Bonnie’s album, Nick of Time, (released in 1989) has been inducted as one of 25 audio recordings for this year’s National Recording Registry! The Library of Congress will be preserving Nick of Time as a recording that helped shape our nation’s history and culture, bringing the registry to 600 works. Bonnie is honored that her album has been recognized as enduring and influential in the annals of American recorded music history. Read the full list of inductees here.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden today named 25 recordings as audio treasures worthy of preservation for all time based on their cultural, historical or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage.
“The National Recording Registry reflects the diverse music and voices that have shaped our nation’s history and culture through recorded sound,” Hayden said. “The national library is proud to help preserve these recordings, and we welcome the public’s input. We received about 1,000 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry.”
The recordings selected for the National Recording Registry bring the number of titles on the registry to 600, representing a small portion of the national library’s vast recorded sound collection of nearly 4 million items.
“Nick of Time” — Bonnie Raitt (1989) (album)
Bonnie Raitt released her first album in 1971 and had long been considered a great and respected talent. But, though often critically acclaimed, significant commercial success had often eluded her. In 1989, seven years after being dropped from her previous record label and after suffering a debilitating skiing accident, Raitt rallied herself and returned to the studio. With the assistance of renowned producer Don Was, she not only fashioned the most important album of her career but an album many consider among the best of the decade. “Nick of Time,” Raitt’s 10th LP, would earn three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, top the “Billboard” chart, sell 5 million copies and earn a lasting place in the book “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.” With the aid of Was, Raitt dove deep emotionally and cared little about genre labels or categories. About the record, it was said “[she] never rocks too hard, but there is grit to her singing and playing, even when the surfaces are clean and inviting.” About the album, Raitt herself said, “Basically, it’s a return to my roots.”
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 blockbuster comeback, a genre-fluid album about love, disappointment, and aging.
In 1983, Bonnie Raitt’s career was at a crossroads. The day after she’d finished mastering her ninth album, Tongue & Groove, the fire-haired Radcliffe dropout and beloved country-blues singer received a letter informing her she’d been dropped from her label. Warner Bros. had signed Raitt in 1971, when she was just 21, and put out eight of her records. But none had been much of a commercial success, and it was time to cut the budget.
Raitt was contractually entangled with Warner for three more years, after which they forced her to put out Tongue & Groove anyway; it was released and largely ignored as was Nine Lives in 1986. She was in her late 30s, recovering from the painful end of a four-year relationship, and suddenly tasked with rehabilitating a music career that should have been in its prime. Years of life on the road had taken its toll, too. As an 18-year-old college student, Raitt met the Boston promoter Dick Waterman, and she got to know the ’70s blues circuit in part by dispensing booze backstage for the likes of Fred McDowell and Son House. When she started recording and touring herself, she earned a reputation as a late-night party girl. “I wanted to be the female version of Muddy Waters or [McDowell],” she said in 1990. “There was a romance about drinking and doing blues.” By 1975 she’d moved to L.A. and started practicing what might qualify as that decade’s version of “Cali sober”—cutting out bourbon to merely drink tequila and wine—and described her drug use as “nothing much: a toot ’n’ a toke.”
But as she neared 40—and considered the possibility of appearing in music videos alongside Prince, with whom she’d recorded a few songs—Raitt decided she’d probably drank enough boys under the table to last her career. She’d grown to hate the feeling of waking up and not being able to remember what she’d talked about with people the night before. She had also put on some weight and was increasingly self-conscious about her appearance. “I remember being so proud thinking I was the last girl singer still drinking,” she told Playboy soon after. “Then I looked in the mirror.” At a show in Louisiana around that time, a fan in the front row passed her what has to be one of the most audacious notes in the history of live shows: “What happened? You got fat. Maybe you should work out or something.”
By 1987, Raitt had quit drinking. She began exercising regularly and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She was working on getting her life back on track, but it was a slow reboot. Over the course of the next year, 14 labels passed on signing her; in 1988, Capitol finally offered a $150,000 deal, a package typically reserved for newer artists. “There was nobody interested in signing Bonnie Raitt,” Tim Devine, her A&R at Capitol, told Billboard in 2019. “When I went to sign her, my boss at the time said, ‘Over my dead body.’”
