How Bonnie Raitt Overcame Loss for Her First LP of New Songs in a Decade
“I love that double-time shit!” says Bonnie Raitt, grinning behind a piano. The singer-guitarist has just led her longtime band through a furious impromptu take on Ray Charles’ “Mess Around.” Raitt, 66, has a reputation as a tenacious perfectionist, but today at her rehearsal studio in North Hollywood, she’s loose and mischievous. At one point, she sets aside a sheet of lyrics for a new ballad to prove she doesn’t need them – but then breaks up laughing when she can’t remember the first line. “So much for losing the training wheels!” she says.
After practice, Raitt heads down a hallway deeper into the studio; there’s a chore she’s been meaning to get around to. Her guitar tech opens a big, musty locker packed with old instruments. “This is over 30 years of people laying guitars on us,” she says. She opens a case to reveal an acoustic Jackson Browne gave her, and another containing a guitar that belonged to songwriter Stephen Bruton, a close friend who died in 2009. “I’d been meaning to go through these for years and figure out whether to give them to charity, or what,” she says. “But then I moved away and my family got sick.”
Raitt is referring to a painful time that began with the deaths of her parents (she lost her mother in 2004, her father a year later); in 2009, her brother died after an eight-year battle with brain cancer. “I was really depleted,” she says. “You go back and relive your relationships with those people, and when there’s multiple losses and illnesses, it can be almost overwhelming.” After her brother’s death, Raitt, who tours year-round and plans her career in five-year stretches, told her band she was taking a year off. She started seeing a grief counselor and, for the first time since she hit the road in 1970, watched all four seasons change in her Marin County backyard.
“I needed to take some time to sit down and fall apart,” she says. That reflective period – and the joy she found when she returned to the road in 2011 – shaped Raitt’s new album, Dig in Deep, her first LP with newly written songs in more than a decade. “I have always felt so sorry that I couldn’t be a better this or that for my family members,” she says. “And I know they were probably just as sorry I couldn’t be what they would’ve liked me to be.”
Raitt has lived in Northern California since 1991, but she feels at home in L.A. She grew up on Mulholland Drive, not far from her rehearsal space, the daughter of actor John Raitt, who had lead roles in Carousel and Oklahoma! during the golden age of Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s. She fondly recalls hour-and-a-half school bus rides through the San Fernando Valley and attending Quaker meetings with her parents, whose love of music and social justice helped draw her to the blues: “It became an anomaly when I was 18 or 19 – people would say, ‘Isn’t this odd that a little redheaded daughter of a Broadway singer from Los Angeles is playing Robert Johnson songs?'”
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