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music friday: bonnie raitt

Among the many things the new Sleater-Kinney album brings to mind is the 20-year distance between their first album and the latest. It’s amazing, almost unheard of, for an artist to make an album twenty years on that fits well into the overall catalog, but then, Sleater-Kinney are not an ordinary band.

Think about the Beatles. Their first album was released in 1963. Twenty years later, John was dead, George had recently released Gone Troppo, Ringo offered up Old Wave, and Paul had Pipes of Peace.

The Rolling Stones’ first album came out in 1964. Twenty years later, Brian was dead, and the Stones released a compilation album, Rewind (1971-1984), that has since gone out of print.

Chuck Berry goes back to 1955. Twenty years later, he hadn’t had a hit since “My Ding-a-Ling”, and he had only one more studio album in him.

Joni Mitchell? First album 1968, twenty years later, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm.

There are a few artists that have defied my Theory of the Trajectory of Rock Star Careers. Lucinda Williams always comes to mind. Bonnie Raitt is another.

Raitt grew up in a musical family. She released her self-titled first album in 1971 … it didn’t sell, but critics liked it. It was almost pure blues. Her second album mixed in some folk and rock, and made the lower end of the charts. She moved closer to the mainstream, leaving some critics behind, and while sales were better, she was far from a star. In 1975, she released Home Plate, my personal favorite of her albums, which included “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes”, my personal favorite of her songs. (I remember one of the times we saw her, after she’d finally gotten famous, she sang “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes” for all of us old fans who still remembered.) In 1977, she had her first hit single, “Runaway”, but critics increasingly dismissed her. By the early-80s, she had been dropped by her record company, and was fighting substance abuse problems.

But then, cleaned up and with a new label, Raitt came out with Nick of Time in 1989. It hit #1, sold millions, and won three Grammys including Best Album. Raitt turned 40 that year.

Nick of Time was a good album. It included two songs by Bonnie Hayes and one by John Hiatt that were a lot better than good. It all made a nice story about someone that was very much loved by her fellow musicians.

Which brings us to her “20-year” album. In 1991, twenty years after her debut, Raitt released the Nick of Time follow-up, Luck of the Draw. This was the album that was as good as people thought Nick of Time was. It sold even more copies and won three more Grammys. It opened with “Something to Talk About”, one of her biggest hits. It included a catchy number, “Papa Come Quick (Jody and Chico)”, which is a favorite of mine. And it included what has become her signature song, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. It is a true classic. It’s also hard for Raitt to sing … it taxes her vocal range, and it’s a very emotional song. But, as she said, “'I Can't Make You Love Me' is no picnic. I love that song, so does the audience. So it's almost a sacred moment when you share that, that depth of pain with your audience. Because they get really quiet, and I have to summon ... some other place in order to honor that space.”

Since then, Raitt has put out five studio albums, and a solid live album, Road Tested, also available on video, with some good guest cameos. She hasn’t had the consistency that Sleater-Kinney has managed, but not many artists have. She has given us a strong career, and her “20-year” album is arguably her best.

Here is “Papa Come Quick”, performed with another of my favorites, Alison Krauss:

“I Can’t Make You Love Me”:

And “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes”:

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