It’s been more than 25 years since Taj Mahal performed on Bonnie Raitt’s album Takin’ My Time but the friends are back together again to bring the BonTaj Roulet Tour to the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay on Friday, September 18. Concertgoers will hear each musician in an individual set, and then the pair will take the stage together for a finale with both Raitt’s and Mahal’s backing bands behind them.
Mary Chapin Carpenter once said a concertgoer asked her if her guitar was a prop. Did you deal with any of this same curiosity about female musicians early in your career?
I got asked about it a lot, especially in the beginning, because it was unusual for a woman to play a bottleneck guitar and play styles of guitar that mostly men were doing… I came out of folk music and all those women were great accompanists. It’s about the song and about accompanying yourself and not about chops. It probably set me apart and helped me in a way. I don’t want to say it was a gimmick, but it was something that was unusual and made people pay attention.
What was it like recording albums for nearly 20 years when you were getting critical praise but not as much commercial success?
Well I had my core following, which I amassed from many, many years of staying out on the road… I was so lucky to get a record deal early on, right out of college. It didn’t really matter to me that I didn’t sell a lot. All I cared about was that my record company, which was Warner Bros. at the time, at least put enough records in the store to cover the people who I just worked hard to play to and win over with my concerts. Sometimes it would be frustrating not to get airplay on the FM stations to the levels of my friends like Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou [Harris] when we were all friends and peers and they all seemed equally good.
After the long road to commercial success, what was it like receiving your first Grammy Award?
Of course, it made it really sweet to get that sort of career validation from my peers when I won the Grammys in 1990. Having a record shoot to no. 1 on the charts was a miracle. It was a fantastic opportunity to get a raise for my band and have tremendous repercussions with the political causes that I help. I could actually raise money and bring attention to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which I had helped found a few years earlier. That kind of financial windfall and validation is a big weight of responsibility as well as a great joy. I was really glad, as I said in my acceptance speech, that I got it at the age I was, which was 41. A lot of people, when they have that kind of success in their early 20s, they just blow it.
It’s been awhile since you released Souls Alike. When can we expect a new album?
I’ve been on the road non-stop and I had a very serious illness in my family that took a lot of time for me to be with my brother who was suffering from brain cancer for the last eight years. After the planning for this tour and touring all last year for the Senate races, trying to get people out for the vote and promote safe energy and raise some money for those groups, and taking care of my brother, I’m taking a break. I don’t have any plans. After 19 albums in 40 years, I think I get a little break. Am I retiring? No. But I’m just going to take a break.
Do you have a favorite song that your band and Taj Mahal’s have performed together during the stops on this tour?
It’s kind of like picking your favorite kid. They are all different. We’re doing a song that’s really hard to do live, because I’ve needed a whole large band with horns to do it. That is a Calypso Rose tune from my third album, Takin' My Time. It was done in 1973 and I actually had Taj as my special guest on it and he helped co-produce it. It’s called “Outside Man,” better known as “Wha She Go Do.” That’s probably my personal favorite just because we’ve never gotten to do it live. If you’re familiar with Sippie Wallace or Ruth Brown, it’s kind of the rhythm and blues tradition of women really telling it… It’s that point of view of really strong women telling their man what they will and won’t put up with.
How did you decide to include “I Will Not Be Broken,” written by Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and Tommy Sims, on Souls Alike?
The trio who wrote that song also wrote a single that was on my previous album called “I Can’t Help You Now” and they also wrote Eric Clapton’s hit, “Change The World.” The reason I picked their song is they have incredible musicality and the lyrics really say something a little deeper. “I Will Not Be Broken” is especially poignant for me because of what I was going through personally having lost my folks and my brother’s illness. Also as a person working for the environment and social justice, it’s been a very rough last eight years. It was a terrific rallying cry and it had a lot of resonance for a lot of people. People who were fighting cancer were using it for their marathons and people were playing it and teaching it to kids in school. It had a lot of impact on people, and I’m really proud of it.
Can you tell me a little about the BonTaj Collective Action Fund?
I’ve long been a political activist and a social activist, so I’ve sort of married my career with doing concerts for different causes over the years, because that’s kind of how I was raised as a Quaker. What we did with this particular tour is very exciting. We’ve invited Ticketmaster and Live Nation to kick in and do matching funds along with Taj and myself and the audience. We’ve raised a lot of money, over $100,000 with donations from the concert proceeds and people can go online and vote for which of the four categories they want their donations to go to. We have vetted them very carefully so there is no misuse of funds; they are tried and true groups.
How do you feel about the current state of the blues music scene and what do you think needs to be done to promote it to younger generations?
The scene is both healthy and in a precarious state, and part of that is due to just the economy and the music business in general… People are preferring to download their music and the question then becomes making sure that people know that musicians need to get paid and songwriters need to get paid for their work. I’m one of those artists, like a lot of artists, who makes a living touring, and from what I hear, the blues club scene has a big drought of places to play… On the other hand, with the blues festivals and Bonnaroo, there’s a whole new generation of people who are flocking to see this music. There is really a tremendous number of younger artists who are falling in love with the blues.