Bonnie Raitt plays the Saenger Theater Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013.
Blues guitar wizard Bonnie Raitt started her most recent tour promoting “Slipstream,” her Grammy-winning 2012 album, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2012. On Dec. 7, she finishes it up at the Saenger Theatre. Recently, the “great Raitt” – as Quint Davis dubbed her in his introduction last year at Jazz Fest – got on the phone to discuss the umbrella genre of Americana music, her longtime love for New Orleans, and more.
You’ve visited and played New Orleans a lot over the years, and of course hired a few New Orleanians for your band. Tell me about your relationship with the city and its music.
I was really drawn to Fats Domino and Ernie K-Doe and all the hits that came out of New Orleans. A lot of the R&B that I loved and a lot of the Latin-Caribbean, kind of Spanish music that I loved as a child kind of all comes together with the rhythmic beats of New Orleans music. As I grew up I really learned why I loved “Mother-in-Law” so much, and “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Blueberry Hill.”
And then as my education got broadened – when I was on Warner Brothers, Allen Toussaint and the Meters were also, as well as Little Feat and Ry Cooder. All of us liked that kind of syncopated rhythm that mixed R&B and those Latin and African rhythms. So a lot of the music that I love has its roots in New Orleans, and as I came to be able to play there and played one of the earliest Jazz Fests, I fell in love, long and hard for a lifetime, with adoration for the food, the culture, the place, the weather, the friends that I made there – and the music, it’s just indelible, the greatest gift America has given to the world.
I remember when Jazz Fest’s producer, Quint Davis, introduced you on the Gentilly Stage in 2012, he pointed out that you were the first non-Louisianan the festival ever booked to headline, way back when.
I was pretty proud to hear that.
Do you have any particular favorite New Orleans memories to share?
Probably too many to mention. Ivan Neville was in my band for several years in the early ’80s and brought me front and center with the Neville family – I had intersected with Aaron and the band at different gigs, and of course knew Allen quite well, I had cut some of his songs in the early ’70s. The restaurants – Uglesich’s, and getting the scoop on which oyster po-boy places were the best, and getting some home-cooked food and seeing New Orleans from Ivan Neville’s point of view was really the first eye-opener for me. And going to Jimmy’s and Tipitina’s, going to K-Paul’s when it first opened, and a lot of little neighborhood joints.
And then my second wave of really being introduced to New Orleans with an inside view was through Jon Cleary, who of course played with me for 10 years. So I’ve been blessed to see it mostly through the inside musicians’ eye, including Jon taking my brother and me to the Mother-in-Law Lounge.
It’s a different scene than backstage at the Jazz Fest, which is also really fun – but to actually be given a custom tour by Jon Cleary, who has lived in and adored New Orleans and is part and parcel of the fabric of the place now, there’s nothing you can compare. I got to see Indian practice with Jon, got to see Joe’s Cozy Corner, got to see Walter Washington play on a Sunday afternoon. I really got the inside track through Jon, and before that, Ivan. And I know how lucky I am to have had that.
Early in your career, you played a lot with members of an earlier generation of blues musicians, like Howlin’ Wolf and Sippie Wallace. I’ve always loved how that’s a very common practice in New Orleans, for young performers to work with and learn from their forebears.
The second generation and the third coming up still have a lot of reverence for the elder. I think that’s something that happens in roots music and folk music, and jazz certainly, more than it does in pop. New Orleans is one of those places where the reverence for the older generation is so alive and thriving. Even in the HBO show “Treme,” that’s one of the threads that runs through it so strongly, the intersection between the old-school guys and the new ones.
And there’s some young rap and hip-hop artists that are blending those beats, and bringing this music alive for the next generation. I found that to be true also in Cuba and Mali, when I was there. It certainly is true in Ireland – people are putting hip-hop and dance beats to songs that are as ancient as the last century, and some of them before.
Your most recent Grammy award, for “Slipstream,” was in the relatively new Americana category, which is a genre that’s getting lots of buzz lately. What do you think of it?
I didn’t really know I was in that category until I got nominated. But I think it’s great to have an umbrella that can encompass – jokingly, they say any kind of music that has banjos in it –a lot of music that kind of overlaps, people like Delbert McClinton and myself. I mean, I’m not a country artist, but if you ask the exit polls at Tower Records years ago, even when “Nick of Time” was a success, most people thought I was a country artist. Which is so bizarre, because not only do I not do that kind of music, I don’t even get played on those radio stations that much. But roots music of all kinds, I think, can go under the Americana umbrella. I think it’s kind of funny because bluegrass comes from another place and so does the blues, it has nothing to do with the North or South American continent.
But it’s a catchall phrase that I think is really great, because people want to put music in a box. And I don’t want to be in one, but if I have to be in a broad-based holding pattern like that, at least we have some validity and somewhere to stand under in this roofless business, for people who see something and want to get it out there – they kind of need a label to be able to promote it.
Having that kind of label seems to be helping some artists I like a lot get heard – like Brittany Howard and the Alabama Shakes, or Shovels and Rope.
It’s ended up being a really good thing, because there’s just been so much fragmentation and segregation of musical styles. Where would you put Brittany Howard? She’s not a pop artist and she’s not a blues artist. My record was No. 1 on the Amazon blues chart last year, and I don’t understand why. There’s two songs that are blues, but the rest of them aren’t. I want the people who are really working in those fields to have a clear shot at it, so while I appreciate the esteem in which I’m held, I want to broaden it out a little bit, and of course all this music deserves to be heard. There’s so much out there. When I talk to reviewers I’ve trusted for years and years, just the sheer volume of new great acts coming across their table to listen to is just deafening. It’s overwhelming, to decide which album by which great artist you just heard about to check out.
That’s where I’m going next year, to do the song hunt – which is the most daunting part of my job but it’s also when you find something that lands right, there’s nothing more satisfying.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Listen below to an audio excerpt from our interview, in which Bonnie Raitt talks more about her “song hunt.” (It cuts off at the end because as you can hear, Raitt’s other phone starts ringing.)