Sex, soul, slide, selflessness.” Melissa Etheridge’s first four words were carefully chosen when she inducted Bonnie Raitt into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. As if to underscore that last one, she followed with a gag that few performers’ egos could have worn lightly. Here was “a woman so tough, so uncompromising, so secure that she hasn’t felt the need to change her hairstyle for 30 years”.
The honoured rhythm and blues singer and slide guitar ace laughed it off because truly, from the first time she picked up a guitar as a nine-year-old girl in the LA winter of 1957, it’s never been about her. “Music was something I just did as a hobby,” she says. “My aim was to work for the AFSC.”
The American Friends Service Committee is the social arm of the Quakers, an indelible part of her family history. “They go places where there needs to be assistance in conflict resolution in a peaceful way. So to be able to have my career kind of fall in my lap because I happen to play good blues guitar for a girl …” Well, it was handy. “I felt it was my job to marry my music with fundraising,” she says.
The pretty-good-for-a-girl joke, by the way, is a staple of Raitt’s interviews, rooted in the culture of her late ’60s/early ’70s arrival. She must have heard it a hundred times from the kind of beard-strokers who judge Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time lists. As recently as 2015, she and Joni Mitchell were the only women deemed worthy. She idly wonders whether they’ve heard Joan Armatrading, Susan Tedeschi or St. Vincent but again, she tends to save her energies for less petty injustices.
Today, on the eve of her 18th album, Just Like That…, she’s at home in Marin County, about 20 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The spring blooms are a little early. “It’s pretty idyllic up here,” she says. “How about you?”
I’m remembering the first time we met, 30 years ago, in some swanky hotel in London. The swank level had recently escalated because, after 20 years on the cult side of commercial respectability, Nick of Time had just launched the blues rocker into a new league of million-selling, Grammy-gobbling superstars.
Life “absolutely changed for me”, she recalls of that moment, which happily occurred when she was “mature and clear enough to accept it” – a reference to previous years of drug and alcohol dependence. “I was able to work with band members that I wouldn’t have been able to afford … I was able to move here to Northern California where I’d always wanted to live, and I was able to raise more money for my causes.
“When I went on TV,” she says, it was to “better-quality shows where I could actually talk about the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and safe energy and Native American rights and all the different issues that I’d supported for years but couldn’t really make a big dent in fundraising or attention.
“Having a Cinderella story of all those Grammys won at once and my album [going] to number one … it afforded me a lot of security and freedom and a platform that I hadn’t really had before.”
She’d seen it up close once. Her father, John, was American stage musical royalty into his 80s, the perennial leading man from The Pajama Game to Man of La Mancha. Her mother, Marge Goddard, was a pianist and musical director. But while young Bonnie respected the fame and riches and agency that music could bring to some, by her late teens she’d opted to hitch her wagon to the ones who went without.
“My fortuitous moment, on top of being John Raitt’s daughter, was to meet Dick Waterman when I was 18, a freshman in college, and meet the legendary Son House, the greatest of the Delta bluesmen ever, and have personal access to asking him questions. He was extremely dignified and incredibly handsome and just momentous. Can you imagine, for me to actually have the opportunity to meet him?”
Waterman was House’s manager, an early mentor, and a fellow blues crusader. “He formed an agency to collectively bargain for better pay for the blues men,” she explains. Today she does similar work with the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, ensuring memorials, royalties and medical assistance for the giants on whose shoulders the rest of the industry is built.
“A lot of clubs would say, ‘Oh, we’ve had our old black blues guy for the month, why should we pay your guy $800 when I can get this guy for five?’ I mean, you wouldn’t believe the stories I heard, but Dick brought up [from the south] Arthur Crudup and Mississippi Fred McDowell; he brought Buddy Guy and Junior Wells out of Chicago, got them gigs on the east coast and eventually on the Stones tour …”
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO BONNIE RAITT
- Worst habit? Not taking more time for breaks and deep breaths
- Greatest fear? That cruelty, greed, and delusion might gain more ground.
- The line that stayed with you? Expectations are just resentments under construction.
- Biggest regret? Not being a better listener.
- Favourite room? The outdoors … or a room looking out to it.
- The artwork/song you wish was yours? I don’t really feel I would want to claim someone else’s art as mine. I love my favourites for the artists that created them.
- If you could solve one thing… It would be getting everyone committed to switching to renewable, clean energy, and conserving and better managing our limited resource.
She was “already playing pretty good blues guitar” when she met those guys, and Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, and … “they got a big kick out of the fact that I knew all their songs,” she says, laughing. Music aside, she got to hear first-hand their stories about working plantations and juke joints in the era of Jim Crow segregation laws and worse, and just as importantly, “I got to see how gracious they were; and just how eternally grateful”.
From John Lee Hooker to Ray Charles, Ruth Brown to Allen Toussaint, Bonnie Raitt played and recorded with more American icons than you can count on fingers and toes. They’re mostly gone now, of course, though their souls endure in that curious way that songs do in the hands and hearts of those who follow. This idea of what survives loss is a theme, unsurprisingly as she eases into her 70s, of her new album.
“I faced a lot of loss in the middle-aged period of my life,” she says, “but the last couple of years have just been absolutely soul-crunching.” Hence the 14 names listed in the album’s dedications; names ranging from her nephew Miles to recently fallen legends John Prine, Art Neville, Sweet Pea Atkinson, Dr. John, Oliver Mtukudzi and Toots Hibbert, whose Love So Strong she covers with her trademark throb and holler.
Just Like That and Down the Hall, two of her three self-penned songs, are incredibly moving character narratives from the viewpoints of ordinary people not just touched by death, but miraculously redeemed by it. The third, Livin’ for the Ones (who didn’t make it), is a much more upbeat and defiant rocker. All of them broadly invoke that rare calling that Melissa Etheridge noted 22 years ago at the Hall of Fame: selflessness.
“My brother passed away in 2009, after an eight-year battle with brain cancer,” Raitt says. “A couple of dear friends … died right after, and I had just lost my parents … When my brother passed, I just said to myself ‘I’m going to live for him every day.’ He lost his sight and his ability to walk in the last few months. And every day, I can open my eyes and look out the window at the beauty that is around us. And every day, I can swing my legs over the side of the bed and stand up and walk.
“It takes the tendency to want to whine and self-pity completely away when you adopt a stance of ‘I’m living for the ones who didn’t make it.’ Rather than wallow and wring my hands at a God that would let this happen, I’m just going to be living every day for the chances they didn’t get. I’m going to see for my brother. And I’m going to be appreciative of every day I have on this earth.”
It’s last question time, and I’m thinking of those Grammys that had just changed Bonnie Raitt’s life that time we met in London all those years ago. Her producer, Don Was, joined her on stage. After 20 years under the radar, he said the message of her victory was, “Maintain your integrity, never underestimate your audience and just try to make a good record.” Thirty years later, does she have anything to add?
“You know, you try your hardest and you stay awake, and you don’t repeat yourself. And you don’t sell your audience short. I know who my cult audience is, but I wasn’t expecting to have the massive appeal that I ended up with after that night … So even if I don’t sell or draw what I did in the early ’90s, I know that I’m fundamentally known in the world. If I was to go tomorrow, at least people know what I was about.”
Just Like That is out April 22 via Redwing Records.