Bonnie Raitt walks into a bar. … The punchline, as local guitarist Will McFarlane tells it, is that she saw him playing and hired him on the spot. It doesn’t get many laughs, but it got him a career. McFarlane spent six years with Raitt, from 1974 to 1980. Born on a Navy base in California, McFarlane started voice lessons at age 6, adding piano a year later. Seeing the Beatles play the Ed Sullivan Show when he was 12 inspired McFarlane to take up guitar. He developed a taste for R&B in high school, focusing on Motown material while developing as a rhythm guitarist.
McFarlane attended college in Denver, but soon dropped out and had been playing gigs in bars and clubs across the country when Raitt found him in a club in Cambridge, Mass.
“I tell people, she walked into a bar and hired me out of a bar, but it had a lot to do with Dick Waterman, who was her manager at the time,” McFarlane says. “He was living in Cambridge [and he] started to realize that she was at the place that she was going to put together a touring band, and he just liked something about me and brought her to see me one night. She liked me too, and I’m very, very thankful,” he says loudly.
McFarlane got up with Raitt just as she was starting to hit her stride. She had four albums out by ’74, developing a loyal fan base for her sultry rock/folk/blues, as well as winning the respect and friendship of blues’ greatest legends.
“I don’t know how much good I can say about her in a short article,” McFarlane says. “Everything she does is soulful and she’s very picky about the quality of the songs, the musicianship. It was as musical a situation as I’ve ever been in.”
He’s quick to point out that picky doesn’t mean prickly or diva-like: “Picky in a good way. Picky in the way that she doesn’t just throw off a whole lot. There’s not a whole lot of filler on her records.” McFarlane calls her the finest interpretative singer of our generation. “Every night, as soon as she opened her mouth, good Lord, grown men cried.”
McFarlane learned how to listen as well as play while in Raitt’s band. “You learn how not to fill holes just because there’s a hole there. You listen melodically.” His musical education was a versatile one, encompassing straight blues, country blues, folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll, as well as singer-songwriter material.
“I was 22 years old when I started with her,” McFarlane remembers. “And it was the greatest apprenticeship in the music business.”
Raitt was sharing stages with living blues legends, and McFarlane soaked up as much as he could from them before and after the gigs.
“I can’t tell you how many times Muddy opened for us,” McFarlane says. “I’d sit in the dressing room and listen to him talk.”
But some who hung around Muddy weren’t content just to listen–and they paid the price. After one gig with Waters, a young upstart walked into the bluesman’s dressing room while everybody was standing around talking, picked up a guitar and ripped off some fast licks.
“Muddy turned around, and, nicely, but with a wry look in his eye, said, ‘You know, I hear you talking son, but you ain’t sayin’ nothing.’ And I purposed in my heart that a man of his stature would never turn to me and say anything like that,” Mc Farlane says.
Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and John Lee Hooker were around, too. The talk and the associations came in handy later when he left Raitt to move to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, playing on records for Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton, Etta James and Johnnie Taylor as part of the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
He left Raitt in 1980, just one year after she put out Nick Of Time, a crossover record that broke her to a wide audience. There were no artistic differences–it was more of a lifestyle decision.
“I’d been with her six years, it was 1980, and I had two small children, and I was living in L.A. and [wife] Janet and I realized it wasn’t a place where we wanted to raise kids, so I just sort of bailed out on L.A.,” he says.
Soon after relocating to Muscle Shoals, he had a spiritual re-awakening. His younger brother was murdered while McFarlane was still with Raitt, and he says he stayed high for three years afterward trying to deal with it.
He became a Christian, but continued to make his living playing secular music at Muscle Shoals.
McFarlane says it wasn’t difficult–that when you’re anchored spiritually, you get better at everything. “I believe that I listen more intently. If you’re a believer, you’re in the world and you need to walk just what you believe and visit it all. And I actually found it a real good fit.”
McFarlane says that he felt it was important to let the finest musicians in town know first of all that he was there to do a professional job and play well. But if they had any questions about his life, his walk, and felt that he might have some wisdom on the subject, they knew he wasn’t sitting back in judgment on what they were doing.
McFarlane has continued to work in secular and gospel music, both traditional and contemporary styles. He has added full-fledged minister to his list of occupations since coming to the Triangle area three years ago, and is now one of the pastors at Grace Church in Chapel Hill. He has continued to work at Muscle Shoals, going down twice this year to do guitar work on a couple of songwriter demos. He also does session work at local studios, playing on the most recent Yasmine White album, and he often appears with Armand Lenchek. On Sunday mornings, he makes a joyful noise with his rock band. “I think in Christendom they call it contemporary,” McFarlane chuckles.
And there’s still Bonnie Raitt. Raitt will be in town Dec. 7 for an already sold-out show at UNC’s Memorial Hall to promote her latest Capitol release, Souls Alike. The two have kept in touch over the years, and McFarlane is usually asked to play when she comes to town.
“I never plan, actually, it’s all by her good graces. We get together before the show, and the last couple of times she has said, ‘Hey man, how’d you like to come out for such and such?’ I can’t tell you that I’m not very thankful for that. We have a good time and laugh a lot. It’s just wonderful.”