Bonnie Raitt’s Great Americana Week

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Early in the evening of what would be a ten-hour event at the Outlaw Music Festival in Virginia Beach, Bonnie Raitt was still thinking about the night before.  She had to follow Warren Haynes at the Mann Center in Philadelphia.

“Phew,” she said her eyebrows rising and facial expressions saying she had her work cut out for her. But Raitt, a longtime member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement honoree of the Americana Music Association, is modest and understated and has approached every show like it is opening night.

As a lifelong student of the blues, she is also a generous collaborator. She made it sound easy when she dove into “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” like she had with Haynes in Philly and like she once sang with the late great rhythm and blues pioneer Ruth Brown. Brown grew up in Portsmouth, a stone’s throw away from Virginia Beach.

After dazzling with her slide guitar playing, Raitt began conversing with the ampitheatre audience. More than anything, Raitt seemed giddy when she talked about her week in Nashville at Americanafest. It was almost as if the singer, who turns 70 this November, had been drinking from the fountain of youth.

“Thank God for the Americana Music chart,” she exclaimed, sharing how the genre had made it possible for her and friends like Delbert McClinton and John Prine to have a home. 

“It was hard to figure out where the hell we stood,” she reflected. “We just said it was good music.”

And with that she called up Alison Krauss to harmonize on a song that has been her constant companion for over forty years, “Angel of Montgomery.” Raitt sang it in Nashville with its author and her longtime friend John Prine who received honors for the Song of The Year on the same night he won Album of the Year.

At the Ryman, the Association also provided a Lifetime Achievement Award to the great Texan singer McClinton and a Lifetime Achievement For Songwriter to Elvis Costello. Raitt’s old Warner Brothers labelmate Maria Muldaur was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award for her experimental approaches in American roots music.

Standing on the red carpet before the show, Raitt and Muldaur were old friends reunited when they spoke to Jesse Knutson of Nashville’s “News Channel 5.

I’m just excited that my dear soul sister Bonnie is here to give it to me,” Muldaur said describing her whole life as “one big rambling odyssey” through various forms of American roots music. As she recounted her experience playing everything from old-time Appalachian music to bluegrass and fiddle, she sounded like an earlier generation of Album of The Year honoree Amanda Shires.

“I love how eclectic it is,” Raitt added about the genre. “It has every generation and you can age gracefully. People don’t throw you out because you’re old.”

If the two were holding down the fort as Raitt alluded, they had to be proud on a night when all of those nominated as Artists of The Year were women. They included Rhiannon Giddens, Mavis Staples, Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile, the night’s winner, who said of Staples: “She’s not the artist of the year, she’s an artist of a lifetime”

The regeneration of new talent came through on a night when you had Emerging Act of The Year nominees Jade Bird, Erin Ra, J.S. Ondara, Yola and winner the War and Treaty. Americana’s connection from present to past was invoked when Giddens and Frank Johnson received the Legacy of Americana Award.

Shires and Brandi Callie shared nominations for Album of The Year, but the buzz around America is that their side project the Highwomen, now has a number one album. In the coming weeks John Prine’s Oh Boy label will release its first signing in fifteen years, Kelsey Waldon. A new album from Lilly Hiatt can’t be far behind. 

Bonnie Raitt was Americana long before there was a name for it and has been a tireless advocate to help older artists like the blues singer Sippie Wallace and Ruth Brown get their due.

Onstage in Virginia Beach, Raitt called out the Virginia Arts Festival for all that it had done to help preserve Brown’s legacy. It’s instructive to go back and listen to Raitt’s induction speech of Ruth Brown into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can hear glimpses of the moxie and sass that was handed down from Brown that made Raitt a pioneer over the last two centuries.

You could hear Raitt’s voice drop when she said it’s been thirty years since she made Nick of Time.

“We’ve lost so many friends,” she said like she was talking one on one to each of us. “I know you know. Every moment is so precious.” 

In Nashville, Mavis Staples had led everyone onstage at the Americana Music Awards through a rousing finale of the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.” It was a moment like the family reunion Raitt had described earlier. In Virginia Beach Raitt capped off a great week for Americana and was singing it again, this time with Willie Nelson who was back on the road again and in top form. 

But I was still thinking of “Angel of Montgomery” that she had sung in her set with Allison Krauss. She dedicated it to Prine and all the angels who keep us here. With the harmonies of Raitt and Krauss blending, it was another affirmation of the power of a folk song and the transcendent power of a genre Raitt can always call home.

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