Bonnie Raitt has two albums to consider: “Bonnie Raitt and Friends,” an expanded version of her VH1 experience and “Souls Alike,” the first album that bears the credit “produced by Bonnie Raitt.”
Collaboration isn’t just a sometime thing for Bonnie Raitt. It’s a way of life.
“When somebody calls and asks you to guest, you just feel blessed,” she says by phone just days before her appearance in Sioux City. “I’ve worked with everyone from Tony Bennett to John Lee Hooker and it’s this incredible, great gift.”
Almost every time, she says, the music is better than she imagined. “I hate to sound glib, but the magic of opening your eyes and looking across at Willie Nelson or B.B. King nodding is just wonderful.”
Sometimes, those partnerships take work — the two have to be available at the same time, agree on the music and determine what they want to do — but the results can be inspirational.
Now, Raitt says, she’s the “older diva” newcomers look up to…”and I’m very proud of that. It’s a natural part of the process. When I was their age, I was looking up to these older blues artists and now I’ve got Norah Jones thinking I’m a badass. It’s pretty great.”
A VH1 special in 2005 prompted a “Bonnie Raitt and Friends” CD and DVD. Taped in Atlantic City, it gave Raitt a chance to check off more names on her “want to work with” list and produce music most wouldn’t think obvious (“Tennessee Waltz,” anyone?). When Raitt saw the footage assembled, she was floored.
“It was like being at my own wake. They said all these nice things about me.”
It was also another chance for Raitt to perform with Keb’ Mo’ (her current touring partner), a longtime friend.
From a special VH1 concert at Atlantic City, NJ on Sept. 30, 2005. Bonnie Raitt joined on stage by “funky as hell” Keb Mo.
“We’re like brother and sister,” she says. “We’re about the same age. We were both raised in Los Angeles…we had a lot of connections.”
They met, oddly enough, after Jackson Browne told Raitt he knew someone she’d love. While driving to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles, she happened to be listening to the radio and heard this guy on the public radio station playing live. It turned out to be Keb’. “I said, ‘I’ve got to talk to whoever that is.'” She called the station and officials there didn’t believe she was who she said. “No, it’s really Bonnie Raitt,” she insisted. That night at a blues club in Santa Monica, they met and talked. The attraction was immediate.
“Once you have that family connection, that affinity for something so deep as music, it’s an unspoken bond. It’s a soul connection. Going into the studio is just a breeze…you just let the tape roll. Jackson and Kevin and I are like brothers and sister.”
When the current tour is done (yup, Keb’ and Bonnie sing together during each other’s sets), she expects she’ll take another break and regroup. “I had one in 1996 and one in 2000. I go in about five-year stints. I take a break, fill up and do something else. I have a satisfying home life. The last time, I wanted to travel and nurture my relationships. My goal was to have my personal life be as satisfying as my professional life.”
Within a year’s time, Raitt’s father, actor John Raitt, and her mother died. Additionally, an older brother had contracted brain cancer. “I have another brother and we all rallied around them — first my dad when he had a heart attack. Then my mother when her Alzheimer’s flared up and she passed away. When my dad’s heart disease leveled off, I went into the studio and did ‘Souls Alike.'” Music became a release for her; it also helped her see how important those relationships were.
“What you learn from people who are suffering is the courage they have and how they value everything,” she says. Her brother, who is virtually cured thanks to a macrobiotic diet, showed her how unnecessary it was to “sweat the small stuff. If there is any gift in illness and passing, it’s in appreciating life.”
In concert, Raitt says, “I feel my parents are with me. They were such a great inspiration — my mother was my dad’s musical director and accompanist. My father was one of Broadway’s greatest leading men and one of the most positive guys around. Thanks to them, I’m a deeper person than I was decades earlier. It’s like all those blues people who get better and better with age. Your soul gets richer.”
The music does, too.
While Raitt continues to figure into most every year’s Grammy competition, fans remember THE year — 1990, when she took home four Grammys for “Nick of Time.”
“It was this big Cinderella story,” she says. “I was doing the same music I had been doing for 20 years, but people were finally thinking it was cool. I wasn’t penalized for being eclectic — ‘Are you country? Are you blues? What are you?’ All the ducks lined up and it was such great career validation.”
In a single night, Raitt became the Queen of the Grammys, a title many believe she still holds.
The wins pushed her onto a new plain, allowing her to take time off and “reap the rewards” of success. “I got to give my band and crew a raise,” she says proudly.
“Success can have a downside. But because it came to me later in life, I had the maturity to know how to handle it.”
Still, it wasn’t like she appeared out of nowhere and suddenly became this force. “Before then, I had sold 150,000 records, which, for me was a lot. I was never out of the running. I was always on tour. (There were) sensationalist reports (that) I was stumbling around drinking all the time. But, basically, I wanted to lose some weight, so I stopped drinking. I ended up finding out I was an addict and I really took to being sober. It’s been 20 years now and It really worked for me.
“But I was never terribly unsuccessful. I was more of a cult artist and that’s probably what I’d be now (without the wins).”
Instead, she’s the best friend, the colleague, the mentor, the diva.
Going to the Grammys? “It’s a blast.” It’s like old home week for her. “I cheer for the underdog. I get to see people I haven’t seen in year.”
And she gets to wonder just how great it might be to collaborate with some of the new people she admires.
“There’s a wealth of Irish and Scottish music I love and a ton of African musicians I’d love to record with.”
And, then, there’s Keith Richards.
“We’ve been flirting with recording together one day. I love the Stones. I love his work. I’d really like to do something with him.”
Bank on it to happen. If there’s one thing musicians can’t turn down, it’s a collaboration with Bonnie.
The reason? They know it’ll give ’em something to talk about.