Old Soul Songwriters Series
Cary Hudson, Lisa Mills
422 South Farish St
Jackson, MS, 39201
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
Singer-songwriter Bonnie Bishop and producer Dave Cobb had almost finished recording her 2016 album, Ain’t Who I Was, when Cobb’s cousin Brent burst into the studio with a just-written tune he wanted them to hear. As soon as he and co-writer Adam Hood began playing it, Bishop had a “Killing Me Softly” moment, as if their fingers were strumming her fate — or at least, her manifesto.
In what became the album’s title track, she sings Lord I’m finally proud of who I am now/Thank God it ain’t who I was, her soulful, Dusty-ish voice simultaneously mingling the weariness of struggle, the relief of confession and the power of renewed hope.
Turns out that optimism was well placed; Ain’t Who I Was has earned Bishop the best reviews of her career. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Billboard and Rolling Stone offered praise; the Nashville Scene called it brilliant, noting, “A gifted songwriter and a powerhouse singer, her voice booms with the force of a Texas straight-line squall.” American Songwriter observed, “Her vocals mix the Southern sass of Shelby Lynne with the guts of Susan Tedeschi, leaving room for a fair amount of Bonnie Raitt-styled grit and gumption.” No Depression asserted, “If we can go ahead and choose the BEST album of the year, it's clearly Bonnie Bishop's.” Lonestar Music magazine added, “Bonnie’s brilliant voice makes this gut-punching record a seamless triumph.” And in her childhood hometown, the Houston Press anointed her as the “new queen of country soul.”
That recognition has opened several other doors for Bishop, among them singing on preacher’s son Paul Thorn’s knockout gospel album, Don’t Let the Devil Ride (tracked at Memphis’ legendary Sam Phillips Recording), then joining Thorn on tour, and undertaking her first — and second — Scandinavian tours, plus her first official U.K. trek to coincide with the album’s release there. She also performed on the 2017 Cayamo cruise, and is booked again for 2019.
But scoring the perfect album title track to accompany her six co-writes and three other covers, and working with Nashville’s hottest producer — who helped Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell become award-winning chart toppers — were just two of several fortuitous developments for a woman whose life and career have had more twists than a tornado. The fact that Ain’t Who I Was exists at all is a testament to Bishop’s courage, because doing it represented a huge leap of faith — one she thought she’d never take again before meeting Cobb.
By then, Bishop had spent 13 years on the road, doing all the heavy lifting herself. After five albums, one failed marriage and too many years of not making ends meet, she’d decided to give up — despite earning Grammy and New York Times Song of the Year recognition for co-writing “Not Cause I Wanted To,” which Bonnie Raitt covered on her comeback album, Slipstream. Bishop also had witnessed actor Connie Britton perform another of her tunes, “The Best Songs Come From Broken Hearts,” on the hit TV show Nashville.
At the time, Bishop was living in the show’s namesake city. But she packed her possessions and retreated to her parents’ ranch in Wimberley, Texas, to lick her wounds, mourn her dead dreams and figure out what to do next. For therapy, she began writing stories.
“I started seeing these threads connecting through them in a way that allowed me to celebrate what I had done, instead of beating myself up for having failed,” Bishop explains. “I thought maybe I could make a career doing that. So I applied to graduate school.”
But before she headed back to Texas, she called Thirty Tigers co-founder David Macias, a friend. Macias, whose multi-faceted entertainment company handles Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Simpson and Isbell (whose Cobb-produced album won 2015’s Best Americana Album Grammy), told her not to give up.
“You just need to make a great record with a real producer,” he said. Then he put her in touch with Cobb — who was in the midst of producing what became Stapleton’s (and Cobb’s) Grammy winning album, Traveller. After hearing her demos, he told her she should be singing soul, not country, and that he was looking to make an album with a soul singer. Her.
During Bishop’s childhood years in Houston, her mom made sure she got familiar with the Motown sound. After her mom married Bishop’s stepfather, football coach Jackie Sherrill, the family moved to Mississippi so he could turn around Mississippi State’s football program.
