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Posted October 25, 2020 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Bonnie Whitmore Takes Up ‘Hard Conversations’ on New Album

Bonnie Whitmore photo by Eryn Brooke
Bonnie Whitmore photo by Eryn Brooke

For two decades now, singer-bassist Bonnie Whitmore has played with celebrated alt-country acts such as Hayes Carll, John Moreland, Eliza Gilkyson, Sunny Sweeney, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. Prior to the pandemic shutdown, Whitmore held down a weekly residency at Continental Club Gallery in Austin,where she lives. 

On Last Will and Testament, her follow-up to 2016’s Fuck with Sad Girls, Whitmore takes on issues such as suicide, rape culture and loss. The well-crafted album draws from blues, jazz and rock. “My goal for this record is to inspire people to have hard conversations,” says Whitmore in a press release about the album. “But I definitely subscribe to writing pop music, with catchy lyrics and repeating phrases.” 

She wrote “None of My Business” after the 2015 terror attacks in Paris and penned the title track after losing a musician friend to suicide. 

Whitmore, who got her start touring in a band with her parents Alex and Marti and older sister Eleanor (now one-half of alt-country outfit the Mastersons with husband Chris Masterson), co-produced the record with Scott Davis, who also co-wrote the track “Right/Wrong.” They recorded at Ramble Creek Studioin Austin with engineer Britton Biesenherz. Craig Bagby (drums), Trevor Nealon (keyboards), and BettySoo (backing vocals, accordion), all members of Whitmore’s band the Sad Girls, play on the record. 

In a recent phone call from her Austin home, Whitmore spoke about the album. 

Your mother was an opera singer. What kind of influence did she have on you?
Oh my goodness. She wasn’t just an opera singer; she was also a voice teacher. While she wasn’t always giving us lessons, she always let us know when we weren’t doing it properly. I do credit her even though I used to get annoyed. She taught us the importance of annunciating your words. If you’re a songwriter and no one can understand you, what good is that.  What always amazed me was to hear her teach other students. I really absorbed a lot that. When I would hear a woman come in with a painful sounding voice, it was great to hear it ring out after a couple of months in a way that is soothing and pleasant. That’s a credit to her ability to teach. She definitely had the diva aspect. We had that aspiration, my sister and I. Both my sister and I were in orchestras, so we had a lot of connection with classical music. My mom would take us to the Dallas Opera and trade off me and my sister Eleanor, who got to see more of the advanced operas than I did. And yet, there’s still death and mayhem because it’s an opera.

At what age did you learn how to play an instrument?
We started early in the family. The first instrument I picked up was a violin, but since my sister was already proficient at it, that didn’t feel right to me. When I was 8, I started playing bass guitar to accompany my dad and our family band. I ended up doing cello in orchestra too. 

What was it like to tour at such a young age?
We were always a traveling family, so that was never anything that was out of the ordinary for me. I became aware of that when I started going to school and talking about what I did over the summer. No one else was flying airplanes to random places to play gigs with their family. You don’t know what’s not normal until it’s pointed out to you. My dad is retired but he flew for Delta for a number of years. He also owned and worked on antique airplanes. There were fly-ins. We would go this random place in Iowa where there were other people with antique airplanes. We would hang out with them and play music for the pilots. We would go to Terlingua, Texas every year for New Year’s and my first gig was at La Tiva Resort. We played there as Daddy and the Divas on New Year’s Day for at least ten years running. 

Talk about moving to Austin in 2001. What was that transition like?
I had graduated from high school. I wanted to strike out on my own and wanted to play music. Since I was 15, I had played in bands in North Texas. I wanted to check out Austin. I had played a couple of shows there. I was in a band that opened a couple of times for Reckless Kelly. I knew how much music was in town. Within a few months of being there, I met up with Shelley King, who invited me to do some songs. I toured with her for a while. One of the first gigs I played with her was at the Continental Club. I wasn’t even old enough to be in the Continental Club. I was able to get in, and I love the community. Not everyone knows what community mean, and it’s amazing what they do here in Austin for that. 

You spent a few years in Nashville too?
It’s always been a music town for me. I went from Denton to Austin to Nashville. If music wasn’t a big part of it, I don’t know if I could’ve lived in the city. Nashville was cool. Things have come at me as a side player and bass player. That specific instrument is very much about accompanying others. You don’t usually see people out there alone with their bass. I have always had that backdoor approach. I had a really good friend Mando Saenz, who was putting out a record, and I wanted to get more into it. I wanted to tour with him and lived in Nashville. Nashville has some of the best musicians in the world. To be part of that ethos and make good friends was great. I worked at the [East Nashville club] the Family Wash. The owner Jamie [Rubin] cultivated a music hang in there, and I met some of my favorite musicians there. You have these out-of-body experiences. You have your head explode, but it’s so normalized there. For one of my first gigs with Mando, he had Kenny Vaughan playing with him. I didn’t actually know who he was. I asked him what he did and he said he toured with Marty Stuart. I was like, “Shit!” I learned a lot from being around those guys a lot. That made me a better songwriter.

