‘I Don’t Feel Any Urgency to Finish’: Bonnie Raitt on Her Groundbreaking Career
For more than fifty years, she's seamlessly melded music and activism, inspiring contemporaries and newcomers alike with her guitar-playing prowess.
Bonnie Raitt resides among the redwoods.
She had always dreamed of living in Northern California like one of her heroes, Joan Baez, did, up in Big Sur. So years ago, once she had wrapped the tour for Nick of Time — her 1989 commercial breakthrough on Capitol Records that won her three Grammy Awards, including album of the year — she took a break and rented a furnished place in Marin County, outside San Francisco. She typically splits her time between here and Los Angeles. But for the past two years, the environment up north suited her especially well. “If I wasn’t going to get to play,” Raitt, 72, says today, verdant foliage encroaching on the window behind her, “at least I could hike and walk by the ocean and be near this incredible mecca of counterculture.”
It makes sense finding Raitt here. Marrying music and activism “is why I agreed to do this for a living,” she says. When she went to college at Radcliffe in the late 1960s, playing guitar was a hobby. “I was going to major in African studies and go work with the American Foreign Service and undo colonialism — yeah!” she says with a fierce little grunt. Amid the student strike of 1970, she fronted a ragtag band called the Revolutionary Music Collective. “ ‘The best things in life are free/When you take them from the bourgeoisie!’ — that was my hero line,” recalls Raitt with a laugh.
The gig was short, but the career Raitt would enjoy within a couple of years did become pretty revolutionary. Through her mentor, promoter Dick Waterman, she met and learned from the country-blues artists who were her idols — Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Sippie Wallace — and became the rare woman of her era not only fronting a band but more than holding her own on guitar while doing so. Her slide guitar prowess, along with her casually confident stage presence and soulful alto, earned the respect (and friendship) of the men who were her closest contemporaries, like Jackson Browne and James Taylor.
Looking back now, Raitt is, characteristically, not terribly impressed with herself. “I mean, I was OK — I wasn’t that great,” she says with a shrug. “I was inexpensive, nonthreatening and interesting.” But she does admit that “it was an unusual thing to have a white woman — any woman — playing country-blues. I know having the chops of playing blues guitar got my foot in the door. I think I bypassed having to prove myself.”
Raitt achieved critical acclaim early on, and Warner Bros. Records signed her at just 21. But until Nick of Time — and, in the few years following it, her run of hit singles including “Something To Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” that introduced her to a new generation of fans, the now elder millennials — commercial success wasn’t her calling card. By her own admission, she has always made her living on the road. Yet Raitt has unwaveringly stuck to her own artistic North Star and to the impulse that led her to music in the first place: using her voice to amplify causes like electing progressive political candidates, sustainable energy and environmental protection — she sets aside a share of her touring profits for them like “the sixth band member” — without ever letting them overshadow the music itself.
“She’s Bonnie Raitt — everyone knows that — but she’s created a community that both serves and benefits from her legacy,” says Brandi Carlile, who has developed a friendship with Raitt since writing to her as an admiring young artist early in her own career. “She’s absolutely beloved, she’s the greatest there is, and her talent absolutely dominates everything around it — but then why does everyone feel like they have a place [around her]? Like she’s the sum of her parts? It’s a superpower.”
And incredibly, Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music Icon Award recipient has done all that by and large as an interpreter, not a writer, of the songs on her albums — a fact that still can shock even a longtime fan. They all tend to sound like Raitt originals because she never simply sings a lyric; she inhabits it. “She was able to glean so much from these songwriters,” says Lucinda Williams, adding that she is often asked to play “Bonnie Raitt songs” that Raitt didn’t actually write. “She had good taste. When I first started out, it maybe held me back a little bit that I wanted to do so many kinds of music — rock and blues and country. But she did it, too, and she made it work. She was a great role model.”
One of those songs, from Raitt’s 1974 album, Streetlights, was by her longtime friend, the great singer-songwriter John Prine, who died from COVID-19 complications in 2020. Many artists have covered “Angel From Montgomery,” but it’s Raitt’s version that became definitive. It’s unsentimental yet deeply poignant, a plainspoken expression of longing for something more: “If dreams were lightning/And thunder were desire/This old house would have burned down a long time ago.”
She sang it for her idol Wallace, who told her of the many blueswomen who came before her, “stuck in marriages that were dead ends or being abused but had no agency to leave. Who couldn’t get free.” As a young feminist, she sang it for her mother, for her generation of women “who had to compromise and get no credit for the work they did and then later in life felt like they didn’t do enough.” Today, she sings it to honor Prine and for a whole different group of women around the world who, because of where they live or their circumstances, “don’t get a shot.”
The ones who, in other words, won’t get the chance to become a Bonnie Raitt.
“It was all I could do to try to sleep for seven hours — that’s how excited I was,” says Raitt with a glimmer in her eye.
