On March 12, 2020, in anticipation of her return to Macon alongside her sister and brother-in-law, The Mastersons, I managed to track down Bonnie Whitmore somewhere on tour in New England as we both attempted to figure out what COVID-19 had in store for the future of live music. At the time, there was a reserved resignation, a sense that things could still be up in the air– but gravity doesn’t care for the needs of local writers or working musicians. What began as a few scattered storms became a maelstrom of canceled and postponed dates, tours, and festivals that continues with no immediate end in sight.
Bonnie Whitmore visited The Creek Stage with fellow Texan James McMurty back in January. Borrowing his band to ebb, groove, and roar, Bonnie mostly showcased selections from her 2016 album Fuck With Sad Girls, an excellent collection of glammy alt-country (rock) worth exploring before it’s a follow-up, Last Will & Testament (currently available for pre-order) arrives. Like many artists navigating the current COVID-19 outbreak, Bonnie has taken to streaming shows and is using the opportunity to connect with her musical friends and fans alike. Until we can get her back to Macon, check out her Virtual Gallery schedule and RSVP here.
AI- I was excited to hear that you were working on something new. Tell me about this project, Last Will & Testament. Where’d you record it at? Who’s on the album?
BW- I think of it is kind of like a sequel to Fuck With Sad Girls. It’s a lot of the same players. Scott Davis and I produced it together. We recorded at Ramble Creek, which is the same place we did Fuck With Sad Girls. The biggest difference is instead of having our buddy Jared Hall playing keys– you might know him, he’s based out of Savannah, Georgia now– we had a Trevor Nealon join us on keys. He’s a good friend of Scott’s from the Band of Heathens. And BettySoo also had a prominent role. She was there daily and provided a lot of harmony singing and also put some accordion on it. That was really cool. To have her presence there was really good for me in the studio. She always has really great ideas to throw into the pot and always has a good joke to elevate a situation too.
To me, Fuck With Sad Girls was a record that I started delving into some things that I personally had some vulnerability to. I kinda make a joke about it, but I got more positive reinforcement for that than any negative feedback. Last Will & Testament let me take some of these songs that I’ve been holding back on for the simple fact that they’re harder topics and it’s not just my personal vulnerability. It’s the vulnerability that I think we have culturally. The title track was written after we lost another musician to suicide in Austin. We have this great program in Austin, which I wish was more of a national example. They have the Health Alliance, which is HAAM. It stands for Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. They also have a program called SIMS, which is for mental health as well. I started taking and going to therapy and really taking more of a responsibility to myself. ‘Cause if I want to have these types of conversations and discussions with people, I need to know how to say it in a way that’s actually gonna make sure that I’m being heard rather than just talking into a void and not really expecting people to necessarily hear me. That’s something that’s really hard for people to do right now is to listen.
I’ve had an opportunity to speak to other artists who have mentioned the exact same thing and it doesn’t always feel like the support system is there.
Yeah. And if I’m willing to at least put it out there… I think in a lot of ways, I learned a lot from being from Texas and the Dixie Chicks and how they were kind of harpooned and ostracized for a comment that they made and being told as a struggling musician myself and doing cover songs to not play the Dixie Chicks songs and to just shut up and sing. But I wanted to voice my opinion, so I took that to heart and started writing songs about the things I wanted to talk about. There’s a song on there also called “Ask For It” which is about rape culture– and I make it a sing-along. It’s a call and response. The line in the chorus is, “She’s the kind of girl you said asked for it,” and I ask for the audience to say “Ask for it” back to me. I don’t know if I played that in Macon? I don’t think that I did.
I don’t recall. I believe I would have remembered.
It’s pretty intense, but the times that I have done it, what I realized in therapy is it’s one thing to think something, it’s another thing to say it out loud. It goes even further when you say it out loud and you know you’re being heard saying it. So for me, the audience participation is actually kind of an experiment into therapy because I’m asking people to not just say it, but to be heard saying it. I feel like by the end of the song, they don’t want to sing along anymore– and that’s kind of the point! I don’t want them to think that a woman has ever asked to be harmed like that. We spend a lot of time discussing the perpetrator instead of the victim. I want to give a voice to people that aren’t necessarily getting their stories heard.
Are you feeling that response after the show from people saying, “Thank you for doing this,” or “We’d rather that you did not do this?”
