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The Writer’s Block: Bonnie Raitt Makes John Prine Proud with Her Story Songs

on July 4, 2022 No comments

Behind the Song: John Prine “Hello in There”

From an affinity for The Gift of the Magi and early 20th century short stories by O. Henry and reflecting on the loss of friend John Prine, who died on April 7, 2020, and his first songs “Donald and Lydia” and “Angel of Montgomery,” to further references to Bob Dylans’ earlier acoustic story songs, Bonnie Raitt was able to capture the modesty of the narratives she needed to deliver on her 18th album Just Like That….

Initially touched by a human interest story she saw on 60 Minutes about a woman who met the recipient of her son’s heart and would hear it beating for the first time since his death, Raitt began writing the title track. Another newspaper story about volunteers who spent time with terminal inmates inspired “Down the Hall,” and helped Raitt find the stories she needed to tell.

“Those story songs, Prine and Jackson and Paul Brady from Ireland, and Bob Dylan was really what I wanted to do on those two songs,” Raitt told American Songwriter, “to come from that fingerpicking simplicity of just a person on the guitar.”

Bonnie in the studio, recording Slipstream © Matt Mindlin

The remainder of Just Like That… are snapshots of other stories Raitt meant to cover over years, from “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” by NRBQ’s Al Anderson; Toots and the Maytals’ “Love So Strong,” a song she originally planned to duet with her friend Toots Hibbert before his untimely death from COVID in 2020; the more uptempo blues of “Made Up Mind” by alt-country group The Bros. Landreth, who she had friended nearly a decade earlier at the Winnipeg Folk Festival; and her own rendition of “Here Comes Love” by the California Honeydrops, which she initially cut during her Dig In Deep session in 2015. 

Raitt spoke to American Songwriter about getting into the heart of the songs on Just Like That…, capturing some of the essences of Prine’s innate storytelling, and why she’s never really fit into any music genre.

American Songwriter: More than 50 years in now, how has your songwriting, and the way you approach a song, shifted throughout the years?

Bonnie Raitt: In the beginning, I already had a backlog of songs for the first two albums [Bonnie Raitt, 1971; Give It Up, 1972] that I just loved. If you talk to most songwriters, and people that are interpreters like me, first of all, you’re so surprised that anybody’s going to give you an actual record deal. But if you’ve been performing for a while in public, you have a little set, maybe 20 songs that you draw from so that’s two albums right there. Then you cut every record, and you got to come up with another set, and it gets harder to say something new. 

How many times can you say you “broke my heart, you lying, cheating scumbag?” I’ve done so many songs about the prismatic aspects of heartbreak—whether you are the one that caused it, or you are on the receiving end. I’ll take you back, even if it’s a stupid idea. Almost every permutation of love I’ve sung about, it becomes, in some ways, similar each time. It gets harder to come up with something new and original. That’s where my work comes in, and that is trying to be creative, and the song hunt of finding that jewel that nobody’s heard. It gets harder with time when you get up there in albums, but the process of weeding through old material and new material with the same amount of “oh my god, I’m not finding anything” and then all of a sudden you find a jewel, it must be like fishing. I’m not a fisherman, but you just go out there day after day and say “oh forget it,” and then you catch something.


AS: So when you’ve dug up everything within and presented all the personal stories you can over time and start looking outward for the next story, the next song, where do you go?

BR: I think that’s why I did “Down the Hall” and “Just Like That,” because the last few records I’ve written as personal songs. Of the sad ballads that I’ve written, I really have covered and mined all of the heartbreak in my own personal life. I look at John Prine and think about how he crept into the heart of the woman that was singing “Angel From Montgomery” and how he did I when he was like 21 years old. I mean, it was unbelievable. 

AS: Do most of your older songs still resonate with you even though they were written in different times and personal spaces?

BR: They do. I didn’t sing “Love Has No Pride” for a lot of years. It used to be the cornerstone of my set in the early ’70s because I cut it when I was 22. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was my “Love Has No Pride” then, and I did “Angel From Montgomery” and those two together were cornerstones in my set. That’s the only one that I stopped singing. It’s not so much about feminism but [recites lyrics] love has no pride when I call out your name… I’m not putting up with that anymore. I’m not going to beg somebody to come back. It’s interesting, because a couple of decades later somebody asked about it, and they were so innocent. They said, “I really wish you would sing that song,” and I went, “Okay, I’m gonna do it for you,” and then it transformed me singing it because I had so much empathy for the person that was aching for that person to come back that they would do anything. I was singing it for that person. It’s not me anymore. I’m just singing it for that part of me, of having tremendous sympathy for the young woman I was, that would have given anything to have this guy back.

Bonnie Raitt - Questlove Supreme

AS: It’s amazing how a song can transform over time like that.
 Yes, I think so, and other people that write all their own songs … I have no idea how they can keep coming up with new topics—to write all your own material. Collaborating probably makes it a little bit easier. It’s hard enough to find good songs to cover, but if I had to write on my own, I would have retired.

AS: It takes a lot out of you. It’s really an emotional process.

BR: And what about the fact that you have to mix commerce? I have maybe 15 friends, and I’m just pulling that off the top of my head, who have made incredible records the last two or three albums, and no one’s paid any attention to them. I know writers that have written books that are some of my favorite books on my shelf, and nobody paid any attention to them. So I sympathize, and I have political activist journalist friends who have written pieces that would change the world if people could just see it. So that’s why the joy of having a little bit more success, so that when I call Bonnie Hayes and say, “I’m going to cut more of your songs”… in the old days, it would be like I’d sold 150,000 albums, and they wouldn’t even make any money on it, but now when Nick of Time hit, I could help somebody get a house.

Santa Cruz Blues Festival – May 2015 © Susan J Weiand

AS: You’ve moved across country, Americana, pop, folk, rock but there’s never really been a category for you. How have you managed not to get stuck in one particular genre all these years?

BR: Thank you. That makes me happy to hear. At least the Americana format has broadened what we have. We have an umbrella now for bands like Little Feat… I mean, why do we have to call Delbert McClinton country? Is he blues? No. When you go to see a great musical—and I was blessed to grow up in musical theater with my dad and watched the great classics all the time—the arc within a show has uptempo and playful songs and then just heart-piercing heartbreak songs. It’s how you string them together that makes the show fun or makes an album interesting to me. So when people try to say, “are you country or this or that,” it’s just so irrelevant.

AS: I think we’ve finally managed to move on from this with all the cross-over in country and pop, rock and hip-hop, and beyond. 

BR: I think so too. I’m glad to see everybody cross-pollinating, like Lil Nas [X]. The great cultural hope I have for bridging some of this animosity in our country of polarization is when rap artists and country artists get together. Who would have foreseen that? Now there are a lot of black artists in country music, so it’s really great.

I feel like it’s my job to celebrate some of these genres of music. I love that kind of soul, Hall & Oates-era of music where they’re paying homage to the soul records that they love, and “Made Up Mind” really reminds me of those. Usually, when I want to have an R&B kind of tinge single like that, it’s because it’s just a genre of music I love so much.

Honestly, I just pick these songs so I can play them live.

Read our recent interview with Raitt, which appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of American Songwriter, here.


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