Mighty Tight Woman

By  |  December 22, 2016
Photo of Bonnie Raitt by Art Streiber. Courtesy of Art Streiber/August Photo of Bonnie Raitt by Art Streiber. Courtesy of Art Streiber/August

 Forty-five years after her debut, Bonnie Raitt still sings where she stands 


 

I was halfway through college in South Florida when somebody burned me a copy of Luck of the Draw, Bonnie Raitts album released in 1991, by then a decade old. Trying not to disturb my roommates, I lay in bed listening through headphones, taken with how appealing this artist made adulthood soundlike she was sure on her feet, felt comfortable in her skin, and actually found it freeing, even fun, to act her age.

The first four tracks had her playing the part of a tease with her funky, anticipatory vocal phrasing; she sparred over domestic annoyances with what seemed like a knowing grin, cradled her heartbreak with exquisite tenderness, and relished the emotional risk and mutual satisfaction that comes with deepening a relationship. (“Gonna get into it / Down where it’s tangled and dark / Way on into it, baby / Down where your fears are parked.”) That was worlds away from the previews of womanhood I’d received elsewhere: at a mother-daughter tea party to which I’d been dragged in the sixth grade (an occasion to rehearse ladylike behavior), or at the church I attended with my folks (which, in its interpretation of Christian scripture, barred women from official leadership roles), or in my high school carpool with friends on the drill team (who carried themselves with the grace of lifelong ballet students, while I carried drumsticks, the lone girl on the marching band’s drumline). By those standards of femininity, I was clearly failing, but I wasn’t all that interested in trying to improve my performance.  

Once Raitt got my attention, I started scouring the Rs at every new and used record store I passed, gradually collecting her entire catalog. When she played a West Palm Beach festival just a few miles from my apartment, I bought tickets for the whole weekend-long shebang but only braved the subtropical heat for her set, standing in line afterward to shell out twenty-five bucks for a Silver Lining tour t-shirt in a babydoll cut. A friend later pilfered the booklet from one of my Raitt CDs and had the cover photo blown up on posterboard so that an enlarged image of a young Bonnie wished me a helluva happy one at my twenty-first birthday party. 

I was searching for a vision of womanhood that I didn’t find suffocating, so it was a real relief to have the likeness of a grown-ass woman like her around.

 

She’s been at it for four and a half decades now, yet Raitt’s perspectives on musical maturity and emotional truth-telling, and her simultaneous embrace of sensuality and smarts, have never seemed more relevant—and more admired. In February 2016, following the release of her seventeenth studio album, Dig in Deep, Raitt was interviewed for Lenny Letter, the newsletter for millennial feminists launched by Girls collaborators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. At a recent concert taping that paired Alicia Keys with Maren Morris—a twenty-six-year-old country-pop newcomer who delivers her songs from a frank, assured posture—Morris covered John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” a country-blues lament of a woman wrung out by life, popularized by Raitt. When Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the creators of Broad City, extended their brazenly slackerish, sexually unencumbered television personas with a comedy tour, Glazer gave Raitt a shout-out from the stage. And in the sizable Americana scene—a community that grew up around roots-minded contemporary music-makers—Raitt has come to be celebrated as something of a godmother.  

Raitt has been recording since she was twenty-one, when she retreated to a deserted summer camp in Minnesota with a freewheeling cast of musician-friends—including Freebo, an agile, long-haired bassist, and Chicago blues harpist Junior Wells, borrowed from Buddy Guy’s band—to knock out her self-titled debut. They emerged from their bucolic retreat with an earthy, rhythmically loose-limbed album. 