Nick of Time—Raitt’s tenth studio album and first with Capitol—is understandably considered her triumphant comeback. But Raitt herself has often pointed out that there was nothing for her to even come back from: She’d never had a hit record before. For almost 20 years, Raitt had made her career on the road, where she could show off her under-recorded, formidable slide guitar skills and easily compensate for lagging record sales at the box office. “I never pretended to be a great artist or a great originator,” she once said. “I’m just an interpreter of good music.”
The closest she’d come to mainstream success was a 1977 cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” which has her snarling and sliding around a Norton Buffalo harmonica break. It was a big leap from “Mighty Tight Woman” and “Women Be Wise,” the sweet but almost painfully innocent sounding Sippie Wallace covers on Raitt’s 1971 self-titled album. Raitt hit her stride as an interpreter and recording artist when her voice earned some attitude and grit in addition to its innate emotional clarity, and when she began to transform songs written by men (“Runaway,” “Too Long at the Fair,” and “Angel From Montgomery,” to name a few) with her simple shift in perspective. But she still wasn’t really on the radio.
Who would’ve guessed Nick of Time—a genre-fluid album about love, disappointment, and aging—would be Raitt’s turning point? Certainly not the people who made it. Raitt, 39, was emerging from what she called “a complete emotional, physical and spiritual breakdown,” and producer Don Was (of Was (Not Was)), was at “rock bottom” in his production career. He’d only crossed paths with Raitt by chance, at an L.A. studio in 1986, because he’d lost his client’s tapes in the back of a taxi on his way out to California and had to push their session by a day. Soon after, Raitt teamed up with Was to record “Baby Mine,” a song from the animated 1941 Dumbo movie for an album of reimagined Disney songs, and they knew they wanted to continue working together. It wasn’t an easy sell. “If it comes down to it and a record company comes along and insists that she have a real producer,” Raitt’s managers told Was over lunch one day, “we’re going to throw you under the bus.”
But Capitol’s low investment in the project also came with the hands-off blessing of low expectations, and in 1988, Raitt and Was took some stripped-down demos into a week-long session at Hollywood’s Ocean Way Recording. For once, Raitt felt no pressure to emerge with radio-ready hits; she and Was just wanted to make songs they would be proud of. For his part, Was knew the key to production would be staying out of the way: “It was just about hearing her unadorned voice,” he told Billboard. “Everything else would augment that.” They cut about two tracks a day, using as few instruments as they could and aiming for a sound that felt, in Raitt’s words, “as live and uncorrected as possible.”
Raitt’s slide guitar appears on about half of Nick of Time, a unifying thread in an album that jumps from country to pop and R&B. For much of the ’80s, Raitt had been touring with a limited budget, playing full sets with only a bass player to accompany her guitar. As her playing, and reputation for it, had improved, she’d realized it was what set her apart as an artist. “It was time to showcase the things about me that were different,” she told the Boston Globe in 1989. “There are a lot of female hormones in that slide playing.” (John Jorgenson, who played guitar on “Too Soon to Tell,” credits Raitt’s playing on Nick of Time with a general slide revival in country music in the ’90s.)
Raitt, never known for her songwriting, bookended the album with an unusual ode to aging, “Nick of Time,” and a closing manifesto, “The Road’s My Middle Name.” She personally begged the Bay Area singer-songwriter Bonnie Hayes to give her both the torch song “Love Letter” and the heartbreaker “Have a Heart.” According to Hayes, the latter was written as a reggae track for Huey Lewis, and it is difficult to imagine him delivering the iconic opening line—“Hey… shut up!”—with the same playful bite that Raitt gave it. The song peaked at No. 3 on the adult contemporary chart, Nick of Time’s biggest hit.