She spent fall Saturdays on stadium sidelines, dodging linebackers while toting Sherill’s headset cord, helping him achieve what still stands as the best record in MSU history.
During the week, she attended public school and learned how to sing with soul from the girls in choir class, where, unlike Texas, she was a racial minority.
“There’s a lot of Mississippi in me. It’s definitely where learned that I had a voice; it’s also where I found that soulful groove,” Bishop says.
But she’d never fully tapped her soul side, and found the prospect daunting. After an 18-month break from performing, during which she’d finally made peace with her decision and started graduate school, she reflects, “I had doubts about whether or not I could still even sing.”
Despite that fear, and the danger of further heartbreak if she failed, she placed her faith in Cobb and gingerly rekindled a flickering flame of hope.
When Macias heard the tracks she’d recorded, he financed the entire album.
Though enduring what amounted to a break-up with her old identity was painful, Bishop is glad she went through it, because coming out the other side has been nothing short of a rebirth. It’s made her more appreciative of her current success — which includes her namesake fan recording another Bishop tune, “Undone,” on 2016’s Dig in Deep. She’s also performed at the 30A Songwriters Festival, AmericanaFest and other prestigious gatherings, occasionally singing with gospel mavens the McCrary Sisters and other roots music luminaries. She’s also been busy with a variety of new projects since settling in to her new home in Fort Worth, Texas.
One of them is The House Sessions, a just-for-fans album mixing acoustic versions of songs from her early catalog with a few never-before-released tracks.
“I wanted to put new versions out there for super fans who loved me before any of the success from Ain’t Who I Was — the fans who have been there from the beginning who love those songs and ask for them all the time,” she says. It’s also an effort to re-embrace her early career, a time when, by Nashville standards, she was a failure.
But as Nashville’s establishment — and legions of roots music fans — are now well aware, she ain’t who she was. In fact, the self-described “singer/songwriter/storyteller” has not only spun that “failure” into success she couldn’t fathom just a few years ago, she’s vastly expanded her creative pursuits. Bishop’s website features Story and Song, a series of writings about various songs accompanied by video vignettes; she’s also posted Let’s Talk About Bonnie, a beautifully designed and illustrated, printable online book of candid career anecdotes and insights. Bishop is also resuming summer-session graduate studies at Sewanee, and is working on a book about her renowned stepfather, who retired in 2002 after a 30 years as a head coach at Pitt, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
“I learned so much from him about perseverance — how to get back up after you get knocked down; how to chase a dream — all the things I would need to know to survive the music business,” she says with a laugh.
And yes, Bishop is preparing to record a follow-up to her life-changing 2016 album. She already has a title: The Walk. Like Ain’t Who I Was, it will be full of soul. And truth.
Cary Hudson is a singer-songwriter and guitarist from the great state of Mississippi who resides somewhere between Memphis and New Orleans. He is a former drugstore clerk, landscaper, farm hand, waiter, house painter, pizza deliverer, and fry cook who currently spends his time canoeing the creeks of south MS, riding his bike to the snowcone stand, and going for leisurely walks with his dogs.
Cary’s music career began with a bang when his band placed third at the Sumrall High School Talent Show in 1980. In the late 80’s he moved to Oxford and started The Hilltops with John Stirratt (currently bassist with Wilco), and shortly thereafter John’s twin sister Laurie joined the band. After five years of touring, recording, and liver damage, The Hilltops called it a day and Cary and Laurie moved to Los Angeles in 1990.
While living in Venice, Cary worked in a deli and hung out with the guys in Weezer (fun), walked on Zuma Beach hoping to meet Neil Young, started a band called Blue Mountain with Laurie, and experienced the Rodney King riots (not fun). After moving back to Oxford in 1992, Blue Mountain began touring nationally, signed a deal with Roadrunner Records, and recorded their classic Dog Days album with producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. They went on to record more albums, played shows with Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco, The Jayhawks and Wille Nelson, were the cover story of the second No Depression magazine, and in 2011 were voted “Most Legendary Oxford Band” by the readers of The Local Voice. After parting ways with Roadrunner, Cary and Laurie started Black Dog Records with Chris Hudson and released albums by Blue Mountain and Marah, among others.
