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30 Years of ‘Nick of Time’: How Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Underdog Record’ Swept the Grammys & Saved Her Career

on March 21, 2019 No comments
by Natalie Weiner
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Before Nick of Time became perhaps the biggest Cinderella story in Grammy history — as well as the cement to Bonnie Raitt’s now-unshakeable legacy as a singular song interpreter and advocate for the blues tradition, and the soundtrack to so many ‘90s babies’ childhoods — it was a last-ditch effort to salvage the career of a cult-favorite artist who had just hit rock bottom.

“Nobody expected it to sell well,” Raitt says now. “They just said, ‘We’re not going to pay a lot of money for you, so just make a record that you want.’”

The record she wanted, as it turned out, was an understated, beautiful expression of both personal and artistic self-assurance. Nick of Time’s stripped-down but polished sound wasn’t revolutionary to her fans, who’d long appreciated Raitt’s combination of remarkable musical talent and no-nonsense attitude. But to mainstream listeners, her ability to package an impressively wide array of blues, country, R&B and pop songs into one seamless, mostly analog album was a welcome sea change from the heavily produced, homogenized hits of the era.

It was Raitt’s 10th studio album, but her first to crack the Billboard 200’s top 25. Over nearly 20 years, she’d gone from prodigy college dropout to undeniable live performer, whose recorded catalog was filled with uncompromising roots music and major label attempts to channel her obvious gifts into pop success.

And at the very moment when that seemed the least likely, the impossible happened: the right artist made the right album at the right time. A critical darling who had flirted with the musical mainstream for decades made a classic paean to the trials and benefits of aging that was bold and approachable at once. And its biggest hit wasn’t even the one whose music video co-starred a hunky Dennis Quaid and went into heavy rotation on the then-nascent VH1.

The narrative was obvious: The press drooled about the then-39-year-old’s “comeback” from substance abuse and obscurity, and was agog that a woman “of a certain age” — as some outlets put it in an attempt at diplomacy — might reach a wide audience singing about her own life experience.

“It actually didn’t bother me at all,” Raitt, now 69, says with characteristic frankness. “Especially because the title song is about exactly that. A lot of the circumstances besides age came together to bring that album such wide attention, but I’ve never minded talking about my age. Something I’m proud of.”

The Recording Academy didn’t mind either, sending Raitt home with all four Grammys she was nominated for at the 1990 ceremony, including album of the year — which she accepted in stocking feet after breaking a heel during one of her many trips to the stage. The album has since sold over five million copies, and more importantly, revitalized the career of one of America’s most important roots musicians.

Looking back, the album wears its age almost as well as Raitt herself — both, it seems, are timeless.

“I have so many people to come shows with their mothers, or with three generations, saying ‘My mom played this album for me in the car when I was little, and you’re one of the artists that means the most to us,’” says Raitt. “It means so much to me that Nick of Time resonated with so many women, especially. I never expected it to have the response it did.”

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“Out of the worst thing came the best thing.”

After failing to get the kind of hits that might have made her seven-figure deal with Warner Bros. seem worthwhile to label execs, Raitt was dropped unceremoniously by the label. She fell into a rough patch during which her self-described “road-dog” lifestyle began to catch up with her. Producer Don Was, still looking for his big break, was going through similar burn out.

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Bonnie Raitt on Channeling the ‘Dark Stuff’ For Her New Album and Why She Likes That Bernie Sanders Is Putting Hillary Clinton’s ‘Feet to the Fire’

on February 19, 2016 No comments

by David Ritz | 2/19/2016

In 2010, Bonnie Raitt was struggling with the loss of her brother and both of her parents. Now, 40-plus years into her career, she has channeled ‘the dark stuff’ into her most personal album.

mokKeoul_400x400Before B.B. King‘s May 2015 death, the famed guitarist-singer-songwriter ­reminisced in his last interview about the artists — T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, Muddy Waters — who made lasting ­impressions on his life.

“Add Bonnie Raitt to that list,” the 89-year-old said. “I came up in a macho world and never thought I’d ever declare the best living slide guitarist to be a woman. Well, I’m declaring. I’m also saying Bonnie is as true-blue an artist as anyone before or since. She might be singing pop or she might be singing R&B, but she’s never far from the source. She has become part of the source herself. She’s a master.”

