On this episode of World Cafe, we discuss Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 release Nick of Time.
In July , NPR Music published Turning The Tables, its list of The 150 Greatest Albums By Women released during the “classic album era,” defined as 1964-2016. Our occasional listening parties bring together voters to discuss some of their favorites from the list.
Today, we’re diving into the roots and Americana side of the list by spending some time with two of the milestone albums in that realm: Bonnie Raitt‘s 1989 release Nick of Time and Lucinda Williams‘ 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Raitt turned 40 the year she released Nick of Time, which became the definitive statement of a rocking woman at midlife. And Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road signaled a sea change in Americana music and helped define a kind of Southern gothic aesthetic in the genre.
In this episode, NPR Music critic and correspondent Ann Powers, who spearheaded Turning The Tables, is joined by two fellow Nashville-based NPR colleagues: Jessie Scott, program director for WMOT, and Jewly Hight, contributor to World Cafe and NPR Music. Together, they discuss how these albums impacted Raitt and Williams’ careers, how these artists articulate their desires on these albums, how they serve as role models to other women in Americana.
World Cafe Turning The Tables Listening Party
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In 1989, Bonnie Raitt was newly sober and newly signed to Capitol Records. At 39, the blues singer and guitarist was a respected veteran of the California music scene with eight albums under her belt, two of them having gone gold. Her closest brush with mainstream success had come from a 1977 remake of Del Shannon’s Runaway that reached No. 57 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Having worked with Don Was on a version of Stay Awake for a compilation of Disney-movie songs, Raitt entered the studio with the producer to cut her first album for Capitol.
“Nick of Time isn’t that much of a reinvention of what I did before, it’s just a better version,” Raitt says of the album that would become her commercial breakthrough and yield the hit singles Thing Called Love and Have a Heart, as well as its title track. “I was very clear-headed. My spirit was rejuvenated after the heartbreak of being dropped and having a romantic love affair fall apart in the mid-’80s.”
Nick of Time, released in March 1989, peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard albums chart before winning three Grammys, including album of the year, and shooting to No. 1 a year after its release. It wound up selling 5 million copies.
“It has such emotional meaning for me, that record, because it represented such a shift in my life,” Raitt says. “It was an astonishing comeback for me after a rough period of time. I sing so many of those songs every night, and I’m proud of how they held up.”
This week, Capitol Records released a 180-gram vinyl reissue of Nick of Time to commemorate its 25th anniversary. Raitt, now 64, recently spoke with USA TODAY and reflected on each track of her breakthrough album.
Nick of Time (Songwriter: Raitt)
“The song will always mean a lot to me, because it rang so true for me personally. I wasn’t expecting it to be the cornerstone that made the album get liftoff.
“At the time, I went out in the woods to write Nick of Time, I had this funky drum machine called a Drumatix. It had built-in sounds, like the syn-drum sound from Entertainment Tonight. I was looking for a Philadelphia Soul beat, and the only thing that came with it was that.
“Ricky Fataar, a genius drummer who has been with me for years and is a talented producer, as well, took that track on my demo and found something in there he thought we should add. So he put a sandbag, like you’d put in a kick drum to hold the mic up, on his belly and miked it, then he played that signature heartbeat sound that’s on Nick of Time that made it intimate.”
Thing Called Love (John Hiatt)
Thing Called Love was our first single. It might have been the first thing we cut, actually.
“I knew MTV probably wouldn’t play a 40-year-old woman. Thank God VH1 was starting out. I called on my friend Dennis Quaid, who was in the middle of making the Jerry Lee Lewis movie. I said, ‘Dennis, I want to show people a different kind of sexual playfulness, some heat that doesn’t involve putting your underwear on the outside of your clothes or bumping and grinding.’ I needed a foil in the video, because I needed somebody to sing to. He agreed to do it, and it made all the difference.
“I was a good enough businesswoman to know that if Dennis was in the video, there would be more likelihood that VH1 would play it. That was one of the things that helped the record get started.”