Again, it’s been a positive thing. I have an uncanny ability to speak about things that usually make people very uncomfortable. The response that I’ve gotten, at least, for the most part, has been supportive of that, and the sense of like, “Thank you for saying what nobody else was saying,” or wanting to share their story with me because I’m giving them an opportunity to speak. You take suicide. I think everybody has a personal experience to it one way or the other, but we rarely ever talk about it unless it’s brought up by somebody. I just want to have those hard conversations or at least maybe inspire somebody to try to have them. Not with me necessarily, but with somebody. And to be willing to take away the taboos of mental health and really get to the heart of the issue behind it and how we can help each other heal rather than pointing out our flaws.
When are you looking to have that album out?
Puttin’ it out this summer. My plan was to put it out at the end of May, [but] every day right now is kind of a, “We’ll just see what happens,” as far as when it’s available and when it can be. I’m trying to get vinyl, so that’s really kind of like the hiccup to any delay. But things are probably about to change a lot as far as getting used to having things available to us in a very quick manner. That is definitely gonna be a bit of a hardship that we’re gonna have to adjust to.
Almost directly after that show here in Macon, John Moreland’s latest album, LP5, came out. I opened up the jacket and was pleasantly surprised to see your name listed in the credits– and it really kind of seemed like a blue car syndrome. You know, you buy blue car and then all of a sudden you look around and all you see are blue cars. But in this case, it was the Bonnie Whitmore…
I just started seeing your name everywhere. Getting ready for this interview and going back and listening to albums and looking up interviews and finding things… I’ve been listening to you for much longer than I realized. When you’re not actually touring and playing your music, who else are you out there working in the studio with or on the road with?
I just did a trip with Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, and Jimmy’s son, Colin Gilmore. We went to New Zealand for a little over a week and played a couple of shows over there. Basically, I work with people that I love and I have that privilege of choosing the projects that I get to be part of. BettySoo’s another person. We actually do a trade. We kind of have a bartering system between the two of us. There’s a lot of people I’ve worked with in the past and I’d be more than happy to work with them again. I always feel like it’s just as important to do something and to be participating with others as much as it is to do my own personal thing. I’ve always had that kind of backdoor approach to music in general, and one of the reasons is ’cause I’ve always been a bass player and it’s not easy to do that by yourself. It was always kind of like a good way to get hired and still be able to talk ’em into lettin’ me open up the show! Hayes Carll let me do that with him for a little while. McMurtry is one of the exceptions to that rule. He’s kind enough to let me borrow his band in order to become one myself. That’s definitely an uncommon practice.
That was a cool thing too. The last couple times that I have seen James McMurtry, he was either solo or he had a different band. So I was unfamiliar with Cornbread. That guy’s pretty amazing.
You’d be surprised, the understated efforts of the bass player in anybody’s band. There’s usually more to them– and I’m not just saying it because I am one myself, but it’s something that I’ve recognized in a lot of other people. Cornbread bein’ willin’ to play guitar, I think that was part of the reason why he was willing to play with me is because I wasn’t making him play the bass. He was gettin’ to shine in a different way than he typically gets to, at least with James.
I was curious to know about leading a band as a bass player. I don’t know why it would be different, but the rhythmic style that you use, it’s a lot like Lemmy frontin’ Motorhead, driving everything forward like a lead guitar player normally would. Does it feel different leading a band from behind a bass than it does from behind a six-string?
I had a moment… I lived in Nashville for a few years and I had this band show that I put together and it was Marc Pisapia and James Haggerty– both of them were in a band called Joe, Marc’s Brother– and then it was Audley Freed on guitar, and I had Pete Finney playing pedal steel, and I’m on rhythm guitar… And the whole entire time, I’m looking around and seein’ all these amazing musicians that are playing along with me. James Haggerty is an amazing bass player, and he was having so much fun playing that bass– and I just hated being stuck on that rhythm guitar! He was having all the fun and I was just there, and I didn’t like that! I felt like when I was playing a rhythm guitar, I wasn’t part of the band.
I think from that moment on, and I told James this and I think it kinda hurt his feelings– not too badly– but I told him that was the night that I realized that I wanted to be the bass player in my band. And not because he wasn’t a great bass player ’cause he was. I would say he’s a much, much better bass player than I am, but in order to really feel the joy of that community of being on stage with people, I needed to be the bass player in the band. And that’s where I remain. That’s also the reason why I do a lot of work with other people.