At the 2012 Grammys Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt sat on stools and sang “A Sunday Kind of Love,” immortalized by Etta James. Projecting notes from the corner of a tight mouth, Raitt outsang and outemotioned Keys, whose own idea of singing and emotion rests on audiences believing she’s singing and emoting.
This year I tweeted “OK why isn't BONNIE RAITT PLAYING WITH CHRIS STAPLETON” near the beginning of a long-haired tribute to the late B.B. King. And out walked Bonnie again. Ambling onstage like a coach on home field, she strapped on a guitar and coaxed a handful of dusky notes from her slide before ceding ground back to Gary Clark and Stapleton, both of whose subsequent solos aped her minimalist approach.
Because Raitt has never sounded young or shown much interest in courting the youth market, she has stood in place waiting for us to age into the experiences depicted in her best material. In a career that spans almost half a century, Raitt has spent a lot of it singing about women drunk on love, drunk and in love and those who are simply too drunk to love.
She draws no distinctions between what’s good for her and what feels good; no wonder “Love Has No Pride” remains one of her signature tunes. Her voice’s unsullied high end, alive to pleasure, wooed record buyers in the era of Paula Abdul and Nirvana into getting “Something to Talk About” on the chart. To my ears the joy in CeCe Peniston’s contemporaneous pop house classic “Finally” has a Saturday night companion in Raitt’s top-five hit, using the singer-guitarist’s impeccably pitched slide runs instead of keyboards to evoke that sumpin’ sumpin’.
Until 1989’s Nick of Time won a surprising Album of the Year trophy, Raitt operated at a rather humiliating level of public awareness: something less than a critic’s darling, something more than a mere roots rocker. But even beloved ‘70s work like Give It Up and The Glow unfurl in a sepia-tinged torpor if played back to back. Taste was her friend. Taste was a pair of shackles. Blues tropes are no less soporific when done by a woman; to think that Raitt was special for doing so attests to the impermeability of certain assumptions.
Nick of Time restored her confidence; 1991’s Luck of the Draw, another Don Was-produced collection that represented everything benign about studio rock and John Hiatt, cashed in on it: a consolidation disguised as a mercenary move. It’s her best album. But it’s a career that has had plenty of highlight moments – and not just on Grammy telecasts. Here are just five of them.
“Give It Up or Let Me Go” 
Raitt’s second album, often considered the most assured of her ’70s catalog, posits her as a tougher iteration of the singer-songwriters scoring AM hits. Let Carole King bang a keyboard. Applaud Joni Mitchell’s experiments with open tuning. But Raitt can rock, man, and I suspect many of her early notices came from men so astounded that a woman could play slide that they didn’t notice the music’s virtues. (Chrissie Hynde, Liz Phair and Polly Jean Harvey got similar treatment later.) The Raitt-penned “Give It Up or Let Me Go” works as romantic plaint and aesthetic salvo. When Lou Terriciano pounds the boogie into his piano, she unleashes a series of bottleneck runs that in turn him push him into a solo that’s a small masterpiece of controlled ebullience. And I haven’t even mentioned the Dixieland horns.
“Run Like a Thief” 
“We cheated on a friend / Cheaters never win,” she declares over strings that heighten the chasm between pleasure and regret. Had it been recorded in 1984, this J.D. Souther composition from Home Plate would have gotten the power ballad treatment: pillowy synths, programmed drums, a vocal that can’t distinguish pillowy from programmed. Those damn strings come close to cheapening “Run Like a Thief” too. Not Raitt though.
“Nick of Time” 
Weaving a Fender Rhodes around guitar and setting atop a rolling bass, the title track of Raitt’s pop breakthrough limns the onset of middle age. “I see my folks are gettin’ on / And I watch their bodies change” – no wonder Grammy voters approved in the epoch of pop music when Steve Winwood, Don Henley, the Traveling Wilburys and the Stones could go multiplatinum because MTV kids bought their records. What distinguishes “Nick of Time” from the other songs on this list is the relentlessness with which she follows the tread of its hook: she’s landed on a good one, she’s not letting it go. Like her comeback, you might say.
“Luck of the Draw” 
The second of two Paul Brady tunes on Luck of the Draw, the title track generates its air of foreboding from guest Richard Thompson’s blue notes – on guitar, of course, but, surprisingly, his harmonies. Far from Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, from Appalachia and the chicken circuit, Bonnie Raitt’s other roots emerge, audible in the Celtic bent notes that she and Thompson lavish on baaa-beeeee. Without them “Luck of the Draw” would be merely another song with a poker metaphor. Thanks to Thompson, it’s a rueful admission of how Raitt’s own fluke success in middle age could never have happened.
“Spit of Love” 
Looking for change after almost a decade of work with Don Was, Raitt turned to Mitchell Froom, a favorite of conservative ’90s artists who sought novelty in racket and calliopes. With such a formalist, though, small differences are differences. “Roasted on the spit of love again,” she sings on this self-written tune from 1998’s Fundamental over reverbed guitar and organ. At the point where she sounds like Sheryl Crow she shuts listeners up with another terse, well-placed solo. “Call it what you want,” she tells them. No, no – we won’t.