Veteran Rocker Bonnie Raitt Gets Back on Track in the Nick of Time

updated 04/24/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/24/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

She has been promoting her new album, Nick of Time, for days now. Yet Bonnie Raitt is still good-natured, and her words flow quickly and effortlessly. So it's surprising when, at the end of an interview, she makes a request. "If anything I've said sounds funny, can you fix it?" she asks. "Sometimes I read the way I've phrased things, and they sound so ridiculous. I guess when you talk as much as I do, you're bound to put your foot in your mouth eventually."

Expressing yourself often, of course, also gives you a shot at achieving eloquence now and then. And that, musically speaking, is what Raitt seems to have done on Nick of Time. The last six of her nine earlier albums, though hardly foot-in-mouth blunders, left critics lukewarm. Warner Brothers, the label on which she began recording in 1971, dropped her in 1983. But Raitt, now 39, never stopped singing the distinctive blend of folk, soul and rhythm and blues that first landed her in the '70s pop mainstream alongside Linda Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur. And a cadre of loyal fans has never stopped turning out to hear her tough-tender vocals and flawless slide guitar. With Nick of Time, which is moving up the charts and being hailed as her best album ever, Raitt is confirming their faith.

Partly she credits changing times for her renewed success. "People like Tracy Chapman and Robert Cray have opened up the climate for R&B and folk music," she says. "If I had put this record out a few years ago, no one would have played it." But Raitt, once a hard partier, has done her share of changing as well. "For a longtime I had this rock-and-roll-mama persona," she says. "But as I got older, drugs and alcohol weren't working—they beat you up too much." Three years ago, she began psychotherapy; a year later she joined AA. She signed on with Capitol Records in 1988 and decided, with the clearheadedness of new sobriety, that it was time to make an album from the heart. Nick of Time, the Raitt composition that became the record's centerpiece, is an unsentimental look at aging and its attendant fears. The album as a whole bespeaks maturity as well. "There's less production, less slickness," Raitt says. "Basically it's a return to my roots."

Raitt's geographical roots are in Burbank, Calif., but her musical roots spread further east—to the folk scene, the Mississippi Delta blues and Motown. The daughter of Broadway musical star John {Carousel) Raitt and his wife and piano accompanist, Marjorie Haydock, Bonnie taught herself guitar at age 9, after deciding that "I'd never be as good on piano as my mother." Her parents were Quakers of "the Pete Seeger, civil-rights kind," and from the start, she associated playing with political activism. "I used to sing protest music in parks, and I thought Joan Baez was just about God," she says.

At Radcliffe in the '60s, Raitt studied African culture, protested the Vietnam War and dreamed of doing social work in Tanzania. But music exerted the strongest pull. She performed at coffeehouses with the likes of Jackson Browne and befriended old-time blues masters like Junior Wells, who would later lend a hand on her first album. "I was hangin' out with 70-year-old blues guys who drank at 10 in the morning," she says. "My parents were a little concerned."

They weren't reassured when Bonnie dropped out of college to start recording, but by then their daughter was on a roll. She made six albums over the next six years and stepped up her political involvement as well, performing at benefits and helping to organize the concerts recorded on 1979's No Nukes album. But as the '70s waned and disco displaced the folkies, Raitt found herself playing smaller venues. Eventually, though she stuck to a grueling touring schedule, she could not afford to pay a band.

She hit bottom in the mid-'80s. "I was overweight, I was upset that Warner Brothers had dropped me, and I had had a bad breakup with a guy," says Raitt, who admits her drinking didn't help either. "I wasn't kicking and screaming into dementia, but I did have a complete emotional, physical and spiritual breakdown." Vanity, she says, brought her back to life. "I was going to make an album with Prince. It's one thing to go onstage if you're a little chunky, it's another to make a video with a guy who's known for looking foxy. I decided to lose weight, which you can't do if you're drinking all the time." The project fell through, but Raitt was on the road to recovery.

These days she lives alone in the Hollywood Hills and is not romantically involved "for the first time since I was about 6. Although I'm not celibate or anything..." She thinks about having a baby, but would not do it without "a soul-mate to share it with." She is sure he will come along. "It's exciting," she says, "to know there's somebody living on the planet now that I'm probably going to end up spending a lot of time with."

Raitt takes a similarly levelheaded attitude toward her current flurry of fame. "Nobody's famous forever," she says with a shrug. "But I think my fans will follow me into our combined old age. Look at Ella Fitzgerald—she doesn't have to worry about how she looks in a bra. Real musicians and real fans stay together for a long, long time."

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