She has just come off three weeks in a Sausalito, Calif., studio with her band, prepping to tour her 18th studio album, Just Like That…, out April 22, and she’s positively buzzing. (Williams and Mavis Staples will join her as guests.) “It was like I was 8 years old every morning: ‘What am I going to wear today?!’ ” For Raitt — a die-hard road warrior who consistently fills theaters around the world — the past couple of years of never even being in the same room with her longtime crew were “just crushing. Night would come, and I’d go, ‘That’s it? That’s as cool as it’s going to get today?’ ”
Raitt learned very early on the value of delivering as great a performance in Topeka, Kan., as at Radio City Music Hall. Her father, John Raitt, was a dashing Broadway leading man in several classic musicals, but he never got too comfortable. “My dad chose to tour his hits regionally instead of just waiting for another Broadway show,” she recalls. “For him, bringing Oklahoma! and Carousel and The Pajama Game to the hinterlands was a life-fulfilling career that brought him great joy.” She also saw that without his proactive impulse to tour, he would simply be waiting for a call.
“I took that lesson to heart,” she says. “I can control which gigs I do, whom I open for, who opens for me when I get a little more famous, how much the ticket prices are, what to pay my band.” And when it came to a label deal, “I didn’t care if they offered me the moon — I would never let anybody tell me how to dress or what to record.”
Raitt spent the majority of her career at Warner Bros. and then Capitol before founding her own label, Redwing Records, a decade ago to release her music. (For Just Like That…, it’s partnering with Sub Pop for U.S. physical distribution and Alternative Distribution Alliance for global digital and ex-U.S. physical distribution.) All the while, she has managed to very much remain her own boss. In the late 1970s, after her version of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” became a hit, a bidding war over Raitt ensued between Warner Bros. and Columbia, which had been battling between themselves at the time. (James Taylor had recently left the former for the latter; Warner Bros. then signed away Columbia’s Paul Simon.) Raitt and her attorney, Nat Weiss, recognized her leverage — and renegotiated her Warner Bros. contract, “a really big deal” at the time, she would say later.
And while she doesn’t own her pre-Redwing masters, Raitt has worked out a “gentlewoman’s agreement” with Warner that she likes just fine: “They won’t sell my songs for commercials, and they won’t exploit my material without running it by me,” she explains. “I know I really serve at the good nature of the people who set that up for me, and at any point, some big monster could come in and say, ‘See ya later. If we want to use this for breakfast cereal, we will.’ But it kind of [works] better to work as a partner with your former label to maximize how you get your music out.”
That kind of calm rationale permeates how Raitt thinks about most aspects of her career, and as we talk, a kind of Bonnie’s Rules for Living seem to naturally tumble out of her. Take her advice for being an activist artist (a “radical when radical wasn’t cool,” as Carlile puts it): “It’s all about how you do it; making sure you vet where the money goes so people see you’ve really done your homework, and it’s the tone of it, too — I don’t preach from the stage.” Or her preferred vibe in the studio: “If you get the right people in the room, it’s work and it’s a joy. No idiots with bad attitudes, you know?” Or her approach to being a bandleader: “You have to risk not being liked to tell someone you’re not nuts about how they’re playing. If you don’t watch it, you push the Mom button, and nobody likes a bossy know-it-all. One thing that’s good about being in recovery — when I hurt someone’s feelings or squash their idea too soon, I apologize.”
Raitt has long been open about her past struggle with alcoholism, and her sobriety since age 37 informs another of her personal directives: how to stay not only active, but vibrant, 50 years into a music career. “All of us who are still out on the road, we didn’t used to warm up. Now we warm up our voices. We stopped trashing ourselves in our 30s, just about,” she explains. “You can’t keep up this pace if you don’t do yoga or hike or get some exercise. You have to get enough sleep. You have to keep people who are drains out of your circuitry and your life.” Getting sober “made a huge difference in how easy it is to be out on the road,” she continues. “But it’s a pleasure taking care of myself.”
On Just Like That…, Raitt certainly sounds like the best version of herself. Her voice has only become richer and more nuanced over the years, her range spanning a low purr all the way up to a floating falsetto, her ability to effortlessly bend a lyric to her will as supple as ever. “It’s show-based and what-I’ve-already-done-based,” she says of how she has always picked songs for an album: a few “killer ballads,” “a little bit of blues,” something unusual for the guitar and some “pile-driving rockers” toward the end.
Raitt produced the album, which, as usual, is studded with her hand-picked roster of songwriters (ranging from Al Anderson to her late friend Frederick “Toots” Hibbert of Toots & The Maytals), but also includes four originals by Raitt herself, the haunting title track among them. “More and more, the songs I’ve written lately are very personal,” she says. “I could farm it out to somebody more adept than I, but it’s nice to write on assignment. I don’t care if they’re not on everybody’s best-of list: They’re on mine.”
The subject of loss does come up — the close friends Raitt lost amid the pandemic and the heroes who took her under their wing and passed long ago. “But I knew being with those older people was such a gift,” she says. “They didn’t think about when they would go, and I didn’t think about it.” Like McDowell, Wallace and Prine, she has a life on the road she wouldn’t trade for the world. “To travel and wake up in five different cities a week and you’ve got to make sure you’re just as badass as the last time you came through?” she says, still sounding like a breathless 21-year-old. “It’s really fun!”
Bonnie’s Rules for Living, after all, don’t include stopping anytime soon. She always has a five-year plan, and when she is done touring Just Like That…, she’ll take a little break, and then the job will go on: time to think about the next record. “I mean, my dad toured till he was 86!” Raitt exclaims as if anything else would be plain lazy. “Look at Tony Bennett. Look at Mick and Keith. I don’t feel any urgency to finish. I feel like I’m pretty well understood, and I’ve felt understood this whole time.”
This story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.