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Bonnie Raitt: Return of the Blues Baroness

Slide master Bonnie Raitt shares her story of heartbreak, healing, and working with icons Bill Frisell and Joe Henry on Slipstream— her first album in seven years.

Bonnie Raitt bought her famous “Brownie” Strat for $120 in 1969 and has played it at every gig since. Photo by Buzz Person

While teaching herself to play acoustic guitar as a teenager in the late ’60s, Bonnie Raitt—now world-renowned for her sultry voice and bracing electric slide prowess— dreamt of leaving her native California and joining the Greenwich Village beatnik scene. As soon as she was old enough, she left her parents—Broadway star John Raitt and pianist Marjorie Haydock—behind to head east and plant her musical roots in the burgeoning folk activist movement.

From there, Raitt tapped into a wide array of influences, with a big turning point coming when she befriended influential blues promoter Dick Waterman while she was in college. Waterman gave her the opportunity to share stages with blues gods like Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell, which no doubt left an indelible impression on the blossoming slide player.

Despite such beginnings, Raitt’s road to superstardom was anything but easy. While a 1970 gig with McDowell led to a record deal with Warner Bros., she experienced only moderate commercial success with the label. Her first hit didn’t come until 1977’s “Runaway,” and she was eventually dropped in 1983. She struggled with addiction until Stevie Ray Vaughan’s own recovery in the mid-’80s prompted her to get clean. Not long afterward, Raitt released the album that changed everything. Released in1989, Nick of Time won her three of her nine Grammys to date and set her on a path toward her 2000 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the process, Raitt went on to become the first woman to have a signature Fender—an offer she originally turned down because she was uneasy about putting her name on a product. (Ever the activist, Raitt used the profits to create the Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project, providing guitars to underprivileged kids in more than 200 Boys & Girls Clubs of America.)

Slipstream, out this month on Raitt’s new Redwing Records label, is her first album in seven years—although she’s been far from dormant in the interim. Much of that time was spent on the road, including on a stint with Taj Mahal before her brother was diagnosed with a second brain tumor. She took care of him until his passing, and soon afterward one of her good friends passed away, prompting Raitt to take time off for the first time in more than a decade.

The incessant road warrior’s hiatus lasted only a year before things started pulling her back toward her creative muse. She ended up in the studio much sooner than originally planned after meeting with producer Joe Henry to see if their styles blended. What was originally supposed to be a couple-song jam turned into an entire album. “Halfway through the first song,” Raitt recalls, “we knew we had something very magical.”

Raitt says she can’t put into words exactly how she knows when a song is right, but she recently told Premier Guitar her approach always seems to have a way of illuminating her life. She also shared why the guitar is her vehicle of choice, how newer artists like Bon Iver inspire her as much as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and what her advice is for guitarists trying to find their voice.

You picked up your first guitar—a Stella acoustic—at age 8. What made you stick with it?
I grew up in a very musical household, with my mom playing piano all the time for my dad’s rehearsals. 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.

You’ve said before that electric guitar burns inside of you. What still turns you on about the instrument?
It really sounds like a human voice. The electric guitar will sustain a note, especially a single note, much longer than an acoustic will. And then when you play slide—which is so much like a human voice—you can work the amplifier and the overdrive. Now I use a compressor when I play slide, and with that you can sustain a note as long as your emotions will hold. It’s like surfing— you can ride that wave of emotional intensity and taper it off and build it up, depending on how you work your volume knob. It’s really an exciting way to express yourself. 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. It’s much more expressive to me. And that’s what keeps me going back.

The solos on your new rendition of the Dylan tune “Standing in the Doorway” have that same lyrical quality— they sound like someone crying.
Yeah, and then to have pedal steel behind me. I rarely get to do that. Greg Leisz is one of my heroes, and to be playing with Bill Frisell and those guys was such an honor. One of the great things about slide guitar is that I found I could go to Cuba and play with musicians there, and then I went to Mali, Africa, where the blues was born, and within a day I was playing with those musicians—because it doesn’t matter whether you know all the chords if you know your way around with a slide. It’s such a monophonic instrument: You can sit in with the Chieftains on slide as well as you can Cuban and African music. When your own lungs literally run out of air, you can take the slide guitar and add that other voice.

Bonnie brings at least three of her signature Fender Strat prototypes on tour to accomodate the open slide tunings she uses on different songs. Photo by Sioux Nessi

You cut three tracks with Frisell. Did you have him in mind originally or was that something you and Joe Henry [who produced four Slipstream songs] decided together?
Joe first suggested we work with Bill. When we were getting to know each other on the phone, we were talking about mutual friends and people we love, and I was complimenting him on his Scar record. I love Bill’s playing on that, so he said maybe we should get Bill in on the sessions.

