"When it’s done, when you’re gone/ Were you right or were you wrong?"
Midway through "Last Will & Testament," the fifth album from Austin singer-songwriter and bass player Bonnie Whitmore, "Time to Shoot" feels like a mission statement, even as it’s partly asking questions. That’s fitting for an album that Whitmore says is intended to open up dialogues.
Questions pop up often in the record’s songs. "Who’s pulling all the strings?" she sings in "None of My Business," which challenges listeners to reconsider the impact of things that maybe should be their business. "Are you OK, honey/ Or are you looking for the exit sign?" is the key couplet on "Fine," which lets a lover down easy even as the narrator’s heart is breaking, too. And then there’s "Right/Wrong," an existential manifesto with three key questions: "Who do you want to be? Where do you want to go? What do you want to say?"
It’s heavy stuff, even as the music is full of heart and soul and spirit, with memorable melodies and propulsive rhythms. That’s just as Whitmore intends it to be. "What I'm really wanting to do," she says, "is give people a reason to start having these hard conversations, because we can't keep ignoring them. We can't pretend that they don't exist. My goal with this new record is to create a space to get those conversations started."
IF IT FEELS LIKE Whitmore’s identity as an artist is really coming into focus on "Last Will & Testament," that’s because it is. Our June 2020 Austin360 Artist of the Month moved to Austin in 2001 from Denton while still in her teens. Whitmore first gained attention as a bassist, playing in the bands of singer-songwriters including Hayes Carll, Shelley King, Susan Gibson and Sunny Sweeney across the past two decades.
Along the way, she started making her own music. She spent a few years teaming with singer-songwriter Jamie Blythe in the duo Bonnie & Blythe before making her 2006 solo debut "Picking Up Pieces." That one was produced by Whitmore’s father, with whom she’d played in a band called Daddy & the Divas as a preteen, along with her sister, renowned violinist Eleanor Whitmore.
A few years in Nashville gave her crucial experience that helped shape her next two records, 2010’s "Embers to Ashes" — which included co-writes with rising country star Amanda Shires — and 2013’s "There I Go Again." By 2016’s "(Expletive) With Sad Girls," Whitmore had become known more for her own music than for her gigs with artists such as Carll, who helped give her a spotlight by having her sing his cheeky duet "Another Like You" with him on tour.
Whitmore still enjoys the supporting role, too. She recently played bass on records by Oklahoma troubadour John Moreland and her sister’s band the Mastersons, and in January she joined Texas legends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock on a New Zealand tour. But these days, she has too much to say to stay in the shadows.
"I feel like my purpose is not just about the music that I'm writing, but the things that I really want to be a part of helping change in the world," she says. "That’s kind of a goal I have, especially being politically driven as I am, and approaching my writing more like therapy through songs.
"I always wrote for my own therapy; that's how I dealt with my feelings," notes Whitmore, who’s upfront about her battles with depression. "And I think over the past few years, with the blatant nature of the world burning, it's hard not to want to do something that's going to be helpful."
WHITMORE UNDERSTANDS that calling her new album "Last Will & Testament" — also the title of the opening track — didn’t exactly set her up for the feel-good record of the summer. "It is a very dramatic title," she admits. "I wrote that song after we lost another member of our musician community to suicide."
Also still weighing heavy on her mind was the 2016 loss of Austin musician Chris Porter, a former boyfriend who died in a highway crash on tour. "There's this sort of desire within me, especially since the loss of Porter," she acknowledges, "that if I go out, I have this as a reference."
Friends and fans have wondered about the apocalyptic title. "I think some people are kind of like, ‘Are you trying to tell us something?’" she says. "And I'm like, ‘No, I'm not saying that.’ I don’t think it’s going to be my last album. But I think it's a good idea to have (a will). You don't have to be dead. It's more like just putting your stuff in order."
