Ain’t Who I Was
It can be difficult knowing which albums are truly “Americana” these days. Whereas your more basic established genres can typically rely upon some sort of general sound or style to identify its artists, Americana doesn’t really reach for sonic cohesion. Scan the nominees for this year’s Americana Music Association Awards, and you’ll find both current major-label country king Chris Stapleton and rising retro R&B star Leon Bridges. But not every country, folk, or soul record fits the Americana bill, so what, exactly, is the distinguishing X factor?
The oft-used rationale of “you’ll know it when you hear it” may not always be the most satisfying of answers, but whatever “it” is, you can definitely hear it all over Ain’t Who I Was, the first offering in four years from Texas-reared singer and songwriter Bonnie Bishop. Well-worn sounds of the past are given vibrant life throughout this record and country, soul, funk, blues and rock can often be found happily coexisting within even a single song. Throw in production by genre darling Dave Cobb (Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson), and well, if that’s not Americana, we’re really not sure what is.
With admirable traces of the Allman Brothers, Ray Lamontagne, Bobbie Gentry, and Bonnie Raitt, Bishop expertly displays the bold, undeniable allure of her impossibly sexy voice with a convincing array of gorgeously performed backdrops. It wouldn’t be out of line to add either of the album’s first two tracks — the organ-enriched sex-funk number “Mercy” and “Be With You,” a delicate, breezy whisper written by Stapleton and Tim Krekel, a friend of Bishop’s who died in 2010 — into a bedroom-only playlist alongside choice Barry White and Marvin Gaye cuts. Hell, Bishop could probably sing the words off a Burger King menu and make you feel as though her world was melting with knee-buckling desire. The old-school spiritual “Done Died” and the ’70s movie soundtrack-ready “Too Late,” meanwhile, are plugged-in, up-tempo tunes with grooves thick enough to perfectly accompany the robust smoke billowing from Bishop’s microphone. But even with Cobb’s spot-on production, some amazing song-choices and an exemplary band, it’s always first and foremost Bishop’s brilliant voice that makes this gut-punching record a seamless triumph of substance over style. — KELLY DEARMORE