Country Music

Bonnie Bishop Takes Over as New Queen of Country Soul

It’s a bit of an understatement to suggest that Nashville wasn’t exactly kind to Bonnie Bishop. A Houston native and graduate of Stratford High School, Bishop moved to Nashville after signing a publishing deal to hone her skills as a musician. After six years of singer-songwriter nights, producing albums and writing songs, though, Bishop wasn’t much better off than when she started.

So she quit. “I had been trying so hard for so long. I felt like I still didn’t have a manager, I still didn’t have a real booking agent,” says Bishop. “I’d never had a real label offer. I’d reached the age of 35 and still wasn’t making a living." In 2014, Bishop waved good-bye to Nashville and the music business, deciding instead to head off to graduate school.

Everything started to change, though, when Dave Cobb, arguably the hottest producer in country music right now, came calling. Bishop’s 2016 release, Ain’t Who I Was, soon followed. With its gut-wrenching blend of country, blues, soul and Bishop's sultry, gravelly alto, Ain't Who I Was continues the trend of up-and-coming country artists who have waited years to get their due, and is already poised to be one of the best country albums of the year.

What came next, though, was pretty damn unexpected. The album has quickly earned praise from critics at The New York Times and National Public Radio, and Bishop’s current tour has sold out dates across the country.  Now that she's 37 years old, Bishop’s career is in a better place than it’s ever been.

But in her mind, none of this success would have ever really been possible without those years of frustration in Nashville. “A lot of great things came out of living there for me. When you live in an industry town, you find out what you’re made of,” she says. “At the six-month mark, you either go home or realize you have to get better. The musicians and the writers there, they train like athletes and it really pushes you to be your best.”

When Bishop got the call from Dave Cobb, she was working part-time in a clothing store and writing short stories as she attended graduate school. She brought a list of songs she’d written to Cobb, who chose the best cuts for the album. “He didn’t know that I had given up on my career, so he was catching a very raw side of me and wasn’t even really aware,” says Bishop. “He knew that he wanted to make a record that really showed the soul in my voice. What he didn’t know is that soul came from the pain that I was in. It was raw; I was lost. What he caught on that record was me being completely vulnerable and scared shitless.”

Once the record was finished, Bishop finally started to believe that the timing might have been right all along. The success of Ain’t Who I Was comes directly on the heels of successes from Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, both of whom didn’t see any major traction as solo artists until their mid-thirties. The industry had finally begun to pay attention to artists who didn’t fit the narrow definition of what it had long meant to be a country artist, carving out the perfect niche for a bluesy, country-twanged chanteuse like Bonnie Bishop.

“I never thought that I would be breaking out at age 37, especially as a female. That never happens,” says Bishop. “But I think that a lot of things have happened in our business. Guys like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton really defy the industry standards, both sonically and in terms of age, of what it means to be a country singer. Those guys helped create an opportunity that didn’t even exist for me three or five years ago. There’s always a timing for everything and when I started to lose hope, this miracle happens and I’m finally getting my chance.”

Bishop’s trajectory is starting to look a whole lot like that of Bonnie Raitt – in more ways than one. As with Bishop, Raitt’s success came later in life – the latter's breakout hit was released when she was 39 – and the vocal parallels between the two are unmistakable. It’s a comparison for which Bishop is deeply grateful. “It doesn’t intimidate me — it makes me feel like part of a really elite tribe,” says Bishop. “It makes me feel validated because those are the people that I look up to. I’ve listened to Bonnie Raitt when I was a little girl.”

Still, despite sold-out shows in Nashville and critical success, Music City still doesn’t feel like the right fit, so Bishop is figuring out how to come back home to Texas. “Nashville was a whole bunch of really hard learning experiences that I wouldn’t have had any other way, but it never has felt like home,” she says. “It made me a better writer and a better performer, but I’m in the process of figuring how to move back to Texas.”

And finally, the time might be right for that, too. In the beginning of her career, Bishop never quite felt at home in the Texas music scene. “My stuff has never been down-the-middle country. Even when I was trying to make country music, I was singing it like a soul singer,” she says. “In Texas, I was playing these honky-tonk bars, places where I was expected to sell beer and keep people dancing because that’s what the Texas music scene was. There wasn’t enough of what I needed in Texas to sustain my career.”

Now, though, thanks to organizations like the Texas Music Office, that may soon be changing. “The Texas Music Office is doing a lot to bring Texas musicians back home. They don’t want Texas artists to have to leave to make a living,” she says. “That’s part of my draw of wanting to come back home. With the success that I’m having now, I’d love to be part of creating more of a music industry in Texas.”

In the meantime, Bishop will continue to tour across the country. A new record isn’t in the works just yet – in fact, Bishop says she hasn’t written in six months. Now that she’s happy and successful, the material seems a bit harder to come by these days. For now, she’s finally enjoying the validation she’s awaited for so long.

It’s a validation that probably never would’ve come if she hadn’t decided to walk away from music entirely. “It was the letting go that enabled me to finally accept the gift that I have and to walk into this calling and accept these opportunities and show up and sing and be joyful in all of this,” she says. “But it feels like something I didn’t do; it all feels way bigger than me.”

Bonnie Bishop performs tonight at 7 (acoustic) and 9:30 p.m. at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.

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Amy McCarthy is a food writer and country music critic who splits time between Dallas and Houston. Her music writing is regularly featured in the Houston Press and has also appeared in Texas Monthly, Salon, VICE, Playboy, and Pitchfork.