Love Letter (Bonnie Hayes)
“I moved to the Bay Area in the ’90s, right around Nick of Time. Through my connections to the publishing company that handled Huey Lewis and Ray Benson, they also did Bonnie Hayes. Bonnie was kind of a legend in the Bay Area. Her brother, Chris Hayes, played with Huey Lewis & the News, and Kevin Hayes was the drummer with Robert Cray for many years. Bonnie had her own band, called Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo, which was kind of a new-age band up here. She was a singer-songwriter with a decent following. She was making news for herself as a songwriter, as well.”
Cry on My Shoulder (Michael Ruff)
“I’m a big fan of Michael Ruff’s. At the time, he was doing regular gigs in L.A., where the musicians would go and hang out. He was a solo artist, as well as playing with Rickie Lee Jones and a bunch of other people in the studio. I asked David Crosby and Graham Nash if they would come and sing on it. I couldn’t hear anybody else’s voices but theirs. It’s an absolutely exquisite tune.”
Real Man (Jerry Lynn Williams)
“Jerry Williams was one of the most revered people among blues-rock players like Eric Clapton, Delbert McClinton and a whole slew of people who came out of Texas. Jerry was legendary and had a terrific album on Warner Bros. that went nowhere. In musician circles, among people that loved Tulsa and Texas music, he was a legendary guitar players and songwriters.
“His own demo of this song was so hellacious, I didn’t think we could do it justice. The only person that could play on it was Larry, and he came out and played on it.”
Nobody’s Girl (Larry John McNally)
“Larry John McNally is another great songwriter that went under the radar. He had an album on Columbia years ago, and I just loved his voice and his guitar playing. Ironically, we cut the song with myself and the guitar. I think by the time we overdubbed the bass on it, I had redone my guitar. The only thing left from the original session as the vocal and the tape. We kept on replacing everything. That one was a really evocative sound.”
Have a Heart (Hayes)
“I was knocked out by Have a Heart, which ended up being a single. I rarely hear a song and know immediately that I’m going to do it, but those two I did, right off the bat. I’m a big fan of Bonnie’s writing. She’s now the chair of songwriting at Berklee College of Music, when she’s not doing her own music.”
Too Soon to Tell (Rory Michael Bourke/Mike Reid)
“Mike Reid went on to give me one of the songs I will always be remembered for, his tune with Allen Shamblin, I Can’t Make You Love Me. He has since written an opera. He’s an incredibly versatile guy. And so humble. He’s got one of the most beautifully self-effacing personalities. I’m not sure he’s got that show-business thing, which is one reason I love him so much.
“I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like. We see each other when I play Nashville, and I saw him at the Grammys recently.
I Will Not Be Denied (Williams)
“There’s a pounce to I Will Not Be Denied. There’s a seething response to that that is all-purpose for anything you’re upset about. I Will Not Be Denied had a tremendous release for me, releasing a lot of the anger and frustration I had, and being on the other side. It’s not just about sobriety, it’s about all the changes and healing that happened, healing from a broken heart and coming out of a dark period. It wasn’t all about addiction, it was a just a rough situation.
“I Will Not Be Denied is an ace that I pull out when I’m feeling particularly … oh, I don’t know. It’s got a sensual punch to it, some dark stuff. It does the job really well when you’re feeling a certain way.”
I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again (David Lasley/Julie Lasley)
“That song had been lying around for a long time. I’d been waiting to find the exact right album to put it on and the right maturity. But I always knew I was going to sing it. My first choice (to accompany me) was Herbie Hancock, and he said yes. That was a real stretch for me and a real delight. We did a couple takes only, because it’s such an emotionally wrenching song.”
The Road’s My Middle Name (Raitt)
“You’ve got to have a band that understands why the Muddy Waters band in the ’50s was the killer version of blues. Most modern blues bands play such a hackneyed version of what makes those original records. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were a band that really nailed it. I said, ‘You know what? I’ve got to go down and play with those guys.’ We had such an affinity for what makes those songs sound so authentic. I loved that I got to do that song in Austin.”
When I call engineer extraordinaire Ed Cherney about the recording of Bonnie Raitt’s commercial breakthrough, “Thing Called Love,” the first thing he says is, “Isn’t that a little recent for a ‘Classic Track’?”
