Watching a human interest segment on the news in 2018, Bonnie Raitt couldn’t pull away from the story of a woman who donated her child’s organ and was about to meet the recipient of her son’s heart for the first time. The man sat with her and asked if she would like to put her head on his chest so she could hear her son’s heart. “I just lost it,” says Raitt. “It was the most moving and surprising thing. I wasn’t expecting it. I vowed right then that I wanted to write a song about what that would take.”
Riveted by the idea of how families can make the life-altering decision in one of the most difficult moments, Raitt began writing the lyrics to “Just Like That,” the corner piece of her eighteenth album.
“Every time I hear about a family donating organs when their child has been killed, or there’s some sort of sudden death—as if you’re not in grief and shock enough—to have the view and the compassion and the love to be able to pay it forward like that is so incredible,” says Raitt, “and the kindness of the recipient, and what that must feel like for them.”
In May of 2018, Raitt was also affected by a story she read in The New York Times Magazine about a prison hospice program in Vacaville, California where inmates work as caregivers for fellow terminal convicts. Staggered by her reaction to the intimate photographs and stories of volunteers devoting their time to those incarcerated at the end of their lives, she wrote her own story on “Down the Hall,” singing from the perspective of the caretakers: I asked if they let family in / She said not really at the end / Truth is a lot don’t have someone, no friends or next of kin / The thought of those guys going out alone, it hit me somewhere deep / I asked could go sit with them, for some comfort and relief.
“I just immediately felt how many segregated, separated, polarized segments of our population out in society are reflected in microcosms in prisons,” says Raitt. “Those pictures, without any explanation, were such a beautiful testimony of how the need of one human being to have compassion from another, and empathy, and care was just so moving. I’m moved by it now. I can barely sing those songs without getting touched again.”
Drawn to these two news stories amid a flurry of hatred and inequality happening in real-time within the U.S., Raitt had the pillars of Just Like That…, a collection of humanistic stories that moved her to write and look back on previous times.
An affinity for The Gift of the Magi and early 20th century short stories by O. Henry to reflection on the loss of friend John Prine, who died on April 7, 2020, and his first songs “Donald and Lydia” and “Angel of Montgomery,” and further references to Bob Dylans’ earlier acoustic story songs, helped Raitt capture the modesty of the narratives she needed to deliver.
“Those story songs, Prine and Jackson and Paul Brady from Ireland, and Bob Dylan was really what I wanted to do on those two songs,” says Raitt, “to come from that fingerpicking simplicity of just a person on the guitar.”
On Just Like That… Raitt revisits songs she’s meant to cover for years like “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” by NRBQ’s Al Anderson, which was ringing in her head for three decades. Then she paid homage to Toots and the Maytals with a cover of “Love So Strong,” a song she originally planned to duet with her friend Toots Hibbert before his untimely death from COVID in 2020. Instead, Raitt turned the song into a tribute to the reggae artist. Opening on the bluesier uptempo “Made Up Mind” by alt-country group The Bros. Landreth, who she had friended nearly a decade earlier at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Raitt also found a place for her rendition of “Here Comes Love” by the California Honeydrops, a song she initially cut during her Dig In Deep session in 2015.
Returning to work on Just Like That…when her international tour with James Taylor was halted due to the pandemic in March 2020, Raitt also continued performing for fundraising live streams around social justice, environmental issues, and the election. She then jumped at an open pocket of space to rehearse with her band for the first time in 2021.
“It’s like putting together a great meal,” says Raitt of her 10 song selections. “I’m not a terrific cook, but I appreciate why you wouldn’t want to put this vegetable with that vegetable when this one will be a better match. I want to say something new on every record, and with 21 albums, man, I’ve covered a lot of territory of what can go wrong in a love affair. Those blues guitar licks on ‘Made Up Mind,’ I could have been singing a song about a laundromat and I still would’ve cut it.”
Roused by jazz musicians like Eddie Harris, Mose Allison, Raitt tells a wicked tale of a devil sitting on someone’s shoulder with a throwback to 1970s funk on “Waitin’ For You to Blow.”
“There’s something thrilling about creating something brand new out of feelings and styles that have always run so deep in me,” she says. “I wanted to stretch on this record and do something different for me, and for the fans. To do those acoustic fingerpicking story songs was one way, and the other way was funk. I’ve always loved how funk and R&B and jazz intersect.”
