With an affinity for The Gift of the Magi and early 20th century short stories by O. Henry and reflecting on the loss of friend John Prine, who died April 7, 2020, and his early songs “Donald and Lydia” and “Angel of Montgomery”, for others references to Bob Dylans’ first acoustic history songs, Bonnie Raitt was able to capture the modesty of the narratives she was to deliver on her 18th album Just like that….

First moved by a human interest story she saw on 60 minutes about a woman who met the recipient of her son’s heart and would hear it beat for the first time since his death, Raitt began writing the title track. Another newspaper article about volunteers spending time with terminally ill inmates inspired “Down the Hall” and helped Raitt find the stories she needed to tell.

“Those history songs, Prine and Jackson and Paul Brady from Ireland, and Bob Dylan were really what I wanted to do on those two songs,” Raitt said. American songwriter, “come from this simplicity of one-person fingering on the guitar.”

Bonnie Raitt (Photo: Matt Mindlin)

The rest of Just like that… are snapshots of other stories Raitt wanted to cover over the years, from “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” by NRBQ’s Al Anderson; “Love So Strong” by Toots and the Maytals, a song she originally planned to duet with friend Toots Hibbert before his untimely death from COVID in 2020; the more rhythmic blues of “Made Up Mind” by alternative country group The Bros. Landreth, whom she had befriended nearly a decade earlier at the Winnipeg Folk Festival; and her own rendition of “Here Comes Love” by the California Honeydrops, which she first cut during her Dig deep session in 2015.

Raitt spoke to American songwriter to get to the heart of the songs on Just like that…capturing some of the essences of Prine’s innate storytelling, and why it never quite suited any musical genre.

American Songwriter: Over 50 years now, how has your songwriting and approach to a song changed over the years?

Bonnie Raitt: At the beginning, I already had a backlog of songs for the first two albums [Bonnie Raitt, 1971; Give It Up, 1972] which I loved. If you talk to most songwriters and people who are performers like me, first of all, you’re so surprised that somebody gives you a real record deal. But if you’ve been performing for a while in public, you’ve got a little set, maybe 20 songs that you’re pulling off of, so that’s two albums right there. Then you cut every record, and you have to make another set, and it gets harder to say something new.

How many times can you say you “broke my heart, you’re lying, you’re cheating the bastard?” I’ve done so many songs about the prismatic aspects of heartache – whether you’re the one who caused it or you’re the recipient. I’ll take you back, even if it’s a stupid idea. Almost every love permutation I’ve sung becomes, in some ways, similar every time. It is becoming more and more difficult to come up with something new and original. That’s where my job comes in, and that’s trying to be creative, and song hunting to find that gem that no one has heard. It gets harder over time when you get up there in the albums, but the process of weeding between old and new material with the same amount of “oh my god, can’t find anything” and then all of suddenly you find a jewel, it must be like fishing. I’m not a fisherman, but you go out there day after day and say “oh forget it”, and then you catch something.

AS: So when you’ve dug it all up inside and presented all the personal stories that you can over time and you start looking outward for the next story, the next song, where do you go?

BR: I think that’s why I did ‘Down the Hall’ and ‘Just Like That’, because the last records I wrote were personal songs. Of the sad ballads I’ve written, I’ve really covered and tapped into all the heartbreak in my personal life. I look at John Prine and think about how he slipped into the heart of the woman singing “Angel From Montgomery” and how he made me when he was 21. I mean, it was amazing.

AS: Do most of your old songs still resonate with you, even though they were written in different times and personal spaces?

BR: They do. I haven’t sung “Love Has No Pride” for many years. It was the cornerstone of my set in the early 70s because I cut it when I was 22. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was my “Love Has No Pride” at the time, and I did “Angel From Montgomery” and those two together were the cornerstones of my set. That’s the only that I stopped singing. It’s not so much about feminism as about [recites lyrics] love has no pride when i call your name… I can’t take it anymore. I’m not going to beg anyone to come back. It’s interesting, because a few decades later, someone popped the question, and they were so innocent. They said, ‘I would really like you to sing this song’, and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it for you’, and then it turned me into singing it because I had so much empathy for the person who was suffering. for that person to come back they would do anything. I was singing it for that person. It’s not me anymore. I just sing it for that part of me, to have huge sympathy for the young woman that I was, who would have given anything to get this guy back.

AS: It’s amazing how a song can change over time like that.
BR:
Yes, I think so, and other people who write all their own songs…I have no idea how they can keep coming up with new stuff – to write all your own material. Collaborating probably makes things a little easier. It’s hard enough to find good songs to cover, but if I had to write on my own, I would have retired.

AS: That asks a lot of you. It’s really an emotional process.

BR: And what about the fact that you have to mix trade? I have maybe 15 friends, and it comes to mind, who made amazing records on the last two or three albums, and no one paid attention. I know writers who have written books that are some of my favorite books on my bookshelf, and nobody paid attention to them. So I sympathize, and I have political activist journalist friends who have written stories that would change the world if people could just see them. That’s why the joy of having a little more success, so that when I call Bonnie Hayes and say, “I’m going to cut more of your songs”… It used to be like I sold 150,000 albums, and they wouldn’t even make money on it, but now when Just in time knocked, I could help someone find a house.

Bonnie Raitt (Photo: Susan Weiand)

AS: You moved country, Americana, pop, folk, rock but there was never really a category for you. How did you manage not to get stuck in a particular genre all these years?

BR: Thanks. It makes me happy to hear. At least the Americana format has expanded what we have. We now have an umbrella for bands like Little Feat…I mean why do we have to call Delbert McClinton country? Is it blues? No. When you go to see a great musical – and I was lucky enough to grow up in musical theater with my dad and watch great classics all the time – the arc in a show has songs that are fast and playful and then just a heartbreaking heartbreak. Songs. It’s how you string them together that makes the show fun or makes an album interesting for me. So when people try to say, “are you a country or this or that”, it’s so irrelevant.

AS: I think we finally managed to move on with all this crossover in country and pop, rock and hip-hop, and beyond.

BR: I think so too. I’m glad to see everybody cross paths, like Lil Nas [X]. The great cultural hope I have for bridging some of that animosity in our polarizing country is when rap artists and country artists come together. Who would have expected that? Now there are a lot of black artists in country music, so it’s really great.

I feel like it’s my job to celebrate some of these genres of music. I love this kind of soul music, from the Hall & Oates era where they pay homage to the soul records they love, and “Made Up Mind” really reminds me of those. Usually when I want to have an R&B-tinged single like that, it’s because it’s just a kind of music that I love so much.

Honestly, I just choose these songs so I can play them live.

Read our recent interview with Raitt, which appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of American Songwriter, here.

Main photo: Marina Chavez

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