Bonnie Raitt was born into music on November 8, 1949, in Burbank, California. Growing up with her father, Broadway actor John Raitt, and mother, pianist and singer, Marge Goddard, performing was already in her genes.
By the time she was 8, Raitt was learning to play guitar by listening to the 1950s folk revivalists before transitioning into the blues of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Son House, among many others.
Moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts after high school—where she studied social relations and African studies at the Radcliffe College of Harvard University—Raitt soon started hitting the east coast folk and blues scene, playing festivals and cafes before landing her first record deal. Raitt released her self-titled debut in 1971, a collection of some bluesier covers and two tracks she wrote “Thank You” and “Finest Lovin’ Man.”
Throughout the decades, Raitt would continue releasing albums nearly every year, eventually breaking through in 1977 with her cover of Del Shannon’s 1961 hit “Runaway,” off her sixth album, Sweet Forgiveness. By the 1980s, Raitt’s music had already evolved into her own brew of blues, soul, and folk, and little polished pop.
As she struggled with her own drug and alcohol addiction before getting sober in 1987, the end of the ’80s held another breakthrough for Raitt, commercially, when her tenth album, Nick of Time, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Nick of Time also earned Raitt three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.
Luck of the Draw in 1991 brought more hits to Raitt with “Something to Talk About” and the ballad “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” In 2000, Raitt was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and continued to hold her place within the charts with her 2002 release, Silver Lining, and her 16th album Slipstream peaking at No. 6 on the charts in 2012, followed by Dig In Deep in 2016.
Several years passed and following the death of her friend, John Prine, during the pandemic, Raitt revisited some tracks she always meant to record and newer ones she wrote, inspired by the great art of Prine’s story songs. Released in 2022, Just Like That… earned Raitt three more Grammys, including Song of the Year for the title track.
Flipping through her extensive catalog spanning more than 50 years, here’s a chronological look at just 10 of Raitt’s best songs from 1972 through 2022.
1. “Love Me Like a Man” (1972)
Written by Chris Smither
Already in her early 20s, Raitt was well beyond her years in love by her second album, Give It Up, in 1972. Though Raitt delivers the bluesy track “Love Me Like A Man” from the perspective of a woman who knows what she wants, the song was written by a man, her then-collaborator and guitarist Chris Smither. “Love Me Like a Man” showed off Raitt’s wailing vocals and guitar licks, naturally channeling some of her heroes like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.
Man I’ve been seeing, baby Got their soul up on a shelf No, they could never love me Can’t even love himself But, I want someone to love me Baby, I want a one who understands Who won’t put himself above me Who can love me like a man
2. “Angel of Montgomery” (1974)
Written by John Prine
“I knew I wanted to cut ‘Angel From Montgomery‘ the minute I heard that song,” revealed Raitt in 2022. The song, first released on John Prine‘s 1971 debut, was later covered by Raitt on her fourth album, Streelights, in 1974. “We played the Philadelphia Folk Festival together, and we toured together in those early days before either one of us had a band,” added Raitt. “He [Prine] loved the way I did ‘Angel.’”
To this day, Raitt regularly has “Angel From Montgomery” on her set list and revealed that the song has shifted in meaning for her throughout the decades.
“Over the years, I’ve sung it for myself, for my mom, for her generation,” added Raitt. “Lately I’ve been singing it for all the women around the world who don’t get to go to school or get out of a bad marriage or wear a short skirt or any of that stuff. The fact he could be so insightful about being in a marriage like that — the dead zone. Especially as a young feminist, I never wanted to get married but that song really nailed it for me.”
If dreams were lightning And thunder were desire This old house would’ve burned down A long time ago Make me an angel That flies from Montgomery Make me a poster Of an old rodeo Just give me one thing That I can hold on to To believe in this livin’ Is just a hard way to go
Bonnie Raitt shared more on John Prine’s inspiration on songwriting HERE.
3. “Thing Called Love” (1989)
Written by John Hiatt
After a slow-moving decade of releases and hitting rock bottom with her addiction, Raitt returned sober and owned each track on her tenth album, Nick of Time, navigating love as she does best on the more flirtatious “Thing Called Love.” In the music video, Raitt convinced her friend actor and musician Dennis Quaid to play her boyfriend.
“He said yes, and all my fears went away,” said Raitt of Quaid. “Basically I was blushing the whole way, throwin’ it back at him, and he was suckin’ on a toothpick. The combination of all those things made [the album] ‘Nick of Time’ an amazing breakthrough.”
I ain’t some icon carved out of soap Sent here to clean up your reputation Baby, you know you ain’t no Prince Charming We can live in fear or act out of hope For some kind of peaceful situation Baby, how come the cry of love is so alarming
4. “Nick of Time” (1989)
Written by Bonnie Raitt
The title track off Raitt’s tenth album Nick of Time was written by Raitt while on a cabin retreat in Mendocino, California. Working remotely, she recorded a demo of the song before taking it to the studio with producer Don Was.
