Bonnie Raitt: The Story Behind “Just Like That,” the Song No One Expected To Win a Grammy


Over many decades, Bonnie Raitt has won 13 Grammys.

She didn’t expect to win one the other night.

In the “Song of the Year” category, she was up against Beyoncé, Adele,  Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, and Lizzo.

The “Best America Roots” nominees included Sheryl Crow and Brandi Carlile.

Bonnie Raitt won in both categories for “Just Like That.”

Surprised? She was stunned. Watch her reaction to the award.

Why did she win? The story. It was, she said, like a John Prine song. That is, not clever. From the heart. The other nominees credited several writers. “Just Like That” had only one.

Here’s the story: A man drives around the block, stops at Olivia Zand’s house. He gets out, knocks at her door.  She doesn’t open it. He says he has something to tell her he thinks she’d want to know.  It’s not like her to trust strangers, “but something about him gave me ease/right there in his eyes.”

The next verse lays out her tragedy:

And just like that your life can change
If I hadn’t looked away
My boy might still be with me now
He’d be 25 today
No knife can carve away the stain
No drink can drown regret
They say Jesus brings you peace and grace
Well he ain’t found me yet

The man enters, sits, takes a deep breath.

I’ve spent years just trying to find you
So I could finally let you know
It was your son’s heart that saved me
And a life you gave us both

And then the verse that brings it home:

And just like that your life can change
Look what the angels send
I lay my head upon his chest
And I was with my boy again
I spent so long in darkness
Never thought the night would end
But somehow grace has found me
And I had to let him in

You may be among the tens of millions who have never heard “Just Like That.” Here it is.

As it happens, I know where Bonnie Raitt got the idea for this song. There was a school shooting in Michigan, and 17-year-old Justin Shilling was one of four students who died. His parents donated his organs. Hundreds showed up at the hospital to watch “the honor walk” — a gurney taking Justin across a windowed bridge to the operating room where his organs would be harvested. To watch the news story, click here.

Bonnie Raitt surely does not read the daily Harvard Gazette. I do, and I devoted a day of Butler to the story of a man who received a donated heart. He became a doctor. When he visited the mother who donated her son’s heart, he handed her a stethoscope.  [See the photo, above.] If you can stand overwhelmingly intense and beautiful emotion, click here for that Butler column.

As soon as I read that piece, I knew what to do with it. There would be a scene in my novel, “The Next Dalai Lama,” in which a boy on life support would be wheeled across a glassed-in bridge to the hospital’s operating room for an organ donation. And Billy DeVito, the 16-year-old Dalai Lama, would be standing in the parking lot with hundreds of kids and parents who want to support the boy’s parents.

I share that chapter here for a few reasons. First, as an example of the different ways to use the drama that life offers us. But more, much more, to encourage you: If you’re not an organ donor, I can think of no better way to give meaning to the end of your life. Here’s how to sign up.  And here’s the chapter from “The Next Dalai Lama.”

The caregiver was texting. The boy threw the ball too hard. His little sister ran into the street to retrieve it. The driver was on the phone…

The parents struggled for understanding. For acceptance. For one golden ray in a black sky. At the hospital, they found it. They agreed to keep their daughter on life support until a team could assemble for the organ transplant.

There’s a ritual — in hospital shorthand, it’s called the “honor walk” — for the transfer from the hospital room to the operating room. Doctors, nurses, administrators line the corridor. Nurses roll the gurney. They’re usually rushing to deliver a patient to surgery. Not on an honor walk. The pace is stately, measured, formal. Spouses or parents sometimes walk with them. Lips move. No one speaks.

The hospital is two buildings, with a glass-walled bridge between them. The parents are active in the community, and their neighbors don’t have to be asked to gather in the street and beam love and support to the family as the gurney crosses over. A few ministers have been alerted. And knowing that the mother meditates and considers herself a Buddhist, one of them calls the DeVitos and asks Billy to join them.

No one knows the timing of the honor walk, but at nine in the morning, there are already a hundred people looking up at the bridge. A priest arrives, consoles parishioners, rests a hand on a weeping policewoman’s shoulder. A rabbi in a flowing robe blesses everyone who reaches out to him. Someone has set cups of cider on a table.

Billy has slept late, and Jane has to text him twice to get him moving. Before he can slap cold water on his face and brush his hair, his parents are in the car, with his robe in the back seat.

He’s thinking about death. The third in a few months. Nana. Nancy Dinover, an opioid overdose. Now this. At least it wasn’t a school shooting.

Jim parks near the emergency room. As Billy steps out of the car, kids pass, waving, quietly saying hi. And then Jim is holding the robe.

“You’ll want this.”

Billy’s face says no, he doesn’t want this, it freaks him out.

“Put it on.”


Jim points to the bridge.

“Any minute now, a woman is going to cross that bridge. She’s empty. She’s beyond empty. Beyond hope. She’s going to look down, and she’ll look for one person to lift her up. And that person will be wearing this robe. And…”

This isn’t at all like Nana’s death. Billy’s soul and his body are out of sync. He can’t do it, and he doesn’t know why he can’t do it.

“Billy, this is not a conversation.”

Jim drapes the robe over Billy’s shoulders. Jane puts an arm around him and leads him into the crowd. Jim leans against the car, a hand covering his eyes.

The crowd parts. The rabbi and the priest position Billy between them.

The gurney appears, flanked by nurses in scrubs. People clap. Some raise candles.

The parents step onto the bridge. The mother is a zombie, shuffling, on the verge of falling. The father holds her. His determination is thrilling to witness — he’ll carry his wife if he has to.

The gurney is halfway across the bridge. The nurses stop so the parents can see the love.

Billy looks up at the mother. Here is a chance to be of service, and he can’t focus his attention, can’t feel his heart.

He closes his eyes and asks the 14th for help.


Suddenly, a spark. Not from the 14th. From the mother. It’s as if she’s reached into Billy and found a feeling he doesn’t know he had, and she clutches it and holds it close. She straightens, puts her hand to her heart in recognition and appreciation, nods to the nurses. Holding her husband’s hand, she walks her child to a future beyond death.

This post was previously published on


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