Bonnie Raitt sounds relaxed, refreshed and reinvigorated.
Get an artist on the phone talking about a new project and that feeling of renewal is common. But in her case it's because Raitt took an entire year off. No searching for new songs, no sitting in with other musicians, no performing at benefits. No nothing to do with her music career.
She needed to. She had been through a long period of loss -- her mom in 2004, her dad in 2005 and her older brother and best friend, Twin Cities sound engineer Steve Raitt, in 2009 of brain cancer.
"I really needed to stop the business of thinking what I was going to do next," said Raitt, who returns to the State Fair grandstand Thursday. "It was really fun for me to just be a civilian and a fan and go to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival two years in a row and not sit in. And go hear Cuban music and African music. And I went to my friend Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony a lot."
And she went to museums, modern dance performances and yoga.
"All of the caretaking and worry and stress and pain around Steve's illness and before that my parents and also a good friend who was going through a cancer fight, that was really draining," she said. "I really needed to come off the road and allow myself the time to feel all of that pain."
Not to mention do some repairs on her Bay Area home.
Basically, Raitt spent the equivalent of a prolonged 12-month winter.
"You can't always be producing or thinking what you're going to harvest if you don't let that field lay fallow," she said. "That's what I needed to do. At some point you have to stop and heal."
First-rate new album
Then, at some point, Raitt needed to make a new album. She liked records that Joe Henry had produced for veteran R&B figures Allen Toussaint and Bettye LaVette, so she planned to call him. But he called her first. That conversation lasted three hours. They ended up recording several songs, four of which are on Raitt's new album, "Slipstream." Two were written by Henry, two by Bob Dylan (from his "Time Out of Mind" album).
Needing to round out the record with some R&B and rock 'n' roll, Raitt turned to Al Anderson, the NRBQ guitarist-turned-Nashville-songwriter, for three songs, and she did a reggae remake of Gerry Rafferty's 1978 hit "Right Down the Line." It adds up to a first-rate album from start to finish, with plenty of stinging slide guitar and passionate vocals, a mix of smokin' rockers and deeply felt ballads.
"Slipstream" is not only Raitt's first album in seven years but also the first on her own label, Redwing. It's sold a healthy 250,000 since its April release, making it one of the year's top-selling indie albums.
Raitt hasn't hesitated to add the new heavy ballads, including "You Can't Fail Me Now," co-written by Henry and Loudon Wainwright, to her stage repertoire, which includes such penetrating tear-jerkers as "I Can't Make You Love Me."
"'Not Cause I Wanted To' [from the new CD] and 'Angel From Montgomery' probably cut the deepest for me," acknowledged Raitt, 62. "I sing 'Angel' for Mom and for the way it relates to her. Even though she didn't have a particularly hardscrabble life, she had some pain. And I want to experience that. They're not so hard to sing, but purposely I want to go there. I don't do it for effect, I don't do it because the audience wants me to. I do it because I need to. I want to sing those songs and mean them every single time."
Emotions always run high for Raitt at the Minnesota State Fair because she recorded her first album in the Twin Cities in 1971 and her brother lived here for three decades.
"It's almost like a home gig for us," said the nine-time Grammy winner, who will make her seventh appearance at the grandstand, with fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mavis Staples opening. "It's our biggest gig of the whole year. We booked the whole tour around it. The fair is really a cornerstone for us."
Plus, she thinks of the State Fair almost as a break from being on tour.
"I try to get there early, put on a hat and a lot of sunscreen and just walk around and enjoy what it's like to be in the middle of America," she said. "Some of it is the cuisine, some of it is seeing the animals and a lot of it is just people-watching. I try to eat a lot of salads before I come there. I have to admit as healthy as my diet is, I succumb to trying out fried this and fried that. The fair is a slice of Americana and a taste of Minnesota."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream