BONNIE BISHOP – THE WALK

The first thing that registers about Bonnie Bishop’s stirring album The Walk is that the seasoned Grammy winner is no longer trying to outrun herself; she owns whatever has come her way, good wind or ill. It’s an uplifting confessional that she dedicates ‘to all who wander’ – laying down searing, emotionally-charged variations to award-winning producer Steve Jordan’s (Robert Cray, John Mayer, Buddy Guy) powerhouse production. She does so in a voice that aches and arches and grabs and never lets go.

Blessed with an authentically resounding range, a blistering lyrical gift, and OK – she admits it – a couple of inherent vices that any God-fearing Americana/country/soul artist must wrestle with after years of bringing it live and in-color, Bishop has now broken free from the bust-boom mentality of Nashville to walk a line of her own making. The recipe may sound oversimplified, but it’s a frank, funny, ferocious, insightful Bonnie Bishop we encounter on this path; a recharged singer/songwriter full of grace. Her determination to put one foot in front of the other and find the road to reclamation shifted into overdrive when she left Nashville for her native Texas in 2017. Since then, she’s never looked back. The Walk soars as her most honest effort to date. It’s a groove-laden, lyrical lightning bolt from which the tonic of self-revelation pours forth on songs such as the grateful “Every Happiness Under The Sun” and the gut-wrenching “I Don’t Like To Be Alone.” The album’s euphoric closer, “Song Don’t Fail Me Now,” is Bonnie’s most heartfelt testament to date that music absolutely can still heal the spirit.

She framed the seven-song masterpiece in one word definitions as she was recording the album, such as PURPOSE for the album’s opening salvo “Love Revolution” and DOUBT for the moving title track “The Walk.” She captures the frailty of life’s contradictions and conflicts via her effortless vocal reach in bold strokes, bold, yet fragile enough to walk that razor-edge. It’s Bonnie’s desire that fans and critics listen to The Walk from start to finish, “like albums were intended to be listened to,” she says. After returning from a therapeutic retreat that helped her get “un-blocked,” the album was kick-started in a frenzy of writing-collaborations. “The retreat helped create a space of reflection and introspection so that I could deal with things in my past, things that we all eventually have to deal with. I came out of there and immediately made all these song-writing appointments. Most of the album came from that burst of creativity. I didn’t even know I was writing an album, I just knew that the music was coming through me and that I wanted to write honest songs.”

Her reset also included an exit strategy out of a Nashville, a place that had nurtured her, yes, but where she also sometimes felt creatively confined. Her career began in Texas via the road of hard-knocks, playing original music in dive bars and honky tonks across her home state. She came to Nashville in 2008 after signing a publishing deal. There she sharpened her acclaimed songwriting chops by writing with people like Mike Reid, Jimmy Wallace, Al Anderson and others who challenged and inspired her to dig deeper. Her big break would come when Bonnie Raitt recorded a song she and Anderson wrote, “Not Cause I Wanted To,” which would go on to net Bonnie Bishop her first Grammy.

In all, she recorded five very well-received albums, rising though the country/Americana ranks, but finding herself forever on the road. At one point, she even decided to take a hiatus from the stress of the business and enroll in Sewanee University of the South, where she began working toward a masters in creative writing. In 2016, Thirty Tigers convinced her to record a new album with producer David Cobb. The universally acclaimed Ain’t Who I Was brought Bonnie back with a splash, showcasing the more soulful side of the dynamic singer and peeling off some of the Nashville veneer. She also began to steady her aim with what Pop Matters called a ‘slow burning self-reflection,’ armed with a voice and lyrical finesse that Rolling Stone quipped leveled ‘both barrels.’

But it’s more than a trigger-finger twitching on The Walk. Bonnie provocatively shines a light on her inner-self with this album, baring her soul and her love for groove while she digs deeper than she ever has before. “Ain’t Who I Was was successful, and it had some depth, but that album was more about getting me back into the game. The last couple of years I have really started asking myself the more difficult questions,” she says. “Why am I here? Who am I serving? What purpose am I fulfilling with my life?”

