Receiving a lifetime achievement award might lead to some introspection, a look back at the milestones which made a person worthy of recognition. For Bonnie Raitt, who earned such honors from the Recording Academy earlier this year, it allowed for a recollection of the many friends and acquaintances who helped her build and maintain a legendary career in music. Many of those folks, she said by phone recently, were Texans.
Raitt is touring Texas this week, a swing through a favored state which includes a Houston-area stop at Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land this Friday. Although the Grammys recognized her past artistic contributions with its Lifetime Achievement Award in January, Raitt’s been delivering new music to audiences all year. Songs from her 21st album, Just Like That..., continue a tradition of killer songs crafted from blues, rock, funk, R&B and pop sounds, all delivered by a voice as familiar as a family friend’s.
Some of the strongest songs on the album – the title track and the album closer, for instance – allow Raitt to slip into storyteller mode.
“I had kind of mined my personal life to the extent that I really didn’t have anything else I wanted to say. I really wanted to be able to write about topics of other people that are going through something that moves me. I was inspired in great part by singing ‘Angel From Montgomery’ every night, from one of our greatest storytellers,” she said of the late John Prine. “At the time when I wrote these lyrics to ‘Down the Hall’ and ‘Just Like That,’ of course John hadn’t passed away from COVID, but it was very apparent to me when I went to put the music to the lyrics I wrote I really had him in my heart.”
The album naturally reflects on the tenor of American life over the past couple of years, so there are ruminations on loss and grief, like the afore-mentioned songs. One of the best tracks on the album is a guitar-cruncher called “Livin’ for the Ones.” It's a bit of a lesson learned about life from COVID times.
“’Livin’ for the Ones’ is the fourth rocker I’ve done with my longtime guitar player George Marinelli. When I’m getting ready to put a record together I always ask him for what kinds of rockers he’s got and he sent me the track to it and, like I did with the other ones, I put my own spin on, I put the lyrics on top of his music. And I really wanted to say something not as a forlorn, sad ballad. I wanted to deliberately sing about the last couple of years and all the loss I’ve been through, all of us have been through, I wanted to put it on a rocker on purpose because it’s really cathartic,” Raitt said.
“Those kinds of topics, like living for the ones who didn’t make it, those are kind of serious topics. But when you put them in this kind of rocker feel, it’s a really cathartic kind of outlet. So, I was happy to be able to find something that would express the depth of the emotion that I’m feeling, the frustration and the loss and the pain, and to be resigned to not be whining about stuff in the future.”
The first time I saw Raitt live was in 1990 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. She was touring big venues on her commercial breakthrough album, Nick of Time, the Grammy Album of the Year which put her on the radar of many music fans. It was her tenth album and she’d spent a lot of her career to that point playing club dates, including many here in Houston.
“I have a lot of fond memories of Rockefeller’s and Liberty Hall years before that,” she said. “Knowing that so many bands that I loved came out (of Texas) – whether the blues scene of Austin with Hubert Sumlin and Clifford (Antone) and all the friends I had, Derek O’Brien, the House Band, Sarah Brown and the Vaughan brothers and Lou Ann Barton, my buddies in Austin. I always left a bunch of days off after Austin so we could recover because we weren’t going to get any sleep.
Raitt was an underground favorite for nearly two decades before the commercial success of Nick of Time
Photo by Susan J. Weiand, courtesy of Shore Fire Media
“I just remember Houston and Austin being a kind of a double step. We always had the week through Texas and for many years our drummer Tony Braunagel, who’s been in the Phantom Blues Band and won Grammys with that band and now he’s producing people, he was in our band for a long time and we used to go have Thanksgiving with his family in Houston. You know, I got to see the inside view of the city and the music scene.”
She connected Houston to Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a triangle filled with great musicians like Delbert McClinton, Glen Clark, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Alejandro Escovedo, and of course Houstonians like Charles Brown and one of her great influences, “The Texas Nightingale,” Sippie Wallace. All friends who formed what she called “the roadhouse, R&B, rock and roll, country nexus.”
