The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Bonnie Raitt in the Nick of Time
Bonnie Raitt's career was dumper-bound until a P45 from her record company inspired her to rediscover her musical roots. Andy Gill interviewed her for Q in September 1991——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
All of a sudden, Bonnie Raitt was Number 1. After a career of close on two decades, it was hardly an overnight success, but so little had been heard of her since the early '80s that when 1989's Nick Of Time album hit, it hit with all the shock of overnight success.
Most people who cared thought she'd given up long ago, retired into that twilit hinterland of rock'n'roll memories. Since 1982's Green Light, there had been a yawning silence from the first lady of the slide guitar, broken only by Nine Lives some four years later. The truth was simple and brutal: in 1983, Bonnie Raitt had been unceremoniously booted off Warner Bros, the first and only label of her career, in some corporate cost-cutting exercise. As it turned out, she was in good company: that Van Morrison was amongst her fellow bootees showed that the action had little regard for artistry or reputation, but was overly concerned with the bottom line. For Bonnie, it was almost a blessed relief, as Warners had long since ceased working effectively with her.
"I was just mad that they weren't promoting my records," she recalls. "I would rather get off the label than keep putting out records they wouldn't promote. It was an unceremonious way they did it, though, because I had just finished another album and scheduled a tour, and the video was ready to be shot that week, and I was opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan the next two months, and they called up and said Van Morrison and myself and T-Bone Burnett and Arlo Guthrie were getting the axe because some corporate upstairs guy decided they had to cut the fat somewhere. After 16 years, that wasn't the way to let someone go. But it was already an insult to not get played."
The finished album was shelved, in an extension of the cost-cutting exercise. Eventually, half of it would appear on Nine Lives, but for the time being, Warners sat on it while she toured, without an album, for three years.
"I tour all the time, and 20 years' following comes to see me whether I sneeze on record or not. But after a few years, my ability to draw without the advertising money from a new album shrunk, so I was down to playing acoustic concerts and just touring with a band in the summer for a few weeks, in the markets where I was big."
Ironically, it was this enforced return to solo work that proved her salvation...
"I fell back in love with what made me different in the first place," she recalls, "which is that I could play guitar and sing, and I didn't need a whole crunching rock band behind me to sell a song. Pat Benatar might need a rock band, but I can iust sit with a blues guitar for an hour and a half and do folk songs and great contemporary ballads, and not many people can pull that off."
She put this knowledge to good use when, after signing with Capitol, she hooked up with Midas-touch producer Don Was to make the album that would prove the most successful of her career. "Don and I decided that if I couldn't make a song work with just myself and one instrument, it wasn't the right song for me. That's why Nick Of Time and some of the songs on Luck Of The Draw (her new album) started out small and grew."