Bonnie Raitt performing with Stapleton (left) and Clark (right) during a tribute to B.B. King at the Grammys on Feb. 15, 2016. © Getty Images

Bonnie Raitt performing with Stapleton (left) and Clark (right) during a tribute to B.B. King at the Grammys on Feb. 15, 2016. © Getty Images

The Friday before the 2016 Grammy Awards — hours before rehearsing the ­tribute to King she would perform with Chris Stapleton and Gary Clark Jr. — Raitt laughs when she hears the blues giant’s praise. “I appreciate that so much, but when I started out, I never expected to make a living at music. I just fell into it. Man, I had this fruity folky voice I couldn’t stand. Always wanted more gravitas. All I could do was adopt a blues-mama ­persona. When I opened my mouth to sing, I felt like a woman of 45 but sounded like the 21-year-old pipsqueak I was.”

Today, at 66, Raitt no longer has that problem. Universally respected as an artist, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has forged a long and brilliant career that splits into two sections: the 20 years leading up to her 1989 Grammy triumph Nick of Time — the album that sealed her superstardom and has been certified five times platinum by the RIAA — and the 26 years since. Her output has been consistent with her essential blues aesthetic: 20 albums and a staggering 185 guest ­appearances and duets.

Chris Stapleton, Bonnie Raitt, & Gary Clark, Jr. Pay Tribute to B.B. King With ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ at Grammys

“She is in a league of her own as a ­performer, singer, guitarist,” says Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard, who performed with Raitt in 2014. “In the short time we have spent together, I was amazed at how she carries herself — and her respect and love of music and its history.”

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First Listen: Bonnie Raitt, ‘Dig In Deep’

on February 18, 2016 No comments
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Bonnie Raitt’s new album, Dig In Deep, comes out Feb. 26.

A few years back, both Adele and Bon Iver invoked Bonnie Raitt‘s adult-pop sophistication with their wistful covers of Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” a ballad she’d made famous at her early-’90s commercial peak. It was a reminder of the influence that Raitt’s full-grown insight has exerted on many serious songwriters and interpreters who’ve come along after her. Still, teasing out the emotional nuances in the stories she’s chosen to tell is only one of the ways she’s displayed depth over the course of her four-and-a-half-decade career.

What Raitt has done on her 20th album is go deep in the pocket, leaning on her gifts as a sensitive bandleader, bottleneck guitarist and producer, not to mention a paragon of modern blues expression. In interviews about Dig In Deep, she’s spoken of shaping this dozen-song set not around concept so much as feel — of going after the grooves that she’d wanted to perform night after night. While there are some very fine ballads of regret in the mix — like the gracefully resigned, keyboard-padded “Undone” and “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” — it turns out that she was really in the mood to plunge into meaty blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll with her longtime road band.

A couple of ’80s rock tunes made the cut because Raitt heard in them the potential for sensual play. She and her bandmates amped up the already frenetic boogie of Los Lobos‘ “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes”; twice, she and her guitar foil George Marinelli swap unhinged solos, weaving her signature incandescent tone around his serrated attack. Covering INXS’s “Need You Tonight” was an excuse to goose the song’s angular dance-rock with a muscled-up rhythm section. And you can tell that Raitt relishes those fleeting moments when the entire band drops out, leaving her to vocalize with teasingly seductive intimacy. Her salty-sweet singing is a touch more hoarse than it once was, but she embraces the grit, making shrewd use of its lived-in physicality.

Several of the originals showcase the group’s musical repartee: The strapping shuffle of “What You’re Doin’ To Me” and the chugging propulsion of “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through” give her sauntering delivery something solid to push against, and the sleek syncopation of “If You Need Somebody” hugs her sly vocal phrasing. In “Unintended Consequence Of Love,” drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson embellish their robust groove with funky anticipation and frisky, swinging ghost notes while Raitt coaxes a lover into rekindling erotic desire. “Let’s dig in deep and get out of this rut,” she sings. “We’ll get back to what brought us both together, baby, and find a way to resurrect our strut.”

Raitt’s approach to music-making set the tone for performances that have every bit as much to say about the importance of sharing in pleasure and being in sync as the lyrics do. Her responsiveness to her fellow musicians, and theirs to her, provides a lesson in how good it can feel to figure out how you fit together. For her, musical and emotional intelligence are inextricably intertwined.


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