BONNIE RAITT WAS ALMOST A FOLKSINGER, part of the plethora of guitar-playing protesters of the ’60s, led by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Sitting in her girlhood bedroom in a house atop Coldwater Canyon’s peacefully affluent Mulholland Drive, Bonnie, born in Burbank, California, in 1949, was inspired by loneliness to teach herself guitar.
“If I’d been able to hang out with other kids, I’d never have gotten into it,” says the daughter of successful Broadway actor John Raitt, best known for his leading roles in musical comedies like Pajama Game, Oklahoma, and Carousel.
The Raitt house hardly seemed located within earshot of the mournful tones of a generation of blues guitarists whose techniques and repertoire Bonnie came to adopt. But when Raitt was 14, an album— Blues At Newport ’63—containing tracks by John Lee Hooker, John Hammond, Mississippi John Hurt, and other blues and folk artists fell on her ears with enough impact to permanently change the direction of her music.
“From that point on,” she remembers, “I was split into two parts. One side of me was all Joan Baez, my early idol, while the other suddenly had to learn whatever the hell it was Mississippi John Hurt was doing on ‘Candy Man.’”
How did you develop your own style out of the traditional blues?
My style is probably the result of a problem. My voice, actually soprano, is around five keys up from where Robert Johnson or Son House would do a song— say in Spanish open-G tuning. I can’t tune the strings up or down to get that open octave. I have to capo up three or five frets to get the same tuning—which is the only way to make the guitar part sound good. You lose the octaves—with no cutaway you can’t get your hand up there—and you’ve got only around three frets left to play slide. That’s one of the reasons I went to electric—for the longer neck. Just adding my voice to a Fred McDowell guitar part would bring about a unique style, though.
How did you first learn to play slide?
I flipped the bird a lot when I was a kid in California, so I knew how to isolate my middle finger! For a slide, I just broke off a wine bottle. The style was called “bottleneck,” so I figured that’s what it was. The only problem was you couldn’t get wine bottles too easily if you didn’t drink.
Many female musicians express so much frustration regarding their difficulties in breaking into the music business.
It’s a terrible problem. You know it’s hard for guys to break in, too. There are just too many musicians around—especially guitarists. It could get easier if there were more women instrumentalists just sort of sprinkled around in more bands— and I don’t mean the all-girl band situation, which is often exploited for its own sake. I was lucky. I played the guitar, which seemed like a gimmick, and one of the reasons I got to where I am is because I was cheap. When you hired me as an opening act, you didn’t have to hire a whole band, you just hired me. I carried my own guitar, I did a little blues and some ballads, and I didn’t threaten the male act on the bill. —Excerpted from Patricia Brody’s piece in the May 1977 Guitar Player