You moved back to Austin and then got a weekly gig at the Continental Club. When did you get that gig? 
I’ve had that for a little over three years. My church is Wednesday nights with James McMurtry and John Dee Graham. They offered me Thursday nights, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I get friends coming through town who join me, but I’ve now taken the concept and made it into a virtual platform [since the Continental Club has closed due to COVID-19). I’ve kept that going, and we take 20 percent of what we make and donate it to the Continental Club’s staff fund. We try to help people out when we can. I consider venues like churches, and that’s my church. 

What kind of response did you get to your last album, Fuck with Sad Girls?
That came out in 2016, and I was expecting more pushback, and I got overwhelming love. To me, that record is really vulnerable because it’s a lot of my personal stories I’m putting in there. It made it so much easier to start talking about these taboo conversations. I was writing these songs exploring those topics, and it gave me more courage to put out something like Last Will and Testament. The subjects are suicide and rape culture and gun reform. There’s all these underlying tones to it. I took that “shut up and sing” thing real literally.

I thought, “Ok, if you don’t want me to talk about certain things, I’m going to sing songs about them. I’m going to sing about the things I want to talk about.”

Was the title track the first song you wrote for the album?
A lot of these songs just came at different times. One of the oldest songs is “Ask For It.” I wrote that one after I heard Todd Akins, the representative from Missouri, say that if a woman is legitimately raped, she can’t get pregnant. It was his way of trying to get around the abortion topic. I was pissed. I initially played that song a few years ago at the Continental Gallery, and it felt like the air was being sucked out of the room. I don’t think anyone was prepared for it. We hadn’t gone through “Me Too.” It was still a fringe topic. I needed things to progress a little before that song could be taken in. Making it a sing-along gets in one more in that direction. It’s an interesting and therapeutic experiment with the audience when I’ve done it live. People are enthusiastic at the beginning because call-and-response is so easy, but by the end of it, they don’t want to say it anymore. I think that’s good. It’s a cool thing to witness, honestly. That song needed more time for that topic and subject to develop more. There’s so much shame and fear. I want to bring these topics up and give people a safe space to discuss them. 

Not to take anything away from what you said, but I also love the song’s guitar solo, which gives it a real intensity that goes along with the lyrics. 
Totally. I love the fact that I’m singing and the guitar is struggling to overtake that note. It’s the opera singer influence on me that I want the music to lend itself to the story of the lyrics. 

What was it like to record at Ramble Creek?
I’ve had a few chances to work with Britton Biesenherz, who’s the engineer there. It’s a great room for recording live. He’s got it dialed in. I met him through my friend Graham Weber. I loved the sounds he got, and we recorded Fuck with Sad Girls there. I think of this record as a sequel to it. It’s a lot of the same players. I felt that Scott [Davis’s] voice fit with mine and we both had good ideas and could feed off each other. We all turn into our 12-year selves with adult proficiency and we go and have fun in Never Never Land making these records. I love hearing everyone shine. Trevor Nealon, who plays the keys, is incredible. You’ve probably hear him plenty with Band of Heathens. He’s a great player and a great hang. He’s always willing to go a little bit weird if I ask him. Britton considers himself a curmudgeon, but he’s a big teddy bear. It’s fun. It’s a lot of joy that happens when we make the record. It’s my favorite part about making music. I know not everybody feels that way, and I’m so confused by that, but I get it. I have been in situations where the producer is in charge and making sure the group is getting the sounds he hears. With these guys, we push each other, but my reaction is more like “I love what you did; keep doing that” versus “I want you to play it like this.” 

The album has so much sonic depth. 
Scott and I hear a lot of things as an orchestra. Some people like less is more as an approach. I take each song as an individual one. I’m not sure how we do it that makes it cohesive, but we seem to be able to do it. It’s strange to have what I consider to be a punk rock song along with a jazz song, but somehow they go together in a cinematic way almost. 

Any chance you’ll be able to tour behind the record sometime soon?
I did a little show in my backyard with Jon Dee [Graham], who is actually in my pod. I’m gently testing the waters. There’s certain things I’m willing to say okay to. I was talking to my friend from the Continental, and he was planning for spring of 2021. That’s what we’re going to look toward. If it isn’t, we have to do what we’ve been doing. Fingers crossed that things start to get better. 

Photo: Eryn Brooke


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.