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After losing both of her parents, Bonnie Raitt soldiers on

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It wouldn't happen every year - she wasn't on tour every year - but it became an erstwhile tradition that Bonnie Raitt fans came to expect.

Whenever the blues-rock veteran with the husky voice and fiery red mane would return home to perform in Los Angeles or Orange County, Calif., at some point her dad might appear to sing "Oklahoma!"

A tip of the hat, so to speak, from Hall of Famer daughter to her father, beloved Broadway star John Raitt.

One of the first celebrities to emerge from Orange County, where his family was so prominent it eventually had a Santa Ana street named for it, Raitt rose to fame in the `50s by playing Curly in that cherished musical, as well as leading another Rodgers & Hammerstein production, "Carousel."

But the woman once known mostly as John Raitt's daughter recently lost the man who in his autumn years was more famous for being Bonnie Raitt's father. In February, at 88, the elder Raitt died from complications of pneumonia after a prolonged illness - just months after Bonnie's mother, Raitt's first wife, Marge Goddard, succumbed to Alzheimer's disease.

So coming back to Southern California for shows this week at the Wiltern Theatre and the Orange County Performing Arts Center is bittersweet for Raitt, 56.

"This will be the first holiday season I will have both parents gone," she notes. "It'll be very, very moving for me.

"But lately I've been singing with ... well, I don't want to say `renewed vigor.' I haven't lost my voice. But I feel like I'm singing with them in me now. I don't want to sound too metaphysical, but it's just there."

During a phone chat from Eugene, Ore., she recalled that a few nights earlier at a show, "I was fighting a cold, and I just kinda invoked my folks when I noticed my voice getting a little hoarse ... and suddenly I sang clear as a bell.

"I noticed that happening a week or so after my mom died. I went from not being able to think about her - just losing it when I did - to actually carrying her in the songs. I fully believe the heart can imbue your voice and your soul that way."

Likewise, the recording of Raitt's 15th album, "Souls Alike," was a much-needed therapeutic release for the slide-guitar virtuoso, who went from merely revered blues figure to pop force after her 1989 breakthrough, "Nick of Time," earned her four Grammys, including Album of the Year.

While her father momentarily recuperated after months in intensive care, Raitt welcomed the chance to focus on something else - something potentially cathartic. Yet, as has always been the case when she embarks on a new project, determining what songs to include proved difficult.

Despite the sadness surrounding her, "I wasn't really motivated to include very personal, confessional songs of my own." And while she points out that "I would never do a show without a blues song in it," she wasn't aiming "to reinvent the wheel with another blues collaboration this time. You gotta give some of that a rest now and then. Otherwise, you're repeating yourself."

Her only option, then, was to scour the hundreds of CDs she is sent by music publishers, friends or other songwriters vouching for unknowns, in the hope that one might have a song or two that spoke to her.

"But it's hard to find songs I want even if I've known the writer for 50 years," she says. "Bonnie Hayes and John Hiatt and John Prine - I love them and their songs, and people always say, `Why don't you cover more of their stuff?' It's just that it's not necessarily what I want to say at that moment."

Along came Maia Sharp - and the process suddenly became much easier.

A minor player who studied jazz before making the leap to rock five years ago, Sharp's untapped songwriting provided Raitt's album with three highlights, including "I Don't Want Anything to Change" (which Raitt considers of the same caliber as her classic "I Can't Make You Love Me") and "The Bed I Made," a rare heartbroken piece from the perspective of the person instigating the break-up.

Since then, Sharp's career has become such a cause for Raitt that - as with keysman Jon Cleary, a longtime member of Raitt's touring band who contributed two numbers to "Souls Alike" - the burgeoning talent is now her opening act.

"When I connect with someone like that," she says, "it's almost like I could do five or six of their songs. All of a sudden this swarm of connections occurred, and you never know why that happens. It's like trying to figure out why you fell in love with this person or that person. If you hadn't stopped at that red light and gotten out at that point, you wouldn't have met somebody that you may have almost run over."

She started laughing at that analogy. "That's not a very gracious way to say that, but it is happenstance. It's as mysterious as it is organic."

The same could be said of Raitt's music, especially since "Nick of Time." With assistance from idiosyncratic producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (the latter assisted Raitt on her first self-production credit for "Souls Alike"), each album has been harder and harder to define, blending as they do all manner of roots music - folk, country, Celtic and more - into a murky but palatable pop stew.

But blues remains the backbone. "It has roots in American popular music that were so clear to me from the time I heard Ray Charles' first records or Little Richard or Fats Domino. It threads through everything. The more people study the roots of American music, the more they see this incredible tree of influence. There wouldn't be any Beatles or Rolling Stones or rap or soul music without the blues."

Yet can it still thrive? In many respects, despite the efforts of Martin Scorsese's recent documentary anthology, blues music continues to be marginalized, treated as antiquated, only suitable for retro festivals. "And the local scene has dried up," Raitt adds, "and people are switching over to DJs or alternative bands.

"Making a living in blues clubs around the country is endangered. And though satellite radio is giving people the option of hearing more of it, I don't want to see it turn into background noise. People need to get out, buy albums, go to clubs and try to support that - but I guess $9 for beer makes it tough to go out."

What would really help, she believes, is if the blues were seen as part of the fabric, not a segregated sound that must be savored purely.

"Look at the White Stripes and the North Mississippi Allstars - those guys are helping. Lucinda Williams is in many ways a blues artist. I just think it's good to open up the genres and not always categorize people. That's why I couldn't get arrested until I was 40. People would say, `What is she? Is she pop or blues or country?'

"Who cares? I mean, who cares what Norah Jones is? Does it matter whether Norah Jones is jazz or blues or this or that? She's just great."

Similarly, she considers the notion that old-timers need to step aside to make way for the new breed ludicrous. I mentioned: "People still consider rock `n' roll a young person's game, that you're not supposed to play it past a certain age, despite the fact that Paul McCartney and the Stones ..."

"... are kicking it, man!" she finished. "I just think it's lame. Ageism is as lame as racism and sexism, and let's just get over it. C'mon, was anybody gonna go up to John Lee Hooker and say, `Get off that chair, you're not good anymore'? I'm so excited to see Neil Young and Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne all at the top of their games.

"If you don't like it, go buy somebody who's 25. But when you can write a new song as good as what the Stones are doing now, then you can talk.

"You know, all of my heroes played well into their 80s, including my dad. I just turned 56. And I'm looking for another 30 years of doing this."


(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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