Image via Bonnie Raitt/Instagram
At age 73, Bonnie Raitt is one of music’s eldest adherents to the Rich Homie Quan school of never stopping going in. She released a new album this year and is still out there on tour like she’s been for half a century, moving into old age like Jagger. Certain people have so much innate musicality that they can’t help but spend their existence expressing it. Bonnie Raitt has been sharing her particular blend of blues, folk, and rock—which spans the full spectrum of unabashed Americana—since she debuted with her self-titled LP at age 21. Eighteen years later, on “Nick of Time,” the 1989 single that propelled her to Billboard-topping, Platinum-certified status, she sang, “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” Her continued musical dedication in her later years reflects those lyrics. She’s alive and well, but getting older. We should celebrate her before she’s gone.
Bonnie Raitt is not just alive. She is, according to my mom, a “definite badass.” We celebrated her 73rd birthday in the family group chat: a place where we tend to discuss elderly artists only when the news breaks that they’ve passed. Lee Scratch Perry, a GOAT. Meat Loaf, RIP. Jerry Lee Lewis, gone to hell. Our group chat is a private, insular reflection of the dying communicative public platforms of the Twitter- and blogo- spheres. Musician dies, and we remember. We listen. We reflect. Musician lives a long time, and we stop listening to them as much. Never mention them.
When my brother sent a random happy birthday Bonnie message to our family chat, and my mom responded about how she saw her and James Taylor at Wrigley a few years ago, I went back and revisited Bonnie’s discography. The natural place to start was the beginning. Although Bonnie found more widespread recognition in the late ’80s with her tenth album, the soft-rock, R&B-tinged, pop-leaning Nick of Time, her self-titled debut is an overlooked encapsulation of what makes her, and the live music traditions of America, so definitely badass.
Born in Burbank, Raitt grew up with a mother who taught her piano and a father who performed in musical theater. Blues recordings from places like Chicago and Memphis, along with the ‘50s folk revival and beatnik movement in California, further shaped her musical sensibilities. By age 20, she was performing with her brother onstage with Mississippi Fred McDowell. By age 21, she had signed with Warner Bros. and put together a folk-inspired album of blues standards and originals. The label helped finance and facilitate a packed roster of supporting musicians. Raitt was so good at guitar, piano and singing that she holds her own alongside the artists that inspired her. Legendary Chicago tenor saxophonist A.C. Reed plays on four tracks, as does Memphis-born harp player Junior Wells.
The music industry’s whitewashing of the blues is a context that can’t be ignored when discussing celebrated white acts of the genre like Raitt. Felipe Luciano, one of the Last Poets, summarized it best when he said, “White boys won’t even let us control our moans. They now sing the blues that comes from 19 years of easy living.” The blues was born out of black artists in the Jim Crow South, informed by the Great Migration, cultivated in live midwestern venues, then packaged and sold by a white-dominated industry.
In 1965 the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s debut album exposed the style to a white audience. As the industry increasingly promoted the music of white artists, and bluesy rock ‘n roll spread across earth, the black musicians that originated the artform increasingly showed up as session musicians on albums for artists like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn. The racial dynamics of the blues as the genre changed in response to the proliferation of recorded music in the mid-20th century is not an uncomplicated topic to discuss, and won’t be unpacked in this article. I mention it only because Bonnie Raitt was among the first batch of white musicians to release an album that featured her own renditions of folk blues traditions, with the assistance of the genre’s foremost originators playing integral—albeit technically supporting—roles.
Bonnie Raitt is also a woman, and in 1971 she was one of the few in a male-centric music scene, music industry, and overall society. She attended Harvard-affiliate school Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts because at the time she was there, Harvard only let men in. Song titles like “Mighty Tight Woman,” “Any Day Woman,” and “Woman Be Wise” on Bonnie Raitt—while covers of other artists’ work—embrace her identity. One of the album’s original love songs is called “Finest Lovin’ Man.” She presented herself as she was without trepidation. The most important, and most obvious identifying factor about her was her undeniable talent. At a young age she was already a pure dynamo of raw performance, already in motion as an unstoppable force.
