Since releasing her debut album in 1971, Bonnie Raitt has been a steady presence, never going more than four years without releasing a record.
It was an impressive run, but a cycle she had to break after 2005's "Souls Alike," in the face of personal loss. Her parents died in 2004 and 2005, and then she lost her brother to a brain tumor in 2009.
"I had just gotten slammed between my parents and my brother and a good friend of mine all dying within a short period of time," she says in a phone interview. "I just was broken emotionally and needed to just come home and deal with processing all that grief. I figured I would be home for a while and I would be itching to get back to work, and that's exactly what happened."
She found her inspiration to play again via a dear old friend with a long musical association.
"I went to see Jackson Browne play in 2011, and that's when I said, 'You know what, for the first time I was really sorry I didn't bring my guitar to sit in,' and I knew I was back to work."
For the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer-guitarist, who performs at Heinz Hall on Monday, that meant another Grammy-winning album, this time in the Americana category, for "Slipstream." The album is split between her touring band and co-producer Joe Henry's session players grooving with her on a warm, relaxed, sometimes funky set of songs by Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III, Gerry Rafferty, Randall Bramblett and more. As usual, her soulful vocals and greasy slide guitar work are the selling points.
Talking about her method in putting an album together, she says, "My records are all consistent in that there's always a similar mix of a wide range of music, so it's really song based not concept based. I just wait until I get 11 or 12 songs I think are really going to fit together lyrically musically, and I've learned over the years that sequencing is half the fun, as daunting as it is. It's just like putting a good show together. There's a way to do it and a way to bore people where you can't play too many fast songs in a row or too many ballads in a row, so it's more a question of just calling down really great tunes and grooves that I haven't covered already in the previous 18 records or lyrical ideas that are fresh for me as well as the fans. I know I'm going to be playing these songs the rest of my life, so I better pick good ones."
"Slipstream," released independently on her newly formed Redwing Records, is her first album not associated with a major label. Creatively, though, it was business as usual for Ms. Raitt.
"They've never looked over my shoulder," she says of the labels. "My deal with Warner when I was 21 and my deal with Capitol when I was 39, they never got to tell me what to record with whom or when to release it. I've never had any executive show up until after the record was finished. You maybe pick singles together, but I sort of keep them out."
Born in Burbank, Calif., Bonnie Raitt is a member of a musical family. The daughter of Broadway star John Raitt, she started playing guitar at an early age and took her talents to the Boston and Philadelphia clubs after straying from Radcliffe College after two years. Soon, she was playing gigs with such blues legends as Howlin' Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell, never intimidated about being the rare female electric lead player.
"I didn't really think about it," she says. "I just played guitar and accompanied myself singing, sometimes blues, sometimes James Taylor songs, sometimes my own tunes. I got a lot of press at the beginning about being white or being a girl and playing like a guy, and I just rolled my eyes and said, 'It doesn't have anything to do with what sex you are if you like something enough that you teach yourself how to play it.' You're either good or you're not good, so I was always grateful that I got my foot in the door because I was different, because I played blues guitar. The blues guys that I hung around always thought I played pretty well and that made me happy, and I got really critical notices for my playing."
She was signed to Warner for her 1971 debut and stayed on the label for nine albums, scoring her first modest chart success (No. 57) with a cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway" on 1977's "Sweet Forgiveness."
"I was pretty lucky to even have the fans that I had," she says of that time. "They didn't go anywhere. They always stayed with me. I always sold about 150,000 records even without a hit single, which I always thought was pretty respectable."
She chalks that up to spending 10 months of the year on the road, establishing her fan base one show at a time.
"I deliberately built my following on a lot of live shows and probably sacrificed what a lot of other women, especially, would want to do with their lives, which is to build a family, and try to do both. I knew that I really liked being on the road and I liked building my fan following so I could do this in my 70s and 80s if I wanted to.
"I modeled my career after my dad's and people like Tony Bennett and B.B. King. Back in the days when I was starting out I took a look at the blues and folk and classical and legit singers -- you know, standards singers -- and there didn't seem to be the age-ism that there was in pop and rock. I knew that if I had one hit record in my 20s, there would be the risk that if I didn't duplicate it I would be washed up, somebody else would come along and take my place. I didn't even want to think about that. I started out as an album artist and said, 'You know what, if I make really good records and play really good shows, my fans might stick with me through the decades.' "
They did, and her payday came with her move to Capitol for 1989's "Nick of Time," which won three Grammys, including album of the year, and sold 5 million copies through critical raves and exposure from Triple A stations.
"I was knocked out to get the Grammy nomination and nobody expected me to win, and then of course my record went to No. 1, which is absolutely mind-blowing. I never expected that."
The follow-up, "Luck of the Draw," was an even bigger commercial success, driven by her highest-charting single "Something to Talk About" (No. 5), written by little-known Canadian songwriter Shirley Eikhard. She stayed with Capitol for four more albums, including another Grammy winner, for best pop album -- 1994's "Longing in Their Hearts."
To go with her Hall of Fame status, she has the distinction of being one of two women, with Joni Mitchell, to land on a spot, at 89, on the 2011 Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. She stops short of taking credit for influencing other female guitarists, such as Susan Tedeschi.
"I think most of the blues guitarists that are women are influenced by the original blues artists," she says. "I haven't met too many people other than the Dixie Chicks and Wynonna who just like what I do period. I haven't met any women guitar players that have said I influenced them. I just haven't had a chance to run into them too much. I didn't aspire to win the praise of guys or women or other musicians, but I was happy to get it. I just wanted people to dig the songs I played regardless of what instrument I played."
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.