Blues legend, accomplished guitarist, and Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member Bonnie Raitt was fortunate to have early opportunities to play with legends of the genre. Throughout her career, the singer songwriter has never been shy about standing up for causes she believes in. For the daughter of musicians John Raitt and Marge Goddard, both music and social activism are in her blood.
Though Raitt started guitar lessons at age eight, her real passion didn’t begin until a few years later when she first discovered slide guitar and the blues. “I didn’t even hear slide guitar on a blues record until I was about 13 or 14. It was a record on Vanguard called Blues at Newport ’63. I turned the record over and combed through the credits,” says Raitt. She soon soaked the label off a Coricidin cold medicine bottle, put it on her middle finger, and began teaching herself slide guitar.
Interested in culture and politics, Raitt began college at Harvard/Radcliffe studying social relations and African studies. Between classes she spent her time playing music at local coffee houses. About three years into her studies, she decided to pursue music full-time.
That was about the same time she joined Local 374 (Concord, NH). “You couldn’t make a record unless you were part of the union [in those days],” she says. “Musicians need to band together to make sure they are treated fairly. There’s power in the union and talking about issues that affect us all—collective bargaining for better deals, health insurance, making sure that people get paid, and tracking is really important.”
Raitt soon found herself opening up for some of her heroes: Fred McDowell, Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, to name a few. It was a world that you might assume would be intimidating to a young woman, but she says it was just the opposite.
“When I met these older blues artists and they heard me play, they got a kick out of it, just like they were thrilled with all the people who played the blues,” she reflects. “Of course, if you were good they admired you, and if you weren’t good they probably just wrote you off; that was the same for any musician—you either had the chops or you didn’t.”
In fact, the blues musicians were so accepting to Raitt that she feels it gave her an advantage. “I was lucky to have my foot in the door a lot more than other female singers that would have loved to have had a career in the business. I played the blues and that was a little bit unusual. It set me apart,” she says.
She studied from her mentors—how the music fit together, the function of the rhythm section, and which guitar or piano parts were important. She was also schooled in some intangible qualities. “Aside from just soaking up the authenticity, deep groove, and passion,” Raitt says she studied the way band members interacted and the interplay of the rhythm sections.
“I watched how they worked the crowd and built the set with dramatic pauses, how it just came naturally and how incredibly erotic and playful [it was], and the heartache on the slow songs,” she says.
About 45 years later and 20 albums into her own career, Raitt’s latest project, Dig in Deep, still reflects all the emotion and technique she’d absorbed decades earlier. “All the topics of the songs I picked because they mean something to me at this time,” she says. “Having it be the 20th album, I’ve covered a lot of heartbreak topics before. I worked very hard on having a new thing to say and a new way to say it.”
As usual she didn’t shy away from tough topics. For example, she says, “‘Comin’ Round Is Going Through’ was something that was really burning in me to express how frustrated I am with money and politics—how democracy has been hijacked by big business and corporations that are influencing our policy too much. Regardless of your political leanings, I think everybody agrees that the system is kind of broken.”
“I think we are citizens first and we are musicians, artists after that. If you feel strongly that something is wrong, you should speak out as a citizen. We have responsibility, if we have the luxury of being well-known and having a microphone, to at least be informed and passionate,” she says. “I think all of us should speak out if we care about something and we want to help.”
The album’s title takes a line from the lead song, “Unintended Consequence of Love.” “It seemed to describe how deep the band was digging into these grooves,” says Raitt. “There’s something about a unit that has been together this long that just digs deeper. It’s effortless, like an unspoken language amongst ourselves. We instinctively know where the others are going and consequently don’t have to plan the arrangements. It’s very organic.”
Band members include Local 47 members James “Hutch” Hutchinson (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums), and Mike Finnigan (keyboards), and Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member George Marinelli (guitar). Raitt has played with Hutch and Fataar since the early ’80s. Marinelli has played guitar with Raitt on and off since 1993, and has been a permanent band member since 2000. And even though the newest member, Finnigan, has been with the band for just four years, Raitt has known him since the ’70s.
