Hollow bass cascading over a sunken groove, slinky guitar etching the melody and a palpable humidity establish “Show A Little Mercy,” as a satiny ribbon wisp of alto turns to a slightly raw guttural moan from Bonnie Bishop, the once country roots singer turned retro-soul chanteuse. The canvas—somewhere between Motown’s earthiest, Muscle Shoals’ tempered funk and blaxploitation’s lean arrangements—suits the woman who provided Bonnie Raitt’s recent high watermark “Not Cause I Wanted To.”
But where Raitt’s fire, razors and blood, Bishop walks a softer line—more feathery and molten caramel—in her witness to life’s struggles, victories and reinventions. Indeed, Ain’t Who I Was suggests that like a phoenix, one can transcend prior reality and find what one was meant to be.
Columns of B3 organ spiral on the churning “Done Died,” as the late 30-something seeks Mavis Staples’ sanctity. Throaty, wide-open, the phoenix-rising fervor is equal parts gospel and Saturday night churn.
“Poor Man’s Melody” finds a velvety Janis Joplin approach, all waves of grace and surrender, while the title track has a confessional restlessness that expands Joplin’s recklessness with sweetness as Bishop emerges stronger, dignified and beyond whatever shackles held her.
“Too Late” suggests the Supremes’ “Love Child,” the breathless vocal offering a hint of Diana Ross before Bishop applies a more full-bodied approach. Yet another reckoning from a woman who’s had enough.
Dave Cobb, the new scion of the mainstream country rejectionists (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson), retrofits Bishop’s knowing with a strong dose of Dusty in Memphis without merely Xeroxing what was. Unlike Susan Tedeschi and Grace Potter, who pull strong rhythm and blues/soul undertones through their work, Bishop manages homage without ever sounding Smithsonian.
Juxtaposing Raitt’s “Not Cause,” an almost a heartbroken protest or exoneration, Bishop’s gentle explanation has empathy for the other’s pain. Caressing the guilt, she suggests genuine remorse. Moving from that to the ‘50s slow dance gem “You Will Be Loved,” there is a spark of hope amongst the knowing and the admission of wanting and committing.
Not quite happily ever after, but it’s a start. To create a song cycle that eschews soul’s often screeching histrionics, but bring as much messed-up veracity as these songs hold is the mark of an adult record. For Bishop, who’d given up music, it is in that maturity her strengths shine. If Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time marked a momentous arrival, Bishop’s Ain’t Who I Was could be the 21st Century answer.
Pain, desire, clarity, ownership. Not quite a recovery or 12-step manual, but the songs contain deep truths we can all sink into.