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Bonnie Raitt Remembers an Old Friend at the Ryman

Updated: May 30, 2022

It’s so wonderful when an artist you’ve been wanting to see for years comes through with a killer show. Such was the case with the great Bonnie Raitt at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last night.

She checked all the boxes: A voice as good as it’s ever sounded; a tight, bluesy band; a setlist that mixed old chestnuts and fresh material; a great venue, and an energized, receptive, adoring crowd.

It also helped that Raitt was clearly happy to be there, both in the hallowed hall and out on the road after the Covid lockdown. It was, start to finish, a memorable show.

So why is it that 12 hours later all I can think about is one song from her setlist?

It starts with the fact that John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” is one of my all-time favorite songs. And Raitt’s best-known version – a live track with Prine himself joining her – is the definitive performance of it. The mixture of her soaring contralto and his homespun grit elevates the beauty of the simple, sad story of a woman who feels trapped, and older than she is.

“The last time I played that song here,” an emotional Raitt told the crowd, “John was standing next to me.”

Prine, a Chicago native but longtime Nashville resident, died from Covid in 2020. So there was no chance of another duet. Indeed, Raitt said she had only recently begun to sing the song again, having been unable to after his death.

Although her band is great, it was fitting that she mostly played this one alone on an acoustic guitar. The familiar opening notes triggered a smattering of recognition from the 2,300 people in the pews at the Mother Church of country music. Otherwise there was reverential silence, a simple G-C-D chord progression, and Raitt’s soft but powerful voice.

“I am an old woman

Named after my mother

My old man is another

Child that’s grown old.

If dreams were lightning

Thunder were desire

This old house would have burnt down

A long time ago”

The song was released in 1971, part of Prine’s early body of work that was written when he was delivering mail in Chicago. The job gave him a glimpse of the not-always-happy lives of regular people, and yielded classics like “Sam Stone,” about a Vietnam veteran’s decline into heroin addiction, “Hello in There” about a forgotten older couple, and “Angel From Montgomery.”

“I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater with soap in her hands, and just walking away from it all,” Prine said in an American Songwriter piece about the song. “So I just kept that whole idea image in mind when I was writing the song, and I just let it pour out of that character’s heart.”

“You let the character write the song,” he said.

I’ve heard this kind of talk from other great writers – the feeling of the words coming through you rather than from you. What makes the craft of songwriting so special is that those words can find yet another voice in another performer. Prine’s early version of the song, along with his many live versions out there, is fine in the way that most of his music is fine. It is honest, and vivid. It's unusual that a man is singing in the voice of a woman. But that heightens the fact that he's writing about emotions like despair and loneliness, which are not gender-specific.

Raitt’s interpretation is is sublime, adding the sensation that you are actually hearing this woman herself. She builds perfectly perfectly to the crushing final verse, and into the beautiful chorus.

“There’s flies in the kitchen

I can hear ‘em they’re buzzing

And I ain’t done nothing

Since I woke up today

How the hell can a person

Go to work in the morning

And come home in the evening

And have nothing to say?

Make me an angel

That flies from Montgomery

Make me a poster

From an old rodeo

Just give me one thing

That I can hold on to

To believe in this living

Is just a hard way to go.”

The moment, for me, was perfected by the fact that I was experiencing with my wife, who loves the song as much as I do, and with a gang of old friends who came to town for the show.

A great song, performed beautifully, is a gift. Gifts are best shared.

Hashtag grateful.

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