“I Knew,” the third song from Bonnie Raitt’s new album, Dig In Deep, begins with her longtime band punching out a funky groove, but the singer’s slide guitar hovers uncertainly, as if pondering its next move. The red-headed singer’s huge soprano also seems undecided, unsure whether she can keep going in the face of so much loss. “Time ain’t never healed the wound,” she sings with a world-weary sigh, “can’t think of anything that gets any better ‘cause it’s old.”
Time looms large in this new project, not just in the lyrics to the songs but also in the challenge of an artist staking out some new territory that won’t repeat what she’s already done. By the time you turn 66, as Bonnie Raitt did in November, you can’t ignore the past; you have to wrestle with it. “I would have run,” she sings on the chorus of “I Knew,” “but I couldn’t run; I would have lied, but I couldn’t lie, ‘cause I knew.”
She knew that if she wanted to release a 17th studio album, she would have to write and/or find a dozen songs that said something she hadn’t said on the 16 previous projects. She knew that if she wanted to escape the curse of the aging-pop-legend-turned-oldies-act, she had to have songs that could hold their own in her live set. And she felt she had more to communicate. “How cruel is it,” she sings on another song from the new record, “that fate has to find me all alone with something to say?”
“I’ve got a lot of decades of music that I’ve recorded,” she says over the phone from California, “a lot of music that’s been loved by other people, so when I do an album I don’t want to repeat myself; I don’t want to use words that someone else has already used. Otherwise it’s just a retread. So I try to write a song or find a song that says something new. Because if you’re not saying something new, why are you even out here?”
Raitt’s decades of music tell an unusual tale. She started out as a folk-rock-blues singer with a big voice, a slashing slide-guitar sound and knack for reinventing other people’s songs. Her nine albums for Warner Bros. between 1971 and 1986 didn’t sell many copies, but she was a favorite of critics, musicians and roots-music fans.
That all changed in 1989, when Nick Of Time, her first album for Capitol and her first album made sober, won three Grammies, topped the Billboard pop charts and sold more than five million copies. The follow-ups, 1991’s Luck Of The Draw and 1994’s Longing In Their Hearts, also went multi-platinum, charting #2 and #1 respectively and winning additional Grammies.
It proved that you could toil away under the damning label of “a critic’s favorite” for 18 years and then suddenly break through to a much wider audience. But after that best-selling trilogy, it was back to modestly selling records and devoted live audiences.
In this, the 45th year of her recording career, how does Raitt find something new to say? The first verse of “I Knew,” which originally appeared on songwriter Pat McLaughlin’s 2008 Horsefly album, finds Raitt casting off doubt as her voice and guitar commit themselves to moving forward. “Change,” she sings, locking into the beat, “would probably do me good.”
The changes aren’t drastic on Dig In Deep, but they reveal how she’s taking charge of her music. She has often included her own songs on her albums, but this one includes three originals and two co-writes — 42 percent of the songs compared to her previous percentage of 16 percent. This is her second album on her own label, Redwing Records, following Slipstream, and the first that she’s produced by herself — though she’s been credited as a co-producer since 1991’s Luck Of The Draw.
“I’m not a person who gets produced, quote-unquote, by another person,” she argues. “When we’re in the studio discussing the snare-drum sound or the mic placement, I’m right there and involved in the discussion. I’ve been producing as a partner all along. On recent albums I’ve asked a co-producer to join me because I’ve liked the sound of a record they’d done recently. But when I met Ryan [Freeland, her engineer], I knew what direction I wanted to go in and decided I didn’t need a co-producer this time. I’m so comfortable with Ryan and with my band that we know where we’re going without a lot of discussion.”
Four of the five new songs that Raitt wrote or co-wrote are uptempo rockers, from the slippery funk number, “Unintended Consequence Of Love,” which she wrote with New Orleans keyboardist Jon Cleary, to the Stones-like stomper of “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through,” which she co-wrote with her regular guitarist George Marinelli. “There are certain grooves I like to play that I wanted to add to the live show,” she explains, “so I was clear about what I wanted to work on.”
