Longtime friendship leads to 'Crossroads' pairing for Bonnie Raitt and Lyle Lovett.
Twenty years ago a lanky young country singer from Texas headed to Milwaukee to open a concert for a raspy-voiced blues rocker.
Lyle Lovett arrived a day early for the show with Bonnie Raitt and got a call in his hotel room.
"She and her road manager and the fellow playing bass guitar with her were all up in Bonnie's room playing cards, and they called me and said, `Hey, come on up. You want to play?'"
The two have been playing together ever since, even as their music and careers have veered in different directions.
They were in Nashville recently to tape an upcoming episode of the Country Music Television (CMT) series "Crossroads," a show that pairs country singers with performers from other genres, usually rock and pop. Their episode will premiere Feb. 11 on the music channel.
For Lovett, 48, and Raitt, 56, it was more a celebration of long roads than of crossroads.
"We've toured together many times with various bands and incarnations. We've seen each other through love affairs, breakups, many, many albums and here we are," Raitt reflected as they sat backstage.
Indeed, both have had remarkable longevity -- Raitt since 1971 and Lovett since 1986. While Raitt is grounded in rock and Lovett in country, each incorporates blues, gospel, jazz and folk into their music.
When they first met and began touring, Lovett had just released his self-titled debut album and was being promoted by MCA/Curb as a mainstream country singer. The album produced three top 20 singles, including "Cowboy Man."
It was the closest he would come to the mainstream. By his second album, 1988's "Pontiac," Lovett, who writes most of his own songs, was experimenting with a jazzier, big-band sound, and country radio began to lose interest.
Raitt, on the other hand, was intrigued.
"He's an absolute original," she said. "I love his sensibilities in terms of how unique a point of view he has as a writer. He naturally brings in so many elements of music that I cling to, like blues and gospel and his kind of country and Texas music."
Despite scant radio airplay, Lovett, whose songs possess a wry, offbeat sense of humor, has earned gold records and won Grammys, including one for best country album for 1996's "The Road to Ensenada."
He became a celebrity, perhaps reluctantly, when he married actress Julia Roberts in 1993. They met on the set of director Robert Altman's 1992 film, "The Player," the first of several movie appearances for Lovett. The marriage lasted about two years and drew intense publicity. To this day, Lovett won't discuss it in interviews.
Ironically, as Lovett was moving away from the mainstream, Raitt was moving toward it. For much of the 1970s and '80s, Raitt, the daughter of the late Broadway singer John Raitt, interpreted the classic blues of musical heroes like Robert Johnson and Sippie Wallace as well as contemporary songwriters such as John Prine.
With her soulful voice and raw, bluesy guitar playing, she became a cult favorite. Her albums sold modestly and she had a hit in 1977 with a remake of Del Shannon's "Runaway."
"I was a huge fan of Bonnie's before I'd even dreamed I'd ever get to go out and really play anywhere besides just around my home," Lovett said. "She had that effortless, powerful voice and that searing slide guitar."
She also was active in environmental and social issues, such as stopping the war in Central America, apartheid in South Africa and the spread of nuclear energy.
But by the mid-1980s, while battling alcoholism and lackluster sales, Raitt lost her contract with Warner Brothers Records.
She struggled a few years and sobered up before signing with Capitol Records for 1989's aptly titled "Nick of Time." The album teamed her with producer Don Was and took a more polished, pop sound. It shot to No. 1 and became the first in a string of hugely successful albums for her, yielding hits such as "Thing Called Love," "Something to Talk About," and the ballad "I Can't Make You Love Me."
In 1991 she married actor Michael O'Keefe; they divorced in 1999. She also won several Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
As her commercial streak waned, Raitt continued releasing albums and lending her music to social causes. She and Lovett teamed in 2002 for her "Green Highway" tour to promote alternative energy sources. Lovett had to perform shows with a cast on his leg after being trampled by a bull on the family homestead where he still lives.
When CMT asked Raitt about doing "Crossroads" she didn't have to think much about a musical partner. "Of all the people I would have chosen, he was the only one I felt a connection with," she said.
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