Interview

Q&A: Bonnie Raitt talks laundry, sad songs and a Houston blues legend
More than 50 years into her storied career, singer and guitar whiz Bonnie Raitt brings a new album full of sweet stories to Houston

on November 3, 2022 No comments
by Andrew Dansby
© Marina Chavez

The last time Bonnie Raitt visited Houston for a show, she was opening for James Taylor and plugging an album titled “Dig in Deep.” She hits the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land as the headliner this time with another new recording called “Just Like That.”

While the two titles imply labored work with the former and relative ease with the latter, in actuality Raitt leaned into “Just Like That” with a handful of heavy original songs that at age 72 and more than a half century into her career, she still has great stories to tell accompanied by her guitar.

Raitt fielded a few questions about her new set of songs, her affection for the now codified Americana music format and her enduring affection for a blues legend from Houston.

Q: Lovely to hear from you. How’s all your way?

A: I’m great. Just home for a little break after a wonderful southwest leg of the tour.

Q: Where are you with touring? Do you relish the breaks? Or do they make you fidgety?

A: I always do the same things: laundry, get groceries, home repairs. It’s actually more fun on the road. Home there’s a lot of maintenance. I get to see friends and hike and reconnect with my home life. But usually because it’s only a few weeks at a time, those weeks are packed with things that need to get done.

Q: Two of my favorites on this album are “Just Like That” and “Down the Hall,” both originals. 

A: That makes me so glad. I’ve been touched by the response to those songs both by reviewers and the audiences. They’re similar in that they’re stripped down and based around my finger-picking. They’re going for the beauty of the acoustic music that moved me, early Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, when I was in love with folk music. Early Jackson Browne, John Prine. There’s nothing like the power in simplicity that speaks deep to the heart.

Q: I hear a little tip to the Beatles’ “Blackbird” in “Down the Hall.” And it reminded me that “Blackbird” operates from a place of struggle.

A: I’m glad you like that one. Each song has its own arc, most about different love affairs gone wrong. Some are about longing, others about being glad to find somebody. “Down the Hall” was inspired by a piece in the New York Times Magazine in 2018, a beautiful photo essay from a prison hospice in California. Like all great journalism, it was this great opportunity to open a window and find out about the different prison hospice programs in the country. The article stayed with me. And “Just Like That” was from the evening news. A woman goes to the house of a man who received her son’s heart. I find those stories so moving, especially when the world is fraught with things like the Ukrainian crisis, immigrants suffering, climate issues, the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter issues. The last election cycle took me down. So when I found good news stories – a prisoner who decides to volunteer for no reason but compassion or a man present because of a woman’s son’s heart, they remind me that even in the darkest moments, the human power of love and generosity and compassion can lift us. 

Q: I realize it’s not a conceptual album. But it retains a balance between struggle and hope.

A: If everything is sunny and everyone got along, there wouldn’t be anything to write about, This is my 21st album, and I’ve had all kinds of permutations of love and betrayal. And the positive side, too. But this stretch of songs for me, the ones I contributed my writing to . . . those finger-picking songs, I started doing that before I could afford a band. I played the first three years of my career – I made three records – before I could afford a band. The power of sitting there with a guitar, that’s ground zero for me. It’s where I started, and it’s where I love to write still. I write some on piano. But “Down the Hall,” there’s a Celtic tuning there I play the blues in. I’ve done a lot of Celtic music throughout my career as well. The guitar just shows me what it wants me to do. In this case, it was about channeling love and feeling the loss of losing John Prine. I held him in my heart. He was a real inspiration for “Down the Hall” and “Just Like That.” That comes from singing “Angel From Montgomery” every night. It comes from singing it every night and thinking about how he wrote that song.

Q: I think we like to think of the blues as being of a place. But “Love So Strong” reminded me that Toots Hibbert found the blues and soul in Jamaica. I also thought about “Have a Heart,” which was decades ago, but showed you had an interest in music from the Caribbean.

A: Reggae was a huge influence on me in my early 20s. I was completely taken by the soundtrack and the film “The Harder They Come.” Bob Marley blew me out of the water. I listened to Toots and the Maytals during that time. I did a Toots song, “True Love Is Hard to Find,” on my “Nine Lives” album. And he had this Grammy-winning album of duets, “True Love,” where we sang that together. We were going to cut “Love So Strong” together when he sadly passed away, a COVID-related thing. I think I’ve lost 14 people in the past two years, Toots and John Prine, and Oliver Mtukudzi, who didn’t die of COVID. Between cancer and suicide and drug overdoses and COVID, this has been a heartbreaking time.

Q: If you divide your career into two stages, the first is now a fairly short third. But I bring this up because you’re doing now something not completely disconnected to what you were doing then. And there have been some seemingly big musical trends that have come and gone in that time.