But an awareness of time passing sneaks into even these rambunctious party numbers. The Cleary song finds her addressing a longtime lover and asking whatever happened to the optimistic, enthusiastic people they used to be. “I guess time wore us down,” she sings, “expectations run aground. It’s an unintended consequence of love.”
Another number, “What You’re Doin’ To Me,” is sung by someone who has been worn down by those consequences and has given up on romance altogether. “Just when I thought the coast was finally clear,” she sings in surprise, “you come busting in the door.” The excitement of such an unexpected, late-life love is communicated by a rollicking R&B groove that pits Mike Finnigan’s B-3 organ against Raitt’s piano.
“There’s a style of gospel piano playing that I’ve always liked,” she says, “because it’s a place where honky-tonk, gospel and soul all intersect, whether it’s Leon Russell or Ray Charles. I grew up listening to a lot of black gospel singing on the radio. I don’t play a lot of piano, but that’s a kind of piano I really love.”
Raitt plays a different kind of gospel piano on the album’s final track, “The Ones We Couldn’t Be,” a slow hymn, a post-mortem on a relationship gone bust. She’s “looking through these photographs,” she sings to the other person, “searching for a clue” as to why they were pulled so tightly together and then flung so far apart. This is Raitt at her best, slowly filling her powerful voice with heartbreak. Accompanied only by Patrick Warren’s synthesizer strings, she confesses, “I’m so sorry for the ones we couldn’t be.”
“I still think in terms of a whole album,” she admits, “even though I know people are into downloading individual tracks now. But I’m old-school; I like putting an album together so it tells a story from the beginning to the middle to the end. Finding the right place for a ballad is the hardest, most important decision. That’s why sequencing is so crucial. To me the most important song is the last one.”
To these ears, the album’s linchpin ballad is “Undone,” written by Nashville singer-songwriter Bonnie Bishop. Over Finnigan’s B-3 and ex-Beach Boy drummer Ricky Fataar’s brushes, Raitt eulogizes a shattered romance. “Battle waged and nothing won,” she sings with those big open vowels of hers. “Oh what have I done? The blood has run.
Some things can’t be undone.”
By the time that chorus comes around for the third time, however, she sounds as if she’s singing not merely about a specific relationship but a lifetime of struggles and disappointments — not just her lifetime but anyone’s. The words and music are Bishop’s but Raitt claims them completely as her own.
“That’s just something I do,” she says of interpreting other people’s songs. “I listen to something and by the time it comes out of my head and my guitar, it’s going to sound different. Especially if it’s a song written by a man, there’s going to be changes in keys and in lyrics; it’s going to be reframed in my own style. That’s how I grew up, hearing people like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and my father do the same thing.”
Her father was John Raitt, the star of such musicals as Carousel, Oklahoma! and The Pajama Game on Broadway, in movies and on television. He emerged in a time when singer and songwriter were considered two very separate roles in the music-making process. That changed, of course, in the ’60s, not only because songwriters wanted to perform their own works but also because singers wanted to keep the publishing money for themselves.
“Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Carole King ushered in a new era with singers doing their own songs,” Raitt acknowledges, “but there has always been a parallel track where people like me, Aretha, Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt interpret other people’s songs. I grew up singing songs I loved in the backseat of our car, singing my dad’s show tunes, folk-music songs, blues. I came up in an era when people were singing other people’s songs.”
Today interpretive singing seems an endangered art form as every artist and every producer want to control their own publishing, one of the few reliable income streams left in the shrinking music business. What gets lost in this shift is the chemistry of a great singer embodying the work of a great songwriter — of one strong personality encountering another. John Prine, Randy Newman and Chris Smither are superb songwriters, but they have modest voices, and songs such as “Angel From Montgomery,” “Guilty” and “Love Me Like A Man” take on a different life when sung by someone like Raitt.
On the other hand, Raitt is an astonishing singer, but she’s not a prolific writer — and she lacks the rare verbal wit of Prine, Newman and Smither. So she looks for songs like theirs — and he claims that the search for new songs is not all that different from the writing of new songs.
