Most listeners don’t associate the singer Bonnie Raitt with Broadway musicals, but she grew up steeped in them. Her father, John Raitt, was an actor who starred in “Oklahoma!” ”Carousel” and “The Pajama Game.” Her mother, Marge Goddard, was a pianist. Ms. Raitt says that listening to them play together had a “tremendous impact.”
“It was the golden era of Rodgers and Hammerstein and watching my folks perform and prepare I could see their love of music and hear their absolute excellence,” she says. “They and their friends also exposed me to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Mahalia Jackson, great classical music and so much else.”With parents who were performers, Raitt grew up seeing the ‘sheer joy of working at night’ instead of getting up every morning and going to an office.
Growing up in Los Angeles, the young Bonnie also took note of the hours her parents kept and the lifestyle they lived, including the “sheer joy of working at night” instead of getting up every morning and going to an office. It seemed as if her father “made his living playing.”
Ms. Raitt, 72, has spent a lifetime doing the same. Her 10th album, 1989’s “Nick Of Time,” made her a star, sweeping the Grammys and selling millions of copies. It was the first of three straight multiplatinum releases that firmly established Ms. Raitt as a major singer-songwriter and set the template for her career as a master interpreter and an incisive if not prolific songwriter.
“Just Like That…,” her new album, released in April by her own label, Redwing Records, has at its emotional core four songs she wrote herself. The title track and “Down the Hall” are gently fingerpicked acoustic story songs that evoke the Odetta and Joan Baez tunes that inspired Ms. Raitt to take up guitar as a kid at Quaker summer camp. The lyrics to both songs were inspired by newspaper articles that moved her profoundly, about a prison hospice and a mother who met the recipient of her late son’s heart.
It’s been six years since Ms. Raitt’s last release, a longer than usual gap, partly because the pandemic shut down recording opportunities. During that time Ms. Raitt performed over video for many fundraisers—she has long been a stalwart for a wide range of social and political causes—but always solo. So she was thrilled to be able to reunite with her road band in a studio close to her Northern California home to record “Just Like That…”
Earlier this year, Ms. Raitt received the Icon Award at the Billboard Women in Music Awards. The presenter was Jackson Browne, who said that meeting her in the early 1970s was an eye opener: “She looked like Little Orphan Annie, but she talked like Redd Foxx.” Ms. Raitt laughs at her friend’s words and notes that he wasn’t the only one taken aback by her salty language early in her career.
Her parents, she says, were understanding about her own growing interest in folk, rock, R&B and blues, rather than showtunes. “But what was surprising to them was my raunchy blues mama mouth and trying really hard to smoke and drink and make my voice deeper and come off like I ran a saloon.”
Ms. Raitt enrolled at Radcliffe in 1967, but her real education was happening in Cambridge’s thriving folk clubs, where she saw performers like Baez and Tom Rush and become involved in antiwar activism. As a first-year student she met and fell in love with Dick Waterman, a blues scholar who had rediscovered and promoted a host of greats, including Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and Son House. She took a semester off during her sophomore year to hang out with these blues giants, because she “knew they weren’t going to live forever.”
The following summer Ms. Raitt was working as her father’s dresser in the national touring company of “Zorba The Greek” when Mr. Waterman called and told her that the blues duo of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells had just signed on as the opening act for the Rolling Stones’ European tour and there was room for her to come along as road manager. She didn’t hesitate.
When the tour was extended and she missed another semester of college, her exasperated parents told her she had to start supporting herself. That’s when she finally started playing in clubs. “It was a temporary thing so I could hang out with my heroes and make a little money.” she says. “I was the perfect opening act because I wasn’t threatening. I was solo, and I was cheap.”
Before returning to school as planned, she was offered a record deal. “I told them I’d probably be gone for a year, then come back to finish,” she says. “The next thing I knew I was headlining the clubs where I had been opening for others. I got my foot in the door.”
“Waiting for You to Blow,” another of the original songs on “Just Like That…,” is a jazzy, funky romp in which Ms. Raitt takes a humorous look at a serious subject: remembering that every sober alcoholic is living one day at a time, with a devil on their shoulder.
That message comes from the heart. Ms. Raitt calls giving up alcohol in the 1980s “the biggest life change” she ever experienced. “In your late 30s, a lifestyle that features drugs and alcohol, staying up late and constantly pushing it kind of catches up with you,” she says. Feeling bloated, somewhat adrift and unhappy after being dropped from Warner Bros, her longtime label, she knew she had to stop drinking but worried it would harm her music, and that she’d “lose cred as a bona fide blues momma.”
Then her friend Stevie Ray Vaughan joined her on stage the day he finished rehab, having overcome a substance abuse problem that almost killed him. Despite his nervousness, Vaughan, who Ms. Raitt calls “one of the two greatest guitarists” she ever saw (Ry Cooder is the other), played better than ever. “There went my last excuse,” she says. ”Stevie looked like he’d had a transformation.”
A few years after she quit drinking, Ms. Raitt was working with a new label, Capitol, and a new producer, Don Was, who suggested she try stripping songs down to their essentials. “He wanted to make an album that started with my voice and guitar or piano then gently built songs up as needed,” she recalls. It worked, allowing Ms. Raitt to achieve a new depth on “Nick Of Time” and launching her into the superstardom her most ardent fans had long expected.
Decades have passed since then, but “you’re always just one step away from the whole thing caving in,” Ms. Raitt says. “I’m not really even talking about substance abuse, but about recovery from letting yourself slip into the morasses of self doubt, pitying and victimhood—just behaviors that aren’t really righteous. I’ve been sober for 35 years, and thankfully I’ve never slipped.“