Raitt had grown up spending summers in the care of beatnik college students at a Quaker camp in the Adirondack Mountains, absorbing their infatuation with the gravitas of lefty folk songs and learning to sing and strum like Joan Baez. Born in Burbank, California, to pianist Marjorie Haydock and Broadway star John Raitt (the couple later divorced), Bonnie was raised Quaker, a faith that valued conscientious modesty and a sensitivity to injustice. John Raitt’s career had also perched the family on the figurative and geographical edge of Hollywood. Bonnie watched her dad personify robust theatricality on stage; he was a classic leading man, projecting his regally rippling falsetto in Carousel, Oklahoma!, and The Pajama Game. By her early teens, she had fallen under the spell of the country bluesmen featured on Blues at Newport 1963, including Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and John Lee Hooker. In 1967, she embarked on an immersive musical education when she started her freshman year at Radcliff and made the most of her proximity to the Cambridge folk scene. Raitt quickly fell in with, then began to date, Dick Waterman, a music photographer a decade and a half her senior who’d made it his mission to revive the long-dormant or languishing careers of blues elders like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, Bukka White, Sippie Wallace, and Skip James. 

Folk revivalists had often conceived of themselves as preservers of African-American musical traditions, a relationship that, as Jack Hamilton puts it in Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, “held black music and musicians to be engines of raw and unknowable power that existed almost exclusively in the past.” Raitt, on the other hand, recognized veteran blues performers’ modern ingenuity and highly developed technique, seizing the chance to study lyrical slide-guitar licks at McDowell’s feet. She signed with Warner Bros. after garnering buzz as his opener.

 

Though I’ve long been unfazed by speaking with superstars whose handlers aggressively micromanage their interactions, I was nervous as a newbie as I waited for Raitt to call me from her Northern California home, calming myself with meditative breathing exercises, one eye glued to my iPhone. Until that moment, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that my fixation on her music had stayed with me since those collegiate experiences of unexamined fandom, before it became my job to place a critical frame around what I hear.

When my phone finally rang, I willed myself into a normal breathing pattern. Raitt marveled at how she’d lucked into hanging around with Waterman’s legendary clients. “I could have a conversation with Sippie Wallace or Fred McDowell and ask them what it was like to grow up under segregation and Jim Crow laws, and what it was like for Sippie to tour in those vaudeville tent shows, and, ‘What kind of discrimination did you experience? How did men treat you? And where did you learn to play cards?’” 

Raitt had been on an overseas trek when she first stumbled upon a record by Wallace, a salty prewar jazz and blues singer and songwriter who’d recorded numerous sides for Okeh in the 1920s, then disappeared into church work in Detroit before reemerging on the blues revival circuit in the mid-1960s. By the time the two finally met, Raitt had cut three of Wallace’s originals, beginning with the swaggering number “Mighty Tight Woman.”

Raitt quoted a lyric from another Wallace number, “You Got to Know How”—“You can make me do what you wanna do, but you’ve got to know how”—then added, “That was a sly wink towards sexual proficiency, I’m sure, but also she meant all the way across the board, you know? Like, ‘I’m not gonna be your dog. You can’t order me ’round and you’d better know what you’re doing in bed. I’ll do what you want, but you’d better do what I want.’” 

She was thrilled to find such sexually liberated attitudes in the repertoire of a singer and songwriter old enough to be her grandmother. “You Got to Know How” appeared on Raitt’s second album, Give It Up, released in 1972; she deployed Wallace’s lyrics to goad and instruct a would-be lover over a sauntering New Orleans groove. “One of the reasons I loved Sippie Wallace is because as a young feminist, when the feminist movement was completely exploding in my college years, the lyrics [to certain blues tunes] sometimes could be kinda misogynistic,” she reflected. 

Hyperbolic boasts about domestic violence weren’t at all uncommon in country blues lyrics. After all, Big Bill Broonzy threatened to “use my fist” to keep his woman in line in “When I Been Drinkin’.” In “A to Z Blues,” Blind Willie McTell vowed to take a razor to a woman who’d dare leave him. “Kinda misogynistic” would be an understatement.

Raitt continued, “I can only pick songs that really go with what I feel, and it was really important to me to be treated with respect.” 