A: I think it’s that those of us who identify as Americana – like Delbert (McClinton), John Prine, John Hiatt, Little Feat. For a long time, we all heard, “What are you?” Are you folk, pop, rock, blues or country? And we’re all those things. Why would you want to put Delbert in a box? He’s a sum total of the music he loves. I’m the same way. I have to say, I think winning the Grammys, VH1 starting to play older artists in the day, that’s when there was a shift. People like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Edie Brickell, Robert Cray. I think “Nick of Time” found that space. If it had come out in the early ‘80s, it wouldn’t have had the same success. Americana became this format that helped a lot of us who straddle older formats. Texas music, in particular, doesn’t fit in a box. There were great blues players: the Vaughan brothers, Marcia (Ball), Angela (Strehli), Freddy King, who worked in the tradition of great Texas blues. But there were also hybrid people like Delbert, Alejandro Escovedo, who made this great music that didn’t have a format. I’m from Los Angeles, but the artists I love are drawn to the same wells: R&B, blues, country, rock and even jazz. I’m happy that 50 years later, there’s this format that allows people who play harmonica and mandolin to get on the radio.

Q: You mentioned Texas and blues. I think back to your connection to a Houston native, Sippie Wallace. She enjoyed a little renewed interest through your interaction. 

A: She was the Texas Nightingale. We did this great concert for Juneteenth at the Speedway years ago, it was so much fun and I’ll never forget it. She was one of my dearest friends, a real mentor, and an honorary great aunt for me. I learned singing, stage presence, a sense of humor. I love her and I miss her, still. One of the great joys of my life and work is getting to be friends with Sippie, John Lee Hooker, Charles Brown. To have these people be like family for me.

andrew.dansby@houstonchronicle.com


Source: © Copyright Preview – The Houston Chronicle

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Bonnie Raitt Looks Back on a Lifetime of Texas Friends

on November 1, 2022 No comments
by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Receiving a lifetime achievement award might lead to some introspection, a look back at the milestones which made a person worthy of recognition. For Bonnie Raitt, who earned such honors from the Recording Academy earlier this year, it allowed for a recollection of the many friends and acquaintances who helped her build and maintain a legendary career in music. Many of those folks, she said by phone recently, were Texans.

Raitt is touring Texas this week, a swing through a favored state which includes a Houston-area stop at Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land this Friday. Although the Grammys recognized her past artistic contributions with its Lifetime Achievement Award in January, Raitt’s been delivering new music to audiences all year. Songs from her 21st album, Just Like That…, continue a tradition of killer songs crafted from blues, rock, funk, R&B and pop sounds, all delivered by a voice as familiar as a family friend’s.

Some of the strongest songs on the album – the title track and the album closer, for instance – allow Raitt to slip into storyteller mode.

“I had kind of mined my personal life to the extent that I really didn’t have anything else I wanted to say. I really wanted to be able to write about topics of other people that are going through something that moves me. I was inspired in great part by singing ‘Angel From Montgomery’ every night, from one of our greatest storytellers,” she said of the late John Prine. “At the time when I wrote these lyrics to ‘Down the Hall’ and ‘Just Like That,’ of course John hadn’t passed away from COVID, but it was very apparent to me when I went to put the music to the lyrics I wrote I really had him in my heart.”

The album naturally reflects on the tenor of American life over the past couple of years, so there are ruminations on loss and grief, like the afore-mentioned songs. One of the best tracks on the album is a guitar-cruncher called “Livin’ for the Ones.” It’s a bit of a lesson learned about life from COVID times.

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“’Livin’ for the Ones’ is the fourth rocker I’ve done with my longtime guitar player George Marinelli. When I’m getting ready to put a record together I always ask him for what kinds of rockers he’s got and he sent me the track to it and, like I did with the other ones, I put my own spin on, I put the lyrics on top of his music. And I really wanted to say something not as a forlorn, sad ballad. I wanted to deliberately sing about the last couple of years and all the loss I’ve been through, all of us have been through, I wanted to put it on a rocker on purpose because it’s really cathartic,” Raitt said.

“Those kinds of topics, like living for the ones who didn’t make it, those are kind of serious topics. But when you put them in this kind of rocker feel, it’s a really cathartic kind of outlet. So, I was happy to be able to find something that would express the depth of the emotion that I’m feeling, the frustration and the loss and the pain, and to be resigned to not be whining about stuff in the future.”

The first time I saw Raitt live was in 1990 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. She was touring big venues on her commercial breakthrough album, Nick of Time, the Grammy Album of the Year which put her on the radar of many music fans. It was her tenth album and she’d spent a lot of her career to that point playing club dates, including many here in Houston.

“I have a lot of fond memories of Rockefeller’s and Liberty Hall years before that,” she said. “Knowing that so many bands that I loved came out (of Texas) – whether the blues scene of Austin with Hubert Sumlin and Clifford (Antone) and all the friends I had, Derek O’Brien, the House Band, Sarah Brown and the Vaughan brothers and Lou Ann Barton, my buddies in Austin. I always left a bunch of days off after Austin so we could recover because we weren’t going to get any sleep.