Elaborating on the “Waitin’ For You to Blow” subject, Raitt, who is coming up on 35 years sober, always had this vision of a devil sitting on her shoulders, waiting for her to slip up. “It’s not even about whether you’re going to drink or use drugs, or it’s sex or exercise or whatever your drug is,” she says. “It’s every day where you don’t stay in bed and watch that movie another hour, or tell those little white lies to people, these kinds of slippery behaviors. There’s that little devil trying to urge you to ‘why not keep going.’” Raitt referenced Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, and songs like “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley to capture the essence of the track. “I love those kinds of sardonic, sarcastic point of view songs where it gets the message across much better, especially when there’s a funky beat or it’s a rock and roll song.”
The horns and breaks, and jazzier keyboard chords of a funk song were already in her head, as Raitt conceived the entire arrangement, inspired by the jazz fusion of groups like The Crusaders, the backing bands of Joe Cocker and Paul Simon. “There’s no reason to give it a name,” says Raitt, catching her band off guard after suggesting a shuffle in the bridge. “It’s as jazz as it is funk as it is blues and rock. Ray Charles had it. James Brown had it.”
Interspersed with original material and covers, Raitt offered another one of her story-songs on the contemplative ballad “Living for the Ones,” motivated by losses around the pandemic and co-written with her longtime guitarist George Marinelli. “This song was written specifically about what we’ve been going through the last couple of years,” reveals Raitt. She added that the election brought her to her knees with the “vitriol and lies and delusions” she fears are threatening democracy along with the encroachment of “fascist elements” within our society. “It’s never been as bad as it’s been now in my lifetime,” adds Raitt. “I’m incredibly inclined to go find a cabin somewhere, put my head under a pillow, and not come out again.”
For Raitt, the pain, heartbreak, stress, and anxiety centered around the climate crisis and the devastation around the world, which she says has been caused by richer nations not managing emissions or making polluters pay and being proactive and making safe energy work. The Black Lives Matter movement also moved Raitt, due to the “visceral sickening horror of watching George Floyd’s murder,” and the ensuing realization of how often this has been happening.
Adding to the massive collection of losses in her album notes, Raitt began making a list of people she wanted to honor and dedicate the album to but had to stop at 14 for fear of having paragraphs of names. “I learned about loss, how my reaction could be to it, and gaining strength to keep going,” says Raitt, whose brother, musician Steve Raitt, died in 2009 at the age of 61 after an eight-year battle with brain cancer, right before she lost another friend and many others within her age group to cancer and heart disease and even suicide in the years that followed.
Partially dedicated to her brother, “Living for the Ones” is also a dedication to the ones everyone has lost. “I wanted to sing a song about what I started to do when my brother passed away, which was live for the life he didn’t get to have every day. He went blind and he couldn’t walk in the last month of his life, and every day that I can swing my legs across the bed and stand up, every day I open my eyes and I can look out, I’m not complaining. I’m gonna make it through for the ones that didn’t get to.”
More than 50 years since Raitt debuted with her self-titled album, four decades on from Green Light, and the superfluous anniversaries that come with more than five decades of music-making, Raitt doesn’t have any far-fetched aspirations. She just wants to play live again. She comes from a lineage of lifers, working till the end, like her father, actor and singer John Raitt, who continued to perform through the age of 86.
“I come from some stock [of artists] in blues and jazz and Broadway world where people didn’t retire,” says Raitt. “Everybody’s always saying that they’re going to retire. Why should I retire? What would I do? I’d be bored to death.”
She adds, “I’m in a world of other musicians that I think are doing their best work now. Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] and Paul McCartney… these people don’t show any signs of flailing or losing their jobs. People are just getting richer and deepening if you’re blessed enough to have good health and not coast on your laurels and do less good material. You have to keep being excellent and caring, or it doesn’t work.”
Now 72, Raitt feels lucky, alive, and grateful to still have something to say, and the ability to share it with the world again. “We all hope we stay in good health,” says Raitt. “I hope I can still sing. If not, I’ll just stand up at the side of [the] stage and watch. I’ll get some YouTube person to win a contest and sing my parts for me and give them a Bonnie Raitt wig.” Raitt adds, “I’ll just keep shape-shifting and watch on the side of the stage, or maybe I’ll play my slide guitar sitting in a chair, or be in the band and dress up as the person that’s dressed up as me.”
Thinking of the reality of her life and career with some jest, Raitt honestly doesn’t see the end of her musical road anytime soon.
“I hope I get to do it another 15 years,” shares Raitt. “I really do. I just keep looking at Keith and Mick and go ‘all right, I’ll keep doing it.’”