On a cool, damp Sunday evening, throngs of music lovers pack the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Boston to catch Bonnie Raitt on the first leg of her year-long tour. The nine-times Grammy Award-winner is playing her unique blend of folk-blues rock to a full house, with more than its fair share of silver- and red-headed fans.
At 57, with her own mane of red hair, Raitt swaggers around the stage jamming on her slide guitar. She’s wearing a purple velvet bodice under a sheer blouse and slim-fitting black pants, and has more energy and sex appeal than most people half her age. She projects rock star charisma with a down-to-earth attitude while singing beloved favorites like “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” as well as tunes from her latest, 18th, album, Souls Alike.
The Massachusetts gig is something of a homecoming for Raitt, who started her professional career across the Charles River in Cambridge in the late ’60s. Her father, John Raitt, starred in Broadway musicals like Oklahoma! and Carousel, but Bonnie appeared to have chosen a different path when she decided to major in African studies at Radcliffe. But then she started making $50 a show here and there playing slide guitar and singing the blues in local clubs. During her sophomore year, she took a leave of absence, and never went back to earn her Harvard degree. By 1971, she’d signed with Warner Brothers.
Raitt spent most of the ’70s and ’80s cutting albums, playing tours, and speaking out on a wide range of causes, from no nukes to anti-apartheid. All along, she built a core group of devoted fans but never achieved the kind of hit single that Warner hoped for. She hit a low in the 1980s when she lost her label, gained weight and battled alcoholism. But she reclaimed her health and signed a new record deal with Capitol Records. And in 1990, Raitt was catapulted to a different level of recognition with her first four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year, for Nick of Time. The breakthrough title song dealt with aging—an unusual and poignant topic for a radio hit. The next year, she was welcomed into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Raitt has always taken advantage of her platform to help out a good cause. On her current tour, the buses and trucks run on biodiesel, an eco-friendly fuel made from soybeans, a fact she likes to mention between songs. This summer, Raitt was honored by NARM (National Association of Recording Merchandisers), which presented her with its Harry Chapin Memorial Humanitarian Award. “Quite frankly, taking into account what she has been doing for the past three decades, she should have received the award long ago,” says Jim Donio, President of NARM. “She gave very heartfelt remarks about the example her parents set for her, what it means to contribute and give back—and it resonated. She’s led her life to inspire people.” In the past year, both of Raitt’s parents died, and one of her two brothers battled cancer (successfully). Not surprisingly, Souls Alike displays real vocal and musical depth, especially in the heavier blues tunes.
See a Bonnie Raitt concert and you’ll notice her characteristic generosity toward others in her performance. Throughout her concerts, Raitt acknowledges individual musicians and songwriters—even the guy adjusting her mike—by naming them and pointing fingers to make sure the audience notices each time somebody is in a groove. This spirit of collaborative appreciation has been part of Raitt’s approach from her early days, and the vibe extends out to her concert audiences, with cries of, “Bonnie, you’re my idol!”
Singer/songwriter Maia Sharp, who has opened for Raitt on some of her current tour dates and co-wrote three songs on Souls Alike, says, “I have been a Bonnie Raitt fan for years and years, so it makes sense that there’s something in my music that she connects to as well. You should see my iPod; it’s a BonniePod.” Sharp reveals that one-on-one, Raitt is no different than how she appears to fans. “Somebody you can hang out with, somebody you can really call a friend.”
You didn’t write any of the tracks on the new album. How did you select this group of songs?
I listen to hundreds and hundreds of CDs that are either in my own collection, or submitted by publishing houses, or amateur songwriters, or people that are unheard of who have local followings in England or Australia. It’s an exhaustive two or three-year search that starts right about the time when I finish mixing an album.
I’m very lucky to find the artists that I find.
I don’t have an agenda when I’m looking for songs; I just let the music tell me which one I want to do. I have a wide range of tastes, and when something nabs me, I fall in love with it and have to do it.
“I Will Not Be Broken” on the new album must be one of these—the lyrics are very powerful. Did events in your life inform the performance?
I’m in a particularly happy period in my life but I remember what it was like to not be happy, for example, in a break-up situation with someone. You could be singing it to your boss, to your in-laws or you could be singing it to the political candidate who you wish hadn’t won the election.
Your dad was a famous performer and your mother was a pianist. How did your parents influence your development as a musician?
My mom was a tremendous influence because she was so adept and really showed me that that kind of chops [expertise] doesn’t just fall out of the sky. She believed in practice makes perfect. One of the great things she did for me was that she and my dad didn’t foist music lessons on us. I fell in love with the idea of wanting to play. The way that she arranged songs for my dad was just so artful. I took piano lessons and then I switched over to the guitar and stuck with it. She was a huge role model for me, both in my political activism and my musicianship.
You had a guitar as a young child, but didn’t start slide guitar until 16 or 17.
Folk guitar was really all the rage at summer camp when I was eight. Everybody looks up to their summer camp counsellor; I was no exception. On the record charts, “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley” was number one, soon followed by “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were all huge cultural figures and loomed very large in my life because I was raised Quaker. They were not only important musically but they were important as part of the peace and Civil Rights Movement. So I picked up the folk guitar to try to emulate [them]. They weren’t playing blues on the radio until the British invasion. The Beatles helped us fall in love with black R&B records. That whole blues revival happened in the mid ’60s, and I caught the bug just like everyone else did. So through folk music, I got into folk-blues. And then through the English bands, like the Rolling Stones, I got turned onto Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Once I heard the blues, I was gone.
How did being raised Quaker affect your quest for peace and social justice?
The Quaker faith is about social action and putting love into action and working for peaceful resolution of conflicts. It’s about having ultimate respect for each other and tolerance. You can’t help but want to rectify a situation where one set of people are being downtrodden by another, or being judged on the basis of race. It’s up to us to appeal to that higher part of the person and not resort to violence. My dream ever since I was a little girl was to work in social action for peace and justice.
You once said in an interview, “War and injustice are the things that caused me the most anger and crying in my life.”
I remember that quote. I completely left out romance. That should be there as well!
You went on to say, “What’s important is doing something meaningful with your life.”
Music makes people emotionally very happy, but it’s my job. So the question then becomes, what do you do with the other 22 hours in the day? You can keep all the money that you make, and just think about getting more money. You can think about being a star, you can think about nothing but music. Or you can live a more balanced life and try to use your gift to help other people. I make sure that I share what I have.
Are you still working with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which you helped found?
Yes, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation works for getting greater recognition and royalty justice for a whole generation of artists who still haven’t participated to a great extent in their own record sales. It’s really important to make sure that artists get paid for their work. I think it’s a really exciting time to re-create what’s going on in the music business. I’m happy to be riding the crest of the wave here.