Raitt’s career might have been adrift, but she had plenty of loyal friends to call on. “Cry on My Shoulder,” doused in ’90s schmaltz, casually features backup vocals by David Crosby and Graham Nash, and Herbie Hancock accompanies Raitt on the aching ballad “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again.” Among others, “Too Soon to Tell”—which Raitt has called the only true country song she ever made—has Was (Not Was)’s Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens chipping in on backup vocals. (Mike Reid, who co-wrote the track, would go on to co-write “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” one of the biggest songs of Raitt’s career.) The lead single was a cover of Jon Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” and with a shrewd eye toward VH1 airtime, Raitt cast her friend Dennis Quaid as a flirty himbo in the accompanying music video.
Nick of Time was released on March 21, 1989; it hit the label’s sales goal in a week and then, to everyone’s surprise, continued to sell steadily. The real boost came after the 1990 Grammys, when Raitt—unsigned and bottomed-out just a few years prior—won all four awards she’d been nominated for, including Album of the Year. “I’d just like to thank Bonnie Raitt,” Was said onstage, next to his disbelieving partner, “for setting an example here. If you maintain your integrity, never underestimate your audience, and just try to make a good record, people will respond to you.” A few weeks later, Nick of Time was the No. 1 album in America.
Raitt has likened this post-Grammy rise to a “hyperspace”—it was the moment everything changed for her. But why the hell did it take this long to happen? Nick of Time coheres around a clear and earnest philosophy that no doubt registered with the second-wave feminist boomers who went out and bought it in droves: These are songs performed by a woman who’d reached a personal and professional nadir and pulled herself out. And she did it all, as the New York Times review put it, at a “certain age.” Thirty-plus years after its release, the album’s point of view—a woman who feels liberated by her age and life experience rather than limited by it—is still refreshingly out of the ordinary. It’s the story of Raitt attempting to come to terms with her adult self. “I can handle the things about myself that I didn’t like before,” Raitt told the Globe at the time, just a few months shy of turning 40. “I don’t feel that anything is leading me around anymore—love, or the road, or my career. I feel like I’m in control of my life. I have a real spirit of purpose.”
Nick of Time exceeded everyone’s expectations; it didn’t only sell over 5 million copies, it wholly revitalized Raitt’s career. Her subsequent release, 1991’s Luck of the Draw, surpassed it in sales and cemented her as a ’90s powerhouse with hits like “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Still, for an artist so defined by interpretations, it’s Raitt’s own “Nick of Time” that stands out from the pack now. Raitt wrote it when she was playing around with a Drumatix synth with built-in sounds, looking for something that had a Philly Soul vibe. After she played the demo in the studio, Was layered in an old synth, and drummer Ricky Fataar got creative: “He put a sandbag on his belly and mic’d it,” Raitt told USA Today in 2014. “Then he played that signature heartbeat sound [on it] that made it intimate.” In the first verse, Raitt sings of a friend who “sees babies everywhere she goes” and “wants one of her own” but has an indecisive partner; in the second, she speaks to the strange sadness that accompanies parents and children seeing one another age. Her voice is unusually gentle and plaintive: “When did the choices get so hard, with so much more at stake?” she wonders on the bridge: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”
The ’90s were a less forgiving time, but the existential angst of a woman in their mid- to late-30s remains. In an industry that perennially favors the young, that was and remains racked with ageism and sexism, Nick of Time feels startling simply for existing as it was made, a contentedly unresolved document about a grown woman losing and then reestablishing herself at a life stage when her story could have easily joined so many others in the ether.
It’s bittersweet to know that “Nick of Time” played a part in pushing Raitt’s friend’s partner to make a decision: Not long after the album came out, the couple got married and had a kid. (According to Raitt, they nearly named him “Nick.”) Still, it’s nice to know that the song itself ends on what is more or less a white-knight fiction. In the final verse, Raitt sings of redemptive love, someone who “opened up my heart again” and gave her “love in the nick of time.” Raitt was newly signed, sober, and recentered, but she was still single and recovering from heartbreak. She had a lot more life to live.