 

Chris Smither used to hang around Dick Waterman’s place in Cambridge, where an aging bluesman or two could usually be found. Though Raitt was often there, too, Smither—a gifted white singer-songwriter and acoustic blues picker—had no idea she even played guitar until she demonstrated a slide lick to him a couple of years into their acquaintance. The first song of his that caught her ear was the fruit of his attempt to pen an enlightened take on masculine boastfulness. He wrote “Love You Like a Man” after a quarreling couple passed by him on the street. Witnessing the episode, an older, wiser compatriot impressed upon him that men were often to blame for relational turmoil. To Smither, that was a revelation. A couple of years after the song appeared on his 1970 debut album, Raitt called him up in the dead of night, wanting to know if he’d be alright with her cutting it, too. He offered to adapt the lyrics to a female perspective, but she told him that wouldn’t be necessary; she’d already made the adjustments, swapping out “you” for “me” and thereby transforming the song into an erotic challenge. (“Believe it when I tell you darlin’ / You can love me like a man.”) In truth, she’d already recorded “Love Me Like a Man” as a humid 12-bar shuffle, her delivery laced with scolding, been-there jive. 

“When I heard it, I was thrilled with it,” Smither remembered. “I thought it really worked. And obviously there are hundreds of thousands of people who agree with me, because the song’s been recorded so many times. . . . It’s become a standard for any blues band that has a woman fronting it.”

I took the song for a spin during my own college years: singing from behind the drum kit, I closed my eyes and did my best to summon a ravenous growl. I was bent on impersonating something like empowered, sexually self-assured womanhood in front of my friends and classmates. “I want a man to rock me like my backbone was his
owwwnnn,” I swore, stretching the last word to three salacious syllables. Since my effort was far less convincing than Raitt’s early performance, I was surprised when she told me that she’d been dissatisfied with her singing back then. “You know, when I was only twenty-one, when I’d sing those blues songs, I’d just sound excruciatingly young to me, when I listen back. My voice didn’t sound as worldly as what I felt like inside.”

For the benefit of her earliest albums, she tried to hurry the process along, to roughen up her voice the way that some of her blues idols had—by smoking, drinking, and generally living hard. (My friend Nina Melechen went to a Raitt show in the mid-seventies and recalled Raitt hoisting a bottle of Mateus, taking a swig, and hollering out the brand name of the cheap wine.) The boozing would eventually become a problem, but at the beginning of Raitt’s career, her impatience with the untarnished texture of her voice was heightened by her desire to project an experienced image—to use her luminous instrument in a way that sounded believable and grounded, that summoned emotional authority. 

In reviews, music critics noted that she didn’t share the aesthetic goal of so many white practitioners of black-pioneered music, which was to “sound black.” She’d been sensitized to suffering in developing African nations by her Quaker upbringing and deeply moved by the civil rights movement. At Radcliffe, she chose Social Relations and African Studies as her majors. After bailing on her degree program, she was determined to draw attention to the black innovation and innovators that informed her music. 

You can watch a YouTube clip of Raitt and Sippie Wallace appearing on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. First, the younger singer takes a turn chatting with the host, fielding boilerplate questions. Letterman ventures: “Now your father is John Raitt, Broadway personified, and I would guess that you grew up in a rather well-off situation. How is it that you became such a strong proponent of the blues?” Listening, Raitt strokes her chin and offers a wary smile. Then Letterman asks Raitt to introduce Wallace: “Why don’t you tell America, if they don’t already know, why this woman is an important figure in American music?” He sounds not at all sure of the answer himself. Raitt leans over and pats Wallace’s shoulder affectionately. “Well, that’s my friend,” she begins, before summarizing Wallace’s place in blues and jazz lineage. It’s an awkward thing, watching Raitt make the case that the person seated next to her does indeed deserve to be there.

On television shows, tribute albums, and concert tours—not to mention through the nonprofit Rhythm & Blues Foundation, on whose advisory board she serves alongside rapper Chuck D and Mathew Knowles, dad to Beyoncé and Solange—Raitt has long taken on an advocate role for a number of overlooked and underappreciated artists. Those who knew her early on, from her bassist Freebo to writer Ben Fong-Torres, who profiled Raitt for Rolling Stone in 1975, noted that she has always been more interested in what social good she could do with her musical platform than in achieving stardom for its own sake. When she toured as a duo with Freebo, they’d show up for No Nukes demonstrations and Native American causes, just the two of them and her dog, traveling in her Volvo. (“She always drove a Volvo,” Freebo took care to point out.) 

