In an interview a few years ago, B.B. King was asked about guitarists he admires.
"Bonnie Raitt is my favorite slide guitarist," the blues legend revealed.
"That's the greatest compliment I could ever get in this life," says Raitt. "That was beyond winning Grammys. I don't necessarily agree or think the arts are a contest, but if I happen to be his favorite, I'm so proud to know how happy I make him. I know he's sincere because he's told me in person for years and then he said it in public."
Photo courtesy Maui Arts & Cultural Center
Unlike some leading artists who time has not treated well, Raitt, now in her early 60s, is still sounding so hot and vital, and is still such an emotive, soulful vocalist and stellar guitarist.
"There's no reason why I wouldn't get better with time and experience," she says. "The people that I admire have all got wiser and seem to get deeper as artists with age - Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra and all the blues and jazz people I love. I'm hoping my life experience is reflected in my music and I would hope I would be a better artist than when I was in my 20s."
Raitt's superb latest recording, "Slipstream," which just won a Grammy as the Best Americana Album, could have easily been nominated for Album of the Year. Every track is a gem, from the exuberant funky rockers to the gorgeous ballads. It's undoubtedly one of the finest of her 42-year-career.
"We got such critical acclaim and it sold very well and it's still selling, so if I hadn't got any nominations I would have been really proud," she notes.
Taking a seven-year break between "Slipstream" and her previous album, "Soul's Alike," the multi Grammy Award-winning musician explains how she can sometimes take years to locate the right songs.
"I never really know where my muse is going to take me. Most of the record is hard fought, with a lot of research and a lot of calls and searching and listening and auditioning whose under the radar, which singer songwriter people I have been impressed with. When you find one you love, it's worth it. I do kind of the same mix of songs, pop songs and blues and R&B and rock 'n roll and a little bit of heartbreak ballads and stripped-down stuff. That's why I called it 'Slipstream,' because I'm in the slipstream of those styles I love. I'm not creating anything brand new; I'm just doing 12 new songs."
So what makes a song special for her?
"Every song that I've ever sung has to speak to me lyrically," she says. "It's got to have a great set of lyrics that are saying something that I personally want to say. It has to come from the deepest part of me, otherwise it's not going to ring true."
Right from the get go, with the intoxicating, swampy groove of "Used to Rule the World," Raitt let's us know that she's back and she's righteously rocking.
"It comes out of the box, it's slamming," she agrees. "And its got a really sly message about this time of life, and it's political too, with a little nod to the first world."
Next up she slips into a delicious reggae reworking of Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line," where our resident Raitt band member James "Hutch" Hutchinson gets to shine on bass, and B.B. King's favorite unleashes some perfect, stinging slide.
Good-time rockers on the album include "Down on You," which kicks with a saucy Stones' vibe. "I've cut a bunch of songs in that kind of Stones' style even early in the '70s," she says. "That two guitar thing that the Stones do is such an inspiration. George (Marinelli, her guitarist) came up with the track and I put on new words that were relevant to me. I'm very proud of that one."
Raitt divided backing duties on "Slipstream" between her own terrific, longtime touring band and an ensemble assembled by producer Joe Henry.
With Henry's group she delivers one of the album's many highlights: a transcendent, slinky-bluesy reading of Bob Dylan's "Million Miles," crowned by her scalding slide work.
"Because I'm improvisational with my melodies, it's really fun to take on the bones of something that is so great that the melodies are so flexible," she says about interpreting Dylan. "The thing that is challenging about Bob's music is how many verses he writes. We didn't rehearse at all. None of us knew what we were going to play. It was all intuitive in the moment, so it was exciting."
It's tough to find any female singer today who can equal Raitt's ability to plumb the emotional depths of heart-wrenching ballads. Over the years she's graced us with jewels like "I Can't Make You Love Me," and on "Slipstream" she includes the ravishing, instant classics, "You Can't Fail Me Now" and "Not Cause I Wanted To."
And Raitt closes with a sublime piano/vocal duet on a Joe Henry composition, "God Only Knows."
"I think he's right up there with Randy Newman and Paul Simon," she enthuses. "I often end my records with a song that's really hard to put anywhere else. The last two albums there are beautiful ballads based around the piano. They're kind of elegiac."
With the radical shifts in the music business, many artists are reassessing how to market their music, and Raitt has joined the ranks of musicians creating their own record labels, launching Redwing.
"It's been in the works for several years," she explains. "I've been culling opinions, and Jackson Browne and Beth Nielson Chapman were my two tutors. And I have an incredible management team of four women (who help) with everything from new media to the nonprofit benefits, vetting groups. The fifth member of my band is my causes. We were able to raise over $300,000 on tour last year to go to causes like safe energy and music education and human rights and social justice."
When Raitt began making records in 1971, female blues singers were common, but female blues guitarists were a rare breed. And her specialty, soulful slide guitar, was practiced by only a few guitar greats.
What was it about slide that sparked her passion for playing?
"It's hard to explain; it's like why do you like chocolate so much. It immediately spoke to me; it was so much like the human voice. My grandfather played the Hawaiian lap steel, and when I was little, my first experience with a guitar was a Hawaiian lap steel. I understood how cool it was to just move the bar and you could go from one chord to the other. Years later, I'm hearing John Hammond and Robert Johnson playing slide guitar. It's quite simple to play, but it has such a range of emotion and there's the ferociousness of it on that Elmore James' kind of stuff and the slinkiness on a ballad. I've played it over African music in Mali and I've played it over Cuban music in Cuba. It's one of those instruments that can bring so much emotion out, and it adds something so special to whatever music you're laying it on. It's like an extension of my voice."
Releasing her debut album in 1971, Raitt consistently produced great music that earned her adoration, but limited commercial success. Then came the Grammy-sweeping 1989 release "Nick of Time." Grammy success continued with further multi-platinum selling albums, and by 2000, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For this immensely popular musician who has thrilled audiences for four decades, stepping on stage has not lost its luster.
"It's the most fun of anything in my life," she reports. "All of the travel and jetlag and talking about yourself incessantly is made golden by what goes on between us and the audience every night. Those songs are as if we just found them every night. It's just a thrill, it never gets old."
* Bonnie Raitt performs on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's A&B Amphitheater. John Cruz will open. Tickets are $125, $85, $55 and $45. For ticket information, call 242-7469.