Why Bonnie Raitt Returned to Farm Aid: 'It's Activists I'm Singing For -- That's My Job'

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Brian Bruner
Bonnie Raitt performs at Farm Aid 2019.

When Farm Aid came Saturday to the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wis., the annual benefit concert for family farmers offered music that was deeply rooted, with strong branches stretching across rock, country, blues, Americana and more.

Likewise, as farmers and activists talked of the economic crisis facing the region’s family dairy farms, the conversations ran deep and wide, embracing the fight against climate change, respect for indigenous cultures and the role of women in saving farm culture.

Bonnie Raitt was right where she belonged.

Raitt -- who performed at the very first Farm Aid in 1985 and has returned at least twice -- has been playing on the Outlaw Music Festival Tour, headlined by Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson, since early September. As a lifelong music activist, Raitt was an ideal addition to this year’s Farm Aid lineup, joining the organization’s guiding foursome (Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews), country star Luke Combs, and fellow Farm Aid veteran Tanya Tucker, as well as Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Margo Price, Jamey Johnson and others.

Raitt says she embraced her return to the Farm Aid stage, particularly in a year when the organization’s focus embraced her own passions: concern for the environment and a non-nuclear future, the well-being of women and the rights of Native American peoples.

Her performance Saturday -- on the bill just ahead of Matthews, Mellencamp, Young and Nelson -- was met with adoring enthusiasm by the amphitheater crowd of 30,000, as well as her fellow artists. Matthews followed her set and admitted he was awed by sharing the same stage with her.

Backstage, with her signature red hair flowing on the back of a plush, black chair, Raitt relaxed and reflected on what she, Nelson and many of the Farm Aid artists share: an enduring commitment to music activism.

“I wake up and get energized by what I could do to make a difference,” she says, “and the thrill of being able to sing for a living -- knowing that I’m not just making a living for my band and my crew and my staff, but that I’m playing for causes that I support.

“So when I get blue and I read the news and go, 'Oh my God, I can’t take one more piece of bad news,’” says Raitt, she focuses instead on “the enduring love affair I have with people out in the field that are working day-by-day in these grassroots organizations.” These are the advocates, fighting “to stop toxins in the environment, to get organic food into [poor] neighborhoods, to get corruption out of city governments,” says Raitt. “These little battles that people are fighting all the time.

“It’s those activists that I’m singing for and raising funds for. That’s my job,” she says. “That’s my job -- not just singing.”

Since the release of her most recent album, Dig In Deep, in February 2016, Raitt has been on tour almost continuously, playing numerous dates with James Taylor. On Wednesday, she’ll open for Mark Knopfler at Madison Square Garden, followed by a rare acoustic performance Oct. 3 in San Francisco with longtime bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson to benefit the Rainforest Action Network.

Then she’ll head home and “have a little break,” she says, and begin working on her next album.

While on tour, Raitt raises funds via the Artists Resources in Action (ARIA) Foundation in partnership with the Guacamole Fund. That fund, according to its website, focuses on “supporting grassroots activities, with education, outreach, networking and funding, in the areas of the environment and wildlife, social change, peace with justice, energy and a non-nuclear future.”

Raitt praised the global climate strike, inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, which had taken place the day before Farm Aid. “It was a wonderful!” she says. “This newer generation is really galvanized.”

Forty years ago this month, Raitt joined with Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, John Hall and others as Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.) to stage the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden, calling for a non-nuclear future. Their call for an economy based on renewable energy -- wind and solar power -- was prescient. Their vision would have halted climate change.

Raitt’s environmentalism is deeply rooted. She grew up in the Quaker faith, the daughter of Broadway musical star John Raitt and his first wife, Marjorie Haydock. “One of our Quaker friends started the Save the Redwoods program up in Palo Alto, stopping development,” recalled Raitt. “I love trees. I love nature. We went camping all the time. I went to camp every summer while my dad was in summer stock. So I was taught about the sanctity of keeping nature undeveloped, preserving the beauty. For me, that's as spiritual as you can get, is to be in nature.”

On a weekend in which the battle against climate change and the struggle for family farms commanded her attention, Raitt was asked what links the two causes.

“Fighting greed,” she replied quickly. “The root of so much of what's wrong is the people that are profit-motivated, whether it's in the farm situation or the energy sector or the financial sector. The people at the top that are making decisions” without regard for “the people that are affected by our water and our air and our policies and our loans and banking.

“You know, it's all connected, but there’s no easy solution,” says Raitt. “But the move to wind and solar and renewables could be a saving grace for farmers.”

Another focus of Raitt’s concern now comes forth as she sings one of her best-loved songs, “Angel From Montgomery,” written by John Prine. During this past year, she has sung the classic with Prine when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June in New York and again this month at the AmericanaFest in Nashville. On the Outlaw Music Festival Tour, she has sung it as a duet with Alison Krauss.

“I want to sing this for all the women who are not free yet,” Raitt said as she introduced “Angel From Montgomery” at Farm Aid.

Backstage, she dug in deep on the topic. “In literature and songs and movies, over the course of my life, I’ve just been so moved by women that are in situations that they can't get out of.

“You know, I’ve been singing this song for the last few years thinking about what I read in the news. I know people from that part of the world where, literally, women are being forced to be married to somebody they don’t even know, are forced to have kids, [are denied] getting an education, getting a job.

“There are so many women around the world enslaved, trafficked, just not free -- and we take [our freedom] for granted.”

Raitt is grateful she came of age in the 1970s during a turning point for the women’s movement. But she is quick to note: “There have been firebrands since the '20s and '30s and in the suffragette movement. And I’m sure among the abolitionists. There have been strong women and great women musicians all this time,” said Raitt, who has often credited Sippie Wallace, a blueswoman in Chicago in the 1920s, as a major influence. 

Raitt says she largely escaped sexist treatment as she built her career, thanks to her musicianship. “I always was one of the guys, and because I play guitar the way I do,” she says, “I got my foot in the door and I got respect from other musicians. I ran my own ship, you know, I had my own band. We were all equals. I just wouldn't have put up with [disrespect]. I mean, I'm just not the type.”

So how does it feel to see a new generation of bold, independent, talented women emerging?

“Absolutely fantastic, just fantastic!” she says. “I'm so happy about Brandi Carlile. She just knocks me out. I mean, her Looking Out Foundation?" In 2008, Carlile teamed up with artists Tim and Phil Hanseroth to create the Looking Out Foundation, which has worked to help refugee children, prevent violence and sexual assault, and give voice to imprisioned women, among other campaigns.

“I mean, there's not just Brandi but so many” strong, emerging women. “But she is my beacon right now,” says Raitt.

“There's been more appreciation and awareness of women stepping up to being in executive positions, producing records,” adds Raitt. “It’s not just bass players and guitar players anymore. 

“The movement has ripples for young girls coming up in sports and in fashion and the way they think of themselves. There's this great range of women being able to decide what they want to look like and what they feel like. I salute it.”


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