Bonnie Bishop's Journey from Starkville to Soul
When the roll of thunder comes
Rolling like a distant drum
And my ship is lost at sea
That’s when you rescue me
When I have nowhere left to hide
The world has stripped me of my pride
I come crawling on my knees
Beggin’ you to carry me
“Poor Man’s Melody” by Bonnie Bishop
Bonnie Bishop is a Texan, seventh generation, but some of her biggest life lessons came from a playground and a football field in Starkville, Mississippi. Lessons about singing with soul and getting back up when you have been knocked down.
Her parents divorced when she was seven and later her mother started dating a man with a car dealership. They had been together for two years when he flew to Mississippi in the summer of 1991 for a job interview. The next night Bishop was flipping through TV channels with her mom and sister and her mom’s boyfriend, Jackie Sherrill, was on ESPN accepting the head football coaching job at Mississippi State.
“What the hell did that mean? We had never even seen a football game and knew nothing about football. Mom was so mad that she didn’t talk to him for three days. He flew home with a ring and proposed and said he loved us and wanted us to go with him and be a family.”
They married on August 2nd and two-a-day practices started the next day The family moved to Starkville and Bishop lived there through junior high and part of high school.
Sherrill had Bishop work with him on the sidelines carrying the cord to his headphones. His two rules were “pay attention to the ball” and “stay” close, and she learned the hard way to follow them.
“I think Jackie understood he had an angry 12-year-old girl on his hands and he didn’t know how to handle girls,” she says. “He realized the only way for us to get to know each other was if I came into his world. In the beginning, I wasn’t good at his rules. He took off running down the sidelines and when he outran the cord, his head would snap back and the headphones would fly off. He would scream my ass out. That happened a lot because I would lollygag or look at the players or the crowd.”
One game she wasn’t paying attention and heard, “Ball!” She looked up and saw No. 66 — a 6-foot-6, 420-pound offensive lineman named Jason Weisner — coming at her, fast.
“Bam. It was lights out for me on the sidelines,” Bishop says. “They stopped the game. I was laying on the ground and my pride was hurt worse than anything because all of the players were laughing at me.”
Sherrill wouldn’t let anyone help her up saying, “She can get up on her own.”
“I wanted him to reach down, pick me up and hold me and ask me if I was okay,” she says. “But it didn’t happen like that and I realized that wasn’t how I was going to be treated on the sidelines. I would have to be tough and get up on my own. I pulled myself up, brushed my ass off and limped along the sidelines the rest of the game.”
She never took her eye off the ball again and that lesson has been her strength and motivation in the music business. She knew she was talented, and by 23 she thought she would be the “next Britney Spears.” But music, like working the sidelines, has humbled her and brought out her perseverance.
“I had my ass kicked repeatedly with many lessons about music and building character,” she says. “You have to be tough enough to survive and to keep digging deep. It is not about being famous or proving to anyone that I can do this. God gave me a gift to sing and it can make a positive difference and impact people’s lives. I feel honored that I have that gift and will dig deeper to develop what it takes.”
Songwriting began in college when she was walking her dog and a song seemed to fall out of the sky. She ran home and wrote it down.
“The light went off for creating something out of nothing and it turned me on so much that I got to enter this magical world that I can create with no tools. I couldn’t even play an instrument.”
She started writing and performing gigs during a time when there weren’t many women playing bars in Texas. “I knew I could hang with the boys because I was raised with dudes who taught to be tough and not act like a girl,” she says. “I could sleep in the worst of conditions, live in a van, drink beer and live on chicken wings. I was determined to prove I was tough enough. That was my career for the first six years in the honky-tonk scene in Texas. I taught myself to play guitar and piano but girls couldn’t get as far as the guys did. Even though I was tough, I was still writing a lot of ballads. That doesn’t go over well when people are drinking.”
At 28, she felt like she reached a ceiling in Texas and moved to Nashville and got a publishing deal as soon as she settled in. Music publisher Bobby Rymer taught her how to work on songs as a craft and a job instead of just writing songs to deal with emotions.