The notion of "Last Will & Testament" started to formulate when she created a nonprofit called the Cecelia Porter Music Foundation to help raise funds for a posthumous release of Porter’s last album. (The "Cecilia" part is a reference to Porter’s tattoo of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.)
"I wanted to create a nonprofit that was for someone who either was financially unable or physically incapable of releasing their art," she explains. "The thought behind that is just to do what a last will and testament is supposed to do: You itemize the things you have, and what your accomplishments are."
"LAST WILL & TESTAMENT" won’t formally be released until later this summer, but Whitmore sent the album digitally in late May to fans who’d preordered the album as a way to help support her while it was being made. She’s still taking orders for digital downloads on her website (bonniewhitmore.com).
Whitmore got a chance to road-test the material from fellow Austin songwriter James McMurtry, who hired her to open several recent tours. "He lets me use his band to be my backing band in my set," she adds. "He’s really kind of taken me under his wing." It’s a logical extension of the two artists’ strong ties to the Continental Gallery, the intimate South Austin venue where both have had long-running weekly residency gigs.
"I’ve been playing a lot of these songs over the past year or so with McMurtry, and I've gotten to see how they’ve been received," Whitmore says. "Especially with a song like ‘Asked for It,’ which is about rape culture. Women have come up to me and are just really thankful that something like that is being said. That gives me a lot more purpose."
Sometimes the purpose is more personal than sociopolitical. The tender closing track "George’s Lullaby" pays tribute to the late Austin bassist George Reiff, who served as a mentor to Whitmore.
"George just always was a sweetheart, easy to talk to and open up to," she recalls. "I was talking about how I hated going to music shops because I always got ‘little-ladied.’ So he just said, ‘Hey, why don't you just come over and hang out, we'll drink some tea and you can play all of my basses and I'll get you dialed in.’ He let me figure out what I really loved and gave me a safe space to do it."
AS MUCH AS "Last Will & Testament" captures Whitmore coming into her own, she also still very much values the push-and-pull of collaboration. She worked closely with guitarist/co-producer Scott Davis and Ramble Creek Studio engineer Britton Beisenherz on the album. Several of its key tracks are co-writes, including "Right/Wrong" (with Davis) and "None of My Business," which grew from a session with Finnish musician Astrid Swan at Austin creative haven House of Songs.
Maybe the best track on the record is "Fine," written with Jaimee Harris, our June 2018 Artist of the Month. It’s also become a fixture in the live repertoire of Austin singer-songwriter Betty Soo, who contributed backing vocals and accordion to Whitmore’s new album.
"Betty Soo and I have a theory that the better friends you become, the less likely that you’ll actually write," Whitmore says. "I can't say she's completely wrong; she and I still have not written a song together. It's not that we haven't tried, but we just end up talking about other stuff and don't do the work."
"Fine" was written as Whitmore and Harris were just starting to become friends. "She was wanting to be loved, and I had ended my relationship with Porter, so we were coming at it similarly, yet differently," Whitmore says. "I really love what we created together because it was just sort of magical — like, ’Whoops, there it is, it happened.’ It was very little effort. We kind of high-fived afterward, like, ‘We made a smash hit!’" Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a major artist such as the Dixie Chicks recording "Fine" someday.
Perhaps the most personal moment on "Last Will & Testament," though, is "Flashes & Cables," a cover of a 2003 song by Denton indie band Centro-Matic. The now-disbanded group was Whitmore’s favorite during her teen years in the North Texas town. Centro-Matic frontman Will Johnson now lives in Austin and contributed backing vocals to Whitmore’s version.
"I felt like I really needed to do a song that was extremely nostalgic for me," she said. "I remember climbing on top of a roof during a street fair to watch their set. I wanted it to be something that represents a really big chunk of of me."
More from our Austin360 Artist of the Month series:
May 2020: Tiarra Girls focus on healing their community with music, activism
April 2020: Pike & Sutton rise again, beyond Sister 7
March 2020: Sam Houston bares pain and soul on ’Riot’