30 Years of ‘Nick of Time’: How Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Underdog Record’ Swept the Grammys & Saved Her Career
Before Nick of Time became perhaps the biggest Cinderella story in Grammy history — as well as the cement to Bonnie Raitt’s now-unshakeable legacy as a singular song interpreter and advocate for the blues tradition, and the soundtrack to so many ‘90s babies’ childhoods — it was a last-ditch effort to salvage the career of a cult-favorite artist who had just hit rock bottom.
Few career triumphs were as deserved as Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 breakthrough with Nick of Time, her tenth album and first under a new contract with Capitol Records. Her artistic credentials had been established over nearly two decades on stage and record; she was admired by fans and critics but was too often overlooked by sales charts and radio playlists.
Raitt’s self-titled 1971 Warner Bros. debut album showcased an eclecticism rooted in folk and traditional blues, deepened by contact with elder masters including hill country bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace, a peer to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Alberta Hunter. Her musician parents had encouraged her with childhood piano lessons before she received her first guitar at the age of 8. Inspired by the ’50s folk music revival, she was already performing for peers at the Adirondacks summer camp she attended until her mid-teens. By the time she enrolled at Radcliffe College, she was already equally steeped in the blues and progressive politics.
Raitt’s debut captured a warm, soulful voice, prodigious guitar chops and a savvy song sense that bloomed rapidly with her ’70s albums. Although she was already writing songs, she set a high bar that favored other writers, mixing blues, R&B and jazz material with works from contemporaries such as Jackson Browne, John Prine, Eric Kaz, Karla Bonoff and Chris Smither. That openness may have proven an unwitting handicap: Like Linda Ronstadt, Raitt was perceived as an interpreter and thus devalued in an era when confessional singer-songwriters were deemed more “authentic.”
Unlike Ronstadt, Raitt projected a tomboy’s feminism in her determination to be “one of the boys” musically (to paraphrase the title of an NRBQ song she covered in 1982). That expectation of equality extended to a forthright sexuality inspired by her early blues heroines. At a time when rock archetypes were still burdened by chauvinism, Raitt, like Janis Joplin before her, may have unnerved alpha male wannabes. For whatever reason, her sales and airplay crested with 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness and her near-hit single, covering Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”
By the early ’80s, Raitt’s career was foundering. In 1983, the day after mastering her next album, Raitt was dropped by Warner Bros. in a roster purge alongside Van Morrison, Arlo Guthrie and other major acts. The orphaned album was reactivated two years later, with Raitt re-cutting half the material on a set that surrendered her core style to ’80s industrial pop. Released in 1986 as Nine Lives, its bombast was better suited to Bonnie Tyler than Bonnie Raitt, sinking without a trace.
By then, her earlier exuberance had given way to exhaustion, amplified by years of substance abuse. “I thought I had to live that partying lifestyle in order to be authentic, but in fact if you keep it up too long, all you’re going to be is sloppy or dead,” Raitt would later recall. She became clean in 1987 and began focusing on both her physical and emotional health.
Meanwhile, two former Warner Bros. Records staffers were now part of the team looking to revitalize Capitol Records. A&R executive Tim Devine signed Raitt, with a strong ally in newly installed president Joe Smith, who had been president at Warner Bros. and then Elektra/Asylum. Bonnie brought in Don Was, with whom she’d worked on Hal Willner’s Disney tribute album, Stay Awake, to produce.
In 1988, Raitt, a native Californian, had retreated to Mendocino “to kick back and reflect on all the changes of the past year and maybe write some music honoring how grateful I felt to have made it through.” What emerged was the album’s title song, a deeply poignant recognition of time’s passage, its milestones and anxieties, presented with a pensive calm clarified by her sobriety. In her reserved, conversational vocal, Raitt let empathy seep through. Understatement only amplified midlife epiphanies, whether describing a friend’s fears over a ticking biological clock, or how aging parents serve as mirrors to our future selves:
“When did the choices get so hard With so much more at stake Life gets pretty precious When there’s less of it to waste…”
With Raitt trading guitar for electric piano, the song glides at a mid-tempo pace with an undertow of pattering percussion that evokes a ticking second hand. The final verse brings redemption—“love, in the nick of time”—but the song’s emotional punch transcends mere romance as an existential anthem for her then middle-aged peers. Succeeding as both a mission statement for the album, as well as its strongest song, “Nick of Time” is a vindication of Raitt’s discernment as both interpreter and songwriter.
