Bonnie Whitmore is the youngest child from a musical and aereonatically-inclined family who resides in Austin, Texas. She started playing bass in the family band at 15, and after playing collaborating with several bands has been moving into solo work. She has released the solo album F*ck With Sad Girls, and has an upcoming solo album due October 2nd, Last Will and Testament.
Bonnie Whitmore is an active member of the Austin music community, and as well as being a licensed pilot (like many members of her family) and a grade-A cook who appeared on our Instagram Live show, Whitmore is someone who thinks quite seriously about the role of women in music and the role of musicians in society.
Read on her for her insightful observations and more about her co-Producer status on Last Will and Testament.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Based on your conversation on our Instagram Live show, I think you speak to the role of “band member” where you want to speak to the small group to solve problems, rather than necessarily feeling that you have to go it alone.
Bonnie Whitmore: Well yes. I feel like I was the one who made all the mistakes, in the family band, since that was first. The thing that I work on is to be better to myself, since I make mistakes all the time. Especially as the baby, the youngest. My sister, who is half of The Mastersons, and part of Steve Earle and the Dukes, she’s my older sissy.
HMS: Was she someone who protected you from things, or more someone who encouraged yu to jump in?
BW: I think she was protective of me, because I was always the one who was looking for adventure, and she was the one who was in charge. Once, when we were in a hot tub together, and I had sunk down, she pulled me out, and made sure I didn’t drown in that hot tub.
HMS: That’s very relatable to me. I’m in the middle of four, and my younger brother was a live wire, and I rescued him from multiple life endangering situations at a young age. I still can’t believe I managed to do it. It’s so funny, though.
BW: It bonds you to that person, though. You realize you love them very fiercely.
HMS: Anyway…I have a heavy question. There’s been a lot of conversation online during COVID about how this situation highlights the importance of the arts and also the lack of money that the arts receive. The USA doesn’t fund the arts in the same way that many countries do. Why do you think we value popular art but also seem to expect to get it for free?
BW: A lot of these other countries honor the arts but ingrain it into the culture through the government of the country. A lot of other countries do socialism really, really well. I’ve learned some of this through this non-profit in Austin, called House of Songs.
They have a house in Arkansas and also one here in Austin. If you take in the importance of music in our history, even in the height of art in the 1960s and 1970s, it was never about the artist or the musicians playing, but about that time in the studio and trying to record before that clock went into overtime payment and the studio had to shut down. It was never about people trying to help each other. It was always other people trying to make as much money as possible off of it.
HMS: [Laughs] That’s so true.
BW: The people that are making the money aren’t the artists. Did you watch the Ken Burns Country Music documentary series?
HMS: Yes, I did. I loved it. It was so good.
BW: It was so good, but it also points out that everything we did was accomplished by nomads and people of color. We would not have Country music without African Americans.
BW: It’s really amazing when you can see the cross-pollination through music. Getting to work with other song writers through House of Music was really helpful. We’re still number one, but for all the wrong reasons. Part of the reason I moved back to Austin is for community and for helping each other. I lived in Nashville, I’ve spent a lot of time in New York, and LA, but Austin is not about the popular thing. Things come out of here. Black Pumas blew the hell up. We have the community.
HMS: That’s what I hear. The highest percentage of musicians I’ve spoken to outside of LA are in Austin.
BW: It is called the live music capitol of the world, and you can find it at multiple venues every night of the week. I’ve been lucky to be part of the family.
HMS: That tradition of playing live is, of course, shrinking over time. Places like New Orleans have it too, more for brass music, but it’s on the street corners. You can’t get that in other places.
BW: The busking quality has always prevailed, and where that is, you get to the guts of the city. I was in New Orleans for Folk Alliance this year. It was so cool. I got there at 1 o’clock in the morning from Mississippi, where singer, songwriters, and musicians, take over a hotel. It was their last night, and we stayed up until 5AM playing music. Then went to get Beignets for breakfast, where someone was playing jazz music, and that was such a blessing.
We used to have this thing called the “Ham Jam” in Austin, where once a month, this guy would have a full-on ham. People would bring potluch style and we’d just hang out and play music. It’s a very cool experience.
But to get back to your original question, commerce and competition gets in the way of the arts. The ability to make a living, the hustle that you have to put towards music, doesn’t lend itself toward creative art. It’s short-time versus long-term.
HMS: This is a controversial subject, but even though I grew up with two brother who are musicians, I don’t understand the expense of studio space. The price tags that come with using recording studios are so extreme.
BW: They are completely arbitrary.
HMS: Is there no guidance on that?
BW: There is guidance in places where you have a strong union, like LA and New York. No one follows the guidelines in Texas, though we have one. The mentality of the musician is, “We want to get the best take, otherwise they might use a less good one.” I think our country is based on capitalism, and for the money that music does generate for some people, you’re coming at it as someone wanting to make the art. As a musician, I can barter with people, asking if they will come on my album because I can do the same for them.