Raitt said the song “came from a part of me that hadn’t yet seen the light of day.” She added, “I wanted to dig deep and honor the changes in my life. Writing it gave me a sense of confidence and self-awareness that helped me break through some stifling self-doubt. While writing the song, instead of comparing myself to greats like Jackson Browne and Randy Newman and then giving up, I was just writing for myself, as a gift for the miracle that had happened.”
The track earned Raitt a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, while the album won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Album of the Year.
I see my folks are getting on And I watch their bodies change I know they see the same in me And it makes us both feel strange No matter how you tell yourself It’s what we all go through Those lines are pretty hard to take When they’re staring back at you
5. “Something to Talk About” (1991)
Written by Shirley Eikhard
Surpassing the success of her previous album, Nick of Time, Raitt returned with her 11th album, Luck of the Draw, and her uptempo hit “Something to Talk About.” Written by Canadian singer-songwriter Shirley Eikhard, the song peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Raitt’s highest-charting song, and her only single to reach the top 10 of that chart.
“Still burning bright,” wrote Raitt in the liner notes of Luck of the Draw, which she dedicated to her friend, the late blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died a year before the release of the album. Vaughan helped convinced Raitt to get sober years earlier.
People are talking, talking ’bout people I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it They think we’re lovers kept under cover I’ll just ignore it, but they keep saying We laugh just a little too loud Stand just a little too close We stare just a little too long Maybe they’re seeing something we don’t, darlin’
6. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (1991)
Written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin
Accompanied by Bruce Hornsby on keys, Raitt’s lush vocals on the Luck of the Draw ballad, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” pulls anyone listening into the pain of unrequited love. Initially, Nashville songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin were considering giving the song to Bette Midler or Linda Ronstadt before it landed with Raitt, who co-produced the track—and the entire album—with Don Was.
“‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ is no picnic,” said Raitt of performing the song live. “I love that song, so does the audience. So it’s almost a sacred moment when you share that, that depth of pain with your audience. Because they get really quiet, and I have to summon some other place in order to honor that space.”
‘Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t Here in the dark, in these final hours I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power But you won’t, no you won’t ‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t I’ll close my eyes, then I won’t see The love you don’t feel when you’re holding me Morning will come and I’ll do what’s right Just give me till then to give up this fight And I will give up this fight
7. “Circle Dance,” featuring David Crosby (1994)
Written by Bonnie Raitt
Another sentimental story, the electric piano-led “Circle Dance” was never released as a single off Raitt’s 12th album, Longing in Their Hearts, but stands out in its poignant message of how feelings, perceptions, and longing tend to circle back around. David Crosby can be heard singing backing harmonies throughout the song.
I’ll be home soon, that’s what you’d say And a little kid believes And after a while I learned that love Must be a thing that leaves I tried so hard just to hold you near I was as good as I could be And even when I had you here You stayed so far from me
8. “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” (2016)
Written by Bonnie Raitt
Also never released as a single, the closing track on Raitt’s 17th album, Dig In Deep, is the most moving of the lot. Written by Raitt, “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” is a story of regrets over familial and love relationships gone awry over misunderstandings and a lack of forgiveness.
I wrap the dark around me There’s no solace here tonight There’s just wishing and regret for company My glass is raised for all the ways We tried to get it right And I’m sorry for the ones we couldn’t be I’m so sorry for the ones we couldn’t be
9. “Down the Hall” (2022)
Written by Bonnie Raitt
In 2018, Raitt read a story in The New York Times Magazine about a prison hospice program in Vacaville, California where inmates work as caregivers for fellow terminal convicts. Deeply moved by the intimate photographs and stories of volunteers devoting their time to those incarcerated at the end of their lives, Raitt wrote “Down the Hall.” Moving through lyrics, told from the perspective of the caretakers, “Down the Hall” closes Raitt’s 18th album, Just Like That…
I asked if they let family in She said not really at the end Truth is a lot don’t have someone, no friends or next of kin The thought of those guys going out alone It hit me somewhere deep I asked could go sit with them For some comfort and relief
10. “Just Like That” (2022)
Written by Bonnie Raitt
After watching a human interest segment on the news, Raitt was touched by the story of a woman who met the recipient of her son’s heart for the first time. The young man visited her unexpectedly and asked her if she would like to put her head on his chest so she could hear her son’s heart. “I just lost it,” Raitt shared in a 2022 interview with American Songwriter. “It was the most moving and surprising thing. I wasn’t expecting it. I vowed right then that I wanted to write a song about what that would take.”
Moved by the sacrifices families can make during one of the most difficult times, Raitt began writing “Just Like That.” In 2023, “Just Like That” picked up the Grammy for Song of the Year and Best Americana Roots Song.
He sat down and took a deeper breath Then looked right in my face I heard about the son you lost How you left without a trace I’ve spent years just trying to find you So I could finally let you know It was your son’s heart that saved me And a life you gave us both
Read our full interview with Bonnie Raitt from 2022 HERE.