Last month, at the Billboard Women In Music gala in Inglewood, Calif., Bonnie Raitt dedicated a quiet, dignified performance of John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery to the women of Ukraine. Later, during her acceptance speech for the Billboard Icon Award, the 10-time Grammy winner spoke about the war in that country and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
“I pray for all the people who are working hard for peace, including the man who started the war,” she said. “May he have a transformation.”
Speaking truth to power is nothing new for the 72-year-old Raitt, who just released a new album, Just Like That …, her first since 2016′s Dig in Deep. In the late 1960s as a Harvard Radcliffe student, the Los Angeles native majored in social relations and African studies. Her prolific history of activism dates back to an anti-Vietnam war rally held in Boston in 1971, and extends to an End Contra Aid concert in 1987, to the Honor the Earth Tour in 2000 and to a Farm Aid show in 2020.
Raitt is the slide-guitar Jane Fonda.
“I’m a citizen first, a musician second, and I will use my microphone,” the Something to Talk About singer told The Globe and Mail. “I speak my mind.”
Her new record opens with Made Up Mind, a deep-grooved rocker written by Winnipeg duo The Bros. Landreth, whom she befriended when they all played the Winnipeg Folk Festival eight years ago.
Known for her versions of songs composed by others, Raitt wrote four songs for her new album. Livin’ for the Ones, a co-write with her long-time guitarist George Marinelli, addresses the people lost over the last two years. The funk-jazz hybrid Waitin’ for You to Blow is about bad habits and the devils on people’s shoulders.
Historically, Raitt hasn’t written much in the way of story songs. Which makes Down the Hall (about a prison hospice) and the title track (inspired by a news segment on organ donation) a bit of a surprise.
“I was inspired by John Prine, Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan,” Raitt said. “The power of a fingerpicked song written from the point of a person other than yourself is another way to get into the human story.”
LESSONS FROM A LEGEND
Working the Road: “My father, John Raitt, was a musical-theatre actor. He never knew if he’d ever be offered another leading man part. So he chose to be pro-active. His main source of income and joy was using the shows he was famous for, Carousel and Oklahoma! and The Pajama Game, and touring them to regional theatres all over the country in the summers. He loved not having to wait around for another big hit. He loved taking his music to people who were never going have the opportunity to go to Broadway. That was not lost on me. My advice to young artists is to double up your followings in the hinterlands. That’s how I ended up lasting.”
On music and activism: “I’m very aware of what I say and what forum it is in and what form it takes. People aren’t coming to a concert to be lectured or to be told their money is going to something they might not even like. I’m careful about not preaching from the stage. That said, I’m not concerned whether people are going to buy my tickets or my records. I’ve been very open about my progressive stances on the environment and my humanitarian and social-justice leanings. Since the beginning, I’ve used my voice to raise money and attention to those issues. If people don’t care for what I’m like as a whole person as well as a musician, they can just choose to not listen to my music.”
An angel from John Prine: “You have to be true to your own artistic muse and do the songs that really appeal to you. From the first time I heard John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, I knew I wanted to record it. John was able to get inside a woman’s point of view about a lifeless marriage and the compromising of her dreams. I thought about my mother’s generation when I first sang that song. I was 24. It was the beginning of the feminist movement, where women finally had birth control pills and career choices and the choice of marriage and children. Other women didn’t really have those choices. There are women to this day in the world who can’t get education or get a job or can’t avoid an arranged marriage or can’t get out of a bad one. John was able to capture so much in a few simple verses.”