Joe Henry songs?” Those were recorded in Joe’s home studio, with completely different sonics and equipment than Ocean Way. And Ryan said, “Yeah, I know how to make it match.” He’s been an incredible addition because he’s a musician, too, who understands things like all the subtleties of the different sounds that you can get off a different mike.
Scherman: When you produce, how much do you get involved with the sonics?
Raitt: You mean, how to mike the drums? I’m involved in all those decisions: what kind of amps, which guitar, which bass. The different mikes you use on a kickdrum can make all the difference. That’s the fun part of making records, putting all that together. It’s one of the things I love to do.
#8: “Waitin’ For You to Blow” (from Just Like That, 2022)
Scherman: This song reminds me of James Taylor’s “Johnnie Comes Back,” about somebody’s habit returning. And there’s a Jason Isbell recovery song, “It Gets Easier,” with that refrain, “but it never gets easy.” You’ve been sober for more than 30 years.
Raitt: Thirty-four years.
Scherman: Do you still feel like there’s a demon on your shoulder whispering, “Go ahead, it’s okay to have a drink”?
Raitt: No, I’m not worried about my sobriety. You don’t have to be in recovery to be nagged by things like procrastinating and making excuses and overeating and staying up too late and not returning phone calls and telling white lies and pushing people away because you’re afraid there’s nobody worth loving in there. Each of the verses is about a different type of slipping. Any behavior that’s got you by the short hairs. You have to work your self-awareness and check your behavior, otherwise you’ll just slip into a pit. You have to be vigilant.
To do “Waitin’ for You To Blow” up-tempo instead of as a ballad was inspired by years and years of listening to Mose Allison and Randy Newman, the way they approach serious subjects with a kind of sardonic humor.
Scherman: Last question. In the 1990s, you went out of your way to have your early albums remastered. Why?
Raitt: Because Warner Brothers [Raitt’s label for her first nine albums] did a terrible job. The original albums were mastered fine, for vinyl. Once I went to Capitol and had a hit record, Warner unceremoniously dumped all my albums onto the new format, CDs, remastered by machine with no oversight, no double-checking, and no input from me.
When I got around to listening through the CDs, I was shocked at how they sounded and told Warner that if they didn’t remaster them properly, I was going to ask everyone to send the records back and ask for a refund. And now I had the clout of public opinion, I could do a few interviews and talk about it, and they were, “Oops. I guess we’d better go back and do them with some sort of artistic integrity.” I brought in [engineer] Ed Cherney, who I was working with at Capitol, to oversee the process for all nine albums. I’m just glad we were able to rectify that and sorry for the people who bought substandard versions for five years.
They kicked me off the label and then tried to profit from it by compromising all those years of work and putting out crappy versions to make a buck. And I said, “I’m sorry, that’s not gonna work for me.”
Footnote 1: John Raitt (1917–2005) was the leading man in Oklahoma, Carousel, The Pajama Game, and other Broadway hits of the 1940s and ’50s; as his New York Times obituary put it, Raitt “came to epitomize a new distinctively modern breed of Broadway leading man—rugged cowboys and blue-collar workers.” A youthful convert to Quakerism, Raitt was a conscientious objector during World War II.
Footnote 2: Pianist/bandleader Willie Murphy was a Minneapolis-area legend for decades. His 1969 collaboration with another, “Spider” John Koerner, was, Crawdaddy declared, “perhaps the only psychedelic ragtime blues album ever made.” The so-called city (read “white”) blues trio of “Spider” John, Dave “Snaker” Ray, and Tony “Little Sun” Glover made two classic albums in 1963 and ’64, Blues, Rags & Hollers and Lots More Blues, Rags & Hollers, are cornerstones of every mid- to late-’60s blues revivalist’s record collection.
Footnote 3: Harmonica player Junior Wells, who contributes to four songs on Bonnie Raitt, was one of the great postwar Chicago blues musicians, along with Muddy Waters (Wells’s first employer), Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others, all legends and mentors to bluesniks like Raitt. Wells and another Chicago blues veteran, tenor saxophonist A.C. Reed, showed up at Enchanted Island in their Cadillacs, which sat in the driveway in state.
Footnote 4: Along with Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, Eddie “Son” House (1902–1988) was one of the greatest of the Mississippi Delta blues musicians, a magnificent singer and powerful if limited bottleneck guitarist who made a handful of 78s for Paramount Records in 1930, was recorded in 1941 and ’42 by Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax and Fisk University musicologist John W. Work, to abandon the deep South for Rochester, New York, where blues researcher Dick Waterman found him in 1964. After lessons from bluesologist and future Canned Heat member Al Wilson in how to play like his younger self, House enjoyed a second career at folk festivals, blues clubs, and college campuses.
Waterman was one of the most ardent of the young blues enthusiasts known collectively as “The Blues Mafia,” who fanned out across early- and mid-’60s America in search of legendary, hopefully still-living bluesmen, whose music the “kids” knew only from so-called race records from the 1920s and ’30s on labels like Okeh, Vocalion, Paramount, and Victor Talking Machine. Knocking on doors and poring over census records and city directories, Dick Waterman and his friends succeeded beyond their dreams, locating House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Booker White, and others, and introducing them to rapt young audiences. Raitt’s mentor and boyfriend, Waterman went on to manage her for years.
Footnote 5: Drummer Earl Palmer was a member of the so-called Studio Band in mid-1950s New Orleans, rock’n’roll’s first great recording-session ensemble, which backed up Fats Domino, Little Richard, and dozens of other pioneering rock’n’roll hitmakers. Palmer moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and quickly became one of the most prolific members of the West Coast recording scene. The oral biography Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story (Da Capo Press, 2000) is by this writer. Palmer’s remarks on the preparations for this session are worth quoting: “Lowell George was a fat short guy, had this big old rustic beautiful house above a nudist colony in the Malibu Hills. Them broads didn’t hide or nothing. I guess they were used to being watched!”
Footnote 6: John Hall got sole producer’s credit on the album. A guitarist, songwriter, and producer, Hall cofounded the best-selling band Orleans and, with Raitt, Jackson Browne, and others, organized the 1979 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. Hall was later a two-term congressman from New York state.
Footnote 7: Will McFarlane, a Raitt bandmember of the day, plays the slide solo on a third track on Sweet Forgiveness, “Takin My Time.”
Footnote 8: Like Raitt a master slide guitarist, Rory Block is another product of the 1960s blues revival, an exceptional singer/player largely in the Delta blues tradition, still touring and recording today.
Footnote 9: Mike Finnigan, who died in August 2021, plays the Hammond B3 organ and sings backup on Slipstream and Dig in Deep (2016) and on one track of Just Like That. Apart from the bands that Raitt mentions, and many others, Finnigan plays the B3 on “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” on Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 album Electric Ladyland.