She decided to meet those queries head-on with a list of personal challenges which would move her even further out of her comfort zone. She logged a revelatory trip into to the desert, dedicated a year to sobriety, and dove head-and-heart-first into songwriting sessions that revealed even more about her creative process and what fueled it. “I was searching,” Bonnie says, “because I’d lost my sense of meaning. Hell, I even began to doubt my faith.”  She even fesses up to a chronic disappointment in the trajectory of her own career – which by any measurable standard has been a damn fine one – with her most recent album drawing rave reviews from not only Rolling Stone, but The New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, and so many others.

“When I was 20, all I wanted was to be a star. I knew I had to let go of those unrealistic goals I set for myself back then because all around me, I saw a world that was also struggling for meaning. I felt like my life in Nashville had been very shallow and I had spent a long time trying to fit in with what I thought people in the music industry wanted me to be. I’d always felt like there was a much higher purpose to my musical message and I wanted to recapture that connection.”

Bishop chose Steve Jordan to produce this project because she had always loved the sound of his drums. “The lyrics on this album were very deep. I wanted Steve to create beats that would help the music move and groove, make it easy for people to listen to.” One of the most riveting songs on the album, the powerful “Women At The Well,” touches on questions of faith and the corrosive human emotion of shame, but has one of the funkiest beats on the album. “Shame is a bitch. It is one of the things that really trips us up,” she says. “When you don’t feel like you’re good enough or you don’t think you have what it takes to go after something you really want, usually it’s shame that is actually holding you back. ‘Women at the Well’ is based on the story in the Bible about the woman who met Jesus while she was drawing water from the well. She was there at the hottest time of day because she was not considered to be a good woman by the townspeople, and she was too ashamed to go to the well in the early morning hours when all the other women would be there. This song speaks for all the girls out who are feeling shamed about something in their past: ‘My name’s Mary and I’m here to say/All my sins have been washed away/I am the one that Jesus saved from Hell/This song’s for the women at the well.’”

“The Walk takes the listener on a journey through my own soul,” she says. “There’s a whole narrative that I hope my audience can follow, starting with the first song on the album, ‘Love Revolution,’ a tune about pursuing a higher purpose, and ending with ‘Song Don’t Fail Me Now,’ about the power of music to heal. Those are the bookends that tie the record together and they kind of sum up why I’m making another album. This music is my gift to the world. I hope that these songs will make the world a better place, that they will help people wherever they are in their life. That’s why the record ends with those “la-la-las” at the end, because I want people to sing along and know that they aren’t alone. We are all in this things called ‘life’ together.”

Bonnie knows something about battling loneliness. In the middle of the album stands the unvarnished gem, ‘I Don’t Like To Be Alone,’ one of the most gripping songs on the The Walk. It’s the only track Bonnie wrote completely by herself. “I felt very vulnerable right after moving back to Texas,” she says. “I was spending alot of time alone in my apartment and there was a night where I kind of had this breakthrough, just facing the fact that I didn’t feel ok being by myself.”

She credits Jordan for insisting that song even go on the album. “It was such a personal song, I hadn’t really played it for anybody. I was reluctant to let Steve hear it because it wasn’t a message I was comfortable putting out there. It made me feel very naked. Of course, that ended up being his favorite song and he insisted we put it on the record. Then he came up with that sick groove and that’s when I knew I had picked the right producer. Steve was pushing me out of my comfort zone and creating the right kind of beats that made deep songs like that one danceable.”

“The journey I took to make this album is personal but it’s really one that we all take. It’s the journey of life. It’s full of ups and downs. There are good times and bad times, times when you’re struggling with the unknown, struggling to understand what it all means. And then there are times when you learn to be thankful and make music amidst the chaos and strife. To me, that’s the hardest part of being human, the not knowing. These days I hear it as a mid-tempo beat. It’s the song that never ends, like the heartbeat of humanity. Steve created the soundtrack for that feeling. Every track on this album ties in with the notion that with life, you have to just take it one day at a time. This album is the sound of me learning to be OK with that.”

