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.