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An email conversation with NPR's Ann Powers about Bonnie Raitt's contemporary legacy, in advance of her Ryman show

How To Win Awards and Influence People

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On the heels of her acclaimed latest release, Slipstream, Bonnie Raitt received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance from the Americana Music Association, and a younger generation of acts, Bon Iver and Adele to name two, have begun covering her material. In advance of Raitt's performance Sunday at the Ryman Auditorium, the Scene had an email dialogue with NPR's Ann Powers regarding Raitt's legacy and continued influence.

Hi Ann,

Since you recently did the keynote interview with Bonnie Raitt at the Americana Music Fest, and since she was handed a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance later that night, I'd be really interested in hearing your take on her legacy.

First, let's talk timing. On top of this Americana award, the album Raitt released on her own label back in March — Slipstream — has done as well, in terms of both press coverage and sales, as any album of hers since Longing in Their Hearts did nearly 20 years ago. Slipstream really is a great album, but it's certainly not a given that a veteran performer would see that sort of success in 2012, no matter how good the music is. So why do you think she's getting all this attention now?

Here's something else I've been pondering, and my hunch is that it isn't unrelated. During your interview, Raitt brought up the topic of Adele and Justin Vernon — two acts a couple generations behind her — borrowing from her catalog. Both of them have covered "I Can't Make You Love Me," and Vernon also tacked on a bit of "Nick of Time" for an early-'90s Raitt medley of sorts. The point Raitt made was that she's been seeing younger people at her shows because Adele and Vernon sing her songs.

What I'm wondering is why. "I Can't Make You Love Me" is a ballad to end all ballads. It's emotionally wrenching. It's profoundly expressive. It's the sort of song that amplifies an interior drama; that draws a complex cocktail of adult feelings to the surface and makes you sit with them a while. Emotionally sophisticated as it is, a ballad like that has not been the cool thing to sing for a good long while. What's going on here?

Thanks for wading into these waters with me.

 ­—JH

Hey there Jewly! 

I felt hugely honored to be asked to interview Ms. Raitt for that Americana Fest event, and that feeling intensified after I spent a few days researching her long and admirable career. As I said during our conversation, Raitt's artistry does seem particularly relevant now. What makes it most powerfully so is her eclecticism. From her very first albums, which blended her passion for blues with a singer-songwriter feel influenced by her pals and peers Jackson Browne, John Prine and Lowell George — as well as a bit of the old Broadway panache that she inherited from her father, musical theater star John Raitt — this woman was not going to be confined to a marketable music-biz box. Her ability to mix approaches and historical influences is a big part of Raitt's enduring appeal, though it's also caused her to be a puzzle to radio and the music press.

In 1971, when Raitt released her recording debut, rock 'n' roll was in a particularly fluid state. Coming out of the 1960s moment of countercultural excitement and baby boomer triumphalism, young artists felt free to stretch out on albums that favored long jams and risky experiments. I think we're in a similar moment now, for different reasons. The dissolution of the recording industry has made life hard for musicians, but also made it possible for them to take more chances trying a wide variety of things. That's very much in Raitt's spirit — and it's why, I think, someone like Justin Vernon admires her. Bon Iver is a cult band, but Vernon remains a fairly unassuming character who puts his music first and doesn't play the star game. That's a pretty great description of Raitt too.

Adele was probably attracted to "I Can't Make You Love Me" more for the reasons you mention: The song offers exactly the kind of challenge that a young, ambitious vocalist relishes. As do many hopefuls on singing competitions like American Idol, unfortunately. Few to none can do what Raitt does with those heart-wrenching lyrics, however. She makes them sound like an actual conversation, one that's so intimate that you'd be unlikely to overhear it, yet so easy to relate to that it instantly evokes the most personal memories.