John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” offers a more upbeat life lesson, allowing Raitt to raise the temperature with a winking romantic invitation. Hiatt’s 1987 original followed his own recovery from substance abuse, enabling him to leaven the darker moments on Bring the Family, his own career breakthrough. Raitt’s lively cover follows in the wake of Ry Cooder’s signature slide work on the original, and doesn’t disappoint in her own burnished slide attack, influenced by Lowell George. The song’s lusty groove hits a familiar sweet spot in Raitt’s playing.
Among songwriters championed on the album is Bonnie Hayes, a Bay Area singer, songwriter and musician whose sadly overlooked ‘80s work straddled pop, rock and new wave. “Love Letter” is tough, teasing shuffle that finds Raitt stalking a would-be lover she’s surveilling from her car, “workin’ on a love letter, got my radio on.” Here as elsewhere on the album, Don Was taps the soulful backing vocals of his Was (Not Was) stalwarts Sir Harry Bowen and Sweet Pea Atkinson to add an aural wink.
Watch Raitt perform “Love Letter” live in Oakland in 1989
Where “Love Letter” sizzle, Hayes’ other contribution sighs with heartbreak while still conveying the singer’s strength. “Have a Heart” sways against a floating reggae pulse as Raitt confronts commitment issues head on, buttonholing her lover with an opening cry punctuated with reverb:
“Hey! Shut up Don’t lie to me You think I’m blind, but I got eyes to see…”
Raitt’s nuanced vocal and simmering slide guitar personalize the track against a spare but lush backdrop framed by keyboards and percussion that sustains the album’s canny design, which hews to spare ensemble arrangements while drawing on 30 musicians. That strategy maintains a consistent sense of scale while enabling richly varied sonic details, an approach that Raitt and Was would retain on two subsequent, equally successful albums. Subsequent albums would also repeat Raitt’s successful balance of strong outside material coupled with original material—ironically, a return to the template on her first two Warner Bros. albums. Where her opening title track was a look ahead, her closing original, “The Road’s My Middle Name,” is both mission statement and backward glance, a chunky acoustic blues from a road wars survivor that refers stylistically to her earliest records.
Watch Raitt perform “The Road’s My Middle Name” in 1993
Nick of Time, released on March 21, 1989, would go on to sell five million copies in the U.S., earn three Grammys (including two for the title song), and top the Billboard album chart. Two years later, Luck of the Draw would move another seven million albums in the U.S., win another three Grammys and peak at #2 on the Billboard album chart. Bonnie Raitt’s subsequent albums brought her Grammy haul to 11 awards. She was inducted ino the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Americana Awards in 2012.
Watch Raitt and John Hiatt perform “Thing Called Love” at Farm-Aid in 1990
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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
Arhoolie Foundation celebrates it's 60th anniversary (1960-2020) with an online broadcast.
Bonnie Raitt - Shadow of Doubt
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
October 3, 2020
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass celebrates it's 20th anniversary with an online broadcast titled “Let The Music Play On”.
Bonnie Raitt & Boz Scaggs - You Don't Know Like I Know
Farm Aid 2020 On the Road
Sam & Dave classic written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.
Sheryl Crow & Bonnie Raitt - Everything Is Broken
[Eric Clapton’s Crossroads 2019]
Eric Clapton, one of the world’s pre-eminent blues/rock guitarists, once again summoned an all-star team of six-string heroes for his fifth Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2019. Held at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, the two-day concert event raised funds for the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, the chemical dependency treatment and education facility that Clapton founded in 1998.
'A Tribute To Mose Allison'
Celebrates The Music Of An Exciting Jazz Master
Raitt contributed to a new album, If You're Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison, which celebrates the late singer and pianist, who famously blended the rough-edged blues of the Mississippi Delta with the 1950s jazz of New York City.
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.
Recorded on tour June 3, 2017 - Centennial Hall, London - Ontario Canada