By Elford Alley
Plagued by several tragedies, Raitt found it necessary to put the music on hold. In 2004, her mother passed away, followed by her father, Broadway actor John Raitt in 2005. In 2009, after the death of her brother Steve, who had a long bout with cancer, she told her band mates: “I need to take a break till I get an appetite for it again.”
Slipstream, which has been released on her own label, Redwing, is Raitt's sixteenth album. Pouring her grief and newfound sense of determination into the record, she cut a deeply personal album. It's been called "…her best album in years and one of the best of her 40-year career."
Raitt started out at Harvard’s Radcliffe College in 1967, wanting to change the world: "My plan was to travel to Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere was creating a government based on democracy…I wanted to help undo the damage that Western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world.” But it was at Radcliffe that her love of the blues and unique slide guitar style were first noticed by blues aficionado Dick Waterman.
Waterman represented such Blues luminaries as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Junior Wells and soon took Raitt under his wing. Overnight, Raitt was a college drop out and one of the nation’s most promising blues guitarists, determined to change the world through her music.
In a time when there were few female guitar heroes, Bonnie Raitt was playing alongside greats like John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. She released her first album, 1971’s Bonnie Raitt, to critical acclaim and very low sales. This proved to be the case for much of her work throughout the seventies: album after album of blues music that was adored by critics and a small number of fans but was mostly unnoticed by everyone else.
After Raitt was dropped by Warner Brothers in 1983, she sunk further into alcohol and drug abuse, later saying in a New York Times interview: "I’m really grateful that I didn’t either kill myself or somebody else. I really used to think I needed to be messed up to sing the kind of music I sing…”
She managed to get clean in 1987, citing help from friends and family, including the recently sober Stevie Ray Vaughan. In an interview with Parade last April, she talked about staying sober for twenty five years and watching the tragic passing of other musicians who could never get clean:
“I was one of the lucky ones. Seeing Whitney Houston pass away, and Amy Winehouse - everyone smiled at her ‘Rehab’ song, but for me it was heartbreaking to hear her sing that because it just looked like she was on a slippery slope.”
Once the 90s rolled around the newly sober Raitt enjoyed some of the biggest successes of her career. Nick of Time would go onto the sell over six million copies. She also won accolades for her duet with John Lee Hooker on the song “In The Mood” for his award-winning album The Healer. 1991’s Luck of the Draw featured one of her biggest hits, the country infused “Something to Talk About” and a duet with Delbert McClinton on the track “Good Man, Good Woman.”
Before the decade was over, Bonnie Raitt had won seven grammys, her music was receiving considerable airplay, and she was finally a household name.
Bonnie Raitt has been a strong supporter of Farm Aid, ending the expansion of nuclear power, and along with her mentor Dick Waterman, supports the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, which builds memorials to deceased and sometimes forgotten blues musicians in Mississippi. She has maintained that the clout she earned through her music has allowed her to give real support to causes she advocates.
"You just do what you can….As long as I’ve got a mouth, somebody’s going to be hearing about it. I’m just glad I won those Grammys, so now I get on a better page when the newspapers cover these things."
In true blues fashion, Bonnie Raitt shows no signs of stopping. At sixty-two, with a career now spanning more than forty years, Raitt is emulating her predecessors - Muddy Waters and Mississippi Fred McDowell - playing until the very end:
“I think my fans will follow me into our combined old age. Real musicians and real fans stay together for a long, long time."