Deeply rooted: Bonnie Raitt channels sound of blues masters for multiple generations

Friday night Bonnie Raitt will turn 64. Fittingly, she’ll be celebrating with a concert at the Cannon Center, in the heart of the region where so much of her music was forged.

Photo courtesy of Marina Chavez

Friday night Bonnie Raitt will turn 64. Fittingly, she’ll be celebrating with a concert at the Cannon Center, in the heart of the region where so much of her music was forged.

It’s generally considered impolite to mention a lady’s age, but on Friday night Bonnie Raitt will turn 64. Fittingly, she’ll be celebrating with a concert at the Cannon Center, in the heart of the region where so much of her music was forged. Despite her enormous pop success — which includes multiple platinum albums and 10 Grammys — Raitt’s work remains deeply connected to the place that birthed the blues, and her own career.

In 2012, Raitt finally resumed making music after a long, self-imposed hiatus. “I’d been running and working for years,” she says. “During that time, my folks passed away, my brother had been dealing with brain cancer. There were lots of years of touring, recording and coming home and not having time to process all that grief. I had to pull back.”

Bonnie Raitt

Photo courtesy of Marina Chavez

Bonnie Raitt

When she returned last year with the Joe Henry-produced Slipstream — her first record in seven years — it netted her another Grammy win (for best Americana album) and became one of the best-received projects of a five-decade career that’s seen her enshrined in both the Rock and Roll and Blues Music Halls of Fame.

Music — though not blues music — was always central to Raitt’s life. She grew up the daughter of Broadway singing star John Raitt and pianist Marjorie Haydock. “I loved my dad’s music so much, I loved all the shows and books — I knew ‘Pajama Game,’ ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Carousel’ by heart. But I had no interest in doing that,” says Raitt, chuckling, “I didn’t have the voice for it.”

Raitt was a child of the folk music boom. “The music of my time was Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Thousands of kids picked up guitars in the folk revival era. My folks were in show business but not of it; they were into the peace movement, and folk music was a nexus of that activism. So I’d play some school assemblies and sing protest and peace songs. Out of that, I also started to listen to a lot of blues records at 14 or 15, but I had a limited income. By the time I got to college, I could get more exposure to records and music.”

It was while attending Harvard that Raitt’s destiny was altered. She met a group of blues-revival linchpins such as promoter Dick Waterman, who were rediscovering the old, mostly forgotten masters of the genre. Raitt would travel South, where she met legends such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House. She later spent a year on the road in clubs and on the blues festival circuit watching them play.

Bonnie Raitt

Photo courtesy of Buzz Person

Bonnie Raitt

“That was a wonderful experience. Just the first time being in the Delta on hallowed ground ... Robert Johnson and the myth of crossroads and all that. To be a young woman of 20 or 21 and have that experience, it was profound,” says Raitt. “Within that first year I started playing, though, I had no intention of doing it [professionally].”

But Raitt soon became a word-of-mouth sensation and eventually a major label recording artist. “There was a history of women in gospel and blues, but women guitar players that played bottleneck guitar were somewhat unusual,” she says. “Next thing I knew, because I played blues the way I did, I got a foot in the door. Also, around that time, Janis [Joplin] had passed way. Even though I wasn’t exactly in that vein, I filled a niche. And it led to a deal with Warner Brothers.”

Raitt released her Warner Brothers debut, simply titled Bonnie Raitt, in 1971. Like much of her work, it was influenced by her relationship with McDowell, who passed on his distinctive slide guitar style to Raitt.

“With Fred, we had a similar humor and developed a great friendship. We were just young middle class college kids sitting at the feet of all these blues men — who were finally being revered after having been being ignored for so long, the Delta [artists] especially. Fred really delighted in his second-career bloom. He was first one I got close to. We were gonna record together for my second album.”

But McDowell died in July 1972 from cancer. “He knew he was sick, but he didn’t know how sick he was. Losing him was a real heartache at that age.” (In 1993, Raitt would fund a memorial marker for McDowell in Como, Miss.)

Raitt would take the lessons she learned from McDowell and grow her style, incorporating other influences along the way, including those from her Warner Brothers label mates Ry Cooder and Lowell George of Little Feat.

“I can’t really pinpoint the way I play and say it’s specific to this one person,” says Raitt. “My fingerpicking style, that comes from Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker. From Ry and Lowell there’s the more languorous style of electric guitar. The chordings and rhythmic things I got from Son House and Fred McDowell. My playing comes from all over.”

“I just play the way I play. I don’t spend any time practicing. I don’t know if I’ve evolved at all, other than that I hope I’ve gotten better,” she says. “For me the more interesting thing is to just venture out into amalgamation of styles. That’s where my creative drive is.”

While maintaining her core fan base of blues aficionados and baby boomer pop fans, Raitt has also been embraced by a new generation of artists: from singer-songwriters such as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to soul divas such as Adele, and even pop stars such as Katy Perry, who’ve covered her songs and sung her praises.

“I’ve met some of those people: Justin Vernon, the Civil Wars. I’d love to work with some of these younger [artists]. I’ve still got a lot I’d like to do musically,” she says.

Raitt has talked of cutting a record of old country songs, Celtic numbers, and even dabbling in jazz and world music. “And Keith [Richards] and I talked a long time ago about doing a record; I would love to do something with him.”

In the meantime, Raitt — who will be performing close to 100 dates this year — shows little sign of slowing or losing her love for playing. “I can play songs I’ve been playing since ’69 and still get a thrill. And when I have a new piece of material, I’m like a dog with a bone: ‘I ain’t gonna let you go,’” she says, laughing. “Once you find that kind of passion for something, it never leaves you.”


Bonnie Raitt, Marc Cohn

8 p.m. Friday at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, 255 N. Main Street.

Tickets: $47 to $85. On sale at all Ticketmaster outlets, 1-800-745-3000

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