singer ∙ songwriter ∙ storyteller
Singer-songwriter Bonnie Bishop and producer Dave Cobb had almost finished recording her 2016 album, Ain’t Who I Was, when Cobb’s cousin Brent burst into the studio with a just-written tune he wanted them to hear. As soon as he and co-writer Adam Hood began playing it, Bishop had a “Killing Me Softly” moment, as if their fingers were strumming her fate — or at least, her manifesto.
In what became the album’s title track, she sings Lord I’m finally proud of who I am now/Thank God it ain’t who I was, her soulful, Dusty-ish voice simultaneously mingling the weariness of struggle, the relief of confession and the power of renewed hope.
Turns out that optimism was well placed; Ain’t Who I Was has earned Bishop the best reviews of her career. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Billboard and Rolling Stone delivered praise; the Nashville Scene called it brilliant, noting, “A gifted songwriter and a powerhouse singer, her voice booms with the force of a Texas straight-line squall.” American Songwriter observed, “Her vocals mix the Southern sass of Shelby Lynne with the guts of Susan Tedeschi, leaving room for a fair amount of Bonnie Raitt-styled grit and gumption.” No Depression asserted, “If we can go ahead and choose the BEST album of the year, it's clearly Bonnie Bishop's.” Lonestar Music magazine added, “Bonnie’s brilliant voice makes this gut-punching record a seamless triumph.” And in her childhood hometown, the Houston Press anointed her as the “new queen of country soul.”
That recognition has opened several new doors for Bishop, among them singing on preacher’s son Paul Thorn’s knockout gospel album, Don’t Let the Devil Ride (tracked at Memphis’ legendary Sam Phillips Recording), joining Thorn on tour, and undertaking her first — and second — Scandinavian tours, plus her first official U.K. trek to coincide with her album’s release there. She also performed on the 2017 and 2019 Cayamo cruise.
But scoring the icing track to accompany her six co-writes and three other covers, and working with Nashville’s hottest producer — who helped Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell become award-winning chart toppers — were just two of several fortuitous developments for a woman whose life and career have had more twists than a tornado. The fact that Ain’t Who I Was exists at all is a testament to Bishop’s courage, because doing it represented a huge leap of faith — one she thought she’d never take again before meeting Cobb.
Bishop had had a pinch-me moment when Bonnie Raitt recorded song she’d co-written, “Not Cause I Wanted To.” Then it topped the New York Times’ Song of the Year list, and the album it was on, Slipstream, won a Grammy. She also watched actor Connie Britton perform another of her tunes, “The Best Songs Come From Broken Hearts,” on the hit TV show Nashville. But after five albums of her own and 13 grueling years on the road, Bishop had little to show for it but a Grammy certificate, a divorce decree and an empty bank account. She decided to pack it in and leave Nashville behind.
Bishop retreated to her parents’ ranch in Wimberley, Texas, to lick her wounds, mourn her dead dreams and figure out what to do next. For therapy, she began writing stories.
“I started seeing these threads connecting through them in a way that allowed me to celebrate what I had done, instead of beating myself up for having failed,” she explains. “I thought maybe I could make a career doing that. So I applied to graduate school.”
Bishop was accepted to Sewanee University of the South and began preparing for a return to scholastic pursuits. But somewhere in there, she called Thirty Tigers co-founder David Macias, who had been a longtime fan and friend. Macias, whose multi-faceted entertainment company handles Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Simpson and Isbell (whose Cobb-produced album won 2015’s Best Americana Album Grammy), told her not to give up on her music career.
“You just need to make a great record with a real producer,” he said. That’s when he put her in touch with Cobb — who was in the midst of producing what became Stapleton’s (and Cobb’s) Grammy winning album, Traveller. After hearing her demos, Cobb thought she should be singing soul, not country. He also said he was looking to make an album with a soul singer. Her.
That wasn’t an entirely foreign idea to Bishop. During her childhood in Houston, her mother made sure she got familiar with the Motown sound, playing her all the greats like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding. After her mom married Bishop’s stepfather, football coach Jackie Sherrill, the family moved to Mississippi where Sherrill had just taken the job as the new head coach at Mississippi State University.