HMS: This is a hot take, and pretty far-fetched for America, but a universal income might help. This all ties to touring. Digital streaming of music makes money, but only in large volumes, and physical media makes money if you get fans interested. But it seems like the main income for many musicians come through touring, which we can’t do right now. Speaking to other female musicians, I understand that touring and having a family can be very difficult. The burden often falls on the woman.
BW: Oh, for sure.
HMS: I wish that was more part of the conversation.
BW: We’ve had a lot of Finnish performers, who have two or three kids, and they are my age. Jamie Lin Wilson is one of the hardest working musicians out there, and she has four or five kids now. She would take her kids on tour. I get it, I feel like my parents were like that with my sister and I, but I feel like these days we devote attention or get someone else to. One of the ways that I’ve actually supplemented my income is to be a nannie. I don’t think adults spend enough time with kids. But the blessing about spending time with kids is that you get to slow down.
HMS: I’ve taught young children, and I totally agree.
BW: Working with artists in Finland has been really liberating. I’ve worked with one woman who had three children, but not by the same man. And she was able to exist in a culture where they ask, “What do you want to be?” and provide money for you to create a CD if you’re a musician. If you have a child, you have two years of support for that child. Kids are expensive. I can’t afford to have a child, and that weighs on my mind. It’s not that it’s impossible, it’s just that I don’t know how to do that. Being a nanny was a great way to see who these little people are.
HMS: Going into a room with a child teaches any adult to become a teacher.
BW: The great thing is, being in a room with a kid, asking, “What is it like to be you?” That sense of wonder.
HMS: It’s kind of a privilege.
HMS: Has working with kids ever given you ideas for your work?
BW: It’s given me my “Ms Frizzle” character. I had a New Year’s resolution to be more like Mr. Rogers, but I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t do it. I’m not love and kindness all the time. I had the book with the Magic School Bus with Ms Frizzle. She had magic earrings and a sidekick that was a lizard. Her attitude was “make messes”. I loved her. “Why not?”, seems like a much more fun place to live.
HMS: I wanted to ask you about being co-Producer on Last Will and Testament. Was that a new area for you?
BW: It was a new area for me. My Producer on my last two albums was my brother-in-law, Chris Masterson. They taught me a lot, including what I wanted to bring to the table. On my last two albums, I didn’t play bass on. There was always at least one track where I couldn’t sing and play bass on at the same time. That made me a little more removed from the creative process. In F*ck With Sad Girls, I didn’t want one Producer, and I gave everyone credit, but Last Will and Testament was with a lot of same people.
That reminds me that “Right/Wrong” was co-written with my co-Producer Scott Davis who has a little boy and little girl under age 7. We were preparing them to go into elementary school, where they prepare for shootings at school. Working with him in the studio, you see him turn into his 12-year-old self. He’s an incredible arsenal to work with. But as a woman, I wanted the credit for Producing too. I’ve always loved creating vocals, and I kind of have an obsession with creating harmonies, so it was really great to create together.
HMS: Do you think having been through this process would make you more likely to Produce other albums in future, or other peoples’?
BW: I’m totally into doing both of those things. I’ve had a lot of joy being part of records in recent years. Every recording situation is different. I at least know Ramble Creek, which I’ve been to a number of times. Because of the pandemic, I’ve been dabbling more into recording at home, but I have to give a shout-out to Producers. It’s harder than you may think.
Have you heard about Emmit Rhodes? Have you heard about his loss?
HMS: His name sounds familiar. Tell me about him.
BW: His whole story has been extremely tragic. He basically recorded in his parents’ garage, but the record itself sounds like a long-lost Paul McCartney album. It’s an incredible record. He got sued by the record label because he couldn’t make the records fast enough, basically, doing everything himself on a four track. What he created is incredible, and one of my favorite albums, but it took forever for him to finish. But going through that experience, of being sued by your record label, made him quit music. Forty years later, the people who like to deep-dive came across Emmitt Rhodes, and his cult-following was there. They turned up on his doorstep asking why he wasn’t making more music.
HMS: That’s both sweet and extremely pressurizing.
BW: He did make a record in 2016, Rainbow Ends, but he passed away very recently.
HMS: I’m so sorry to hear that.
BW: That’s one of many stories you’ll hear like that in the music industry.
HMS: That sounds like a poignant and important story.
BW: It’s the kind of story that keeps me up at night. When I think about my heroes, like Butch Hancock, one of the Flatlanders, he has no digital footprint at all.
HMS: Oh, boy, that’s very hard to raise awareness of. That’s a problem these days.
BW: It makes me heart-broken and stressed at the same time.
HMS: I understand wanting to be off the grid, but it thwarts my intention to help people out with raising awareness.
BW: Music has become a brand, that’s what it’s come down to.
HMS: Yes. And that’s not all bad, but it’s a monster if it’s in charge.
BW: Music has become so much more visual than audible, and that can become the opposite of what it should be.
HMS: Thank you. I think this is a really important conversation.