“Dude,” I said, “it was recorded 22 years ago!” He got a laugh out of that; it does seem like it was just yesterday in some ways. But it was cut in 1989 and was a keystone of her album Nick of Time, which won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1990 and sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Raitt’s success was a long time coming. The daughter of Broadway singer John Raitt, Bonnie Raitt started playing guitar at an early age, but didn’t turn serious about music until she was living in Cambridge, Mass., and going to Radcliffe College (Harvard’s all-girl “sister” school) in the late ’60s. It was in Boston that she met and befriended Dick Waterman, who had been deeply involved in the early ’60s Cambridge folk scene and “blues revival,” putting on shows by recently rediscovered bluesmen like Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt, personally “finding” the long-retired Delta singer Son House (in Rochester, N.Y., of all places) and later starting a booking agency that handled those three and such greats as Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Boy Crudup. Raitt immersed herself in the blues, learning what she could from these living legends, and soon was opening for them on occasion. With a powerful voice that could be gritty one second, delicate the next, and serious guitar chops (especially on slide), the beautiful redhead was a striking and different artist, interpreting traditional blues and folk in her own way.
She dropped out of college to devote herself to music full-time, and by 1970 had been signed by Warner Bros. Records. Her self-titled debut came out in 1971 and was a critical success, if not a commercial triumph. It, and her next album, Give It Up, established a formula of sorts, offering a mixture of blues by the likes of Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace; tunes by up-and-coming songwriters such as Jackson Browne, Chris Smither and Eric Kaz; and a sprinkling of a couple of her own compositions in the mix. Later albums championed writers like John Prine (“Angel From Montgomery” was an FM favorite), J.D. Souther, Karla Bonoff and many others, and she earned a reputation as a truly dynamic and personable live performer, as well. From her earliest days, she was politically active, giving her time and energy to many causes. Her first minor hit was a bluesy reading of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” in 1977 (on Sweet Forgiveness), but she was unable to follow it up to Warner’s satisfaction, and in late 1983, Warner Bros. abruptly dropped her (along with several other “prestige” acts), even though she had recently completed an album at tremendous expense.
Raitt says this was a particularly low time for her and that both her health and personal life were in bad shape, but during the next couple of years, she managed to pull everything together, and she continued to tour successfully and play a number of major benefits. Raitt signed with Capitol Records in late 1988 and was soon in Ocean Way (L.A.) Studio 2 working with producer Don Was and engineer Cherney on Nick of Time. She had met Was—who was leader of the quirky but cool band Was (Not Was), and branched into production with albums by Carly Simon and The B-52s—when he produced a version of Raitt singing “Baby Mine” from the film Dumbo for the hip 1988 album of Disney film song remakes called Stay Awake. Nick of Time marked the first time Cherney worked with either of them, and it proved to be a turning point in his career.
Cherney had cut his teeth as an assistant engineer for Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien (among others), but by the early ’80s was mostly recording and mixing jingles, which he says gave him invaluable experience working fast and in different music styles. He landed a Delco car-battery spot featuring music by Ry Cooder, which led to recording and mixing Cooder’s entire Get Rhythm album. Cherney followed that with a disc for Cooder’s buddy David Lindley, the superb Linda Ronstadt–produced Very Greasy. “I knew that Bonnie was going to be doing a record,” Cherney recalls. “I’d been a big fan of hers for a long time, and at that point, having done Cooder and Lindley, I was really into slide guitar and also listening to a lot of blues. So I lobbied everyone I knew that knew Bonnie and pleaded with them to tell her that I was the perfect guy for her.” Evidently, Cherney’s plot was successful because he soon got a call from Was and, after a lunch with him and Raitt, landed the gig. “We laughed the whole meeting and I just fell in love with both of them,” Cherney says.
This month’s “Classic Track,” “Thing Called Love,” was written by John Hiatt and originally appeared on one of his most popular album, the 1987 Bring the Family (which featured Cooder on guitar). Joining Raitt at Ocean Way for her version of the driving rocker was her regular touring band at the time: bassist Hutch Hutchinson, drummer Ricky Fataar and guitarist/harmony singer Johnny Lee Schell (augmented by Tony Braunagel on percussion). The Nick of Time album in general is more stripped down and economical than some of Raitt’s previous efforts, which frequently featured dozens of different players and singers, and “Thing Called Love” really feels like a small band just playing—which is what it is, Cherney says.