“It’s equally challenging to write a new song or to find a new song,” she claims. “Both can be frustrating. You write and write and you’re not hearing what you want to hear. Or you listen and listen and you’re not hearing what you want to hear. But you keep going till you hear it. You have to come up with new songs or else you’re going to be repeating yourself.”
And what is she listening for from these new songs? In one sense, she’s looking for what she’s always sought: words and music that resonate with the emotional puzzles she’s trying to solve in her own heart. But those puzzles are different in her 66-year-old heart than they were in her 26-year-old heart, so the songs must be different too.
“I can’t separate my growth as a person,” she says, “from my choices of songs over the years. That line, ‘I’d give anything to see you again,’ from ‘Love Has No Pride,’ is something I wouldn’t say now, but there was a time I felt that way — and I still identify with that person. Since I’ve been sober for 30 years, I don’t sing Randy Newman’s ‘Guilty’ the same way, but it’s a useful reminder of the way I was.
“At this point in our lives, with our parents passing and so many friends getting sick, with the condition of the world so terrible, you have to find a way to center yourself so you can withstand the heavy weather, I was a lot more carefree in my 20s and 30s, but that was a different world and I was a different person.”
“Like a heartbeat,” she sings on “All Alone With Something To Say,” “timing is everything. I looked at love when love looked away.” The song is about that familiar experience of realizing what you should have said in a key moment only when that moment is long gone. The song seems to be about a splintered romance, but like so many songs on this album, it could apply equally well to departed parents (Raitt’s mom and dad died in 2004 and 2005) or lost friends. And just because wisdom comes too late for some situations doesn’t lessen its value for all the situations to come.
“To survive that heavy weather,” she says, “you have to try to be good to other people and to be good to yourself — and clean up the messes when you make a mistake. When something’s wrong in your relationships —whether it’s with a lover or at work or in your family — you have to square your shoulders and face it and do something about it. If it doesn’t change in six months, move on, because this isn’t a rehearsal; this is the only life we get.”
In the late 1960s-early 70s Bonnie Raitt was a young artist on the college/folk music circuit who idolized the African American blues legends whose music she emulated — people like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Muddy Waters and Ruth Brown. Sometimes she opened for them in concert all the while developing a distinctive blues rock and pop style all her own.
For many years that made Raitt a cult favorite with albums that included Give It Up,Takin My Time, Streetlights and Green Light. This was until a magical period in 1989 through the mid-1990s when Raitt became a bonafide star thanks to the commercial and multi-Grammy winning albums Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw and hit songs such as “Nick of Time,” “A Thing Called Love,” “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
In the years since, Raitt has continued to deliver critically acclaimed albums and become a beloved music icon for younger artists like Adele, Bon Iver and Katy Perry, who have all covered “I Can t Make You Love Me.”
In 2012 she released her first album in seven years, Slipstream, another gem featuring her still powerful vocals and dynamic bottleneck guitar picking. The final leg of her Slipstream tour stops at Caesars Atlantic City, Saturday. Nov. 23. Prior to that visit, Atlantic City Weekly had a chance to chat with Raitt
“In a climate that sells less CDs, it’s a good investment to have your own label”
You’ve had a career that has come full circle. You once idolized great blues artists like Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace and now young artists like Adele and Bon Iver are covering your songs. How do you feel about that?
My heart is warmed. I’m excited. I was very happy to have a new crop of fans coming to my concerts and more interest in my music whether it is shows like The Voice or American Idol that cover “Something to Talk About” or “I Can t Make You Love Me” and I hear about it, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Adele, to have people of their caliber cover that song [“I Can t Make You Love Me”] has been wonderful. To reach this point where Muddy and John Lee and Sippie Wallace were when I started out. You are at that point where you don’t have to look over your shoulder to see if your next record will be received well. I have a little bit of security and I thank my fans for that.
Slipstream is a terrific album earning a Grammy award for a newer category, Americana.
It was great that they came up with that umbrella. People like to put music in little boxes. There is such a wide range that fits in Americana [roots blues folk].
