With the release of her nineteenth album, Slipstream, Bonnie Raitt is starting anew. The album marks her return to studio recording after seven years; it's coming out as the launch of her own label, Redwing Records; and it delivers some of the most surprising and rewarding music of her remarkable career, thanks in part to some experimental sessions with celebrated producer Joe Henry.
The years before and after Raitt's last album, 2005's acclaimed Souls Alike, weren't an easy time for her, with the passing of parents, her brother, and a best friend. So after following that album with her usual long run of touring—winding up with the "dream come true" of the "BonTaj Roulet" revue with Taj Mahal in 2009 and a triumphant appearance at the all-star Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concerts the same year— she decided to step back and recharge for a while.
"I took a hiatus from touring and recording to get back in touch with the other part of my life," she says. "On the road, under stress, it's hard to stay in balance and move forward." Excited to have time at home and with her family and friends, she could go to the symphony, check out live jazz and Cuban shows, and so much else. She continued her ongoing political work, helping to organize NukeFree.org in 2007 and supporting her favorite non-profit organizations. "I didn't have to be the professional version of myself for a long time," she says. "It wasn't so much a vacation as a chance to take care of a lot of neglected areas of my life, a lot of processing after all that loss and activity."
When she started thinking about making music again, Bonnie knew she needed to try something out of the ordinary. "I was really interested in working with different people, and someone I had always been drawn to was Joe Henry," she says. "I'm a big fan of his writing and albums and love the work he's done producing Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, and others. I thought it would be really intriguing to see what we could come up with. Coincidentally, he had been wanting to call me as well. Our first phone call lasted over two hours."
They found a brief window when Henry's usual crew of musicians was available, augmented by a new friend of Bonnie's, the magnificent guitarist Bill Frisell. "I didn't have to produce or get the band together, I could just show up and sing," she says. "I came to Joe's with, to use a Zen expression, 'beginner's mind.'" The experiment yielded eight songs in 48 hours, and Raitt was inspired to get back to work full force. "I loved singing these songs and playing with these guys so much," she says, "This was just the jumpstart I needed to get me back in the saddle and wanting to work on a new album."
She plans to release the full results of the Joe Henry sessions down the line, but for now she chose to include four of these tracks on Slipstream —the Henry originals "You Can't Fail Me Now" (co-written with Loudon Wainwright III) and "God Only Knows," and two songs from Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind album, "Million Miles" and "Standing in the Doorway."
A few months later, Raitt gathered her long-time touring bandmates—George Marinelli on guitar, James "Hutch" Hutchinson on bass, and Ricky Fataar on drums—along with a new addition and an old friend on keys, Mike Finnigan (Taj Mahal; Joe Cocker; Crosby, Stills and Nash) in a Los Angeles studio. Bonnie was also pleased to have Maia Sharp, one of her favorite artists and a collaborator on Souls Alike, joining her team once again, adding back-up vocals to several songs.
Raitt retained Henry's engineer, Ryan Freeland (Ray LaMontagne, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Aimee Mann), whom she loved working with, as a way to unify the project's sound. The band went straight to work and quickly recorded a slew of songs Raitt had been collecting over the last few years.
Where Raitt's last several albums concentrated on material from lesser-known and younger songwriters, Slipstream draws from more of her contemporaries, including Paul Brady and Michael O'Keefe's "Marriage Made in Hollywood" and a reggae-fied version of Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line." Her longtime friend Al Anderson, formerly of NRBQ, contributes three songs and plays on four; his hard-bopping guitar work adds to the general sense of six-string gunslinging throughout the album. "One of the new things about this record is that we let the guitar jams go on for a while," says Raitt. George and I got into some rockin' back and forth like we do live, and I had a ball going head-to-head with Al Anderson, one of my all-time favorite guitarists, on his 'Split Decision.'
More than just a best-selling artist, respected guitarist, expressive singer, and accomplished songwriter, Bonnie Raitt has become an institution in American music. Born to a musical family, the nine-time Grammy winner, who Rolling Stone named one of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time," is the daughter of celebrated Broadway singer John Raitt (Carousel, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game) and accomplished pianist/singer Marge Goddard. She was raised in Los Angeles in a climate of respect for the arts, Quaker traditions, and a commitment to social activism. A Stella guitar given to her as a Christmas present launched Bonnie on her creative journey at the age of eight. While growing up, though passionate about music from the start, she never considered that it would play a greater role than as one of her many growing interests.
