Since the release of her self-titled debut album in 1971, Bonnie Raitt has built a respected career as a singer and slide guitarist who’s rooted in folk and blues traditions but not tied to them as an interpreter of her own and other writers’ songs.
Born Nov. 8, 1949, Raitt grew up in a musical household as the daughter of Broadway star John Raitt and pianist-singer Marge Goddard and was raised as a Quaker, which became the foundation for her political activism as an adult.
Raitt entered Radcliffe College in 1967, but within three years, she left to pursue music full-time after apprenticing on the folk and blues scene in Boston. She soon was opening for such blues legends as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace and Son House.
From the beginning, Raitt’s choice of cover material sought to shed light on largely unknown blues pioneers (Wallace’s “Women Be Wise,” for example) and up-and-coming contemporary songwriters (John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery”).
Her cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” however, provided her with her visit hit, but by 1983, Warner Bros. had dropped her but did eventually issue the last album she recorded for the label, as “Nine Lives” in 1986.
In 1987, Raitt stopped drinking, and in 1989, she released “Nick of Time,” which won three Grammy Awards, has sold more than 5 million copies and contains her hit version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love.” “Luck of the Draw,” from 1991, won three Grammy Awards, has sold more than 7 million copies and contains the hits “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make you Love Me.”
Raitt’s comeback continued with 1994’s “Longing in Their Hearts,” which won another Grammy Award (she has nine) for her and contained the hit “Love Sneakin’ Up on You” while selling more than 2 million copies. In March 2000, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As an activist, Raitt has and continues to emphasize environmental and energy issues in her public campaigns, perhaps most famously as a co-founder with Jackson Browne and Graham Nash of MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), which staged the 1979 “No Nukes” concerts. Since 2001, her tour buses have used biodiesel fuel, and she invites local environmental organizations to distribute information at her concerts and spent much of 2008 campaigning for eco-friendly Senate candidates.
On Friday, Raitt and her band perform at the Morris Performing Arts Center in what she thinks is her first appearance in South Bend. Last week, Raitt spoke with The Tribune by telephone from her home in Northern California.
Here’s a transcript of that interview that has been edited for length:
Tribune: What does the set list consist of for this tour, and what considerations go into designing it when you have as large and as diverse of a body of work as you do?
Raitt: We kind of play it by ear, depending upon what we feel like playing. … What mostly determines it is whether we have a new album out or whether we’ve played twice in that same market with that new album out.
First and foremost is to give people their favorites that they come to hear. Some of them haven’t heard my last couple of records, so we give them a little flavor of some of our favorites from that. Then I try to go back and dig into my past catalogue and just keep it fresh for me and also, assuming that some of the people would have come to see us in the last couple of years, maybe pick out some gems that we haven’t played in a while and that they wouldn’t have had a chance to hear.
What are your thoughts on being an artist today, and how does that differ from 25, 30 years ago?
Some things, for me as a veteran artist, don’t change: the things that I based my career on a long time ago, having been the daughter of somebody who really cared so much about the quality of the music that he was singing and the shows he was in much more than whether he was this week’s No. 1 flavor or whether he had a current Broadway show that was a hit or a string of hits. …
He was really more interested in slow and steady wins the race, in composing a life that involved building a relationship with his fans across the country. …
Every show, he put as much into it as opening night on Broadway. Consequently, he was able to keep a career going until his 80s, doing quality work. In the long run, I think that serves a great life of an artist better, rather than flashing hot and fast and brilliant for a few hit records. …
Early on, I really wanted to model my career on my dad and the blues and folk artists and the jazz artists who seemed to have stood the test of time and only get better and richer, and their fans stay loyal and know that they’re paying attention to deepening their own artistry and keeping their chops together. Then you’re lucky enough to have a relationship that lasts many decades.
