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Bonnie Bishop, From Country Obscurity to Rising Soul Star

Song after song, her voice gets bolder, the applauses get louder, her emotions run higher. She’s weeping now as she sings, belting out lyrics with perfect vocal composure. How, I wonder, is this human making that sound come out of her face? She thanks her family, she thanks her friends. They’re all in the audience, along with people like me, who, until two days ago, had no idea who this artist was. This is Bonnie Bishop’s triumphant homecoming, her declaration as an artist renewed, and it’s been 14 years in the making.

I’ve been invited to watch Bishop perform at the Cactus Cafe, a storied listening room on the University of Texas campus in Austin. This is one of the first shows on Bishop’s tour to promote Ain’t Who I Was, her new album produced by Dave Cobb, the man behind Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell’s best work. After 14 years of struggling in relative obscurity as an indie country artist, Bishop has reinvented herself as a soul singer. I can sense two distinct reactions to her new style. Those who know her are saying, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is you,” and those who don’t know her are going, “Why haven’t I heard of this person before?”

The latter sentiment is due to the fact that Bishop has billed herself as a country singer/songwriter for the majority of her 14-year-long career. On this very campus in 2002, she began writing country songs, adding a tinge of the soul she picked up singing with a black choir in Mississippi during her childhood. After finding the spark to start a career, Bishop spent the next 12 years playing endless gigs in beer joints and dance halls across the U.S. and Europe. She resettled to Nashville, got a publishing deal and wrote songs for a handful of artists, most notably for her idol Bonnie Raitt. Bishop’s song “Not Cause I Wanted To” is on Raitt’s 2014 Grammy-winning album Slipstream. 

But songwriting and the country circuit, especially in Texas, are often unforgiving and unrelenting paths, and in time, they collect their tolls. In 2013, while on a fall European tour, after years of traveling alone, sleeping in her van and setting up shows on her own, she collapsed. Upon returning to Nashville, she had a mental breakdown.

“After [touring] for so long, those voices that we all fight in our heads started to take over because I had 12 years of struggling to as proof that my career was not going anywhere,” Bishop tells me in the lounge of the Driskell Hotel. “I was living in some dream world if I thought this was going to work out. I caved to that negativity, and I kinda lost sight of my faith and why I was doing it.”

So she put her Nashville flat up for rent, plotted a return to her family’s Texas ranch and said her goodbyes. The last phone call she made was to an old friend, David Mecias, who is now the head of the powerhouse Americana label, Thirty Tigers.

“He said, ‘I don’t think your career is over, but I don’t think you’ve ever let anybody help you.’” She’s getting misty eyed. “’You’ve never had a team of people to promote you, and you’ve never been able to work with a producer who’s able to take all of who are you and put it together sonically.'”

Mecias told her that producer was Dave Cobb. She had no idea who that was. But, she trusted Mecias enough to send him three acoustic demos before she left.

Back on her family’s ranch in Wimberley, Texas, Bishop recovered from what felt like years of struggling in wrong directions. She wrote music and stories about everything she’d seen all those years on the road. She reconnected with friends and family. Days were spent with feet dangled in the Blanco River, wondering what would come next. What did come next was a phone call that would change her life.

Mecias explained over the phone that Cobb wanted to have lunch with her in Nashville. Later that week, she flew up to meet him at Noshville Deli. “He was this super cool, rock and roll dude, jean jacket and long hair, and I felt like a total nerd, cause I hadn’t been singing, crying in my pajamas for eight months, writing stories,” Bishop says. “So he’s telling me, I think you’re great, I want to make a record with you, but meanwhile that voice is in the back of my head telling me you’re never going to be anything, you’re never going to make a record.”

Cobb agreed to make the record, but only if she cut it as soul music, not country. At the end of their lunch, he explained he was heading back to the studio to work with a local country artist, Chris Stapleton. This was years before he broke it big, but she already knew his talent, and shared a connection through “Be With You,” a song he’d co-written with her friend, songwriter Tim Krekle. When Krekle died, Bishop performed the song at his funeral and swore that if she ever made another record she would record it. “When he told me he was working with Stapleton, that was like a little bell in my head that some signs are starting to match up.”

So Cobb and Mecias agreed to put recording time on the books in one year, so long as Bishop came up with the $10,000 to cover production. Two weeks before production, Bishop had yet to come up with the money. Panicked, Bishop called an old friend, who convinced her to just show up without the money and get the work done. “I was scared shitless,” she says. But Cobb never asked for the money. They simply got to work. Cobb took Bishop’s material and reshaped it, stripped it down, changed tempos, and made it as raw as possible. Bishop says it was a chaotic process, but she knew she had to trust him.

“His process is very beautiful and free,” Bishop tells me. “Dave Cobb is absolutely fearless. He hears a song and is like ‘Damn I like that,’ and immediately starts making it and then records it in the next 5-10 minutes. He gets inspired, falls in love, and then runs with it.” At one point, he gathered the musicians and engineers together to play an old scratch take of Otis Redding’s “Dreams.” “It was raw, you could hear the band’s making mistakes, but there was this soul, like heartbeat to that track.” That raw quality is a hallmark of Cobb’s work, and you can hear it all over this record. “He did what I tried 12 years to do, which is to pull out the soul influences,” she says.

Towards the end of the production, they realized they needed another song. Cobb left the room and called his cousin, rising artist Brent Cobb. Bishop phoned fellow Texan songwriter Adam Hood. Little did they know both of those guys were sitting in the same room on the other end, writing songs together. They came to the studio later that day with what they’d written. Dave cracked a bottle of tequila and passed out shots. As Bishop listened to the song, she cried. What they wrote summed up the heart-wrenching process of what she had gone through in the past year almost better than she could have described it herself. Here’s that song:

When the album was finished, Bishop still hadn’t come up with the money. She knew she had a great record on her hands but was terrified it wouldn’t be covered. “He thought I was this badass singer, and I was just trying not to show up and break down when he goes, ‘Hey by the way, I haven’t gotten my check from my manager,’” Bishop laugh. “So I’m terrified. Every time Dave called, literally, that’s what I was thinking.”

Around day six when they were in the mixing phase, Cobb and Bishop invited Mecias from Thirty Tigers to come hear what they’d made. He sat down at the mixing board, placed his hands over his eyes and listened to the whole first track. “He just sat up and said, ‘I knew I was right, you were supposed to work with Dave Cobb.’ And at the end of the recording process, he said ‘I got you.’”

Mecias has put the whole power of Thirty Tigers behind this record. For the first time in her life, Bishop has a team managing nearly every aspect of her career. “I got my first record deal after I quit and survived the age that I thought there’s no way it’s gonna happen for you if it hasn’t happened at this point. A year and a half after that is when I actually achieved what I’ve worked for the last 14 years.”

For the encore of her Cactus Cafe show, Bishop returns to her keyboard alone. “There’s only one way to end a show like that — with the truth,” she says, striking the first bars of “Amazing Grace.” She’s smiling and crying, looking more reflective than she’s been the entire night. She brings up a friend from the crowd, a tall black woman whom she used to sing gospel with. As they sing together, the audience joins. What sounds like the swell of a Baptist choir rises up from the bar in the back of the room. In four minutes, this tiny room is filled with so much emotion that it desperately needs to exhale. What did I just watch? I wonder. Then it hits me: greatness.

Ain’t Who I Was is out today (May 27). Catch Bishop on tour in a city near you. For a list of her current tour dates, click here

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Bonnie Bishop, From Country Obscurity to Rising Soul Star