Slipstream is your first release in seven years, and around 2009 you decided to take some time off. What was that like for you after working for so many years straight?
We did a two-year tour after [2005’s] Souls Alike, and then a year before the Taj Mahal tour my brother was diagnosed with a second brain tumor and I took a break to care for him. I hadn’t really had a break since my parents passed away. In 10 years, I had been on the road or recording pretty nonstop or going through my brother’s terrible illness and passing, so I needed to take a break and step back. In the past, “taking a break” really meant writing songs and looking for new material. But I had been doing that basically since 1970 without a real break. Sometimes you need to clear the deck and let the field go fallow and not think every time you’re playing a song, “Is this something I want to record?”

Sometimes you just have to live.
Yeah! I got to listen to other kinds of music. I went to a lot of shows and didn’t sit in— didn’t even tell [the performers] I was there. I love doing yoga, and I love hiking and biking. For somebody who’s on the road all the time, just being home is really the vacation you want to have. So I got to balance some of the other aspects of my life and be with my family and friends and really enjoy some time at home, watching what fours seasons look like changing in a row from the same place.

How did you know you were ready to go back into the studio?
After a year at home, little sprouts poked their head up. I was listening to songs when I called Joe about working together. This was months earlier than I was expecting to go back in the studio, but those sessions were so exciting that it really jumpstarted the record for me.

So you got the itch?
At a certain point, you just want to go back and do the other thing—you don’t want to do anything too much. I don’t know if you have members of your family or have known people whose mom or dad retire or got laid off after many years of going to the job, and they don’t know what to do with themselves. It’s not the music part I was tired of—it’s the promotion, clothes, sets, tours, interviews, marketing, and monitoring the distribution. All the business of being in this business is what gets wearing, not the music. But without all that, you can’t go on tour.

How did you go about determining which songs to put on this album?
It’s pretty much the same as it’s been since my first album: I listen to a lot of different song ideas that I’ve written, and the ones I like I put in this pile. Ninety-nine percent of the stuff I listen to isn’t right, but I know when I have to do a song. I’ve already said a lot of stuff in previous records, and you don’t want to repeat yourself musically or lyrically. I don’t plot it—I don’t conceptualize it—I just let the music speak to me, and when I have a enough songs that I think are going to go well together, then I go into the studio.

What makes a song one you have to do?
It’s hard to put into words. It just has to speak to me personally. I mean, I’m probably not going to cut polkas or disco or speed metal [laughs], but other than that I don’t have any limitations on the kind of music it can be. I mean I like listening to that stuff, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. There are definitely veins of styles that I stay in. I just let that mysterious process wash over me than rather than try to analyze it.

What are your favorite slide tunings?
I play in open A [E–A–E–A–C#–E, low to high], or I go down to G [D–G–D–G– B–D, low to high], which is the same but everything is one whole note lower. The reason I use so many guitars onstage is because songs are in different keys—open D, open E, open E%—and it saves time between songs. Sometimes I use capos, too—if I’m singing in C, I’ll put the capo on the third fret.

Which guitars are you going to tour with this time around?
I’ve got a really great collection. My brown Strat—the body is a ’65 and the neck is from some time after that. It’s kind of a hybrid that I got for $120 at 3 o’ clock in the morning in 1969. It’s the one without the paint, and I’ve used that for every gig since 1969. I also have two or three of my signature Fenders. Those guitars are a metallic blue to indigo, and they have Texas Specials pickups—which are really great— and jumbo frets like my other Strats. Then I have a ’63 sunburst Strat that used to be owned by Robin Trower. I have Seymour Duncan pickups in that.

You also use a Gibson, right?
Yes, I have an old Gibson ES-175 cutaway. I went to the cutaway because I use a capo on the third and fifth frets, and I can’t get the octave unless I have a cutaway. That’s part of the reason I went to electric, as well. Partly for sustain and partly to be able to get the octave when I have a capo on.

What do you like, sonically, about bottleneck slides over other slide types?
I didn’t know any different! I literally soaked the label off a Coricidin bottle until I got to college and saw people playing other types. I’ve never used anything but glass. Jim Dunlop makes them for me. My fingerpicks have to be custom made, too, because they stopped making small plastic fingerpicks years ago—they only make metal fingerpicks now. Metal fingerpicks are for the banjo and it’s a different sound. I’m sure people use them on guitar, but plastic sounds better for what I do.

