WHEN BONNIE RAITT sings, "Take me down, you can hold me / but you can't hold what's within / Pull me 'round, push me to the limit / Maybe I may bend, but I know where I'm not going / I will not be broken," it's the kind of testament and affirmation we've come to expect from the veteran singer and guitarist. Given the New Orleans flavor that spices a number of songs on Raitt's new "Souls Alike" album and that she lost both parents in the last year (Broadway legend John Raitt died in February after a long illness at the age of 88 just a few months after Raitt's mother, Marge Goddard, 84), one might think "I Will Not Be Broken" was specifically written as a salve for a troubled soul -- a song for the times, and of the times.
In fact, "I Will Not Be Broken," by Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Tommy Sims, the team responsible for the Raitt hit "I Can't Help You Now" (as well as Eric Clapton's "Change the World"), was chosen long before any of those events.
Raitt, who performs at DAR Constitution Hall on Tuesday, says: "The song really had nothing to do with anything I was necessarily going through, but by the time it came out, it was heavy. I picked 'I Will Not Be Broken' because I would sing that any time; it's a great song. But it definitely was a powerful moment because I didn't go back into the studio until my dad was somewhat stable from two months in ICU, and I was just losing my mom.
"And it was right after the  election that we actually started the record, so you know that had to have an effect, too," says Raitt, a longtime political and social activist.
"Souls Alike" arrives three years after "Silver Lining" and is Raitt's first self-produced album. It's both a departure (no blues romps, no self-penned songs) and a flashback to Raitt's albums from the early '70s, when she championed then-little-known songwriters Jackson Browne, Chris Smither, John Prine and John Hiatt. Over 35 years and 18 albums, Raitt has managed to keep finding voices deserving wider recognition, something she describes as "a symbiotic relationship, because without anything cool to say, I don't have a desire to make another record or go out on the road."
"There's just so many people under the radar," Raitt adds. "Like Maia."
That would be Maia Sharp, who shares credits on three songs on "Souls Alike" and sings harmonies on them as well. Sharp, the daughter of veteran Nashville songwriter Randy Sharp, has released several terrific albums of her own and has written a number of country hits (the Dixie Chicks' "Home" and Trisha Yearwood's current hit, "Jasper County"). Two Sharp songs on "Souls Alike," "The Bed I Made" and "Crooked Crown," were written with David Batteau, an old Raitt pal. (She recorded his "Goin' Wild for You Baby" on 1979's "Glow.")
The new album's closing track, "The Bed I Made," is something of a stylistic departure for Raitt, a wistful, jazz-tinged, piano-laced ballad in which the singer owns up to mistakes made in a relationship.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Raitt asks. "All three of [Sharp's] songs are so original and have such an interesting point of view -- like admitting that you're the one who [expletive] up. 'I Don't Want Anything to Change' [a lament written with Liz Rose and Stephanie Chapman] is such a powerful moment in time, like 'I Can't Make You Love Me.' Nobody writes about that moment when you're stuck in a relationship, when you know it's time to move on, but you just can't."
Finding such songs is both laborious and delightful, Raitt suggests, a process of constant listening. "I spend a lot of time keeping up with my friends and peers," she says, "and there's a string of songwriters whose tunes I've done in the past. And journalists and fans send me compilations of songs by artists they think I might like. I probably have 400 CDs sent to me over the course of a year."
Thankfully, Raitt says she's usually quick to recognize talent -- "I know when there's quality there," and she says she sensed it immediately upon hearing Sharp.
Championing new writers is a great joy, Raitt adds, along with backing "grass-roots organizations and political causes that really make such a huge difference in changing the way the world's working. . . . But [supporting ] songwriters, that becomes even more organic to what I do for a living, because the joy of singing those songs, saying something so powerful and making those songs live, and then the reflected validation and attention for the songwriters themselves, the fallout and the trickledown from that is so fantastic."
Raitt didn't have to look far for some of her new material: two tracks are by her pianist, Jon Cleary. The British-born, New Orleans transplant provided the funk-fueled roadhouse romp "Unnecessarily Mercenary" and "Love on One Condition," a tasty, typically Raitt-ish bargain: "Do me right, don't do me wrong / come home every night, no more carryin' on / I explain my position, I'll grant you love on one condition."
New Orleans also informs Emory Joseph's "Trinkets," with its insinuative Crescent City groove and rich references to New Orleans legends and locales, as well as to its ordinary citizens.
"The beat of New Orleans, especially because Cleary's in the band, that thread's going to run through deeply and obviously," Raitt says. And these days, she adds, "when I sing 'I Will Not Be Broken' and 'God Was in the Water' and 'Trinkets,' it's absolutely about that part of the world and what's happened in the last couple of months. The whole infrastructure of what makes New Orleans the scene it is musically and culturally is devastated, and if they don't pay attention to trying to bring those people back, it's never going to be the same. I don't know if it will ever be the same anyway, but it will be a major loss if they turn it into a developer's McMardi Gras."
Raitt knows a thing or two about emotional recovery and musical relief.
"I made [2002's] 'Silver Lining' when my brother was going through the deepest part of his chemo and radiation for brain cancer [he is now in remission], so it's been a hairy five years actually. My mother's Alzheimer's came on slow, but then her demise happened very suddenly due to an accident while I was on tour in Europe."
Raitt postponed recording "Souls Alike" until her father's condition stabilized, noting that when she did go back into the studio, "it was actually very therapeutic and cathartic and a good escape from the endless hours in the ICU, seeing him at night when I would go back over to be with him. It was actually a celebration to be able to focus on music and the camaraderie in the studio, something to put my attention on."
Raitt's father had a heralded career, but Raitt says it was her mother who "was the inspiration for me learning an instrument. I took piano lessons because of her. She was my father's musical director and a great piano player and singer, and she managed his career. Politically, of the two, she was the most active."
Raitt says that "everything that I am politically and morally, my sense of humor, my smarts, my musical sensibility, my appreciation of the environment and nature, my taking care of my body, my love of athleticism -- it all came directly from my folks."
"It's a huge loss when you lose any member of your family, and to have them go that close together was such a shock. Even though they both lived long, fulfilling lives, it's something you don't ever get over. But they are so alive in me every time I step on the stage, there's not a day or a night when they're not in me."
Last year Raitt appeared on the Grammy-winning Ray Charles album "Genius Loves Company" -- she calls their sly duet on "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" "one of the great thrills of my life." More recently, Raitt plays some scrunchy slide guitar on "Tell Your Heart I Love You," a track on Stevie Wonder's new album, "A Time to Love." They recorded it in separate cities, "but Stevie did come in and play on my AOL/DirectTV special," Raitt says. "He did one take of 'I Wish' and nailed it!" That concert, which also features Sharp and old pal Browne, is running through December on DirectTV.
Raitt also taped the inaugural episode of VH1's "Decades Rock Live," performing with Norah Jones, Alison Krauss, Ben Harper and Keb' Mo' on Sept. 30 at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. It premiered in late November and, like most shows on MTV and VH1, will be running forever. Raitt has also recorded nine songs for iTunes, alternative versions of songs representing her long career; they'll go up on iTunes the same day she's at Constitution Hall.
Which is all Raitt with us.
BONNIE RAITT -- Appearing Tuesday at DAR Constitution Hall with Marc Broussard.