Raitt grew up in a musical family and learned to play guitar from a young age, and she developed her chops as a slide player early on. Although her passion for the blues was always evident, it became a consuming force after she made an unlikely friend in legendary promoter and musician Dick Waterman. Raitt moved to Philadelphia to play with Waterman and his vast array of musician friends – the first big step in her budding career as a songwriter. Within a few years, Raitt had her first recording contract and prepared to release her debut album as a solo artist.
Her early work established Raitt as a gifted and well-versed player. After numerous critically acclaimed releases, Raitt had gained much experience on tour plus notable friendships with some of the day’s most legendary musicians. She was featured alongside artists like Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, and Stevie Nicks. Her greatest success as a recording artist came nearly twenty years into her career, with 1989’s classic Nick of Time. The album won 3 Grammy Awards and sold more than five million copies – Raitt’s hard work had paid off and she was undeniably a star. Her prolific career as a songwriter has resulted in seventeen albums, ten Grammys, and numerous collaborations alongside artists across the musical spectrum – from Keb’ Mo’ to John Lee Hooker to Alicia Keys to Roy Orbison.
As impressive as Raitt’s musical career has been, it is all but eclipsed by her work as a humanitarian and environmental activist. Raitt has worn her beliefs on her sleeve since the beginning of her career, sometimes taking great risks with her outspoken criticisms of the Vietnam War and calls for nuclear disarmament. This latter cause, in addition to her devotion to environmental preservation, led her to co-found the Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) organization in 1979. The collective put on a highly successful concert series featuring Raitt, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and many others. Select recordings from these concerts led to the No Nukes compilation album in support of disarmament activists. Raitt has offered support to organizations benefitting tsunami victims, women’s rights activism, forest preservation, and youth music education, to name but a few of Raitt’s other areas of dedicated interest. She has also campaigned fervently to raise funds to build memorial sites for several of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen who inspired Raitt in her youth.
Bonnie Raitt has without question served as a pacesetter of American feminism, no doubt inspiring countless young women to pick up a guitar, a pen, or a picket sign – to stand up for what they believe is right and to make their voices heard. But even this description does her a disservice, for her legacy is greater than the sum of its parts. When Raitt didn’t fit a particular mold, she simply broke through it with a lot of hard work and faith in her own talents. Hers is the boiled down bravery beneath the winds of change, helping resistant ears to listen.