Racial and gender identity are always tied to music in a historical context, but music is also obviously a spiritual force that vibrates through all of humanity. Especially compared to the more produced sounds of her later works, Bonnie Raitt’s debut is a demonstration of how that musicality is a natural part of her being. Her guitar playing is sleek and quick, moving up and down frets with a mesh of fingerpicking, strumming, and slide. Her piano playing sounds classically trained but not devoid of soul. Her voice is pristine; a slight rough twang underpins sweet, wide-ranging, pitch-perfect delivery. All three of these elements—piano, guitar, and vocals—come together on “Thank You,” one of two original songs on Bonnie Raitt. “Thank You” showcases her multiple talents, as well as her seamless interplay with guest contributors (in this case, Minneapolis baritone saxophonist Maurice Jacox and trumpeter Voyle Harris). Bonnie knew and loved the blues, and it was incapable of being stopped from bursting out of her. Although her style has evolved and diverged since this debut, the preceding sentence remains true in the present tense.
Raitt wrote in the liner notes that she wanted her debut to sound “spontaneous and natural.” She recorded Bonnie Raitt at an abandoned summer camp outside Minneapolis. The musicians played live, without overdubbing. Raitt draws from a wide swath of American folk traditions, and captures those traditions as close to their purest essence as recordings allow. On Nick of Time and her later albums she moved away from this process, spending more time in the studio to craft unblemished pop hits. On Bonnie Raitt the structural foundation is laid bare. She can jam out on blues, folk, country, and rock, wrapping them all into one uncategorizable bundle and filtering them through her unique persona.
Bonnie Raitt is a “spontaneous and natural” encapsulation of American live music traditions, but it also arrived after a couple decades of blues and folk recordings being captured and distributed on vinyl. The live tradition became a recorded tradition, and newer musicians pushed that tradition further with their own recontextualizations. Most of the songs on Bonnie Raitt are Raitt’s renditions of songs that were previously recorded by artists that inspired her. “Bluebird,” the opener, was a Buffalo Springfield song that came out four years earlier, in 1967.
“Mighty Tight Woman” and “Woman Be Wise” both come from Sippie Wallace, another overlooked early female blues artist. She covers three Johnsons—Buddy on “Since I Fell For You,” Robert on “Walking Blues,” and Tommy on “Big Road.” These are songs that originated somewhere, were passed from artist to artist, and eventually solidified once people started recording music. By the early 1970s, a decade removed from the initial push of folk and blues recordings, artists like Raitt were already reworking the classics in the postmodern way we’re so accustomed to now. She was simultaneously honoring the artists she grew up on, actively working with them, and pushing music forward with her own sound.
Raitt’s rendition of “Big Road” is among the album’s bluesiest tracks, and the best example of a legendary artist elevating her performance by playing off it and working within and around it. On harmonica is Junior Wells, the singer and harp player who grew up in Memphis in the active Beale Street scene where artists like Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and (to bring the whitewashing commentary full-circle) Elvis Presley taught him the foundations of the burgeoning genre. Like Raitt, Wells is another example of an artist whose natural ability was so evident that he had no choice but to become one of the world’s best working musicians. There’s a hilarious story on the back of the vinyl pressing of his 1965 debut album with the Chicago Blues Band (which features Buddy Guy on guitar performing under the pseudonym Friendly Chap to avoid presumed contract disputes with Chess Records) that involves him leaving $1.50 on the counter and stealing a $2 harmonica from a pawn shop. The legend goes that the judge overseeing his case asked him to play the harmonica. When he did, the judge yelled, “Case dismissed!”
He proves his case again on “Big Road,” wailing for the song’s duration. Raitt is comfortable as the band’s young conductor: calling the tuba, bass and trombone in with an “Alright, boys!” and leading Wells into a solo by shouting out “Play it Junior!” The riffs are loose and freewheeling, and Raitt’s casual yet confident vocals hold them together. It sounds as if the best instrumentalists in the world came across each other on a random street corner, and banged out a version of a tune they all held and felt inside them. Out of every song on Bonnie Raitt, “Big Road” contains the essentials of in-the-moment collaboration. The shared feeling of the blues. The essence of America.
Although Raitt has her established base with fans around my mom’s age, she’s one of the names from recorded music history that risks being lost to the Santa Ana dust winds of time. When you look her up, she’s associated with other artists who are high risk in this category: Warren Zevon, John Prine, Stevie Ray Vaughn. The latter was her inspiration for going sober: Stevie Ray Vaughn got clean and didn’t lose any musical ability. The others were close and frequent collaborators. These types of names mean something to the people who were around when they were at their peaks, but might not be recognizable to those peoples’ grandchildren. In death, they will live on only as long as people continue sharing their music.
Bonnie Raitt is still around, and still operating at the consistent high level she’s been at for decades. If you haven’t listened to her in a while, you should. I suggest starting at the beginning.