“None of us wanted to be put in a box and that’s one of the reasons I always felt so comfortable in Texas,” she said. “It was just really the home of some of the funkiest music and some of the most soulful songwriting.”
In Houston, it was also home to the late music writer Bob Claypool. Claypool wrote for the Houston Post and was an early champion of Raitt’s and a favorite writer of mine. His articles on Raitt’s local stops sent me in search of her music. What I found were gems like “Guilty,” “The Glow” and “My First Night Alone Without You,” songs which preceded Nick of Time by a decade or more.
“I have Bob and so many other great writers to thank, because I never had big commercial success but sometimes even in cities where the A-level of rock critic didn’t find me significant enough to talk about, they would send the B-team to come and review me, but they were often times very, very much more into the kind of music I was doing, which we would call Americana today,” she noted. “They would be covering Little Feat and Ry Cooder and John Hiatt and John Prine, and they would be the ones sent to those concerts. I have so much gratitude to the journalists and the deejays that played me that were not in the mainstream.
Writers like Claypool “would do these interviews and write great reviews where they would single out songs like the ones you mentioned. They really got me and I have so much debt that I owe for my longevity with all the people that found out about me through the great rock journalism and FM deejays that played me that weren’t beholden to some kind of commercial entity that told them they had to play a certain number of hits an hour.”
Of course, it’s more than fellow artists and keen music writers who’ve made Raitt an American music treasure. Besides her quality output, she’s been a role model for women who play guitar and women in general, someone who’s actively advocated for gender equality and women's empowerment. She’s been an example for people in recovery, having gone sober 35 years ago. She’s a steadfast social activist, an artist who proudly uses her platform to promote awareness of environmental issues, social justice, human rights and music education.
“I was quite surprised to get a lifetime achievement award at this point and I was very proud to be able to, without anything related to record sales. You know, my big sales were 30 years ago, really, but it’s a question of being a role model, for being a lead guitar player and music director of my band and having my own record label and being an activist and combining activism with my music. That part of it makes me really proud, to be held up for that and acknowledged for that, and if I can inspire the next generations and the current generation, that would be great.
“If it inspires other people to mix activism and music and to stand up for what they want musically and not be pushed around by record companies or managers or any idea of what a babe should look like or how you have to bend yourself into shape musically or physically to make it in the business – I think those days are gone. There’s just too many strong women and men.”
Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Including Raitt, who celebrates her 73rd birthday next week and is not resting on the laurels of lifetime achievement awards anytime soon.
“I’m on tour two months with Mavis Staples at 83 and as she says every night, ‘I’m not tired and I’m not going anywhere.’ I’m hoping I could be up there with Mick and Keith. Look how long Willie and Tony Bennett went. My dad was touring ‘til he was 85. I’m hoping that I get to still be effective and interesting and make a difference and raise a lot of ruckus and a lot of great music and funds and attention for the causes that definitely need help.”
We close by remembering Claypool, who died in 1989, just as Nick of Time was set to send one of his favorite artists into music’s stratosphere. I told her our interview felt like a continuation of his work or maybe a full-circle moment and she told me to keep alive his tradition of touting unheralded but worthy musicians, those who deliver songs that connect us, the artists who might one day also be Grammy lifetime achievers.
“I hope Bob Claypool’s smiling down on us from heaven,” she said. “He was one of the greatest. I mean it, I’m partly able to talk to you because of people like him sticking their neck out and writing about somebody that wasn’t that famous and didn’t sell that many records. Thank God for the 40 years of rock journalism that covered people like me that weren’t in the number one lane. That’s why I’m still here.”
Bonnie Raitt, with special guest Marc Cohn, 8 p.m. Friday November 4 at Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington Boulevard in Sugar Land. $49.50 to $99.50.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.