The most proud I am is the fact that I’m here four decades later with an ability to draw and have an audience that will find my music and come and see me, and I have never had to worry about that faltering. …
For me, my core audience stayed loyal and bought my albums in about the same amount, 150, 200,000 in the ’70s. In the ’80s, I really got bumped off the radio and video came in and New Wave – this is a longer answer than I should be giving you – but to cut to the quick, ‘Nick of Time’ and ‘Luck of the Draw’ were incredibly successful, and getting that kind of nod from my peers (the Grammy Awards) was an incredible boost for my career, which has allowed me to have the kind of clout and security that I wouldn’t have had before and to play with musicians of the caliber that I have on my records on the road. I really made the cut at a level where I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to be to make a living in this business. …
I’ve got to say the greatest tool for young and middle and older artists is the Internet. People can go to my Web site and find out what I’m interested in, what music I’m doing, what my tour dates are, and for younger artists to be able to put out albums on their own, relatively inexpensively and let the market decide, or the public decide, that’s a great democratization of the music business, but of course, then you have billions of artists coming through and how in the world will you tell who’s good?
There’s mixed messages in what I’m saying, but I was lucky enough to build a following based on live touring and recording way before the music business faltered. I think I’m going to be OK, and what I’m interested in doing is owning more of a piece of my albums and not giving up so much to record companies, which have been faltering, as we all know.
The challenge then becomes how to get people aware of your new product and how to get compensated. If people aren’t buying albums and are downloading them for free, then there’s a question of how to get fair compensation for what we’re doing, for songwriters and for producers. The business has taken a hit, but I really have confidence that we’ll figure out a way to sort it out.
I don’t know if I’d have the stomach to start today as a young artist, but if you have that fire in your belly and gotta do it, you keep a day job and work at it for years and years until you break through and get your core audience. If you’re in it for the money and fame, then I think you better be expecting to not last very long. If you’re in it, because you’ve gotta do it and because you love it, people will find you and the cream will rise to the top and your fans will stay loyal.
Going back to your early albums and early playing, what about the blues and slide guitar attracted you?
I was part of my generation that fell in love with folk music. I went to summer camp, and the folk revival was rampant, running across the country, with The Kingston Trio having big hits, and Peter, Paul & Mary, and Joan Baez on the cover of Time magazine, so the counterculture was alive and well, starting in the colleges across the country. Most of my counselors came from schools where they were learning folk music and would bring that to camp. Sitting around a camp fire and singing folk songs is part of camp tradition. …
I just fell completely head over heels in love with Odetta and Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Of course, the social change movement of being Quaker and the peace and civil rights aspect of my background was married in the music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and their activism. The seeds of my love for folk music and, consequently, folk blues, were sowed right at that summer camp in my childhood. …
Early on, just for some reason, I loved Motown, loved soul music, loved the blues. I loved it in folk blues, country blues, and I loved it in urban blues. I started out with folk blues with Mississippi John Hurt and John Hammond and different artists that appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, so I think got in the door through folk and then I fell in love with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and the urban blues.
Early on, you got to work with Sippie Wallace, Fred McDowell and several other blues pioneers. What did you learn from knowing them and playing with them?
I loved their music first. … What I learned so much from both John Lee (Hooker) and Muddy Waters and Sippie and Fred McDowell was a great rye and seasoned perspective on the battle between men and women. I mean, you don’t often, you don’t sit around talking about male-female relationships and sex with your grandparents, but here they were in the generation that was the equivalent of my grandparents’ era.
Actually, Muddy and John Lee were the age I am now when I met them, and I got to witness firsthand through the way they dealt with their band members or dealt with their wives or their girlfriends or talked about music or talked about racism or talked about not getting paid, I got a firsthand education about the music business, about love, about being mistreated, about being treated right. …
It was an incredible apprenticeship. I learned how not to drink, how to drink, how to be in bad relationships – and good relationships – and how not to put up with them anymore. I basically idolized those people as people as much as artists.
The slide guitar? I don’t know. I think if you ask anybody why they like it, there’s something about it that gets to you. It’s like a human voice howling and every color of emotion can be expressed. There’s other instruments that do it, the harmonica, violin, just a single note can break your heart.