“It’s the least I can do as I’m sitting here in the catbird seat, building my whole career on forms of music where the original artists didn’t get paid or are not working now,” Raitt told me. “The least we can do is turn around and put as many people back to work and share our incomes and fight for royalty reform and fight for health insurance. It’s really important that, in a culture that appropriates so much from African-American culture, we make sure we’re collaborating and sharing the benefits.”

Career-wise, Raitt probably could’ve made things easier on herself by conforming to one of the popular musical templates of her post-sixties moment: the folk singer-songwriter who’s taken seriously because she sings words from her own pen; the pop song interpreter entertaining the audience without the barrier of an instrument; the bluesy, red-blooded rocker for whom softness and sentimentality have no place. Instead, as it suited her taste, she incorporated a bit of each and other elements besides. Rather than limit herself to singing her own compositions, she’d scour the albums of singer-songwriter peers. She dug hot r&b grooves, but not to the exclusion of sophisticated ballads. She paid homage to blues and r&b traditions but avoided the purist prudery of revivalism. “You put it all together,” Freebo reflected, “and it’s interesting to look back on how she was shaping herself and who she shaped herself into. It was really captaining, steering, mentoring of herself—managing herself, in a way.”

In the seventies, her records received modest airplay on rock radio, alongside contemporaries like Linda Ronstadt, Maria Muldaur, Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell. Though those artists shared certain qualities—each offering her own angle on the substance, sophistication, and self-directedness of modern femininity—Raitt distinguished herself as an emotionally engaged, intellectually ambitious, socially conscious, blues-steeped, roots-referencing, guitar-slinging hot mama. Unlike Ronstadt, for instance, a pop interpreter from the country-rock scene who didn’t play an instrument when she performed, Raitt sat as she delivered her ballads, accompanying herself with elegant guitar figures, a presentation that lent her performances a certain coffeehouse heft. (Just listen to Ronstadt’s and Raitt’s renditions, released around the same time, of “Love Has No Pride” back to back; Ronstadt’s version makes the grander gestures, building to a string-sweetened crescendo beneath a vocal performance that’s faintly effervescent even in its lovelornness, while Raitt’s reading is willowy and rueful, and its instrumental performances more subtle.) 

Jon Cleary, who went on to play keyboards in a recent incarnation of Raitt’s band, habitually toted Raitt’s album Give It Up to parties when he was a teenager in Kent, England, and a devoted connoisseur of New Orleans r&b. In case he arrived to find that a party was plagued by lame music, he wanted to be prepared with savvier selections. “I respected her for having done her homework, but not being content to settle with that and just make a life on that, copying what somebody else has already done,” he said of Raitt’s approach. “It’s kind of a tough row to hoe, because there’s always a small, easy market for just copping the old stuff. It’s a challenge to try and build on the tradition and do something new with it, because often that flies in the face of what’s fashionable at the moment.” Indeed, an artist takes a greater risk when she makes no effort to hide behind her mastery of time-tested styles, instead singing from where she stands.

 

I’ve discovered over the years that some of the smartest women I know are also into Bonnie Raitt. Like Nina Melechen, who lives across the street from me in East Nashville and has a Ph.D. in medieval Spanish history. And my former grad school professor Kathleen Flake, whose course on American religious history I was taking the same semester I happened to bump into her at a Raitt show at the Ryman Auditorium a decade ago. Since Flake is a longtime fan and close to Raitt in age, I decided to call her up and compare notes. I pictured her pausing mid-sentence in the typing of some voluminous manuscript when she answered her office phone. She spoke deliberately, slowing every sentence or so to sort out her thoughts on what Raitt had represented to her twenty-something self.

“She instantiated a kind of freedom,” Flake began, “a kind of freedom from being female or male in a way. Not that she was sexually ambiguous at all, but she just had a kind of . . . I associate her with a freedom from certain kinds of strictures of how you’re able to . . . be in the world, I guess.” 

