Bonnie Raitt's Amazing, Omnivorous, Adult-Contemporary Career

By Jonathan Bogart

Twelve songs that show the range of the singer—and of the safe-seeming genre she belongs to

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Reuters

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.

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"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.

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"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.

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"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.

"Runaway" (1977)

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.

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"The Glow" (1979)

Even after the range she's already demonstrated—rave-up blues, singer/songwriter, funk, country, hard rock—the jazzy vocal-pop arrangement of "The Glow" can surprise. Backed up only by a fretless bass and a keyboard set to a sound so glassy that it sounds like a vibraphone in spots, Raitt lingers like Billie Holiday over a lyric about bad luck and unquenchable thirst. It's a reminder that adult contemporary—the radio format as well as the set of aesthetic values-- came from somewhere, namely the pre-rock pop of the nightclub era, and has a history as rich as any other music's. Her willingness and, more importantly, ability to move effortlessly between genres predicts the frictionless slippage between categories that will result in her most memorable hits a decade later.

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"Me and the Boys" (1983)

After the near-comatose sophistication of The Glow was poorly received by both critics and audiences, Raitt returned with a record that proved she'd been listening. Stripped down both lyrically and structurally, but revved up in energy and dynamics, the Dave Edmunds cover "Me and the Boys" formed the centerpiece of what would be called her "new wave" album, Green Light. For Raitt this simply meant a license to make rock and roll in the classic style, with perhaps more compressed guitars after the fashion of the Cars, the Clash, or the Blasters. The song is, however, a smart flip on the usual gender dynamics, Raitt placing herself not in the position of a pining lover or wronged woman (the classic limited "girl roles" for rock and roll), but as simply a member of the raucous, fun-seeking crowd. It's also a burnishing of the "new wave" sound for a somewhat older audience as captivated by her slick production as by her guitar stance.

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"True Love Is Hard to Find" (1986)

Bonnie Raitt was far from the only white Baby Boomer who had started out imitating black blues, soul, and funk and then adopted reggae rhythms as the natural next step in the 1980s. "True Love Is Hard to Find" at least has the virtue of being an actual reggae song, originally recorded by Toots & the Maytals in 1976. The '80s production, lightweight and plastic, was once state-of-the-art, then became embarrassing, and now is becoming attractive again thanks to the nostalgia machine that makes everything older than 25 part of a vanished, treasured history. But the more important vanished history in the song is the great blues singer Sippie Wallace, who cut her first records in 1923, making a couple of sly observations towards the end.

"Nick of Time" (1989)

It's hard to say why it's so appropriate that Raitt met Don Was, who produced Nick of Time, while recording for a tribute album to Disney songs. Neither the low-key shuffle beat nor the most adult of adult-contemporary lyrics (written, for once, by Raitt herself) --about fear of childlessness, fear of death, and fear of disappointment—are particularly kid-friendly. Perhaps it's simply the delicate air of comfort in the recording. Every sound is minutely engineered for low impact, with no sharp corners or hard edges that could leave a bruise. It's the very ideal of adult contemporary: pretty, relaxing, with lyrics that you can think about but don't have to, the repeated six-note descent of a refrain just begging to be hummed along with while doing something else. But those round corners and soft edges have become an ideal sound in certain extremely hip circles. Two of the most acclaimed indie-rock records of 2011 were Destroyer's Kaputt and Bon Iver's self-titled album, both of which drew from this exact pillowy sonic palette.

"I Can't Make You Love Me" (1991)

Undoubtedly Raitt's commercial peak and very possibly her artistic peak as well, "I Can't Make You Love Me" has become something of a contemporary standard, with multiple renditions performed every season of singing-competition shows, frequent use as a music cue in television and movies, and dozens of covers by envious professionals, including high-profile takes by Bon Iver (sometimes in a medley with "Nick of Time") while promoting the record that would net him a Grammy. But no matter how often it is covered, Raitt's original performance remains untouchable, even on subsequent attempts by the woman herself. Her usual declarative, unadorned style folds into a haunted, deeply emotional one, even without recourse to the usual tricks of conjuring emotion like melisma, cycling crescendos, or falsetto (ahem, Bon Iver). The ultimate effect is that of a secular hymn to heartbreak, with Adult Contemporary mainstay Bruce Hornsby's flowing piano maintaining a just-healing-enough evenness to allow the desire and pain of the lyrics come through the stronger. Heard at the right moment, it can be devastating; and even at the wrong moment—no, never mind. There is no wrong moment.

"Spit of Love" (1999)

It was axiomatic during the 1990s that after having scaled the pop heights, the next step for thoughtful rockers attempting to remain relevant is to work with producer Mitchell Froom. (Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Indigo Girls, Randy Newman, Sheryl Crow, etc.) The density and slight disorientation of his sonic world can give the illusion of weirdness to even the most middle-of-the-road songs, which "Spit of Love" isn't. Another Raitt original, the lyric manages to find an original image for romantic tribulations, which is no small feat. But it's the satisfying return of her rumbling guitar that makes "Spit of Love" stick in the gut as well as in the mind. As the line between indie and mainstream music has increasingly become about fine distinctions between production techniques, Froom's entirely palatable queasiness sounds better with each passing year.

"Hear Me Lord" (2003)

Reggae is one thing, but Afropop? The guitars here are Zimbabwean jit, the rhythms are pan-African, but the gospel sway of the chorus is pure Graceland. Listeners uncomfortable with the specter of cultural appropriation might cringe, but Bonnie Raitt's entire career has been predicated on the idea that it's not only legitimate but actively respectful for middle-class white people to play music originated by black people, so long as they do it well. (And once more it's a cover, of an original by Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukudzi.) The racial politics of pop music have always been fraught, but there's hardly a stronger argument for the essentially omnivorous nature of adult contemporary than this.

One last tune, for an even baker's dozen. Here's the lead single from Slipstream, a reggae cover of Gerry Rafferty's adult-contemporary classic "Right Down the Line." Classicist in instrumentation and just a little bit airless thanks to the very modern production, it would sound just as home leaking out of the overhead speakers at a grocery store on a quiet Tuesday morning as it would being worked over at a roots-music festival on the weekend. We need music like this, music that can fit so snugly into the fabric of everyday life.

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