Bonnie Raitt looks to the uplifting stories when writing songs in a trying time
Classic hits and new compositions will be part of the crossover artist’s Ravinia concert — as will old friend Mavis Staples.
An average person will live 2.2 billion seconds in their lifetime — and in just one of them, everything can change. It’s one of life’s great mysteries that gave Bonnie Raitt pause while writing her latest masterpiece, “Just Like That …”
“I know the word unprecedented gets used a lot lately, but there’s never been a five- to six-year period in my life as devastating as this,” said Raitt, reflecting on the many topical influences behind her 21st album.
The 10-song stunner was released in April on Redwing Records, around the time Raitt was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy as well as the Icon Award at Billboard’s Women of the Year 2022 ceremony, recognizing the illustrious 50-year career of a renegade who showed a woman could slay a guitar and write a song as well as her touring mentors and contemporaries like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and James Taylor. She remains one of music’s greatest crossover artists who has blurred the lines of blues, rock and pop.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Ravinia, 201 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park
Of course, the pandemic, elections, Black Lives Matter and climate change all weighed heavily on Raitt as the “Just Like That …” material was germinating. They’re issues that often have concerned the 72-year-old artist-activist, as evidenced through her fundamental work with MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), Vote For Change and various social justice causes advocating for women, Native Americans and Black creators.
Yet, in spite of all the downtrodden news, Raitt also saw some silver linings. Like Mr. Rogers used to say, she “looked for the helpers.” And when Raitt found them, she wrote about them, uncovering the story of two families impacted by organ donation that evolved into the title track for the new album, and the story of a prison hospice program that inspired “Down the Hall.”
“These stories moved me so much. I just burst into tears and realized how aching I was for some heart-blasting, uplifting stories of love and action,” said Raitt.
Recently, she also was dealt a number of personal losses (an experience shared on the song “Livin’ for the Ones”) including the passing of friend John Prine after a battle with COVID. The poignant “Angel From Montgomery” — Prine’s song that Raitt recorded for her 1974 album “Streetlights” — is one she still loves to play nearly every show, and its style influenced the storyteller narrative on “Just Like That …”
“I wanted to go back and sing other people’s stories, not just always take from my own life,” Raitt shared, even though her confessionals like “I Can’t Make You Love Me” are still some of her most prized.
As she offers the songs live, another artistic hero of Raitt’s will be part of the celebration, with Chicago’s Mavis Staples guesting at her Ravinia show on Wednesday.
“Mavis has meant so much to me because of her inspirational political stance as well as her spiritual guidance, positivity and unbelievably funky voice,” she explained.
Raitt and Jackson Browne worked with Pops Staples on one of his solo albums, and she and Mavis quickly became “soul sisters.” The relationship was further edified when The Staple Singers received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, an organization Raitt helped co-found in the ’80s to reconcile better royalties and more recognition for early R&B pioneers who were often overshadowed and undercompensated.
“We have to rectify the unfairness and institutionalized racism in the case of rhythm and blues, jazz and soul artists who are still alive and their descendants,” said Raitt. It continues to be an important cause in her career that has let her use her voice in multiple ways, still ever-thankful that 30 years ago she had her own “Just Like That” moment that changed everything.
“It was 1990 when I won three Grammys for ‘Nick Of Time,’ ” said Raitt, remembering the circumstances of her commercial breakthrough album that sold 5 million copies and catapulted her to stardom after being an underground artist for almost 20 years. This year, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.
“I was not expecting the response. It really meant so much to me and lifted up other people too. I got letters from artists in their 40s and older saying, ‘I’m going to give it another shot. If you can break through maybe I can too.’ ”
And with so many of her contemporaries still going strong, Raitt reflected, “There’s tremendous creativity that’s happening in your 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s not your grandparents’ 70s, I can tell you that much.”