“Bobby taught me to turn the phone off and work on songs five days a week,” she says. “He helped me look at my songs objectively and understand my job is to make people feel what I want them to feel. Every line needs to serve the song. I started looking at my work that way down to the prepositions and conjunctions.”
“I love to write and words became my passion. I want to say something that impacts people in a positive way with my songs and share the lessons I have learned and the beauty I have found.”
Bishop is open and vulnerable on stage, sharing stories of her life, the pain she has been through and the hope she has today.
Her song “Bad Seed” makes a joke about the time her mom and Sherrill decided it was for her own good to leave Starkville and the football environment when she was 16. Sometimes she tells the story on stage.
“I had started to spread my wings and define myself and my boundaries in a small town but that is hard when your dad is famous. My mom and Jackie made the decision that hanging out on the sidelines and being a rugrat on the football team wasn’t good for me. All of a sudden I was sent back to Houston and all kinds of rumors started.”
“I reached the point where this was no longer about me,” she says. ”As an artist, we express things that other people are afraid to say and examine ourselves on the level that other people are afraid to dig. It is ripping out your heart and being vulnerable. I am now comfortable with that, but the older I get, the shyer I feel. I give the deepest part of me on stage and when it is over, I just want to go read a book. I bare my soul and read my journal on stage in front of strangers, but I feel useful and connected in strangers’ lives. We all want something real.”
Even with some major success, including the song “Not ‘Cause I Wanted To,” on Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning album Slipstream, and “The Best Songs Come From Broken Hearts,” on the TV show Nashville, her career didn’t take off the way she wanted. She was 35 and divorced, living in a 750-square-foot apartment on Music Row with a cat. No manager. No record deal. She did her own bookings and albums were funded by fans (she recorded five independent records). She quit in 2014, after 12 years of “pushing the wheelbarrow up the hill by myself.”
“I was tired and poor and never created a successful, profitable business,” she says. “I questioned if I was meant to do this. It was humbling because I had made it about the wrong things for the wrong time. I almost felt punished because I hadn’t done it for the right reasons.
I was on tour driving six to eight hours by myself and setting up all of my stuff, playing, selling the merchandise, then driving three hours after the show by myself. I got really sick on that tour and broke out in hives and started having panic attacks. My body couldn’t do that anymore.”
She retreated to her parents’ ranch outside Austin, crying, shuffling around in her pajamas and writing in her journal. As she wrote down the stories, she started to see her painful music career as something beautiful even though it hadn’t worked out the way she wanted it to.
“I realized I had dug deep, persevered and made a difference,” she says. “I started to love myself again and realized God was with me all through it. Maybe I only had 30-to-50 people at a show, but I had an impact on them and should feel good about that. That took the weight off.”
Then she was handed an Oxford American magazine after singing backup for Lee Roy Parnell at an “Austin City Limits” show. Flipping through the magazine, she found an advertisement for Suwanee’s School of Letters Master’s program and thought it was time to change and try another kind of life. She wrote five non-fiction short stories and drove a packet of those, and song lyrics, to Suwanee to submit the application in time. She was accepted into the program.
“All of the guilt and shame I felt about having failed started to melt away, and I started to have a joy about the creative process,” she says. “I started reading and cooking and embracing my inner nerd and fell in love with life in a whole new way. I let go of worry about what other people thought or if they had thought I failed.”
While she was in school and moving on with her life, Nashville came looking for her. David Macias, who runs 30 Tigers record company, had been a fan on the fringe. Before Bishop left Nashville, she had sent him songs she’d written that had never been heard and he was intrigued.
“He told me I had the talent but struggled in my career because I didn’t have a team and wasn’t focused. It was interesting to hear that. My Texas pride and tough skin had said I was going to make it on my own and that I didn’t need anyone. Being in a male-dominated world, I acted like I was okay, but I wasn’t okay. I am a vulnerable and sensitive person and I had acted tough for so long and people thought I was tough and that I didn’t need help.
“I learned I had imprisoned myself in my own pride.”
Macias sent the songs to producer Dave Cobb who produced Grammy-winning albums for Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. Cobb liked her voice but said she was not a country singer and they would not make a country record.