MIKE AND THE MOONPIES – CHEAP SILVER AND SOLID COUNTRY GOLD

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios with help from the London Symphony Orchestra,Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold is Mike and the Moonpies’ most adventurous record to date — an album that diversifies the band’s honky-tonk roots by adding lush strings, cinematic arrangements, and collaborative songwriting to the mix. Inspired in part by the classic “countrypolitan” music of the 1960s and early ’70s, these songs find frontman Mike Harmeierchanneling the smooth delivery of crooners like Glen Campbell and Frank Sinatra, backed by a band of road warriors who all played a major role in the songs’ construction. The result is a modern record steeped in everything that made the old stuff so compelling: sharp storytelling; honest, dynamic performances; and a willingness to step far outside the box.

Once celebrated as Austin’s premiere dancehall band — with popular residencies at local institutions like The Hole In the Wall, Broken Spoke and the White Horse to match — the Moonpies have spent years expanding their reach far beyond the Lone Star State. Geographically, they’ll always be a Texas band. Musically, they’ve grown into much more than that, having traded the two-steppin’ twang of their earlier years for a diverse sound that’s both fresh and familiar. That sound has earned the group an international following, and it was during a European tour that the bulk of Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold was created — in the same world-renowned, London-area recording studio where the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandand Pink Floyd tracked Dark Side of the Moon, no less.

“Every time we’ve taken a step forward, it’s a result of us refusing to become stagnant,” says Harmeier, who’s joined by his longtime band — pedal steel player Zach Moulton, guitarist Catlin Rutherford, bassistOmar Oyoque, keyboardist John Carbone, drummer Kyle Ponder, and producer/collaborator Adam Odor — on Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold’s eight tracks. “We left our dancehall residencies years ago because we wanted to expand our touring beyond Texas. We updated our approach withMockingbird, then went back to a more traditional sound — in a 1970s, Johnny Paycheck-inspired way — with [2018’s break-out album] Steak Night at the Prairie Rose. 10 years into our career, we’re still finding our voice… and we’re realizing that maybe it’s not onevoice, but a collection of voices.”

A collection of voices, indeed. The album’s lead single, “You Look Good in Neon,” is a nostalgic toe-tapper that evokes Ronnie Milsap’s golden years, while “Fast as Lightning” is a raucous road song that’s every bit as electrifying as its title. On the nostalgic “Cheap Silver,” Harmeiertakes stock of his band’s progress as an eight-piece string section swoons in the background, while on “Danger” — a hard-charging epic that’s fit for a Hollywood western, with a cameo by Shooter Jennings to boot — he sings directly to his son. Also making guest appearances on the album are modern-day outlaw Nikki Lane, who contributes harmony vocals to “Miss Fortune,” and fellow Texas native Season Ammons, who shows up during the album’s elegant cover of Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues.”

Although largely recorded in London, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold still owes its inception to Texas, where the bandmates spent a week co-writing and arranging songs at renowned yellow DOG Studios in Wimberley, TX. “Everyone had a hand in the creation process, from start to finish,” says Harmeier, who shares co-writing credits with multiple Moonpies throughout the album. “I usually come to the table with all the songs already written, but this album is entirely different. We worked on everything together. It was the most collaborative thing we’ve ever done. It was truly the work of a band.”

It’s been more than a decade since Mike and the Moonpies launched their career, initially paying their dues as a versatile cover band with a catalog of 300 songs. Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold nods to those woodshedding days — not only in the album’s title track, where Harmeierraises a drink and sings, “Here’s to another night of paying our dues,” but also in the album’s handful of cover songs. The boys resurrect the twangy spirit of their dancehall days with “If You Want A Fool Around,” written by Billy Troy and BennieBoling, and also put their own stamp on Aaron Sinclair’s “Young in Love.” Those covers serve as a tip-of-the-hat to the band’s roots, while also demonstrating that the Moonpies’ own songs pack just as much punch as the songs of their heroes. Harmeier and company haven’t forgotten about their bar-band beginnings, but these days, they’re more interested in creating their own gold.

Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold rewrites the definition of Mike and the Moonpies’ music, turning vintage influences into a contemporary that’s dark, reflective, and refined.

When frontman Mike Harmeier sang “they don’t make ’em like they used to” at the start of Mike and the Moonpie’s last studio album (2015’s Mockingbird), it wasn’t the idle complaint of an armchair country music critic: It was a self-imposed challenge, answered by Harmeier and the rest of his band of young but stage-hardened, old-soul honky-tonkers, to do something about it.

“The idea was, if I walked into a bar with my dad or grandfather, I wanted the album to sound like the stuff that I would play on a jukebox at that bar,” says the 33-year-old songwriter, who started Mike and the Moonpies not long after moving to Austin from his native Houston a decade ago. “That’s why it had a bunch of different styles on it: there’s a Bob Seger kind of thing on there, some Randy Travis sounding stuff, a George Jones kind of thing … That was all a grand scheme that I had in my head.”

The reaction was pretty grand, too, with Rolling Stone Country picking Mockingbird as one of the genre’s best albums of the year. The accolades neatly coincided with the band’s signing with powerhouse Americana booking agency Red 11 Music, and the following year’s jam-packed double-disc Live at WinStar World Casino and Resort only offered further indisputable affirmation of Mike and the Moonpies’ hard-earned status as one of the Texas music scene’s finest real country bands since the release of their auspicious 2010 debut, The Real Country. It turns out Harmeier had something of a scheme in his head for that live album, too — but unlike Mockingbird before it, it had nothing to do with looking back. The rest of the Moonpies — guitarist Catlin Rutherford, drummer Kyle Ponder, bassist Preston Rhone, steel guitarist Zachary Moulton, and piano, organ and Wurlitzer player John Carbone — may not have known it at the time when they hit the WinStar stage, but the frontman was already laying the groundwork for their next studio album.

Harmeier laughs as he admits this, but the results — as heard on the band’s freshly minted Steak Night at the Prairie Rose (February 2018) — speak for themselves. Recorded in April at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas, the Moonpies’ fifth album is not only their best effort to date, but arguably the first to really nail the irresistible, good-time spark and spirit of one of Austin’s best bar bands (in any genre) in the studio.

In keeping with the “keep it in the moment” vibe of the whole record, Harmeier wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s 10 songs (the exception being “The Last Time” by friend Jonathan Terrell, who wrote “Damn Strait” for the Moonpies’ 2012 sophomore release The Hard Way) in the span of about a month or two, right before the week-long recording session. And although every song on the album is as unabashedly country as any fan favorite from Mockingbird or the rest of the Moonpies’ catalog (including the dozens of classic honky-tonk covers from their salad days residencies at Austin’s Hole in the Wall, White Horse, and Broken Spoke), Harmeier notes that the only “concept” he had this around was to keep the writing “simple” enough to allow the rest of the band — and producer Adam Odor — room to really go to town.

“I love that era coming out of the outlaw thing and going into the more ‘contemporary country stuff,’ where the production starting getting a little bit more poppy but was still kind of dirty,” Harmeier explains. “For me, that’s when things started to get really interesting musically, and I think this whole record kind of has that ’80s thing to it — probably because there’s so much Wurlitzer all over it.” There’s also a whopping dose of twin electric/steel leads, a little Talk Box (played by guitarist Catlin Rutherford on “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be”), a hint of Willie-worthy harmonica (courtesy of guest Mickey Raphael on the waltz “Worst Thing”), and a whole lot of humor, ranging from the nudge-nudge-wink-winkery of “Might Be Wrong” to the barbed-wire irony of “Wedding Band.”

