Bonnie Bishop has been plugging away at a country music career for over a decade and, while not a household name, she has experienced some significant successes. Bonnie Raitt covered her song “Not Cause I Wanted To” (co-written with NRBQ’s Big Al Anderson) on her Grammy Award-winning Slipstream in 2013, and it was voted a Song of the Year by the New York Times. Another of her compositions of her compositions was given voice by the character Rayna James on the ABC series Nashville. Bishop has earned a reputation as a dynamic live performer, touring with road warriors like Radney Foster, Robert Earl Keene, and Paul Thorn.
But even these successes were not enough to earn a secure income, and Bishop was ready to throw in the towel on her music career following her 2012 album Free. She left Nashville and returned to her native Texas after the emotional and physical stress of the industry threatened to overtake her. She enrolled in the creative writing program at Sewanee: The University of the South and began work on the highly personal “Story & Song” project, a by-subscription audio-visual podcast that began in 2015. In the meantime, Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb, who has worked with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, contacted Bishop with an intriguing idea: Why not harness her raspy, expressive voice in the service of soul instead of straight-forward country? Her excellent comeback record, Ain’t Who I Was is the result.
The press materials make much of this transition, but Ain’t Who I Was is not exactly a departure. Bishop has always been something of an outlier within the Nashville scene. Her 2004 debut Long Way Home was filled with country-tinged jangle pop while 2009’s Things I Know mixed ballads with some downright hard rockers. She introduced a more bluesy vibe to her country stylings on 2012’s Free. That album opens with the boogie-woogie piano-driven “Keep Using Me”, while “Shrinking Violet” is driven by echoey blues guitar and, possibly a nod to what was to come (even if we had to wait four years), “The Best Songs Come from Broken Hearts” offered a soulful, slow-burning self-reflection. It’s ironic that this song that was used to celebrate the comeback of a fictional character on Nashville might be understood as something of a farewell to that town on behalf of its writer. But if Bishop has left Nashville behind, she has certainly not let go of her muse.
So, the groundwork for Ain’t Who I Was had already been firmly set in Bishop’s previous work. That said, Cobb’s production and her songwriting collaborators, particularly Jimmy Wallace, who also provides the soulful organ accompaniment throughout the album, serve to draw out some of the most intense and engaging vocal work of Bishop’s career.
“What more can you ask for when you got a fool like me?” Bishop asks in opener “Mercy” accompanied by Leroy Powell’s slinky guitar and Brian Allen’s Muscle Shoals-inspired bass groove. The rawness in her voice amplifies the feeling of longing in “Be with You”, a songwriting contribution from Chris Stapleton and one among many strong potential singles on the album. Another, the Stax-inspired “Too Late” sounds like it could have been a radio staple during the dawn of the disco-era 1970s and shows off Bishop’s songwriting chops: “I’ll always love you babe / but it’ll never be the same / I killed the love we made together / There is nothing left of us / I am not the girl I was / Ash to ash and dust to dust, it’s true.”
Bishop’s voice is one of pure yearning in the gospel-tinged “Poor Man’s Melody” as she sings “Let the waters wash me clean… Blind my eyes until your light is all I see / Until Love is all I need”. Meanwhile “Broken” displays a pleading vulnerability that evolves into a declaration of self-empowerment. “You Will Be Loved” is as fine an album closer as can be, a slow jam that builds to an unexpected crescendo as Bishop ups the intensity of each promise she makes.
Ain’t Who I Was is a triumphant return to recording, and a rejuvenated Bishop is on the road this summer with a crack band to support the songs. It’s easy to recommend that fans of Bonnie Raitt and Chris Stapleton should buy this record or head out to a show, but Bishop’s appeal is even broader. Bishop should be talked about in the company of Americana favorites like Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin. Bishop sounds nothing like either (though anyone who enjoyed Williams’ country-soul exercise Where the Spirit Meets the Bone should find similar pleasures in Ain’t Who I Was); rather, she has paid her dues and honed her skills in equal measure to develop into a dynamic performer and singular artist.