“No one had ever said that I should sing with soul, but that was how I started singing at Armstrong Middle School in Starkville. I was one of three white girls in the choir. The black girls all had that rasp and soul from singing in church and I wanted to sing like that. They pulled me in their harmony circles at recess and I asked about the rasp. They said, “Girl, that is singing with soul.’
She was committed to Suwanee and felt good about who she had become, but there were people who believed in her soulful sound and wanted to pay for her to make a record. She was signed and they hired a booking agent. For the first time she had a team.
“Suddenly I had people who cared about me and my music. The beauty is that I had let it all go and God brought the music back. This last year has been a different experience. I am making music again and realizing there are a lot of people who love and support me.”
Even with support, she was vulnerable in the studio because she had to face her fears and turn control over to Cobb. She was scared to sing.
“Dave has a very strong personality. When you are in the studio with him, there is only one producer in the room and it ain’t you. The record came out in my most vulnerable state but Dave pulled all of it out and framed it in soul music. He reconnected me to the music I grew up listening to, and with those girls singing on the playground. It all came full circle in a way I never expected.”
Her favorite song on the record is “Poor Man’s Melody.” She wrote it at a low moment when she sold the 16-passenger van she had been touring and living in on the road to a band from Nashville about to go on their first cross-country tour. She threw in the trailer.
“It was the beginning of their chapter and the end of mine. I watched the van and trailer drive away. The only stability I had known left me behind — I could get in that van and go to gigs and make my livelihood. As it pulled away, I was alone on the steps in this town where my identity was as a singer/songwriter. I wasn’t that anymore. I was stripped of everything.”
I have got nowhere left to hide, this world has stripped me of my pride. I come crawling on my knees begging you Lord rescue me. (Poor Man’s Melody)
“Who am I? I was no longer who I thought I was,” Bishop says. “God met me in that moment and showed me who I was and that he loved me and was there with me. I had to be completely dependent on Him. In that poverty, I opened myself to God and it solidified my faith. It was a painfully beautiful time in 2013.”
Bishop’s inspiration for a better life also came from Bonnie Raitt, who recorded her song, “Not ‘Cause I Wanted To,” about her marriage that fell apart. Raitt’s album, Slipstream, won a Grammy for best Americana album in 2013. Bishop made little money from Raitt cutting her song or the Grammy, but it was verification that her songs were good.
“That song means alot to Bonnie and she reached out to me and brought me into her world but it was more than the songwriting. She inspired me to improve my health by changing my diet on the road and getting sober. I can’t drink at night and wake up and feel good. I love the healthy journey. Bonnie always tells me how young I am, which is nice to hear because in Nashville I feel old. Nineteen year-olds get record deals and at 25 you are too old. Soul is a different genre. I am in my lane and surrounded by people I respect.”
Bishop returned to music but is still working on the screenplay that she started at Suwanee.
“I am writing a screenplay about a middle-aged songwriter who throws in the towel and has to move home. I am also want to write a screenplay about my grandmother’s journey of meeting a soldier and moving to the U.S. They couldn’t even talk to each other when they met because she didn’t speak English. They fell in love on the dance floor and got married six weeks later. She said love makes you do crazy things, but they were married for 50 years.”
After his deployment, her grandfather went back to Louisiana and her grandmother came over a few months later on a month-long boat ride from Belgium to New York. Then she had to get on a train for two more weeks from New York to Beaubridge, Louisiana.
“She got off the train in a wool suit, silk stockings and a hat and gloves in the middle of the summer in Louisiana,” Bishop says. “He was a total coonass and people were waiting for her in cutoffs and flip flops. She went to a Catholic girls’ school, completely proper and married a soldier from Louisiana who worked on an oil rig and they lived in a motel. Those are the people I come from and I want to tell their stories.”
Bishop has found her favorite form of herself, even if she is living in a constant state of vulnerability.
“I am enjoying life in a way I never did before. This is my year of gratitude and I am keeping a gratitude journal of everything from an avocado and sunset to a new friend or a new song,” she says. “The secret to life is appreciating people and being in the moment. I now understand my job is to create on many different levels and to love.”
Bishop Plays at Callaghan’s on Wednesday, May 31. Ross Newell opens.