Watching a human interest segment on the news in 2018, Bonnie Raitt couldn’t pull away from the story of a woman who donated her child’s organ and was about to meet the recipient of her son’s heart for the first time. The man sat with her and asked if she would like to put her head on his chest so she could hear her son’s heart. “I just lost it,” says Raitt. “It was the most moving and surprising thing. I wasn’t expecting it. I vowed right then that I wanted to write a song about what that would take.”
Riveted by the idea of how families can make the life-altering decision in one of the most difficult moments, Raitt began writing the lyrics to “Just Like That,” the corner piece of her eighteenth album.
“Every time I hear about a family donating organs when their child has been killed, or there’s some sort of sudden death—as if you’re not in grief and shock enough—to have the view and the compassion and the love to be able to pay it forward like that is so incredible,” says Raitt, “and the kindness of the recipient, and what that must feel like for them.”
In May of 2018, Raitt was also affected by a story she read in The New York TimesMagazine about a prison hospice program in Vacaville, California where inmates work as caregivers for fellow terminal convicts. Staggered by her reaction to the intimate photographs and stories of volunteers devoting their time to those incarcerated at the end of their lives, she wrote her own story on “10 Down the Hall,” singing from the perspective of the caretakers: I asked if they let family in / She said not really at the end / Truth is a lot don’t have someone, no friends or next of kin / The thought of those guys going out alone, it hit me somewhere deep / I asked could go sit with them, for some comfort and relief.
“I just immediately felt how many segregated, separated, polarized segments of our population out in society are reflected in microcosms in prisons,” says Raitt. “Those pictures, without any explanation, were such a beautiful testimony of how the need of one human being to have compassion from another, and empathy, and care was just so moving. I’m moved by it now. I can barely sing those songs without getting touched again.”
Drawn to these two news stories amid a flurry of hatred and inequality happening in real-time within the U.S., Raitt had the pillars of Just Like That…, a collection of humanistic stories that moved her to write and look back on previous times.
An affinity for The Gift of the Magi and early 20th century short stories by O. Henry to reflection on the loss of friend John Prine, who died on April 7, 2020, and his first songs “Donald and Lydia” and “Angel of Montgomery,” and further references to Bob Dylans’ earlier acoustic story songs, helped Raitt capture the modesty of the narratives she needed to deliver.
“Those story songs, Prine and Jackson and Paul Brady from Ireland, and Bob Dylan was really what I wanted to do on those two songs,” says Raitt, “to come from that fingerpicking simplicity of just a person on the guitar.”