It was, and is, impressive to see Raitt excel in musical roles often identified with men—player of piquant slide guitar solos, shaper of her own sound, boss of her band. But all along, she’s been making even bolder claims on freedom. A young woman trying to establish herself as a performer worthy of attention is liable to feel profoundly underestimated, to sense dismissive assumptions pressing in on her from all sides—that she couldn’t possibly know her mind or have her feet firmly planted on the ground; that she must be a frivolous, malleable ingénue. On her early albums, though, I don’t hear Raitt making any attempt to cram herself into such a constricting mold. Nor do I hear her yielding on later recordings to expectations that tighten around a woman artist of a certain age—that it’s time for her to put aside her playfulness, shelve her sensuality, disguise her desire; that she ought to project dignified maturity, lest she seem tasteless, desperate, or silly. When the options seemed narrowest, Raitt somehow managed to make room for a generous range of experience and expression.

In his Rolling Stone cover story, Fong-Torres recognized her ability to hold her own with the guys—tour mates John Prine and Tom Waits—when it came to trading risqué one-liners and putting away booze. He also suggested that her repertoire housed contradictory attitudes. “She sings put-’em-up, we-take-no-shit songs to men,” Fong-Torres wrote, “but often pines and cries in her songs.” 

To Raitt, though, placing a saucy number alongside a sigh of longing made for a truer representation of feminine complexity. “I really appreciated lyrics that were from the point of view of a strong woman that wasn’t going to take any guff from anybody,” she told me. Still, she feels that songs that portray wounded vulnerability—like “Love Has No Pride” or “Stayed Too Long at the Fair”—show just as “authentic a side of you as the ones where you’re standing up for what you deserve.”

 

The eighties proved to be a difficult decade for Raitt. She reeled off the reasons—the demise of a love affair, the need to deal with her drinking problem, the passing of beloved blues elders—with a fluency that suggested she’d been called upon to tell the story more than a few times. The bottom line, she implied, was that the mainstream music industry had moved on to younger, synthesizer-fueled priorities. Warner Bros. concluded that she’d peaked and sent a letter informing her that she was being dropped from the label roster. The great mystery of her career is that it didn’t then settle into a low and sustainable gear. After finding a new home at Capitol Records, she vaulted into massive pop success with the very next album she released, 1989’s multiplatinum Grammy magnet Nick of Time

Even those involved in the making of Nick of Time, people who could easily try to paint themselves as savvy forecasters, spoke of its popular impact with disbelief. “Nobody expected the success of that record,” insisted drummer Ricky Fataar. “That was just totally unpredictable. Who would’ve thought?” Producer Don Was echoed the sentiment: “We certainly didn’t see it coming, I can tell you that. We just knew we’d made a record that we were proud of.”

On paper, Raitt’s belated breakthrough did look powerfully unlikely—she was already two decades into her career and pushing forty. While aging was embraced as a fact of life in the blues scene, middle age was a no-woman’s-land in rock and pop—that was the music of youth, a language of teenage lusts, impulses, and freedoms. But Raitt didn’t gloss over the fact that she was entering a different season. She ruminated on it. In the self-penned title track, her confiding phrasing sits above subdued keyboards, sleek harmonies, and ticklish, pulsing percussion as she ponders a friend’s rapidly diminishing chances of having a child and her parents’ growing frailty. 

“I think it was a really courageous move on her part,” said Was. “You’re absolutely right that denial of age had been a cornerstone of rock & roll up until that point. And for someone to cop to turning forty and acknowledge the things that were going on around them—because everyone’s experiencing that, but literally nobody was writing about it or singing about it—it took a lot of guts to write those songs and go public with ’em.” 

For Fataar, the maturity of Raitt’s perspective was part of the gig’s appeal; after all, it hadn’t been that long since he’d toured with the Beach Boys, their set list stocked with sunny California pop. “You know, it’s hard to play ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ every night when you’re grown up,” he reflected with a chuckle.

