Twelve songs that show the range of the singer—and of the safe-seeming genre she belongs to
With the release today of Slipstream, her 16th studio album in 41 years and the first on her own label, it's worth taking a moment to acknowledge Bonnie Raitt as the greatest adult-contemporary performer of her generation.
This might be taken as counterintuitive, or even a kind of insult, to some listeners. After all, Bonnie Raitt is a rocker, a blueswoman, a maker of soulful, rootsy music—and adult contemporary is surely the opposite of all that: soporific, comfortable, passionless, generic. How could calling her adult-contemporary be anything like a compliment?
Well, for one thing, that list of adjectives is pretty close to what you'd get if you asked any unsympathetic person about a genre they haven't listened very closely to. It always all sounds the same from the outside, whether it's punk, hip-hop, classical, country, jazz, the blues, or dance music. But adult contemporary, both in its origins as a radio format and in its current understanding as a coherent aesthetic, is in fact the most omnivorous of modern pop musics, folding every sound under the sun—as long as it's not too loud, too atonal, or too fast—into its all-enveloping, slightly doughy embrace.
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The singles from Slipstream, if they chart, will be logged on the Adult Contemporary chart, the last refuge of musicians who have aged out of the Top 40's narrowcasted demographic. But despite the name, Adult Contemporary is hardly the exclusive province of the graying: The most successful AC performer of the past two years was famously only 21 when she released her latest album. By comparison, Bonnie Raitt was never particularly dominant in the field. She never placed higher than No. 2 on the AC chart even in her early-'90s heyday, and her most famous song never rose above No. 6.
Rather, she's the greatest because she embodies the spirit of adult contemporary at its best: versatile, restless, grown-up, and, yes, tasteful, more interested in drawing out fine shades of emotion than bludgeoning the listener with Feelings. Like most adult-contemporary performers, Raitt works mostly in a particular idiom—hers is blues-rock—that has become associated primarily with grown-up listeners rather than with youth audiences over the last several decades. And although she excels in her idiom, she's not limited to it. Long acknowledged as one of the greatest slide guitarists of her generation by such dad-rock institutions as Rolling Stone, she's modest enough to leave the guitar heroics off of songs that don't call for it.
Slipstream is entirely in keeping with her previous track record. It's yet another accumulation of tasty blues licks, surging gospel choruses, lyrics addressed unironically to "Baby," and the occasional piano-led ballad—all with a polished, grown-up pop production. The album breaks no new ground but instead celebrates the long-settled territory, making its title especially appropriate. Raitt's following closely in her own footsteps, carried along in the accumulated wake of her own history.
It's that history that makes her such compelling a performer. Here are 12 Bonnie Raitt songs that make an argument for her place at the apex of a genre that can be proud to claim her as its own—a genre that has no quarrel with glossy production, instrumental heroics, or domesticity.
"Give It Up Or Let Me Go" (1972)
Bonnie Raitt begins with the blues. The boho daughter of musical-theater mainstays, she started playing and singing in blues and folk festivals and nightclubs as a teenager alongside legends and lifers like Howlin' Wolf and Misssissippi Fred McDowell. On her first few records she recorded several direct tributes to the classic female blues singers of the '20s and '30s, and she performed live with survivors like Sippie Wallace and Alberta Hunter, but her sharp slide guitar isn't limited to the female line: She absorbed as much from Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and Freddy King as from Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or Barbara Lynn. "Give It Up or Let Me Go" backs up her bottleneck wizardry with classic New Orleans jazz, a pairing that was common in the days of Mamie Smith but has become so unusual that some people (who have never heard Sidney Bechet) mistake it for an attempt at klezmer. But in her refusal to take the blues with the po'-faced seriousness the genre has accumulated over the years, the 23-year-old Raitt embraces another, raucous side to the history of women's music.
"Too Long at the Fair" (1972)
From the beginning, she never limited herself to the blues—no hardcore purist, Bonnie Raitt—and interspersed her rave-ups with soulful, unshowy interpretations of the work of professional songwriters. "Too Long at the Fair," by folkie Joel Zoss, owes something to Joni Mitchell and more to Bernie Taupin/Elton John. But Raitt's plaintive reading of the song makes it her own, with hovering slide-guitar noise keeping it from being purely hippie-chick pop and suggesting instead the electronically ambient productions of adult contemporary to come.
"You've Been In Love Too Long" (1973)
Although Raitt wouldn't make for a wholly effective soul singer until the 1990s—her younger voice may have had the texture of sandpaper, but it also had its thinness—this update of Martha & the Vandellas' 1965 feminist hit works. That's largely because of the arrangement, with the bass doing its best to emulate James Jamerson's on the original and Raitt's slide guitar dueling with Lowell George's while the drums keep the whole thing in the pocket. The combination of funk rhythms and sensuous guitar lines would find fuller expression in the lavishness of disco at the end of the decade, another piece in the adult-contemporary puzzle still being put together in the 1970s.
"Angel from Montgomery" (1974)
Raitt's plain, declarative style of singing has never been a greater asset than on this country-rock John Prine cover that sounds, at first listen, as if her near-contemporary Emmylou Harris should be singing it. But the silvery beauty of Emmylou's voice would turn the song into a sob story. Raitt plays it closer to the vest, and by limiting her vocal technique to one or two catches, she captures Prine's portrait of a strong-willed, unhappy but incurably hopeful woman. Modern adult-contemporary musicians like Faith Hill or Neko Case could learn from it.
Raitt's first actual hit—not just a critically adored song with some AOR play, but a genuine chart hit—was this hard-rock cover of Del Shannon's wonderfully weird 1961 sci-fi pop opera. If today it's a letdown next to the original—she doesn't even try to mimic the "wah-wah-wah-wah" cry, choosing to make it just an ordinary descent—it's worth remembering that the 16-year gap that separates the two versions was a chasm of taste, and that pre-Beatles pop had not yet been reassessed by Baby Boomers (like Raitt) for whom history began with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." There's no adult-contemporary tradition more pervasive or longer-lived than the tempo-shifting cover with a "modern" production. Here, by smoothing out Shannon's weirdness, Raitt foreshadows to the unutterable smoothness in her future.
"The Glow" (1979)