The North State Welcomes Bonnie Raitt
By Phil Reser
Something to Talk About
By Phil Reser
Photos Courtesy of Bonnie Raitt
“There’s nothing like living a long time to create a depth and soulfulness in your music.” Bonnie Raitt
WITH A CAREER spanning nearly a half century, 10 Grammy wins, and an induction into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Bonnie Raitt is one of the most successful artists in music today.
“I grew up in a very musical household, with my mom playing piano all the time for my dad’s rehearsals,” says Raitt, the daughter of Broadway singer John Raitt. “So there was a role model for me, with my dad singing these great Broadway scores. Him being a Broadway star was a great gift for us to be able to see what that world was like. And the message of playing music and getting paid for it, doing something that you not only love, but that doesn’t even seem like work, was not lost on me. I must’ve tucked it away and then remembered it when the opportunity came years and years later to play music for a gig.”
After picking up the guitar at age 12, she began feeling an immediate affinity for blues music. “I learned off of records, as many of us kids did. I had taken piano, but not guitar lessons. So I tried to emulate how Fred McDowell, Son House and Robert Johnson played. There wasn’t any YouTube then, so I had to do it by ear. I taught myself country-blues guitar off of records that didn’t even include women, but I didn’t think about it at the time. Dave Van Ronk, John Hammond, Jr., and Koerner, Ray and Glover were the first people I heard who made me realize it was OK to be white and play blues, and that you weren’t trespassing on hallowed ground.”
She enrolled at Radcliffe in 1967, but within two years she had dropped out to begin playing the Boston folk and blues club circuit. She signed with well-known blues manager Dick Waterman, who arranged for her to play gigs with the likes of blues notables like Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace and McDowell.
In 1971 with her first recording, she emerged as a critical favorite with blues fans, applauded not only for her soulful vocals but also for her guitar expertise, turning heads as one of the few women to play bottleneck. As she explains, “The electric guitar will sustain a note, especially a single note, much longer than an acoustic will. And when you play slide, which is so much like a human voice, you can work the amplifier and the overdrive. So electric guitar, for me, has the raunch and the beauty that more openly reflects the range of emotions I want to get when I’m singing and playing.”
With 1977’s “Sweet Forgiveness,” she scored her first significant pop airplay with her hit cover of the Del Shannon classic song “Runaway.”
Signed to Capitol Records for nearly 20 years, the “Nick of Time” LP in 1990 was her first big crossover hit, receiving three Grammy Awards, plus a fourth for her duet recording with John Lee Hooker.
Raitt is also known for her lifelong commitment to social activism. She has been involved with the environmental movement, the safe energy movement and a range of peace and social justice issues, regularly incorporating many benefit concerts into her schedule.
“My folks were Quakers,” she says. “We were very much involved in helping people that were getting a raw deal, from war zones, conflicts of some kind, hunger. The whole dream of world peace was something I grew up with, and justice as well. The civil rights and the ‘Ban the Bomb’ movements were the first early participation I had. I’ve always believed in trying to get people to sit down at the table. And the ‘60s, of course, had all the social justice and the feminist movement and the back-to-the-country and cleaner food and saving the environment – all of those issues became really important to me, as well as getting out of the war in Vietnam. I was part of the generation that was very motivated about that.
“Music is a great thing to do for a living and I enjoy it,” she adds. “But to have the power base and the money I now have, then not use that for good causes, is not why I’m here. I was raised to think I was here to make things better, not to be a user.” •
Bonnie Raitt with Jon Cleary
Saturday, March 17
Redding Civic Auditorium