By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
During a Fat Tuesday celebration at Plano's Last Chance Saloon in March, the heavily beaded and soused patrons that packed the popular suburban spot were focused on a ditzy cougar-wannabe who insisted upon earning Mardi Gras prizes the easy way outside on the club's patio. Meanwhile, just a few feet away from the distracted party people, a rather quiet musical performance was taking place.
It was quite the juxtaposition: The Botoxed shirt-lifter repeatedly brandished her bead magnets as an acoustic song-swap was rather unsuccessfully taking place on stage between three area country songwriters. Then, rather suddenly, after an hour-long battle for the revelers' attention, the focus of the rowdy crowd shifted away from the breasts and to the stage, turning the evening's tide.
The clutch performance came from one Bonnie Whitmore, who, as she strummed the initial notes to "You Gonna Miss Me," the standout track from her new debut solo record, Embers to Ashes, was still playing to a drunkenly preoccupied crowd. By the time the song had finished, however, the crowd was on its feet and cheering—for a woman who had managed to keep her shirt on.
It's little surprise that Whitmore possesses the ability to cut through the noise with her talents. Artistic passion and proficiency are in her blood, thanks to her parents (Alex and Marti Whitmore) and an older sister (the fiddle-playing Eleanor Whitmore), who are all expert, accomplished performers in their own right. Whitmore has been honing her ability to sonically control a crowd since she was only eight years old, back when she started playing the bass and cello in her dad's folk band.
"My dad loved music, so I learned how to play an instrument because that's what we do—we play music," Whitmore says over the phone as she prepares for a tour of Alaska, where she has many musical friends whom she'll gig with over the course of a few weeks. "I learned about Doc Watson, The Beatles and Willie Nelson through my dad's versions of their songs. I firmly believe that artists are more influenced by their adolescence than any modern musical influence."
After building confidence in her own playing, Whitmore joined the band of Brent Mitchell at 15 and toured throughout Texas. It was that time with Mitchell that helped her evolve from an instrumentalist into a developing songwriter. Not surprisingly, such a neon-lit education was more desirable to the talented teen than the formality and cliquishness of a standard education.
"When I started playing with the Brent Mitchell Band, I was in high school, and the reasons I had wanted to go to high school weren't important to me anymore, so I started home-schooling," Whitmore says. "I couldn't enjoy high school because away from school, I was constantly around older people. I would then go back to school on Monday and have to deal with the whole society of high school, and it didn't work for me. So I fully immersed myself into the decision to play music."
Even with her sultry Southern vocal talent evident in her late teens, Whitmore used the following couple of years in North Texas to play bass for regional acts such as Kevin Deal and Mark David Manders. Whitmore then headed to Austin just shy of her 18th birthday to play with the likes of noted country songwriter Susan Gibson. Even then, Whitmore continued to occasionally display her ever-increasing writing and performing skills.
"In Austin, I really embraced my songwriting," she says. "I was getting in a groove with it and I was getting some really good responses from it."
But this gifted artist with an impressive bloodline worked diligently to reach the standard she set for herself. When looking to transition from playing in the shadows of a stage's side to the front and center position, positive feedback proved to be more valuable than big paydays.
"When I started writing, I was terrible," Whitmore admits. "I knew I could sing, but baring your soul as a writer is a different thing. When I started having people want to see me and hear what I was saying in my music, it was surreal. I think there's something to be said for creating art directly from your own soul and having your own voice and giving your own interpretation of things."
In 2006, after some bouncing around between Austin, Denton and San Marcos, followed by some traveling abroad, Whitmore, who is also an avid baker working on her first cookbook to be published sometime in the next year, moved to Nashville. Thanks to her friendship with the established Nashville-based folk-rocker Mando Saenz, she landed a steady gig playing bass in his band, which helped ease the culture shock that a move to Music City can often cause.
As it turned out, though, Whitmore wasn't quite ready to show Music Row her own material just yet.
"I decided to be a musician and not a singer-songwriter in Nashville," she says. "That way, I wasn't going to browbeat anyone with my music in open-mic nights or by playing covers on Broadway. If being a singer happened naturally to me, then cool, but it wasn't the route I was choosing to take at that time."
Life in Nashville for young performers can be rather merry, if one doesn't get caught up in the dog-and-pony show that is often associated with the life on Music Row. While living there, Whitmore befriended fellow Texas ex-pat Amanda Shires of the Thrift Store Cowboys, who became a collaborator and confidante before she became an indie-country darling. Whitmore also toured with, and subsequently dated, the immensely talented and somewhat infamous Justin Townes Earle. Then, in the summer of 2010, Whitmore traveled with Americana hero Hayes Carll as he prepared to release his new album.
But it was Earle who reignited the songwriting spark within Whitmore and encouraged her to craft tunes that went against type for so-called "typical" female writers. When the relationship with Earle went south, Whitmore was ready for some drastic changes—in both scenery and artistic expression.
Heading back to the Whitmore home base of Denton, she was ready to unleash what she had managed to suppress for the previous couple of years. After deciding to record her new album last winter, Whitmore enlisted the help of her brother-in-law, Chris Masterson, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with Son Volt and is coincidentally touring now with Steve Earle, the father of Whitmore's ex.
The theme for Embers is clearly one of departure, both from a lover and from loved ones in general. The songs range from sweet tales covering the onset of a passionate partnership to songs that gleefully wish violent death upon the one who has scorned her. While those numbers are gripping in their vulnerability, though, it's the crowd-quieting number from the Fat Tuesday bacchanalia that stands as the album's opus; "You Gonna Miss Me" isn't a scorched-earth middle finger to an ex, but a tear-filled hug to her sister, Eleanor, as she prepared to leave home to focus on music.
After all, while Whitmore's music and relationships have led her in myriad directions, it's her family who's given her a fertile foundation for her own future in the spotlight of the stage, and not merely as a side player.
"I personally hate the question of 'Who are your main influences?'" she says. "Because no one wants to hear me say, 'Well, my mom and dad are.'"