Bonnie Bishop on Who She Is and Isn't

The singer’s new album and how she almost walked away from music

Bonnie Bishop on Who She Is and Isn't
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Bar eavesdroppers might have gotten an earful back in September when Bonnie Bishop recounted her music industry version of "I quit." The conversation had all of the hallmarks of a 100-proof confession you only share with strangers. Two UT grads at a near-empty Threadgill's World Headquarters, sipping margaritas and wondering how the hell the Longhorns – playing on the screen mounted in front of them – could be losing to Cal for the second year in a row, deepened their dialogue commensurate to their consumption of tequila.

"We come to these points, these impasses in our lives, and you have to ask yourself, 'Is this a dead end?'" wondered Bishop to this fellow alum. "If it is, then there's no other way: You've gotta do something else. You've gotta get out of the car. I got to a point where I needed out.

"Maybe it's no one else's fault," concluded the singer about a career she spent 12 years on the road trying to get off of the ground. "I made these choices."

The 37-year-old certainly sounded like a woman who had enough, someone chewed up and spit out by the Nashville country scene on which she toiled for eight years. Now she was retreating back to Austin, where she began gigging at 18. The musician taking Threadgill's outdoor stage to a rapt audience later that night in support of a career album from May sounded anything but ready to throw in the towel.

The defining point of Bishop's career sounds perilously close to an ending. In Nashville, where she moved hoping to land a publishing deal, her song "Not 'Cause I Wanted To" roped in both Bonnie Raitt and a Grammy. Another composition made it onto now-canceled hit TV show Nashville, performed by the show's main character Rayna Jaymes – played by Friday Night Lights icon Connie Britton. Despite sporadic successes, Bishop's act, which once filled a 15-passenger van she drove across the country, had been whittled down to a one-woman show.

"I moved to Nashville with a big chip on my shoulder," she admitted. "I didn't trust anybody, and I wouldn't let anybody help me. I struggled the last couple years before I quit. I discovered you really can't be an island. It's true for our personal lives and it's true for our professional lives."

After five self-released country albums, Bishop hung up her cleats – so to speak. Her stepdad and mentor, Jackie Sherrill, one of the winningest coaches in college history, ran football at Texas A&M and Mississippi State. His career left a profound impression on his homefront charge.

"I grew up in that football mentality," acknowledged Bishop. "Dad always said, 'Keep your head up, your ass up, and keep digging. Keep pushing to the goal.' That's what I thought I was doing, but I really wasn't getting anywhere."

Like football, hard work and dedication offer little guarantee of success in the music business, and Bishop's dogged pursuit had left her without a clear path forward.

"I knew I had twisted something very beautiful that I had been given in order to advance my life," she said. "It was almost like my identity was a struggling artist. I didn't feel the joy from it anymore. And I feared I had blown my chance to really sing and live out the true purpose of that gift."

After licking her wounds in Nashville, she returned to Texas in 2014 to stay with her parents, who had relocated to Dripping Springs. "Now what?" included a brief stint in a graduate creative writing program at Sewanee University. Then a chance, 11th hour encounter with Thirty Tigers co-founder David Macias as she was exiting Tennessee came into play. He had tried to dissuade her from leaving, so she sent him a few demos before hightailing it for the Texas Hill Country.

Months later, out of the blue, she received a call from Dave Cobb. A big shot producer who helped launch the careers of Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, he'd listened to the demos Macias sent him and wanted to work with Bishop under one condition: They would not be making a country album. Bishop, Cobb insisted, was a soul singer.

"I never really asked myself what kind of music turns me on," she recalled of her early days playing dance halls and country bars in Texas. "I was just trying to make a living and be relevant. When Dave Cobb gave me permission to be a soul singer, that opened up something in my brain."

It loosened something in her voice, too. Spring's Ain't Who I Was, her sixth album and first release on a label (Thirty Tigers), shows off an unfettered side of Bishop's once constrained alto. She cuts open into deep, almost guttural moans that spill unbarred vulnerability.

"I showed up to the microphone scared shitless," she said of entering a studio after two years out of the game.

Yet that freedom from the shackles of expectation Bishop had locked herself in for years allowed her voice to swell and weep in just the right points. Her singing toed the line of a Dusty Springfield retro vibe but with much more gusto. This time, her takeaway from the sessions was clear.

"That's why the album is called Ain't Who I Was," explained Bishop. "Because at the end of that period of reflection, I can say definitively that I know who I am, I know where I'm going, and I know what I'm going to do. I'm absolutely changed from the inside out because of what I've been through."

On our mid-September afternoon in Downtown Austin – the city she planned to permanently relocate to in the next few weeks – Bishop knew one thing about her story: "Nothing about it is sad," she said. "It's all about the ups and downs in life."

Let's hope any bar eavesdroppers kept tuned in not long enough for the end of her story, but the beginning.

Bonnie Bishop’s first show as a renewed local is Friday, Dec. 2, at 3ten ACL Live. Graham Wilkinson opens. Beforehand, 5pm, Bishop plays in-store at Waterloo Records.

Bishop 5

Bonnie Bishop (2002) Bishop's four-song debut showcases Hill Country sensibilities more than root Nashville influences she adopted later.

Long Way Home (2004) Joyful cowboy-country, polished in Lone Star dance halls for two-steppers, dominates Bishop's full-length bow.

Soft to the Touch (2005) Emotive ballads from her second album dropped many hints that her voice belongs in the full-tilt soul Touch-ed on here.

Things I Know (2009) Plaintive songwriting abounds, the production catching up to Bishop's soaring vocals.

Free (2012) Tears in your beer chronicle the ups and downs of relationships set to the key of country.

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Bonnie Bishop, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Cobb, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Thirty Tigers, Connie Britton, Nashville

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