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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”