In the late '60s, restless in Los Angeles, she moved east to Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a Harvard/Radcliffe student majoring in Social Relations and African Studies, she attended classes and immersed herself in the city's turbulent cultural and political activities. "I couldn't wait to get back to where there were folkies and the antiwar and civil rights movements," she says. "There were so many great music and political scenes going on in the late '60s in Cambridge." Also, she adds, with a laugh, "the ratio of guys to girls at Harvard was four to one, so all of those things were playing in my mind."
Raitt was already deeply involved with folk music and the blues at that time. Exposure to the album Blues at Newport 1963 at age 14 had kindled her interest in blues and slide guitar, and between classes at Harvard she explored these and other styles in local coffeehouse gigs. Three years after entering college, Bonnie left to commit herself full-time to music, and shortly afterward found herself opening for surviving giants of the blues. From Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker she learned first-hand lessons of life as well as invaluable techniques of performance.
"I'm certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who've ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages, and talked to their kids," she says. "I was especially lucky as so many of them are no longer with us."
Word spread quickly of the young red-haired blueswoman, her soulful, unaffected way of singing, and her uncanny insights into blues guitar. Warner Bros. tracked her down, signed her up, and in 1971 released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt. Her interpretations of classic blues by Robert Johnson and Sippie Wallace made a powerful critical impression, but the presence of intriguing tunes by contemporary songwriters, as well as several examples of her own writing, indicated that this artist would not be restricted to any one pigeonhole or style.
Over the next seven years she would record six albums. Give It Up, Takin' My Time, Streetlights, and Home Plate were followed in 1977 by Sweet Forgiveness, which featured her first hit single, a gritty Memphis/R&B arrangement of Del Shannon's "Runaway." Three Grammy nominations followed in the 1980s, as she released The Glow, Green Light, and Nine Lives. A compilation of highlights from these Warner Bros. albums (plus two previously unreleased live duets) was released as The Bonnie Raitt Collection in 1990. All of these Warners albums have been digitally remastered and re-released.
In between sessions, when not burning highways on tour with her band, she devoted herself to playing benefits and speaking out in support of an array of worthy causes, campaigning to stop the war in Central America; participating in the Sun City anti-apartheid project; performing at the historic 1980 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden; co-founding MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy); and working for environmental protection and for the rights of women and Native Americans.
After forging an alliance with Capitol Records in 1989, Bonnie achieved new levels of popular and critical acclaim. She won four Grammy Awards in 1990—three for her Nick of Time album and one for her duet with John Lee Hooker on his breakthrough album, The Healer. Within weeks, Nick of Time shot to number one (it is now certified quintuple platinum). Luck of the Draw (1991, seven-times platinum) brought even more success, firing two hit singles— "Something to Talk About" and "I Can't Make You Love Me" —up the charts, and adding three more Grammys to her shelf. The double-platinum Longing in Their Hearts, released in 1994, featured the hit single "Love Sneakin' Up On You" and was honored with a Grammy for Best Pop Album. It was followed in 1995 by the live double CD and film Road Tested (now available on DVD).
After all the awards and honors and decades of virtually non-stop touring under her belt, Bonnie continued her activism and guesting on numerous friends' records, including Ruth Brown, Charles Brown, Keb' Mo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Bruce Cockburn, as well as tribute records for Richard Thompson, Lowell George, and Pete Seeger. She picked up another Grammy in 1996 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for her collaboration on "SRV Shuffle" from the all-star Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and continued her "dual career," performing with her father, John, in concerts as well as on his Grammy-nominated album, Broadway Legend, released in 1995.
In 1998, she returned to the studio with a new collaborative team to create Fundamental, one of her most exploratory projects, signaling her growing desire to "shake things up a bit." Inspired by the music of Zimbabwean world-beat master Oliver Mtukudzi, Bonnie wrote "One Belief Away," the first single, with Paul Brady and Dillon O'Brian.
In March of 2000, Bonnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; this was followed by her welcome into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, along with her father, in June 2001. Over the years, Bonnie has appeared as a guest on over 100 album projects, as chronicled in the discography section of her official website. She continues to stretch the boundaries, performing with artists as varied as Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, and legends B.B.King, Tony Bennett, and Willie Nelson.
After the Fundamental tour, she went back into the studio with her veteran road band to record Silver Lining, released in 2002. Featuring Bonnie'sstunning interpretation of the David Gray-penned title track, the Grammy-nominated "Gnawin' On It," and the hit single "I Can't Help You Now,"Silver Lining was considered by many critics to be one of the best albums of her career. She promoted the album with a lengthy world tour that included her Green Highway Festival and an eco-partnership promoting BioDiesel fuel, the environment, and alternative energy solutions at shows and benefits along the way. In 2003, she released the retrospective The Best of Bonnie Raitt on Capitol.
