Bonnie Raitt wrote this reflection on love and aging after enduring a personal and professional slump. The decade had been a tumultuous one: She was dropped from her record label, shattered by a failed romance, and addicted to drugs and alcohol. Fast approaching 40, she decided it was time to turn her life around and got clean and sober – just in the nick of time. Not only did the album revive her career, but it was also her first #1 hit on the Albums chart and earned three Grammy awards, including Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Album of the Year. The title track, a Top 10 Adult Contemporary hit, won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
She told Anatomy of a Song author Marc Myers the midtempo ballad "came from a part of me that hadn't yet seen the light of day. I wanted to dig deep and honor the changes in my life. Writing it gave me a sense of confidence and self-awareness that helped me break through some stifling self-doubt. While writing the song, instead of comparing myself to greats like Jackson Browne and Randy Newman and then giving up, I was just writing for myself, as a gift for the miracle that had happened."
The song was inspired by a culmination of observations about aging. The first verse ("A friend of mine, she cries at night...") was taken from a conversation she had with a heartbroken friend who was nearing middle age and desperately wanting a baby. "At one point she said she saw babies everywhere she went and would just burst into tears in the grocery store," she explained.
The second verse ("I see my folks are getting on...") was inspired by observing her elderly father sleeping in the car during a road trip. She recalled: "In his vulnerable state I could see he was getting older and could really feel what it was like for a body to age. This whole idea of time and it being more precious as you age, I realized this would be what I'd write about."
The third verse ("You came along and showed me...") pulled Raitt back from the edge of the abyss when love came to the rescue but, she said, it wasn't about anyone in particular. "It was about a bigger, more universal love."
As for the song title, Raitt said, "The double-edged meaning was apparent. 'Nick,' as in just in the nick of time, and also the wear and tear of time and the nicks it leaves on the body and the spirit."
Raitt wrote most of the song during a week-long cabin retreat in Mendocino, California, so she had to get creative when it came to recording a demo. Her makeshift setup included her guitars, a portable electric keyboard balanced on a chair, a four-track cassette recorder, a microphone hung from a lamp, and an old compact drum machine that churned out hilarious disco effects.
Nick Of Time was Raitt's debut album with Capitol Records and was produced by Don Was, co-founder of the group Was (Not Was). The pair met the year before when they collaborated on "Baby Mine," a cover of the song from Dumbo for the Disney tribute album Stay Awake.
Ricky Fataar, an original member of the Beatles spoof band The Rutles and occasional drummer for the Beach Boys, played drums on the track. Raitt wanted a beat similar to heartbeat pulse on Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine
." There were no hand drums in the studio, but there were burlap sandbags used to hold down mike stands. Fataar miked one of the bags and played the heartbeat of the song with his hands.