There she spent fall Saturdays on stadium sidelines, dodging linebackers while toting her stepfather’s headset cord. During the week, she learned to sing with soul from the girls in choir class at her public school, where, unlike Texas, she was a racial minority.
“There’s a lot of Mississippi in me. It’s definitely where I learned that I had a voice; it’s also where I found that soulful groove,” Bishop says.
She’d never fully tapped her soul side, and found the prospect somewhat daunting. After an 18-month break from performing, during which she’d finally made peace with her decision and started graduate school, she wasn’t even sure she could still sing.
Despite that fear, and the danger of further heartbreak if she failed, she placed her faith in Cobb and gingerly rekindled a flickering flame of hope. When Macias heard the tracks she’d recorded, he committed to put the full power of Thirty Tigers behind her.
Though enduring what amounted to a break-up with her old identity was painful, Bishop is glad she went through it, because coming out the other side has been nothing short of a rebirth. It’s made her more appreciative of her current success — which includes another Bonnie Raitt cut. “Undone,” a tune Bishop wrote by herself, appears on Raitt’s 2016 Dig in Deep album, another powerful song about regret and loss.
Since the release of “Ain’t Who I Was,” Bishop has been touring all over the US and has made two trips abroad, appearing at the 30A Songwriters Festival, Lulea, Cayamo, AmericanaFest, Maverick Festival, Steamboat Music Fest, and other prestigious gatherings. Her favorite touring partner these days is Mississippi bluesman Paul Thorn, who featured Bishop on several duets on his latest gospel project Don’t Let The Devil Ride.
In 2017, Bishop’s roots called her home to Texas. She has since settled back in Fort Worth, but as Nashville’s establishment and legions of roots-music fans, are now well aware, she ain’t who she was. In fact, the self-described “singer/songwriter/storyteller” has not only spun that “failure” into success she couldn’t fathom just a few years ago, she’s vastly expanded her creative pursuits. For starters, she has been working on a book about her renowned stepfather, who retired in 2002 after 30 years as a head football coach at Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State University.
“I learned so much from him about perseverance — how to get back up after you get knocked down; how to chase a dream — all the things I would need to know to survive the music business,” she says with a laugh.
While she says she doesn’t know how to actually write a book, she has already written several hundred pages of personal memories, as well as typed interviews with former players and coaches who worked with Sherrill. “It’s something I work on when I have free time, but I already know this is a lifetime project. I will keep writing until it is done.”
As for her musical projects, earlier this year Bishop released The House Sessions, a collection of acoustic songs that was recorded in her home. The album mixes stripped down versions of songs from her early catalogue with a few never-before-released tracks.
“I wanted to put new versions of the songs from my earlier albums out there for super fans who loved me before any of the success from Ain’t Who I Was — the fans who have been there from the beginning. They still love those songs and ask for them all the time,” she says.
Released on her 40th birthday this year, House Sessions was a total secret until the day it appeared in fan’s mailboxes. Bishop personally mailed autographed copies to thirty of her most loyal fans, along with a personal note thanking them for believing in her before she believed in herself.
“It was important to me to embrace the journey I’ve been on, even the parts that I used to not be so proud of. Everything I’ve done - right or wrong - has gotten me to where I am today. And I can honestly say, I love who I am and I’m proud of the work I have put out into the world for the last seventeen years.”
When she is not on the road, Bishop is active in her local community as a board member of Hear Fort Worth, which is an arm of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau that supports music, art and film in Fort Worth. She is also passionate about her work with Songwriting With Soldiers, an organization which pairs professional songwriters with veterans and active duty military and uses collaborative songwriting to build creativity, connections, and strengths.
And yes, Bishop has already recorded a follow-up to her life-changing 2016 album. Set to release in Fall of 2019, The Walk was produced by another heavy hitter - legendary drummer Steve Jordan - who Bishop has wanted to work with since first hearing Jordan’s work on John Mayer’s 2008 Continuum album. In many ways, Bishop says her eighth album is a musical departure from her past records but like Ain’t Who I Was, she promises it will be full of soul. And truth.
‘House Sessions' Track Listing:
1. Soft To The Touch
2. Brent Rollins
3. River of Joy
4. Red Moon
5. Better Man
6. Let You Lead
7. Black Mercedes Benz
9. Little By Little
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