Bonnie Whitmore grew up gigging in the South with her sister Eleanor, and their folks. Their daddy flew planes and harmonized with their mama. These days, Eleanor Whitmore of the Mastersons plays with Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses. Bonnie is out on her own with her new record, There I Go Again, and she’s climbing the Americana charts with the blues-influenced, alt-country record with characters as pained as those in the pages of Annie Proulx and quirky as a Fannie Flagg portrait. Whitmore has previously played Moonlight on the Mountain and the Bottletree, but on August 29, she’ll take the stage at Iron City, and says she’s heard great things about Birmingham’s newest venue.
Weld: How was it playing with your family as a kid?
Bonnie Whitmore: My dad and mom are both musically inclined. They met at Six Flags Over Texas. My mom was a singer in one of the vaudeville acts. My dad was an accompanist on guitar. That was the introduction of the rest of our lives. … I wanted to be part of the family band, and my dad wanted a bass player, so I picked it up. … Wherever we traveled, we’d end up playing some sort of set. I didn’t realize until much later that the songs I was doing weren’t all his, that they were songs he’d learned from other people. My original take on them was that they were from my dad, not Roy Orbison or Chuck Berry or the Beatles. It was kind of interesting to come to it later in life and go, “Oh! That’s who that is.”
Weld: Was this a full-fledged family operation or were you also in school, living a regular life?
BW: We went to public school. My dad is a retired Delta pilot so we got to travel a lot. … As an eight-year-old, playing regular gigs was awesome, though. We weren’t trying to pursue the family band as an act to sell. It was something we liked to do together. We weren’t trying to make it as a job. We enjoyed playing music.
Weld: When did the shift occur to music as a career?
BW: When I was 15, I started playing with another local band, outside of the family. That sort of brightened my eyes and gave me a different perspective. When it’s a family affair, there’s always the, “Eh, that’s my dad,” but playing with another band and meeting songwriters perpetuated the desire to do this full time. I started homeschooling and got my GED and went for music all the time.
Weld: Did music seem like a viable option then?
BW: I definitely pursued it as a job, not as a whimsical rock-n-roll partying thing. I wanted to be really good at this. I wanted everybody to know who I am, but the grand gesture of being famous is not something I pursue anymore. It’s nonsensical, the grand scheme of how the music industry is nowadays. … Music is the only thing that makes me happy. It also makes me miserable, and it’s the only thing that makes me happy. You have that affirmation: This is the thing I want to do with my life. I know I want it; it’s what I’m going to do.
Weld: How does that dedication manifest? Are you practicing, writing daily? Searching for musicians to play on your records?
BW: I lived in Nashville for five years. That was a big way for me to pursue musicianship more and songwriting. That’s certainly where I honed my craft, being around the cream of the crop. The best musicians I ever met live in Nashville. The best songwriters I know live in Nashville. That was inspirational. I don’t have a method to my madness. Now, when I approach writing a song, I have a more clear vision of what I want it to say, knowing you don’t always have to tell the truth. That’s one thing that’s hard: I’m telling this story and it has to be real, and I have to know it, but they can be filled with characters, and you can be the character and feel the emotion of the character without having to give up the emotion.
Weld: Your lyrics have literary references. Is seeking that emotional truth something you’re inspired by in fiction?
BW: I am a reader. … I tend to listen to audiobooks on the road…but I do read a lot of books, but really, I’m inspired by just talking to people. I pull from other people’s emotional states. One of the songs off the new record is about a couple going through a divorce. It was hard and frustrating for everyone involved, which inspired “The Gavel”.
I don’t necessarily gravitate to one thing as a creative outlet, but typically when I’m inspired to write, I’m going through something psychological. My last record is a product of that. I was going through a break up, and writing was my therapeutic way of being able to kill him over and over again without actually killing him. This record has less of a death count.
Weld: This record dips in and out of different emotions and moods. The song “Borderline” is witty, a little sardonic. What was the writing process like.
BW: “Borderline,” I wrote with Scott Davis. … He’s been playing with me for years. He’s a fantastic songwriter. He and I had experienced being on these tours with a higher profile scenario and what kind of personalities gravitate toward certain people. We met a lot of really crazy folks. That sounds harsh, but these people were further down the rabbit hole than I was used to being around. So it was about those experiences we had together and taking from ourselves. We’ve seen each other in many different states. It was a fun one to write, to joke around, to be lighthearted about the interesting characters we’ve met.