“It was live in the studio,” he says. “As I listen now, I remember we overdubbed Tony’s percussion. But I’m sure the vocal take was a combination of live and maybe a couple of overdubs from other passes at it. Bonnie liked to sing and play out in the room with the band. I think the first time we set up to cut, I put her in a booth and it just didn’t swing and she wanted to be out there. So that’s when I discovered [Shure] SM7s and [Electro-Voice] RE-20s on her vocal. The RE-20, in particular, was pretty clear-sounding and it resembled a large-diaphragm condenser microphone in a lot of ways, but it’s got incredible rear and side rejection so you could put her in the room with the band and not have to even put baffles around her, though I think I did probably put one up. But she could be with the musicians, and everyone could feed off each other, hear each other, see each other. And when you’re close to the drums, you feel the drums and I think you sing and play a different way, rather than being isolated in a booth somewhere.
“Johnny [Lee Schell] was out in the room, too, and I put some goboes around him because he was playing acoustic guitar. I probably used an [AKG] 452 on him; that’s really directional. He did his harmony vocal right after that and it was easy; he’d been singing with her forever, and that kind of harmony is part of his DNA so it was no problem. But a lot of Bonnie’s vocals on this record were for the most part live.”
For Fataar’s drums, “I had [AKG] C-12s overhead and probably a [Shure] 57 on the snare with a [Sennheiser] 441 underneath. At that time, I’d just gotten these B&K 4011 microphones and I’m sure I had that on the hi-hat. For toms I might have been using C-12As, and the kick drum was probably a [Neumann] FET 47 and a [Sennheiser] 421. I had [Neumann] M50s up in the room fairly wide, and I ended up not using much of them. But I do remember I had a [Neumann] 87 in omni about 10 feet in front of the drums, about six feet high, and I compressed [with a Fairchild] and EQ’d the heck out of that. That was what we used for drum ambience.” Hutch’s bass was recorded with a DI and a FET 47 on the amp, probably without any EQ or compression; Raitt’s slide, which she also played live on that track, had a 57 close on the amp and an AKG 414 “back off it a little.” Nick of Time was recorded analog on an Ampex ATR-124 machine through a 40-channel custom Neve RCA 8028 console, “one of only two built with Class-A discrete electronics.”
The album was mixed at the Record Plant in what was then called Studio 4 (now SSL 4) on a Neve VR. “A bunch of the songs on that record were pretty easy to mix, but I struggled with ‘Thing Called Love’ a bit,” Cherney reflects. “I think I went back to it probably three times. It needed to sound real and organic, but it also needed to stand up and kick you in the ass. Bonnie and Don were patient while I tore my hair out until I felt I had it nailed.” He used minimal effects: “Some slap on Bonnie and on Johnny Lee, and then a couple of the plates at Ocean Way. I probably used two EMT 140s—one short and bright, and one with a 2-second decay with probably 120 ms in front of it.”
The finished track simmers with a rawness and intensity that fits Raitt’s voice and slide guitar perfectly. Though not a smash hit in the sense of being a successful single, “Thing Called Love” was gobbled up by FM radio across the country (it reached Number 11 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks charts) and was an immensely popular video on the still-rising VH-1 network—having Dennis Quaid at his cutest in that video no doubt helped. Buoyed further by the success of Raitt’s moving, self-written ballad “Nick of Time,” the album quickly became the artist’s biggest seller by far and really went into the stratosphere when it won three Grammys (Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance Female and Best Rock Vocal Performance Female)—it hit Number One right after that. It was, Cherney says, “life-changing.”
Raitt, Was and Cherney would have even more success with the 1991 album Luck of the Draw (which contained the smash “Something to Talk About”) and enjoy a three-peat with Longing In Their Hearts, which hit Number One in 1994. Was and Cherney won individual production and engineering Grammys, respectively, for their work that year. The duo’s productive partnership also included albums with Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Neil Diamond, Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones. Raitt has reduced her output in recent years and tours less frequently, but still can be counted on to make fine albums, put together a first-rate band and show up when a good cause needs a helping hand.
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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.
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Recorded on tour June 3, 2017 - Centennial Hall, London - Ontario Canada