Boldest of all was Raitt’s unwillingness to dampen the sexuality in her music. “Love Letter” was nothing but a mischievously funky expression of lust, “Real Man” a roadhouse romp through the traits she’d want in a grownup lover, and “Thing Called Love” a playful nudge toward pleasure, partnership, and shedding your inhibitions. Though she’d never before had to fool with music videos, she envisioned a treatment of the latter song that might appeal to VH1.“I wanted to deliberately show a kind of sexuality that was even more hot, or equally hot and playful, without resorting to . . . ” she said, trailing off. “I mean, I don’t have the body or the interest in pulling off being an absolute sexually explicit babe in a video. That’s just not where I’m coming from.” 

So she asked the actor Dennis Quaid, four years her junior, to star opposite her. “I said, ‘You know I’m gonna be really nervous, and I really have an agenda here where I wanna show this kind of flirtatious serious heat between people.’” Since he was in the midst of filming a Jerry Lee Lewis biopic, he sported a Sun Records t-shirt and exuded rakish, rockabilly virility in the barroom setting of Raitt’s video. “I’ve never had so much fun playing guitar with somebody staring at me as that,” she giggled. “Dennis Quaid sitting there sucking on a toothpick with his feet up on a table. I almost had to be hosed down in between takes it was so hot.” Quaid’s body language made it perfectly clear that she was the object of desire.

In my college days, I held Raitt’s music too close to really be able to analyze the progression within her body of work. But as I listen in reverse chronological order now, working my way back from her mid-career smashes, I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation that Raitt carried on with herself. It’s as though she spent her twenties conjuring the sure-footed, fully formed woman she was determined to become, then gradually willed that woman into being. “I feel like I’d reached a certain level of maturity and clarity, partly because I was forty, but also because I was sober,” she allowed, when I shared my interpretation. “The trip back to adopting a healthier lifestyle ended up with dividends of finding myself in a way that I think made Nick of Time a more clear picture of the person I probably really was, really am.”

After Nick of Time, Raitt made a couple of other wildly popular studio albums with Was—Luck of the Draw and Longing in Their Hearts—sticking with the deftly humanized version of studio sheen that they’d developed and her distinctive blend of wistfulness, relational insight, and heat; where there was flirtation, there were also depictions of mutuality, friendship, and follow-through. This was stuff that she could deliver with deep feeling and a straight face at that point in her life. By the late nineties, the window was closing on Raitt’s mainstream popularity, and she eased back into the outside lane with a mussed-up, bohemian soundscape (see: Fundamental), followed by a renewed emphasis on her relationship to roots music. After hiring Jon Cleary to play keys, she leaned into New Orleans funk for a time, then mounted a blues-centric duo tour with Cleary’s previous boss, Taj Mahal, who’d achieved elder statesman status but never came close to matching Raitt’s fame. Mahal and Raitt went way back; he appeared on her 1973 album, Takin My Time. “At no point did she lose what it was and who she was,” Mahal said. “That was an important thing for me. I saw so many artists that were really incredible players, but then they got caught up in the machine, and that’s the last time I saw somebody that I knew. Bonnie’s always somebody I know.”

 

I had a hard time believing her, but Raitt insisted that she’d really struggled to decide who should induct her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. That role is meant to be filled by an artist viewed as a musical descendent of the inductee, and, she said, “There wasn’t anybody in my line of influence where I could say, ‘This is a famous person that really got a lot from me, and you could hear it in the thread.’” (She wound up choosing Melissa Etheridge, who feted her at the ceremony as “a woman in a man’s world.”) All of that’s changed in the years since. 

In far flung corners of the current pop, rock, and roots landscapes, Bonnie Raitt is viewed as an archetype for younger generations of musicians who are staking their own claims to artistic latitude and fully rounded expression. Big-voiced singer-songwriter Bonnie Bishop, for instance, presents her own straddling of Texas country, r&b, roots rock, and confessional songwriting as “the Bonnie Raitt model”—which is to say, “never one thing or the other.” That comparison took on greater weight when Raitt cut a couple of Bishop’s exquisitely bruised ballads and invited the thirty-something, on the verge of quitting music after a dozen-year struggle, to pay her a visit backstage at the Ryman. Upon hearing Bishop’s admission of discouragement, Raitt reiterated how long she’d had to wait on her own commercial breakthrough. “I knew that was her story,” Bishop recalled, “but having her sit there in her bathrobe, in her dressing room, thirty years older than me, and look back and say, ‘When I was your age, I was right where you are. Don’t give up. This is all normal.’ It was incredibly encouraging, just to have that friendship.”