Blue Mountain went on hiatus in 2002 and Cary began working as a solo artist, touring and releasing five albums. Blue Mountain reformed in 2007, recorded Midnight in Mississippi and toured extensively in the US and Europe. In February of 2013 Cary and Laurie announced that Blue Mountain would play it’s final show at the North Mississippi Hill Country picnic that year.
Cary has played guitar for Bobby Rush, RL Burnside, Big Jack Johnson, Shannon MacNally, Dayna Kurtz and many others in his close to thirty years on the road. He was chosen as one of the Top Ten Alternative Country Guitar Players by Gibson magazine, and his songs have appeared in TV shows and movies including the George Clooney film “Up in the Air”. He recently released his sixth solo album, Town and Country (mixed by Multi-Grammy winner Trina Shoemaker). Blue Mountain’s tune “Mountain Girl” to be on SundanceTV series Rectify, episode #304. Cary’s sincerely trying to be a better person, and hopes to someday whistle like Professor Longhair.
The confluence of influences that comprise the namesake river of Lisa Mills’ native Mississippi are indeed “mighty”. However, to lump her interpretation of those blues, country, gospel and soul influences under the catch-all “roots music” moniker is both right…and entirely wrong.
Her defiance of description is what makes Lisa Mills a singular talent. She takes the best of each these genres, whether self-penned or carefully chosen covers that speak to her in some way, and utterly transforms them. By taking all those ingredients and adding the occasional dollop of jazz inflection, Mills serves up her own savoury-sweet mix that goes beyond the expected. The result is at least equal to, often surpassing the historic best that each of those genres have to offer. She is one of those rare artists that, once you’ve heard her, cannot possibly be mistaken for anyone else.
Having completed a monumental, and universally acclaimed tour of the UK and Europe in 2016 – and as the acknowledged star of every festival and venue at which she performed - Lisa Mills is back in 2017 to give her burgeoning audiences even more of what they simply could not get enough of last year.
Mills will showcase her latest, now officially released, labour of love – and it is genuinely that – Mama’s Juke Book, a collection of classic songs collated by Mills’ best friend and biggest fan, her late mother, found in a tattered notebook years after her passing. Mills’ interpretation of these songs, many of them familiar, others destined to become so, are taken to heights that only Mills is seemingly able to reach.
Mills will also include selections from her aptly named Tempered in Fire album, and the deeply personal and introspective I’m Changing. As a bonus for 2017, the ever-evolving Mills will give first airings to some new, as yet unrecorded work destined for her next project.
And that’s one of the many beauties of her live performances. How a woman, flying solo accompanied only by her faithful archtop guitar “Evangeline” and a seldom-referenced set list can hold an audience, breathless, in her hand with barely a whisper one second, and the next erupt into a soaring crescendo that creates the illusion of a full band that only she seems able to know the limits to, is at once thrilling and mystifying. As is often overheard at her concerts, “How on earth does she do that?!”
Lisa Mills takes her audiences on a musical, and often humorous, emotional journey with charm and panache that is melodic, raw, unfettered and, most important, searingly honest. She leaves it all on the stage…and in your heart. Like the best of any performing artist of note, she draws from deeply personal aspects of her life and makes them a memorable part of yours. In short, once heard, she’s impossible to forget.
Mills now resides in Mobile, Alabama (thank you Hurricane Katrina) and draws from – but is never limited to – those influences, too. (Just listen to the seminal “Way Down South”, which alone conveys a powerful, almost overwhelming sense of time and place.)
True to the river that bears the name, Lisa Mills remains a Mighty Mississippi native with a strength of spirit that resonates through her exceptional guitar mastery and her mighty, breathtaking voice.
Lisa Mills, is mighty good.