I do think a space is opening up for artists like Raitt again, even on the pop charts. Top-charting indie bands like Grizzly Bear are remaking roots music in similarly unexpected ways. They sound nothing like Raitt, but young British songbirds beyond the Adele juggernaut — Ellie Goulding, Florence Welch, Laura Marling — are presenting themselves as serious musicians and whole women, not just pop tarts. There's that whole folksy thing breaking out of Americana with The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers: A new generation has discovered the blues/folk/country songbook and is having its way with it. Raitt is a fantastic role model for these upstarts. I'm glad some are interested in connecting with her.

And then of course, there's her guitar playing. Don't you think that Bonnie's return to the spotlight might have something to do with the emergence of hotshot women guitarists like Annie Clark of St. Vincent? We still don't see as many female soloists as I'd like, but it's become more common, and the ones out there aren't just thrashing around punk style. They're taking solos and unfurling wicked riffs. Bonnie has to be inspiring them, right?

I also wonder if  Raitt's midlife rise to superstardom might be part of what keeps her relevant. The mature female powerhouse plays a major role in many arenas now, from prime-time television — think of all those lady detectives on crime procedurals — to politics. Bonnie owns that territory. What are your thoughts on the grown-woman model Raitt presents — has it changed over the years? 

Hit me back with some more thoughts,

­—AKP

Hi Ann,

 I'm glad you brought up Raitt's embodiment of mature, multifaceted womanhood. I was hoping we'd get there.

When I interviewed her earlier this year, I asked how she was affected by the much older blueswomen and bluesmen with whom she got to spend time in her early 20s. She told me she so admired the lived-in textures of their voices that she tried to drink and smoke her voice into a similar state. Raitt also recorded knowing covers of Sippie Wallace's "Woman Be Wise" and "Mighty Tight Woman" for her first album. From the very beginning of her recording career, she was celebrating the voice of experience — not, to my ears, as a desexualized artifact so much as a living, breathing thing that could possess its own sexual power. 

To me, one of the most significant aspects of Raitt's legacy is how completely she integrates varied stylistic elements and points of view: how comfortable she is in her skin; how explicitly she's embraced aging and maturity, really owning those qualities at the time of her midlife rise and since; how she both names her desires and sings about seeking mutual pleasure in profoundly egalitarian fashion; how she makes all of that feel so accessible in her music.

Do you think these facets of Raitt's music-making are as important or distinctive as I'm making them out to be? And what difference do you think context makes to the way they're heard and the way their influence manifests itself? Especially since, as you recently pointed out in your analysis of that Max Martin-produced Taylor Swift single, vestiges of punk and riot grrrl anger have seeped into mainstream expression of feminine power. I also hear Raitt's influence in the ways that Brandi Carlile and Kelly Clarkson strive for self-presentations that aren't one-dimensional and that draw authority from an emphasis on self-knowledge. On the other hand, I wouldn't say that either of them has yet approached the conversational intimacy that Raitt achieves in her songs, singing and playing.

Thanks again for joining me in pondering all this.

 —JH

Great points, Jewly. You mention Kelly Clarkson and Brandi Carlile; I'd throw some others into that pot of Raitt proteges, including Grace Potter and Sani Thom (who has an excellent, bluesy new album produced by Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes next spring). Post-Adele, whose style stepped delicately away from the high stylization of Amy Winehouse, I'm sensing a revival of the "rock chick" — the tough, self-sustaining, emotionally expressive female artist who's not as openly rebellious as women of the punk era, but who easily matches up to her male peers. It's a role that has its problems; Raitt's life and work, the way she's evolved, presents plenty of ways to work through its limitations. 

As much as we love her recordings, though, there's nothing better than seeing Raitt live. She's a devotee of the road — of the spontaneous mastery she can exercise playing with her top-notch band, and the lifelong love affair she shares with her fans. You'll get to enjoy being part of that soon. Lucky! Bonnie herself has said she plans to stay on the road 'til she can't move another step. And since she's still at the top of her game, I bet we'll be able to enjoy her pleasures together not too long from now.

Best,

—AKP

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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