You self-released Slipstream on your Redwing Records. What made you decide to start a record label? Was it a necessity because of the current record business?
No not at all. I had a lot of interest from some labels. For me as a legacy artist who is established, the math works really well if you have the stomach and the staff to put together a great distribution, PR and management team. I have three wonderful women who are great at accounting, social media and my social activism side. Managing a label is very daunting task and those three are fantastic. In a climate that sells less CDs, it’s a good investment to have your own label.
How comfortable are you with the way records are released and promoted with social media?
It is certainly a great way to get the information out starting with the Web site. It’s a great way to communicate directly with fans and the fact that we can sell digitally is another reason for having our own label. Unfortunately, like bookstores the mom and pop record stores are [nearly gone]. It’s just a reality of the business.
You came out on stage with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones in San Jose to sing “Let It Bleed.” That must have been amazing.
It was wonderful. I’ve known [Jagger] since I was 19 and I hung out a lot with those guys over the years. We’ve opened for the Stones a few times and I was actually on their last DVD. It’s an honor to be included and a lot of fun. I’m such a big fan.
With your early success in the Philadelphia region, you should have a great audience here in Atlantic City, not a typical casino crowd.
We did almost 100 dates in the U.S. and we were two months Down Under and two months in the U.K. and Europe earlier this year. These 40 dates are really to pick up the fans that didn t get a chance to see us last time. It’s a continuation of the Slipstream tour with a lot of songs from the new album and other songs from my previous catalog I switch around depending on how I’m feeling that night. Playing with Marc Cohn is such a treat. We did a lot of shows with him and with Mavis Staples last year. As for the casino audience verses regular venues, by the time the lights go down and I come out there on the stage I’m just grateful to have a heated venue with great lighting, a showroom with comfortable seats and great sight lines. With my fans there it just feels like another Bonnie Raitt concert.
Will you be working on a new album after this tour? You took seven years between albums last time.
With all the preparation before recording the album it has been a three-year cycle and I think I deserve a break. But I’ve definitely got some ideas in mind and I’m hunting for new songs. I haven’t really had any time at home in the last couple years. It will be nice to settle for a bit and unpack my suitcase and not repack it right away.
You are well known for being passionate about various charitable and political causes over the years. What’s your current passion?
Getting money out of politics Whether you are left or right or the middle. I hope that is something we can all agree on going forward. It is just a travesty what has happened to what we call democracy. It is really an auction instead of an election these days. And clearly the energy and climate situation, whether its Hurricane Sandy or the fires out west we [need] to keep pushing for safer alternatives to nuclear energy, coal and fracking. Those alternatives are available and we can bring the price down. The energy situation, the campaign reform and Wall Street reform, those are high on my list ■
EVENT INFO – Saturday Nov 23. 9pm Caesars Circus Maximus. Atlantic City – $67.50, $89, $99
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Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2, the anticipated new John Prine tribute record from Oh Boy Records, is out today. Stream/purchase HERE.
Created as a celebration of Prine’s life and career, the album features new renditions of some of Prine’s most beloved songs performed by Brandi Carlile (“I Remember Everything”), Tyler Childers (“Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You”), Iris DeMent (“One Red Rose”), Emmylou Harris (“Hello In There”), Jason Isbell (“Souvenirs”), Valerie June (“Summer’s End”), Margo Price (“Sweet Revenge”), Bonnie Raitt (“Angel From Montgomery”), Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (“Pretty Good”), Amanda Shires (“Saddle in the Rain”), Sturgill Simpson(“Paradise”) and John Paul White (“Sam Stone”). Proceeds from the album will benefit twelve different non-profit organizations, one selected by each of the featured artists.
Bonnie Raitt - Write Me a Few of Your Lines/Kokomo Blues
60 years anniversary celebration of Arhoolie - December 10, 2020
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Sam & Dave classic written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.
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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Bonnie Raitt about her friendship with the Mose Allison. They're also joined by Amy Allison — his daughter, who executive produced the album — about selecting an unexpected list of artists to contribute songs to the album.