Bonnie Raitt understands that she has been running herself pretty thin these days. In the time since releasing her last album, “Dig in Deep,” in 2016, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, legendary songwriter and singular guitarist has been out on the road with her band for a nearly four-year tour with only a few breaks in between. This busy schedule will culminate with a huge show this Wednesday, Sept. 25, at Madison Square Garden opening for Mark Knopfler. A perfect way to go out with a bang before a much-needed break. I recently spoke with Raitt to discuss her balance of life on and off the road, her hopes for the next generation of young musicians, and her dedication to fighting for environmental justice.
I can’t wait to see the next crop blow me out of the water. I make it sound like I’m being competitive. But occasionally, I’ll see a young woman who will come up to me and say, ‘You better watch your back,’ — Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt. Photo: Marina Chavez
You have been on the road for the better part of the past four years. How has touring been?
Bonnie Raitt: Luckily, if I didn’t really love this lifestyle I would have had to give it up a long time ago. So you not only adjust, but I really look forward to getting out on the road. Some balance it better than others. Being a woman and being a daughter of someone who was on the road as well for many years, I try to pay attention to letting people have time at home with their families and keeping the home fires burning. Because when there’s too many broken house repairs, broken relationships, missed holidays with your family and all that — it takes its toll. It’s been really fun. We did two years for my last album, which, we usually do a three-month theater tour followed by two or three months outdoors, double billing with somebody. Then follow into the fall and go into the next year and hit the cities we didn’t do. Then Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. Somewhere in there, we usually do a couple of trips to Europe and maybe even do another summer outside [tour]. The two-year [tour] is pretty normal. Again, it’s got breaks in the middle. Otherwise, we’d drive each other crazy. And you have to stay out of the market, to make the fans really want to see you again. The fun part about having new songs to play is that it freshens it up for us, too. But I added two more years to this [stretch] with James Taylor offering us to come and tour with him. So we basically stretched out 2018 and 2019 with the James Taylor stuff. Then, the Willie Outlaw Festival was tagged on to the front of me wanting to do Farm Aid again. Then Mark [Knopfler] I think heard our band was still out on the road. So we’re wrapping up a four-year tour at Madison Square Garden opening for one of my favorite people.
There is a new crop of young roots and Americana musicians who owe a great deal to the genre-bending and elastic work you have done for years. Does the current musical landscape give you hope for the future of roots and blues music?
Bonnie Raitt: Well, I never really lost that hope because every decade there have been incredible new musicians. The internet has been a blessing and a curse in terms of digital delivery and people wanting music for free, which isn’t really so great for the artists. Or at least at rates that don’t really compensate the extent of the amount of creativity and work that was put in. We don’t have a seat at the table to decide the rates for a lot of streaming and YouTube and stuff like that. I am really thrilled that the internet allows people to check out who their influences were. They might hear an artist that they love and then they’ll immediately get to read on their website… It used to be more limited access to how we could talk about who influenced us and who we’re enjoying now. It’s instantaneous now. You can tweet about a band that you saw last night or someone will let you know that they just listened to one of your records for the first time. It’s instantaneous and the access to this great historical footage as well as global music and studying to roots of blues. You can get Malyan guitar players from the 1930s and suddenly you can see them on video. So it’s been really exciting for me to see this new crop of, as you say, elastic and eclectic musicians that really understand how to keep these roots traditions going. Then cross-pollinating in the way that Little Feat, Ry Cooder and Paul Simon were for me pioneers in mixing genres. Little Feat and myself, there was never really a home for us on the charts until FM radio, AAA and college stations, you know. When the Americana format started, it really gave an umbrella to multi-generations and multi-genres of music in a way that was never really as legitimized as it is now.
You mentioned the shift in the music industry toward more instantaneous platforms with less of a guarantee of fair compensation. How has that been running your own record label, Red Wing Records?
Bonnie Raitt: It’s better because we get to negotiate a little bit more. But the overall fight for artists’ rights and participation and royalties, that has not been figured out. There have been a lot of strong activists positioned in Washington and there has been some legislation that has come around. But we really have a long way to go in terms of copyrights and ownership. You have to hand it to Taylor Swift in doing what she did, asking for the other artists on Universal to get an improved rate as well as her. We just have to bond together and try to get fair compensation. Otherwise, there’s a lot of people who work on records and promotion who are suffering as well. Thank God I got my foot in the door where I can play live and make a living and support a pretty big-sized band and crew. There are other people starting up for whom clubs are closing or just turning to electronic music. It’s cheaper to just play a CD over the sound system and have a dance night with a DJ than it is to have live music. Having said that, if you open any alternative paper or website for most cities that we tour, there are 20 to 30 bands playing all the time in and out of the week. Whether they’re getting paid or people are buying their CDs, I don’t know. At least there are people able to make a living.
There was a recent study, conducted by Fender, that found 50 percent of people buying their guitars are younger girls. As the first female to ever receive a signature guitar from Fender, that must be amazing to see.
Bonnie Raitt: That’s the best news I’ve heard in weeks! I didn’t even see that poll. That’s fantastic. It’s really an exciting time for women who play instruments. Between Beyonce and Prince having all-women bands, Jack White … Every time I turn around, somebody went out of their way on late-night TV to hire a woman guitar player in the house band. Felicia [Collins] was with Paul Shaffer for years. It’s really exciting to see the explosion and appetite for young women. … Being a guitarist, I was thrilled to be able to open 40 new clubs for the Boys and Girls Guitar Club I started in ’95. We are up and running in over 200 cities. The Dixie Chicks cut one of my songs and I donated the profits from that as well as a guitar to opening programs for kids after school. I was really happy that Fender partnered with me on that. The appetite for country music and Americana and just being a badass on the guitar is really encouraging [laughs]. I can’t wait to see the next crop blow me out of the water. I make it sound like I’m being competitive. But occasionally, I’ll see a young woman who will come up to me and say, “You better watch your back.”
You have been such a champion for environmental justice and social change for years. With the horrific burning of the rainforest, you will be playing REVEL in the Rainforest, a benefit event for Rainforest Action Network in early October. How should artists and public figures such as yourself be leading by example, given this current crisis?
Bonnie Raitt: I come from a tradition, being a Quaker and growing up with the civil rights movement and the “Ban the Bomb” movements all coming throughout my teenage years. The music of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, the forming of the anti-war movement of the ’60s and the feminist movement. It wasn’t even a question of whether or not the music was going to be relevant to the social movements of the day. So, all through the ’70s, even though I don’t do overtly political songs, war songs or environmental songs, I thought it was my obligation to try to be the town crier and raise funds and attention for all kinds of causes. That has stayed with me since I started playing and was lucky enough to have people want to come and see me. So I feel obliged to share my good fortune as well as use my microphone responsibly. … There are tremendous opportunities to use the connection provided by the internet, and live possibilities for raising money and education. Like what we did with “No Nukes” [benefit from 1979]. We used a rally and five nights of concerts and put in speeches and little films about nuclear power within the performances. I’m hoping there will be more and more organized musical performances, combined with the internet and live broadcasts in theaters, as a way of fundraising and educating. I hope that will be more of what’s going on. With the explosion of disaster relief, like the Bahamas with devastating flooding and fire impact, we’re just going to have to do more fundraising all the time. For any anybody that’s not actively involved in promoting climate solutions, they said years ago, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. It’s time to wake up. At the very least, educate yourself and vote. I think artists, and our citizens as well, just have to bond together. I salute any movements for people to do concerts to bring more attention.
Make sure to get your tickets to see Bonnie Raitt this Wednesday, September 25 at Madison Square Garden with Mark Knopfler.