Happy 30th Anniversary to Bonnie Raitt’s tenth studio album Nick of Time, originally released March 21, 1989.
While my personal musical tastes run the gamut across all styles and genres, I’ve always tended to gravitate more toward female voices. Among my five favorite vocalists of all time, only one is male (Donny Hathaway) along with four women (Billie Holiday, Stevie Nicks, Sade and Neko Case). My upbringing must have had something to do with my preference, as some of my most vivid recollections of early childhood involve the records my mother regularly played on our family stereo. Holiday and Nicks (by way of Fleetwood Mac) always featured prominently in my mother’s rotation, alongside such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and her all-time favorite singer, Bonnie Raitt.
Though memories before the age of three can be hazy if not altogether obscured, I distinctly recall the sounds of Raitt’s seventh studio album The Glow (1979) frequently emanating from the speakers. For better or worse, and without being able to grasp the context, the opening verse of the album’s moody, downtempo title track stuck with me, even at the age of two or three: “I need a drink / Don't want to think / I drink too much / But who's to say / What's right or wrong?” So I suppose it was only fitting when, a handful of years ago, my mother handed down her original vinyl copy of the album—still in pristine condition 30-plus years later—to my wife and me, as we looked to expand our record collection.
Bonnie Raitt’s music has brought a lot of joy to my mother’s life, and for this alone, I’m admittedly forever indebted to her. But regardless of my familial connection to her music, I would be hard-pressed not to harbor at least some modicum of allegiance and reverence—as I assume most self-respecting music lovers do—for the best-in-class musicianship she has nurtured across her five-decades-long career. Not to mention her refusal to be pigeonholed stylistically, instead cultivating a genre-fluid appeal across the blues, R&B/soul, rock, country, folk, jazz, pop and beyond. “My first three albums were pretty eclectic that way,” Raitt explained to NPR’s Terry Gross via Philadelphia’s WHYY back in 1989. “And that’s the way my musical tastes run, and I think my fans’ also. There was some criticism at some point when the records didn’t sell that possibly that was because it was too eclectic and people couldn’t categorize me. Which, ya know, it’s just the way it is.”
Eclectic her music is indeed, but the blues has always been her chief inspiration, and she was integral to the evolution of the form during the latter three decades of the 20th century. And lest anyone assume that she is guilty of cultural appropriation, she has always been the epitome of humility where the history of the blues is concerned, effusively reverential to the original blues legends that came before her and inspired her to make music in the first place.
In the same NPR interview, Raitt readily acknowledged that during the early days of her career, it was perceived as an “oddity that I was playing Robert Johnson songs…and for a white girl to be playing that kind of music.” Nevertheless, Warner Bros. Records wisely seized upon the novelty of Raitt’s musical approach, signing her to her first record deal in 1971. She released her eponymous, blues-driven debut LP Bonnie Raitt soon thereafter, at the age of 22, and the rest of the 1970s would prove prolific for her, as she delivered seven more albums in the span of eight years through the aforementioned The Glow in 1979.
Critical plaudits were abundant for these efforts, but commercial returns proved more elusive. As a result, her recording output slowed in the following decade, marked only by the emergence of Green Light (1982) and Nine Lives (1986) in the seven years following The Glow’s arrival. In the wake of Green Light’s less than stellar sales showing, Warner Bros. unceremoniously dropped Raitt from their roster and the album she had been recording at the time, originally entitled Tongue and Groove, was shelved, but subsequently re-recorded and recast as Nine Lives, her final album for Warner Bros..
Suddenly without a record label for the first time in her 15-year recording career, Raitt explored her professional options, including a short-lived partnership with her labelmate Prince. The Purple One had expressed interest in signing Raitt to his then-fledgling imprint Paisley Park Records—distributed through Warner Bros.—but the opportunity fell through due to his own career priorities and scheduling conflicts that accompanied the release of his magnum opus Sign O’ the Times (1987) and the corresponding tour. “(Prince and I) never really got a chance to work together, and then he never called," Raitt explained to the Washington Post in June of 1989. "That kind of help I don't necessarily need. I enjoyed those few days together, but frankly I needed to get on with my career."
Concurrent with mapping out the next chapter of her career, Raitt also focused on restoring her personal health, by way of conquering the alcohol and drug abuse that had plagued her since her ascendance in the ‘70s. Of her fondness for the former vice, Raitt confided to Rolling Stone, “I was around these old blues guys, and they were alcoholics. And I prided myself on not liking acid rock and all that I wanted to be was the female version of Muddy Waters or Fred McDowell. There was a romance about drinking and doing blues.”
