There was a twist at the end of this year’s Grammy Awards. After a parade of youthful and spangled pop stars rose to the podium for various honours, the Song of the Year prize went to one Bonnie Raitt, the veteran singer-songwriter and guitarist with a distinguished 50-year career behind her, including, among other things, a previous Grammy for album of the year.
But that didn’t stop some second-tier news outlets from wondering who the hell had beaten out Lizzo, Harry Styles and Taylor Swift.
“Unknown Blues Singer Wins Song of the Year” blared several sites. The headlines soon went viral.
“That was a big surprise,” Raitt, 73, admits. “I was overwhelmed with appreciation.”
She produced the album, Just Like That…, her 18th, herself. She wrote a big chunk of it, too, and it was released on her own record label, Redwing. She’s been doing this for a while, but this time, two tracks, the title song, and the album’s closing tune, Down the Hall, connected with fans, and the larger world, in an unexpected way.
Both songs are wrenching, not because they contain sensitive personal revelations, but because of their unusual stories.
Down the Hall is told from the point of view of a prisoner who ends up working in the jail’s hospice ward, sitting with terminal inmates who have no one else. Just Like That, the Song of the Year winner, is a gentle, luminously presented tale about a woman who lost her son. But the son’s heart had been donated to someone who needed it. The recipient visits the mother and invites her to lay her head on his chest, so she can feel her departed son’s heart beating.
“Organ donation and prison hospices are not songs people generally write songs about,” Raitt says. “I think it has something to do with reaching people at such a time, with COVID and the shutdowns and the political animosity. These songs are about uplight and grace and redemption. I didn’t write them for those reasons but I think that’s why they landed this time.”
In the post-’60s wave of ’70s singer-songwriters, featuring everyone from Jackson Browne to Randy Newman to Cat Stevens, Raitt stood out. There was that redwood voice of hers. Plus she was a guitarist, self-trained and steeped in influences stretching back into deep folk and blues. Raitt is not a tall woman and the image of the diminutive singer displaying her mastery of her large and beloved Gibson hollow-body guitar became iconic.
“I still have that guitar!” she exclaims.
She was unusual in other ways. Not all her fans knew her father was an icon, too: Broadway legend John Raitt. Bonnie learned to play guitar at the family house in the Hollywood Hills and went to university at Radcliffe, at the time the women’s college of Harvard.
She put out her first record,
Give It Up Bonnie Raitt, in 1972 1971, the songs almost uniformly marked by her strong blues and rock licks. Her interpretation of John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery became her signature song, and a cover of Del Shannon’s early 60s chestnut Runaway gave her an unexpected hit single in 1977. “The ’70s were a blast,” she says.
Then she was dropped by her label. Follow-up albums didn’t do well. She fought drug and alcohol addiction.
But she came roaring back in the 1990s. The aptly titled Nick of Time sold five million copies and won that Album of the Year Grammy. A popular MTV video saw her canoodling with actor buddy Dennis Quaid to the song Thing Called Love.
Gracious and quick, Raitt crisscrosses her history, mentioning friends, mentors, artists gone and others still around, people she played with and those with whom she conspires to this day, from Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, Browne and Prince to Muddy Waters and Emmylou Harris.
But the friend she remembers the most is the late Prine, the quirky, much-loved Chicago singer-songwriter who never quite rose to mass public attention. “That type of songwriting was so inspired by John,” she says.
These days, you can hear in that voice her own life’s journey mixed in with those of her blues heroes. It’s suggested that she did not so much grow into her voice but see her voice grow into her.
“That’s great,” she agrees. “After I hit 50 I could get other ranges and other colours and reflect other experiences I’ve had. I’m 73, and it shows!”
Bonnie Raitt plays Palais Theatre, Melbourne on April 5, ICC Sydney on April 7, Bluesfest, Byron Bay, on April 9 and 10.