Bonnie Raitt is the Fairy Godmother of songwriters, turning dreams into reality one song at a time. And last Saturday night at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium—where a city of hopeful and accomplished tunesmiths filled the pews of the Mother Church—her magical powers were on full display.
A week into the tour for her flawless new release, Slipstream, Bonnie brought it home to the people she has championed for over 40 years and 19 albums—all the songwriters she claims changed her life. But any writer will tell you the other side of that equation: When Bonnie chooses one of their songs it’s an unequaled validation of their work, and the trajectory of their life is forever changed.
After strolling onto the stage with her Fender strat slung across her chest, Bonnie sprinkled her funky, bluesy, soulful fairy dust all over the new batch of songs, never failing to give a shout-out to the writer before the first note was played. She tore into Randall Bramblett’s “Used to Rule the World,” then sent the album’s single, “Right Down the Line” up to the late, great Gerry Rafferty. Hit songwriter “Big Al” Anderson, a cult icon from his NRBQ days, weaves in and out of Slipstream with his guitar-playing and songs co-written with Gary Nicholson (“Split Decision”), Bonnie Bramlett (“Ain’t Gonna Let You Go”) and newcomer Bonnie Bishop, to whom Raitt gave a shout-out before delivering the gorgeous “Not ‘Cause I Wanted To.”
Bob Dylan got a nod with “Million Miles” and “Standing in the Doorway” (“…That Bobby Dylan. Yeah, I think he’s gonna make somethin’ of himself.”), as did her ex-husband, Michael O’Keefe, who co-wrote “Marriage Made in Hollywood” with the great Paul Brady. The album’s co-producer, Joe Henry, contributed the bluesy ballad “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” written with Loudon Wainwright III, as well as the breathtaking closing track “God Only Knows.” Nashville’s Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick (of “Change the World” fame) along with Kelly Price contributed another album highlight, “Take My Love With You.”
Sharing the stage with her family of band mates (guitarist George Marinelli, bassist Hutch Hutchinson, drummer Ricky Fataar and keyboardist Mike Finnegan), Raitt kept it loose, huddling with the guys on several occasions to mess with the set list (“Just talk amongst yourselves” she laughed.) She congratulated Marinelli’s son, Sam, who graduated from Vanderbilt the previous night and then launched into “Down to You,” a song she co-wrote with Marinelli and Bramblett. Afterward she passed the spotlight to Mike Finnegan and his B3 for a lesson in how to serve up R&B with a side of holy hot sauce on his rousing version of Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got News for You.”
In addition to the new tunes, Bonnie delivered favorites like Bonnie Hayes’ “Have a Heart,” “Something to Talk About” (“I had a cassette of Shirley Eikhard’s in a box for a long time waiting to record this song.”), and “Angel From Montgomery” which she dedicated to John Prine and his long-time manager Al Bunetta, as well as to her late mother and grandmother in honor of Mother’s Day (“I can’t talk too much about them because I’ll get choked up”). Her delivery on that classic was absolutely stunning and earned her first of several standing ovations of the night.
The evening’s highlight came with her first encore: the Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin-penned “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Citing it as—along with “Angel From Montgomery”—the biggest gift of her career, she dedicated it to Reid who was in the audience with his son. It was a perfect few minutes, with Bonnie sitting on a stool bathed in lavender light, pitch perfect and hitting all the right notes. The audience was rapt and silent until she drew out the high notes on “and I will give up this fight,” making it all but impossible not to cheer her and this timeless song across the finish line.
The night ended with a couple of blazing 12-bar blues shuffles after she called on old friend Rick Vito who hoisted himself onstage to grab a guitar and join her, followed by an impromptu Steve Winwood-penned “Can’t Find My Way Home” —the perfect choice for someone who had so clearly found her way home to the Nashville songwriting community and given it the gift of an unforgettable evening.
After the show Bonnie’s friends gathered upstairs for a quick visit and a few hugs. She happily greeted Songwriting Hall of Fame member Matraca Berg and her husband Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Irish vocalist Maura O’Connell, Pat McLaughlin, Gary Nicholson and Al Bunetta. Mike Reid, after talking about what a moment it was when Bonnie sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” stood with his arm around her and told her it was something he would never, ever get tired of.
Then Raitt saw newcomer Bonnie Bishop hanging back behind everyone else. With a big smile she walked over and hugged her as Bishop told her how much the evening meant, and that she cried throughout the performance of her song. The look on her face was the same one seen on every songwriter’s whose work has been validated by Raitt. Then she introduced Bishop to everyone around, making sure we knew her name—just as she had made sure we knew the names of Maia Sharpe, Liz Rose, Chris Smither, Stephen Bruton, Larry Jon McNally, Paul Brady, Richard Thompson and scores of other songwriters whose songs Raitt has given voice to over the years.
And just like that, Bonnie Raitt sprinkled a little more of her magic onto the life of another songwriter.
—By Lydia Hutchinson