For the record, he’s no slouch when it comes to writing earnest, either — especially when drawing from the well of first-hand experience. Much like “Mockingbird” before it, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose’s title track plays like an early chapter from Harmeier’s autobiography, this one going all the way back to his very first time playing music onstage in front of an audience at age 13.

“I grew up kind of going to the bars with my dad and my grandfather and playing the jukebox all the time, which of course is what ‘Mockingbird’ and a lot of the last record was kind of about. But then I started to take guitar lessons, and when I got to where I could pretty much play two hours’ worth of songs, whether it be Clint Black or Kansas, anything — that’s when my dad got me that gig playing every Wednesday night during ‘steak night’ at the Prairie Rose in Decker Prairie, Texas. So yeah, that’s all real …”
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“It’s a weird road we’re on right now––I guess it always has been,” Jamie Lin Wilson says. She’s sitting on her porch in D’Hanis, a tiny town on the Seco Creek in South Texas, not far from San Antonio. She laughs a little, then adds, “But nobody’s life is the same. There is no blueprint.”

Thank goodness for all the lonely paths Jamie’s had to find that no one else has taken. With a voice that slides in and out of notes with easy grace, a sly sense of humor, and lyrics that highlight the details most of us miss, Jamie creates stark vignettes: intimate conversations between friends who might be lovers and lovers who can’t be friends; kids hopping from stone to stone in a graveyard; the way rolling clouds can signal a new season. She lives and works in that sweet spot where folk and country meet––Guy Clark territory.

“It’s unfair that the poets and songwriters are the ones who have the songs about their lives, when maybe that’s not what’s poetic,” Jamie says. “Maybe the moments are the ones happening in everyday farmers’ lives, or to a widow, or a son.” It’s her comfort in and commitment to two distinct worlds––that of the dream-chasing artists and the dirt-under-their-nails realists––that makes Jamie and her songs not just inviting, but cathartically important.

Jamie’s anticipated new record Jumping Over Rocks marks her second full-length solo album, but she’s not the new kid. She cut her teeth fronting and co-fronting beloved bands including the Gougers and the Trishas, winning over listeners and peers across the country. Now, her place as an acclaimed singer-songwriter on her own seems fated, imbued with a singular blend of freshness and road-earned wisdom.

Jamie didn’t pick up a guitar until she was 19. Casual remarks she dropped to her mom and cousin led to a gifting of an acoustic that Christmas. She started attending open mics in College Station, and was immediately welcomed into what was primarily a boys’ club of aspiring pickers and writers that included future fellow Gouger Shayne Walker. “By the end of the summer, I was playing gigs in a band, the Gougers,” she says. “I learned how to play guitar on stage.”

Jamie never looked back. She fell in love and married her college sweetheart, Roy. Together, the two raise their children and make their “weird road” work beautifully. “I’ve been taking kids on the road for eight years, touring constantly, just taking breaks to have babies,” Jamie says.

Jamie recorded Jumping Over Rocks during four days at Arlyn Studios in Austin. A fierce cast of musicians joined her, including Charlie Sexton on guitar, and together, Jamie and the players cut every track live. “You’re hearing my voice with the band––their playing, reacting to my emotions, and my voice reacting to the things they’re playing, all in real time,” Jamie says. “I think that adds to the feeling of these songs.”

The result is a rich collection of story songs delivered over rootsy strings, moody keys, crying steel, and sparse percussion, carried by Jamie’s songbird soprano that can convey tears or laughter with equal panache, sometimes in the same bar.

When asked how she hopes listeners react to Jumping Over Rocks, Jamie brings up a hero: John Prine. “On his new album, there is a song that always gets me––‘Summer’s End,’” she says. “Every time I listen to it, I start crying, and I think, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying!’” She laughs her big laugh, which comes often and easily. “I hope something I create can get to somebody in that way. That’s what gets us through––finding common ground with someone else, whether it’s in songs or friendship. It makes you feel better about your own life.”