(Raitt co-founded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1988. The organization works to improve royalties, financial conditions and recognition for surviving R&B and blues musicians who haven’t been properly compensated over the years. In response to a question about Raitt’s contributions to a fund to buy former LaPorte resident Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins a piano, Raitt said the following:)
I think being rewarded with the adulation and appreciation of your fans instead of shunted off to obscurity and poverty makes a big difference in the quality of life older bluesmen get to have, and older blueswomen. You have this generation of Koko Taylor and, even a little bit younger, Mavis Staples, revered as opposed to shunted off because people in the blues are loyal.
The blues is never going to go away. It was never a mainstream music. B.B. King had a big hit, and occasionally, you’ll have a crossover hit with blues artists, but most of the time, it’s the loyalty of blues radio disc jockeys and blues programs and blues magazines and blues festivals. There’s never been a time when there weren’t young up-and-coming blues people who were as crazy for the blues as the Stones were. We all just went crazy for it, and it’s not going to change.
You mentioned the early blues guys teaching you how to drink and how not to drink, and ‘Nick of Time’ came right after you became sober. What’s it like to play music now, and what’s it been like from that point forward?
What, 22 years later? I enjoyed the first 17 years of my adult life on the road, living that lifestyle, but I always cared too much about my job to jeopardize it. I waited until after the show to misbehave. Most of the time it was pretty moderate. …
Somewhere in your mid 30s, it starts not looking so good and not feeling so good. Sometimes, it’s a problem in your early 20s and people have to get sober then. Luckily for me, in ’87, when I got sober, there were tremendous role models for me of my friends and peers who had straightened up. I could see very clearly how productive and still funky, still firing on all cylinders (they were), (that they) didn’t become a Moonie or some kind of religious nut. They just seemed to be better versions of themselves and feel better and play better, so I said, ‘OK, there goes all my excuses.’
As I learned to drink, I learned to not drink from my friends. I’ve since gone on to be very proud to be able to mentor a lot of other people in the music business and arts, to help them. You know, ‘How the heck do you pull a gig off not getting wasted?’ …
I was one of the lucky ones who go out. I didn’t have to go kicking and screaming to rehab or run over anybody. I was just kind of chunky and not feeling good, and I said, ‘You know what? This isn’t working for me anymore.’ I’ve never looked back, and I’ve seen people play the most incredible versions of their old songs sober. You don’t have to drink to be funky.
Although you’ve written some of your songs, you’ve also established a much greater identity for interpreting other people’s songs. Why that as opposed to writing your own stuff, and what do you look for in a song?
For me, a good song is a good song. It doesn’t matter who wrote it. …
When it comes time to make a record, I look at the best songs I have culled, and it takes many, many months and sometimes years, lately, to find stuff that doesn’t repeat what I’ve already said or that goes in a direction that really thrills and really moves me so much that I want to record it. …
Probably the abiding force in my choosing songs is giving light to some artists who never get the exposure they deserve. One of the things I love is to juxtapose Richard Thompson with the guy who wrote Al Green’s hits and to put Paul Brady from Ireland right next to John Hiatt. I love mixing up the set because I love all kinds of music. I’m not a blues artist, I’m not a pop artist, I’m not this, I’m not that. … I’m just driven by what makes me excited, and the authorship isn’t really that crucial.
What do you have plans for next?
Last year was mostly about helping the election and the safe energy movement and raising money for the environmental groups. This year, there’s some family illness that I’m dealing with, so I’m spending a lot of time with my family, and I’m going out as that allows.
We’ve got some tour plans to double-bill with Taj Mahal, which I have always wanted to do. I’m calling it the ‘Bon-Taj Roulet.’
We’re going to double-up with our bands, and his big Phantom Blues Band with horns, and we’re going to do a bunch of songs together, kind of a big, last half-hour bash of doing R&B and blues covers that we’ve always wanted to do together. That’s something exciting for the summertime outdoor season.
In the spring, we’re hitting some cities that you don’t get to hit when you have a new album. Your primary focus is to get in those major media markets, to hit the primary markets. This time around, it’s sort of going back and trying to make a living for my band and crew and myself and just have some fun until we get back in the studio, probably next year, I would say.
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