Raitt stayed busy with more guest appearances, including the stunning duet "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" on Ray Charles' final release, Genius Loves Company, which won the Grammy award for Album of the Year, and a duet on the Grammy-winning album True Love by Toots & The Maytals. Her 1989 breakthrough album, Nick of Time, was remixed for surround sound, and released by Capitol Records in 2004 as a DVD-Audio, garnering a Grammy nomination in the newly created category, Best Surround Sound Album.
In 2003, she also participated in Martin Scorsese's acclaimed PBS series, The Blues, performing two songs in Wim Wenders' film, The Soul of a Man, and joining the all-star cast of Lightning in a Bottle, the live feature concert film on the Blues directed by Antoine Fuqua. She also contributed songs for two Disney movies, The Country Bears and Home on the Range. She played guitar on a track on Stevie Wonder's album, A Time To Love, and appeared in the TV/DVD tribute, Music l0l: Al Green.
Souls Alike, her first album ever to bear the credit "Produced by Bonnie Raitt." debuted at #19 on the Billboard 200 in September 2005, eliciting widespread critical acclaim and propelling Raitt back onto the road. She was also selected as the inaugural artist for the VH1 Classic Decades Rock Live! CD/DVD series. Bonnie Raitt and Friends Featuring Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Alison Krauss and Keb'Mo' was released in August of 2006.
In the years in and around the release of Souls Alike, she co-headlined with Jackson Browne and Keb Mo' part of the historic "Vote For Change" tour leading up to the 2004 Presidential election, and then again for the 2008 election, staged a series of benefit concerts and fundraising receptions to help get out the vote and encourage voting in key Democratic Senate races. In 2007, Bonnie joined her MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) friends Jackson Browne and Graham Nash to launch a campaign to prevent the legislative bailout of the nuclear industry and developed www.nukefree.org, a website that serves as an information and networking hub for safe energy activists. In August 2011, MUSE mounted a very successful benefit concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre to raise funds for Japan disaster relief (following the devastating earthquake, tsunami and meltdown of the Daichi-Fukushima nuclear reactors earlier in the year,) as well as non-nuclear organizations worldwide.
Bonnie continues to use her influence to affect the way music is perceived and appreciated in the world. In 1988, she co-founded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which works to improve royalties, financial conditions, and recognition for a whole generation of R&B pioneers to whom she feels we owe so much. In 1995, she initiated the Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, currently running in 200 clubs around the world, to encourage underprivileged youth to play music as budgets for music instruction in the schools run dry. Bonnie currently sits on the Advisory or Honorary Boards of a number of organizations, including Little Kids Rock, Rainforest Action Network, Music Maker Relief Foundation and the Arhoolie Foundation.
Her commitment to the redemptive power of music is expressed in the foreword she wrote to American Roots, the book based on 2001's PBS series of the same name. "I feel strongly that this appreciation needs to be out there so that black, Latino and all kids can understand the roots of their own musical heritage," she explains. "The consolidation of the music business has made it difficult to encourage styles like the blues, all of which deserve to be celebrated as part of our most treasured national resources."
In the summer of 2009, Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal—two leading lights of modern blues—joined forces for their first-ever tour together. The "BonTaj Roulet" tour featured Bonnie and Taj on stage alone and together, before closing each night with a collaborative, blow-out Rhythm and Blues revue-style performance. In addition to the glorious sounds made from the stage, the BonTaj Tour also raised over $200,000 for charity. In an act of democracy dubbed the BonTaj Collective Action Fund, concertgoers voted amongst four cause areas and net proceeds were distributed in proportion to overall votes tallied.
"The 'BonTaj' tour was a dream of mine to put together," she says. "I knew that those shows—culminating in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show, which was a blast—would signal the beginning of a hiatus for me."
Now, Raitt is re-energized and excited to strap her guitar back on and get to work. After spending her career split between Warner Bros and Capitol Records, she is venturing out on her own with a label called Redwing Records. (Slipstream will be distributed by RED in North America and Proper Records for Ex North America.)
The album's title is very significant for Bonnie —Slipstream isn't just a beautiful sounding word, but an indication of her place in the music community. "I'm in the slipstream of all these styles of music," she says. "I'm so inspired and so proud to continue these traditions, whether it's reggae or soul or blues. I'm in the slipstream of those who came before me, and I'm leaving one for those behind me. I'm holding up the traditions of the music that I love."