Bonnie Bishop was at a low point when she met the producer Dave Cobb in 2014. “I didn’t think I had a future in music,” she tells Billboard. She had moved back home to Texas from Nashville; she was contemplating going to graduate school. But Cobb gave her pause. “Dave Cobb thought it was hilarious that I would even try to be a country singer,” Bishop remembers. “He said, ‘you’re a soul singer. We’re not making a country record.’” The resulting album, Ain’t Who I Was, is Bishop’s first charting title in a nearly 15 year career.
Bishop did not plan on becoming a singer. “I never intended to write music,” she explains. “My senior year of college, a song literally fell out of the sky. I ran back to my apartment, wrote it down, and realized I had written a song.”
The feeling appealed to her – “I became a junkie at that moment for the process” – so she pursued music as a career. “Coming to the end of college, I was terrified to enter the real world,” she recalls. “So I decided I would be a singer, and that’s how I would make a living instead of getting a job.” “I couldn’t even play an instrument at the time,” she continues. “I was just singing and writing. I would get together with guitar players and sing my songs and they would have to figure out what the chords were.”
Bishop played all over Texas: honky tonks, bars, dancehalls. The equation for success was simple – “if you could sell beer and keep people dancing, you had work.” “Gary Clark Jr. was further down the road, and the old Austin blues scene wasn’t in its heyday anymore,” she remembers. “So it was really the Texas country scene that was big at that time. I was kind of trying to make my music fit with the world that I was in, because that’s what I had access to.”
After years on the Texas circuit, Bishop moved to Nashville and landed a publishing deal to hone her songwriting. Ironically, moving to the heart of the country music industry helped her identify her interests beyond it. “I started writing with some really great bluesy guitar players – Al Anderson, Tim Kreckel, Pat McLaughlin.” Despite a pair of big placements – one on the show Nashville, one with Bonnie Raitt – there was still a feeling of nagging discomfort: “I was being what I needed to be to make a living.”
Combined with the grueling struggle to stay afloat in the hypercompetitive music business, this feeling eventually boiled over, and Bishop threw in the towel. “I called it quits,” she says. “I was back home living in Texas with my parents at 35.” She applied to graduate school and was accepted.
But in 2014, she went to the fateful lunch with Cobb, a meeting that came together through David Macias, the head of the label Thirty Tigers. Cobb wasn’t as well-known outside of Nashville circles as he is now – his work on Chris Stapleton’s Traveller was the thing that catapulted him into the spotlight – but he had production credits on acclaimed albums from Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson. Bishop kept her expectations low. “I was just trying to show up,” she says. “At that point in my life, I was so sad that that dream was over. On a daily basis I was just trying to show up and be positive.”
Some artists might be offended to hear a producer dismiss more than a decade of work, but Cobb’s suggestion that Bishop was a soul singer in hiding intrigued her. A year later, she headed into Cobb’s studio with 36 songs. “He just started going down the list on day one. There were some that I wasn’t feeling that he was, and some that he wasn’t feeling that I was. There were compromises that we both made. But there’s only one producer in Dave’s studio, and it’s Dave.”
The majority of Ain’t Who I Was, recorded in six days, aims for the sound of southern soul between 1964 and 1967. “You Will Be Loved” has the easy rising guitar riff that formed the backbone of countless Stax ballads. “Not Cause I Wanted To” features a blues-indebted solo and pronounced organ. Bishop demonstrates her bona fides by covering Anne Sexton’s “Have A Little Mercy,” an early ’70s southern funk obscurity.
Though Bishop was finally showing her love for R&B, she was not used to ceding the reins in the studio. “Had I not spent the last year and a half learning to let go, I would not have been able to have the experience that I had in the studio with [Cobb],” she says. “It was a very freeing experience for me to work with a producer and trust him to the point where I was like ok, you want to change the key, change the arrangement.” She wrote “Looking For You” as a ballad, but it appears on the record as sunny, string-drenched soul. Originally “Too Late” was “a pop song, a cute song with a good beat.” Cobb reworked it heavily, and Bishop spent a whole weekend rewriting the verses. The end result sounds like something Norman Whitfield might have come up with in his early days at Motown.
“Some changes that Dave made at first felt very awkward,” Bishop acknowledges. “But at the end of it all, I was like ‘wow, that’s fricking genius.”
It’s a good time to release a country soul project – this sound has been steadily increasing in popularity in recent years. You can hear it on a number of 2015 releases from both country’s fringes and its mainstream: yes, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and Anderson East’s Delilah – both Cobb projects – but also Billy Currington’s Summer Forever and Brett Eldredge’s Illinois. And the trend doesn’t seem to be going away: try Charles Kelley’s “Lonely Girl” or Jennifer Nettles’ “Unlove You.”
After years of “clinging to a country identity,” Bishop finally feels liberated by her new style. “I’ve been trying to make that record for 14 years,” she says of Ain’t Who I Was. “I feel like I have a whole new lease on life and a new lane.”