By Nick Krewen
The singer-songwriter, who will return to the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on June 9, says she wasn’t aware of how much impact she’s made during her career.
A master of the Stratocaster, 10-time Grammy Award recipient Bonnie Raitt has always been perceived as a trail-blazing role model who inspires female musicians to pick up the guitar and express their individuality.
But it was just four years ago that the 67-year-old Raitt, who returns to the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on June 9 with Royal Wood and whose blues-rooted music is a soulful stew of rock, R&B and pop, discovered just how much of an impact she’s made during a career that’s lasted 47 years.
“I don’t think I was aware of it until recently,” Raitt, who was honoured with an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, an Americana Grammy for her album Slipstream and was featured in a December 2016 Oxford American cover story.
“When I go to those events, that’s when my gene pool of musicians — those women — come up to me and say, ‘I really grew up listening to you sing and play,’ ” Raitt said in a phone interview last month from California.
“And in the Oxford American, I read about all these women blues artists like Rory Block who gave me some great props; Susan Tedeschi and a bunch of people I admire turn around and talk about how they appreciate me and my guitar playing. I’m very proud to be considered in such high esteem by so many people I already like.”
It’s come full circle for Raitt, who is currently touring behind her 17th studio album, 2016’s Dig In Deep. The daughter of Broadway singer John Raitt earned her apprenticeship as a college student performing with such blues greats as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace after being turned onto the genre via the album Blues at Newport 1963.
“I had not been familiar with the country blues before,” Raitt recalls. “I’d heard the Rolling Stones and Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf and even some of The Beatles’ R&B covers, but the first time I heard Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis and John Lee Hooker was on that record. I was 14 and every artist on there — from Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry to John Hammond Jr. — absolutely knocked me out.
“I already loved Odetta and folk music and gospel music as well, but it wasn’t until I heard that record that I was aware of the country blues. Then it became really hard to decide whether to get the new Bob Dylan or Beatles or Stones record with my allowance, or one of those country blues records. It was a good incentive to get a side job.”
McDowell, one of the first Tennessee blues singers to score widespread recognition — he had also spent some time in the Mississippi Delta — gave Raitt a firsthand education in the blues.
“Fred McDowell taught me that you don’t have to be an older black person who lived through poverty in the South in order to play the blues,” Raitt explains. “From John Hammond to Koerner, Ray and Glover to Paul Butterfield — and all the British blues artists, even the Stones — there’s something about soul music and blues music that really cut to me. And Fred McDowell instantly appealed to something in my heart.
“I loved his sense of humour, and what I most got out of him was the passion that he played. He used to just throw his head back and lift his knee up, take that slide guitar all the way up the neck. And I would just watch transfixed, because at that point, I had only heard records. Then when I met Fred and got to see him live, I was just blown away by the power of one guy and a guitar to just hit so many emotions. I think I just fell in love with the blues as deeply as I ever was going to get with Mississippi Fred McDowell.”
Arkansas-born singer and pianist Sippie Wallace, whose 1920s heyday brought comparisons to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey in terms of popular stature, gave Raitt insight into a bygone era.
“Sippie Wallace taught me a lot about men and what it was like for her in the business,” Raitt recalls. “I learned a lot from her just being a woman instrumentalist and a songwriter and the way that she did and didn’t get pushed around or get respect, either in her personal life or in her business life. It’s kind of a precautionary tale of like an older person who would have been there.
“In 1970, my opportunities — like my access to a good lawyer — was completely different than hers. But I learned what it was like to be Black in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s by my associations with all those artists. It was like a living history to be able to find out what Jim Crow and segregation and racism meant — and just the joy of playing juke joints and being on the Vaudeville circuit.
“I got a window into a part of our culture that most people don’t get, and to this day it’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve had.”
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