Clare Dunn, a country act who leans heavily on heartland rock, rhythmic pop, and r&b, has yet to actually meet Raitt, but as a farm kid in a remote corner of Colorado, Dunn was surfing YouTube when she discovered concert footage of Raitt’s guitar solos. Having never picked up a six string herself, Dunn nonetheless filed away the idea as a future possibility. I reached her on the phone a few days after watching her sweat it out on a cramped festival side stage, shredding like the pro bandleader she is now. “I saw her play,” Dunn said of Raitt, “and I was just like, ‘She can hang with Duane Allman.’ And if you’re gonna be a guitar player, that’s what you’ve gotta do. You’ve gotta be on that level. And she was the first woman guitar player I saw that didn’t play like a girl—she played like a guy. And that inspired me very much.”

Soon I found myself conducting an informal survey about Raitt’s influence nearly everywhere I went. While tucking in to a plate of barbecue at an Irish festival, Alex Kline—a multi-instrumentalist, writer, and producer striving for respect in the boys’ club of Nashville’s recording industry—echoed Dunn’s assessment. She grew up wanting to play lead guitar, and said, “There’s hardly any women like that who girls can look up to.” 

Still, it seems like every major U.S. city now has its own Girls Rock Camp, an incubator of musical aspirations that’s put a small but passionate army of blue-haired tween girls in touch with female icons like Raitt. If you donate fifty bucks to the fund-raising website for the Austin outpost, you receive a tote bag and a public shout-out at the rock campers’ show. This particular token of appreciation is dubbed the Bonnie Raitt Package.

 

Just as those young musicians explore ways of expressing themselves, asserting their individuality, and identifying with a lineage of brash musical outsiders through Day-Glo hair color, an equivalent look exists for those who want to link themselves to Raitt’s uncompromising, ageism-defying persona.

Over beers at an East Nashville brewery, I recently mentioned to Sarah Potenza—a flamboyant local blues-rocker—that I was writing about Raitt. Potenza gestured at the white strands poking out of the part in her otherwise black hair, signaling her pride in its resemblance to the white streak that has been Raitt’s trademark for decades. The next day, I texted Potenza to ask what, besides hair color, first grabbed her about Raitt. “I saw someone that looked like me doing what I wanted to do,” Potenza replied. “She was a woman who fell in love with blues music, who felt the need to make it and who didn’t see her gender as a factor; she didn’t let it limit her or affect where she saw herself going.”

Not only did I have a brief blue-hair phase myself, I once asked a hairdresser to bleach a white patch into my blond bangs in honor of Raitt’s ’do. Instead of the requested dye job, what I got was a lecture on how bad it would be for my hair, and how it would probably come out a sickly, pale yellowish hue anyhow. 

On the phone with Raitt, I avoided any mention of the episode. By now, you’d think she would’ve heard enough personal testimonies about her impact to grow numb to the subject. But when I gave her the briefest summation of what I’d gotten from her music, she gushed about touchstones of her own, from Joni Mitchell to Aretha Franklin. “I really went to town on listening to what they were singing, people that were role models for me,” she said. “So I’m glad I could be one for you.” 

What I did tell her was that I was one among many who’d believed the promise I heard in her music—that if you’re determined enough, you can find the elbow room to keep on stretching yourself throughout your life. And that she still makes me believe it. How fitting that, just as soon as she hung up the phone, Raitt and a friend planned to unroll their yoga mats and spend a few minutes limbering up.


OA95 COVERS AND CD small

Bonnie Raitt is featured on one of three covers for the Visions of the Blues Southern Music Issue. Her 1973 song I Feel the Same is included on the CD.

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Jewly Hight has contributed to the New York Times, NPR, Vulture.com, Billboard, Pitchfork, and numerous other outlets, and was the inaugural winner of the Chet Flippo Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism. Her first book, Right by Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs, came out in 2011.