The mystique behind the bottle ultimately proved too destructive for Raitt, and recognizing that she was headed down a dangerous path, she called upon psychotherapy and Alcoholics Anonymous to get sober, which she did by 1987. “I had a great time in my twenties and my early thirties, staying up late and partying with my friends,” she reflected during the NPR interview a few years later. “In the last couple of years, I’ve decided that I want to feel better and look better and sing better. And that kind of lifestyle can be debilitating spiritually and emotionally, as well as physically and creatively. So I’m happily sober and healthy, and it doesn’t seem to affect anything other than the fact that I feel great.”
With her more harmful habits kicked, Raitt linked up with producer (and current Blue Note Records president) Don Was and secured a new contract with Capitol Records, who granted her newfound creative freedom and flexibility. The first album supported by her new label and her tenth studio affair overall, Nick of Time—by its title alone—seemed to affirm that Raitt had salvaged her health and professional vitality at an opportune moment, before further mishaps or marginalization could occur. Released seventeen-and-a-half years after her debut album, Nick of Time finally afforded her the commercial success that had evaded her previously, reviving her poise and confidence as she embarked upon the next phase of her once-again ascendant career.
One of Raitt’s two original compositions on the album and the set’s first official single, the poignant title track “Nick of Time” reinforces that while she had proven herself a masterful interpreter of others’ songs, her own songwriting chops were also well-groomed by this point. Atop a midtempo R&B groove that perfectly complements her soulful, crystalline voice, Raitt examines the decisions we’re forced to make as we get older (“Life gets mighty precious / when there's less of it to waste”), referencing a friend whose desire to have a baby is not reciprocated by her partner and the inevitable reality of children and parents observing each other getting older. The song ends on a more sanguine note, however, as Raitt explores finding redemption through new love.
Three other tracks were lifted as singles following “Nick of Time.” The sassy strut and sheen of “Thing Called Love” reenergizes the John Hiatt original (from his 1987 LP Bring the Family), albeit accompanied by a somewhat contrived music video featuring Dennis Quaid, which thankfully doesn’t detract from the song’s allure. The keyboard-driven cover of Bonnie Hayes’ “Love Letter” is a slinky, sensual nod to the giddy anticipation that accompanies new love (and lust). And Raitt reinterprets Hayes once again on the reggae-tinged melody of “Have a Heart,” which finds the honeymoon phase all but over, as she demands more respect and sympathy from an insensitive partner.
Among the other album tracks, there’s plenty of memorable fare, including two versions of Jerry Lynn Williams penned compositions in the form of the piano-led stomper “Real Man,” a declaration of desire for a man devoid of superficial inclinations, and the love-done-me-wrong anthem “I Will Not Be Denied.” An acoustic country ode to independence born out of fragility, “Nobody’s Girl” functions as a bit of a counterweight to the coveting of a “real man” heard one track earlier.
The jazzy torch-song mood of “Too Soon To Tell” showcases one of Raitt’s strongest vocal performances on the album, while the Herbie Hancock assisted “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again” reminds us of her penchant for sparse and introspective explorations of heartache, as would be so powerfully evidenced a few years later on Luck of the Draw’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Her second original song and the most straightforward blues-indebted track, “The Road’s My Middle Name” bookends the album and finds Raitt’s vagabond heart rejecting the monotony of the sedentary life.
Nick of Time cleaned up at the 32nd Annual GRAMMY Awards ceremony in late February 1990, taking home the trophies for Album of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, alongside her fourth triumph of the evening for her collaboration on John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood” from his 1989 album The Healer. A month-and-a-half later in early April, and a little more than one year removed from its original release in March of 1989, Nick of Time captured the coveted #1 position on the Billboard 200 albums chart, en route to an impressive 5 million copies sold to date—her second highest-selling album to date after its successor Luck of the Draw (1991).
“I feel really satisfied that I’ll never have to say I’m unappreciated again,” Raitt admitted to Rolling Stone. “I feel like I got a commission. I feel much more serious about what I’m going to be doing in the future. I feel like I have a responsibility to continue to write songs. I feel like someone handed me the rest of my life.” Beyond being an excellent collection of songs, Nick of Time is proof positive in the power of devoting your heart, mind and soul to your craft and sweet validation that persistence (and sobriety) can pay dividends in the long run. And there are none more deserving of all the success that has come her way than the blues-rock goddess Bonnie Raitt, a true American treasure.