Now on tour to promote her latest studio release, 2005's "Souls Alike," and her new live CD and DVD, which teams her with such musical pals as Norah Jones and Ben Harper, Raitt is careful not to mount a political soapbox at her concerts.
But this nine-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist does carefully balance her music with the causes in which she believes. These include: supporting alternative energy sources; sponsoring a national program (in association with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America) to help inner-city kids learn to play guitar; and crusading for the nonprofit Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which she co-founded in 1988 to "support and honor previous generations of blues and R&B artists who are underappreciated."
In most instances, she acquits herself with a well-honed combination of grit and grace.
"I've been an activist since the beginning," said Raitt, 56. "I'm not an activist on stage, but I do make a couple of barbed comments these days because I want people to get involved. I think the lack of response for the victims of Hurricane Katrina cuts across political bounds. We have to look at why institutionalized racism exists. It's a matter of how you say it, and it's very delicate."
Musicians have a duty to raise public awareness, Raitt believes. She is doing just that on her current tour, for which she is donating prime seats at each show to benefit Voter Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public advocacy group that provides legal, research and logistical support for grass-roots efforts to ensure the integrity of elections in the United States.
"I salute those artists who are standing up for what they believe," she said from a concert stop in Utah. "It's really important. Artists have long been the conscience and town-criers. They represent the side that doesn't have the money to be on Fox News, or to be on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. So when people ask me: 'Why do you keep talking about these issues?'; I say: 'To level the playing field.' "
But what about those who believe musicians should only entertain? Or those who sent hate mail or even threats to the Dixie Chicks, Linda Ronstadt and other artists who spoke out against the Bush administration or the war in Iraq?
"Then they should go to shows by people who only entertain and aren't any deeper," Raitt replied. "Deeper people will express themselves, whether they are pro-war or anti-war. Go see somebody perform who thinks it's great that we're doing whatever we're doing in the war in Iraq.
"It's illuminating to read what the other side thinks. The vicious attacks on people, in the name of Christianity, because they disagree with you is unconscionable. Any religious tradition would loathe the hate-spewing vitriol. You have a right to be angry. But write a letter to the editor; you don't have to write hate mail."
Raitt has toured and recorded for the past 35 years. While she is no longer at her commercial peak of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when she sold 14 million albums in four years, she maintains a loyal following.
Yet, rather than trade in lucrative musical nostalgia, she continues to seek out new creative territory. Why?
"Curiosity and passion for the music," Raitt said. "It's the same impulse that first made me want to sing the blues or listen to Motown songs, and then put one ('Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead' by The Marvelettes) on my first album. It's not enough to listen; I have to learn them.
"I don't have kids, so this is what I put my creativity into. My songs are my kids, and so are my causes."