Raitt deals from heart in 'Luck of the Draw'

August 15, 1991|By Gary Graff | Gary Graff,Knight-Ridder

BONNIE Raitt is a woman in love -- it's awfully hard to miss that.

Her relationship with actor Michael O'Keefe has been a public affair, from the initial courtship to their April marriage, when the bride wore white and her father, Broadway star John Raitt, sang.

"It is very romantic," gushes Raitt, the veteran singer, songwriter, guitarist and activist, who will perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on Saturday night.

So it's hard not to raise an eyebrow as you listen to "Luck of the Draw," her new album and the follow-up to 1989's "Nick of Time," which won three Grammy awards, sold 2 million copies and raised Raitt from cult to star status. If that album was the testament of a woman finally free of booze and bad relationships -- "I was laying out what I wasn't going to put up with anymore," Raitt says -- "Luck of the Draw" finds its maker smack in the middle of a relationship and not necessarily loving every minute of it.

Some of the titles give it away -- "I Can't Make You Love Me," for instance. And then there's "One Part Be My Lover," whose lyrics come from a poem O'Keefe, 36, wrote early in the couple's relationship:

"They're not forever

"They're just for today

"One part be my lover

"One part go away."

"It was written about a month into the relationship, when both of us were a little gun-shy," Raitt, 41, says. "It was a very accurate representation of the relationship at that point."

That and many of the other songs on the album make "Luck of the Draw" something more than the starry-eyed love album some might expect. Throughout her career -- almost 25 years steeped in blues and folk influences such as Sippie Wallace and Mississippi Fred McDowell -- Raitt has never been one to pull punches or choose discretion over honesty. Even with its joyous moments, songs such as "Something To Talk About," "Good Man, Good Woman" and the sultry "Slow Ride," "Luck of the Draw" asks tough questions and takes a hard look at the never-ending balance between ideals and realities.

"She sings about what she's going through at that time," says Don (Was) Fagenson, who produced "Nick of Time" and "Luck of the Draw." "It's not a performance; it's her life. She sings from the heart."

And because relationships aren't warm and fuzzy 100 percent of the time, Raitt says, "I can't write little pop ditties about how ecstatic I am. Where's the art in that? What moves you to sing is when you're having problems or when things are sticky or confusing or uncomfortable -- that's where the blues come from.

"I didn't deliberately set out to chronicle our relationship, though. You just sing about the things that are on your mind. It's a matter of seeing which songs hit you the same way. You don't always see the thread that binds it together until later."

Similarly, Raitt had no premonition about "Nick of Time's" success. After slogging around the rock and blues community for two decades -- best-known for a moderately successful remake of Del Shannon's "Runaway" -- she was dropped from her label, Warner Bros., in 1986 and subsequently went through psychotherapy and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. She had nowhere to go but up, but neither Raitt nor her many friends and admirers in the music industry imagined just how high up she would go.

"Bonnie deserves everything that's happened," says good buddy Jackson Browne. "She's a great talent, a very honest, to-the-heart singer. I couldn't be happier."

Choosing "Luck of the Draw" as the title for the new album reflects Raitt's attitude toward her newfound success. "I never expected to have a hit record last time; it was like winning the lottery," she says, and she still refers to the Grammys -- particularly the coveted Album of the Year prize -- as "the most surprising thing that ever happened to me in 20 years."

Producer Fagenson, who shared the best-album Grammy, felt much the same way. "We both know we were recipients of something way beyond what we feel we deserved. There was a tremendous amount of luck and chance there."

There was also the pressure of following up that success. Raitt had actually started working on the new album a few weeks before the 1990 Grammys were announced. Holed up in her house on the northern California coast, she began writing songs "to prove to myself that I could come up with something I thought was valuable. I didn't want to feel like 'Nick of Time' was a fluke."

With some firm ideas in hand -- that writing session produced the new album's "Come to Me," "All at Once" and the music for "One Part Be My Lover" -- Raitt began to feel at ease with the task at hand.

"After 11 albums of some people liking my music, some not, I can't do anything other than try to please myself and the peers I'm working with. I had a tremendous amount of validation last time, and all the same people were involved. I knew there was no way I could make a bad record . . . so there was nothing to worry about."

And she's not worrying about whether "Luck of the Draw" matches its predecessors' commercial feats, either.

"I know I have a group of fans who are loyal and who will get what I'm doing," she says. "Whether it sells 200,000 or 2 million, that's not my arena. As long as I have a record company that gives me the right amount of support and radio plays me and my fans understand and like my records, whether it's a hit or not is not my first consideration."

Chris Isaak is the opening act for the Bonnie Raitt show at Merriweather Post Pavilion Saturday. Only lawn seats remain. Tickets are $18.50 and are available by calling 481-6000.

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