Raitt picks her Guild while on tour with Taj Mahal at the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival in the fall of 2009. Photo by Barry Brecheisen

You’ve been an inspiration to younger generations of singer/songwriters, from the Dixie Chicks to Adele and Bon Iver, whom you recently saw live, right?
Yes, I went to meet Justin [Vernon, Bon Iver frontman] finally after talking to him on the phone. His show was incredible. Go on YouTube and type in “Bon Iver live show 2011” and check it out. He blew me away on record, and I didn’t think he could duplicate it live, but he did it.

What else is inspiring you these days?
One of the most amazing talents is Sarah Siskind. Then there’s my friend Maia Sharp, who was an opening act on my last tour. She sings on Slipstream, and I cut three of her songs on Souls Alike. Also, my friend Marc Cohn. Jackson Browne and Bruce Hornsby are like brothers to me. I love Bruce’s latest double-live album, Bride of the Noisemakers. If I had to be on a desert island and could only have one artist’s music, it would be Bruce Hornsby. Mavis Staples is one of my heroes, too, so she and I are going to do a lot of shows together.

Are there any players you haven’t played with yet that you’d like to?
Justin Vernon from Bon Iver. I’d love to play with the Stones and Keith. I opened for them on my last tour and sang “Shine a Light” with them, and I’m on their DVD. I’d love to do more recording with Bill Frisell. I love classic jazz. There are two jazz singers—Lizz Wright and Melody Gardot—who are doing incredible work. I would love to make an old 1920s bluesjazz record—not like an old Chicago jazz band, but just really, really beautiful piano jazz. So, one day …[laughs].

On that note, what were you dreaming for the future during your hiatus? What are you looking forward to down the line?
The whole Occupy movement has given me some hope that, across party lines, newer generations will rise up and ask for accountability and transparency and reform some of these laws. That is my first dream—to see people become more awake and compassionate. My dream is to be a service in that struggle and to not get discouraged. One of the great things about playing live—besides being fun—is that we can buoy the troops, in terms of raising money and awareness for these issues. I want to enlist more artists to be politically active to make a difference. It’s that marriage of music and being of service. My heroes are of the “The Times They Are a-Changin’” period—like Bob Dylan.

Bonnie Raitt's Gear

“Brownie” Strat with 1965 body (tuned to open A), three Fender Bonnie Raitt signature Strat prototypes (one in open G, one in open A%, and one in standard), Gibson ES-175 with a P-90, three Guild acoustics (one with higher action for slide work, another in open C), purple Pogreba Guitars resonator

Bad Cat Black Cat 30R 1x12 combo (Raitt uses only the EF86-driven channel 2)

Boss CS-2 Compression Sustainer, Pro Co Rat

String, Picks, and Accessories
GHS Boomers custom electric sets (.013, .017, .020w, .032, .042, .052), GHS Phosphor-Bronze acoustic sets (.012, .016, .020, .036, .046, .056), custom Jim Dunlop molded-plastic fingerpicks, Dunlop bottleneck slides

It’s really come full circle for me to be able to record his tunes again, even if they’re not overtly political. Anytime we talk about human beings and the way they treat each other—it can be a man and a woman, or a father and son, or two countries—there has to be the same respect. You have to listen—it’s the same core issue. You’ve got to find that light in the other person and appeal to it. That’s one of the things that music is really great for.

You were an apprentice to some of the greatest musicians of all time, and now you’re in the same category as those you looked up to. What advice do you have for players trying to find their voice?
I think it’s really great to get good at your instrument and your craft. There’s no substitute for that—even the most talented and lucky person still has to put the time in. Get to the point where you can hear yourself on tape and go, “That’s pretty good!” If your heart and soul are in it and you’re doing it for the right reasons, nothing can hold you back. Take opportunities to get your music out there and heard, even if it’s a small group of people at first. Find satisfaction in pleasing yourself first, and then those you respect. Whether you’ll make it in this crazy business, I don’t know—that’s to be seen. But if you believe in it, keep working at it. Post it on YouTube. It seems obvious, but those opportunities weren’t around when I started out. I’ve got a very talented nephew who’s writing music, and he’s been doing it with his laptop. Pro Tools has made things so incredible! You can get good in a short period of time if you at least put time into it—and a lot of heart.

Youtube It
Get a glimpse of Raitt’s mesmerizing, blues-infused picking power in these videos ranging from 1976 to 2005.

John Lee Hooker and his protégé work up such a sweat that Raitt says, “Somebody better get this man a towel” during this performance for Hooker’s John Lee Hooker & Friends 1984-92 DVD.

A young, charismatic Raitt wields the double-threat of a velvety voice and a thicksounding ES-175 with uncanny soulfulness.

Raitt calls fellow blues crusader Keb’ Mo’ “funky as hell” as they trade flirty, smokin’ licks at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 2005.