Raitt was an underground favorite for nearly two decades before the commercial success of Nick of Time Photo by Susan J. Weiand, courtesy of Shore Fire Media

“I just remember Houston and Austin being a kind of a double step. We always had the week through Texas and for many years our drummer Tony Braunagel, who’s been in the Phantom Blues Band and won Grammys with that band and now he’s producing people, he was in our band for a long time and we used to go have Thanksgiving with his family in Houston. You know, I got to see the inside view of the city and the music scene.”

She connected Houston to Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a triangle filled with great musicians like Delbert McClinton, Glen Clark, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Alejandro Escovedo, and of course Houstonians like Charles Brown and one of her great influences, “The Texas Nightingale,” Sippie Wallace. All friends who formed what she called “the roadhouse, R&B, rock and roll, country nexus.”

“None of us wanted to be put in a box and that’s one of the reasons I always felt so comfortable in Texas,” she said. “It was just really the home of some of the funkiest music and some of the most soulful songwriting.”

In Houston, it was also home to the late music writer Bob Claypool. Claypool wrote for the Houston Post and was an early champion of Raitt’s and a favorite writer of mine. His articles on Raitt’s local stops sent me in search of her music. What I found were gems like “Guilty,” “The Glow” and “My First Night Alone Without You,” songs which preceded Nick of Time by a decade or more.

“I have Bob and so many other great writers to thank, because I never had big commercial success but sometimes even in cities where the A-level of rock critic didn’t find me significant enough to talk about, they would send the B-team to come and review me, but they were often times very, very much more into the kind of music I was doing, which we would call Americana today,” she noted. “They would be covering Little Feat and Ry Cooder and John Hiatt and John Prine, and they would be the ones sent to those concerts. I have so much gratitude to the journalists and the deejays that played me that were not in the mainstream.

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Writers like Claypool “would do these interviews and write great reviews where they would single out songs like the ones you mentioned. They really got me and I have so much debt that I owe for my longevity with all the people that found out about me through the great rock journalism and FM deejays that played me that weren’t beholden to some kind of commercial entity that told them they had to play a certain number of hits an hour.”

Of course, it’s more than fellow artists and keen music writers who’ve made Raitt an American music treasure. Besides her quality output, she’s been a role model for women who play guitar and women in general, someone who’s actively advocated for gender equality and women’s empowerment. She’s been an example for people in recovery, having gone sober 35 years ago. She’s a steadfast social activist, an artist who proudly uses her platform to promote awareness of environmental issues, social justice, human rights and music education.

“I was quite surprised to get a lifetime achievement award at this point and I was very proud to be able to, without anything related to record sales. You know, my big sales were 30 years ago, really, but it’s a question of being a role model, for being a lead guitar player and music director of my band and having my own record label and being an activist and combining activism with my music. That part of it makes me really proud, to be held up for that and acknowledged for that, and if I can inspire the next generations and the current generation, that would be great.

“If it inspires other people to mix activism and music and to stand up for what they want musically and not be pushed around by record companies or managers or any idea of what a babe should look like or how you have to bend yourself into shape musically or physically to make it in the business – I think those days are gone. There’s just too many strong women and men.”

Grammy Lifetime Achievement honoree, Bonnie Raitt Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Including Raitt, who celebrates her 73rd birthday next week and is not resting on the laurels of lifetime achievement awards anytime soon.

“I’m on tour two months with Mavis Staples at 83 and as she says every night, ‘I’m not tired and I’m not going anywhere.’ I’m hoping I could be up there with Mick and Keith. Look how long Willie and Tony Bennett went. My dad was touring ‘til he was 85. I’m hoping that I get to still be effective and interesting and make a difference and raise a lot of ruckus and a lot of great music and funds and attention for the causes that definitely need help.”

We close by remembering Claypool, who died in 1989, just as Nick of Time was set to send one of his favorite artists into music’s stratosphere. I told her our interview felt like a continuation of his work or maybe a full-circle moment and she told me to keep alive his tradition of touting unheralded but worthy musicians, those who deliver songs that connect us, the artists who might one day also be Grammy lifetime achievers.

“I hope Bob Claypool’s smiling down on us from heaven,” she said. “He was one of the greatest. I mean it, I’m partly able to talk to you because of people like him sticking their neck out and writing about somebody that wasn’t that famous and didn’t sell that many records. Thank God for the 40 years of rock journalism that covered people like me that weren’t in the number one lane. That’s why I’m still here.”

Bonnie Raitt, with special guest Marc Cohn, 8 p.m. Friday November 4 at Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington Boulevard in Sugar Land. $49.50 to $99.50.


Source: © Copyright The Houston Press

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Bonnie Raitt – The Bob Lefsetz Podcast

on October 20, 2022 No comments

Hear Bonnie’s in-depth conversation with Bob recorded last week for the latest episode of The Bob Lefsetz Podcast. When it came down to the great The Beatles versus The Rolling Stones rivalry when she was a kid, where did Bonnie land? You’ll have to listen to find out.

tip: most convenient way to listen while browsing along is to use the popup button of the player.


Source: © Copyright The Bob Lefsetz Podcast – iHeart

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