Bonnie Whitmore‘s second disc is crammed full of soulful, insistent Americana, with sharp-edged songs sometimes reminiscent of Tom Petty, delivered in a sure voice that’s both powerful and plaintive and throws in a touch of twang just when it feels most called for, as in the rootsy “Cryin’ Out for Me” and the elemental “The Gavel,” a pounding soured-love song that’s one of my favorites. In “Heartbreaker” (speaking of Tom Petty), she displays an ability to elevate lyrics that border on cliché (“You ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreaker/You ain’t nothin’ but a reason to cry”) with a compelling melody.
Yet while the songs and arrangements follow familiar patterns, tired cliché isn’t what Whitmore is about; it’s hooks. The more energetic songs, like “High in the Sky” and “There I Go Again,” shine with rock-and-roll joy that bring to mind Mary-Chapin Carpenter, while the more contemplative numbers, like “Colored Kisses” and “Heartbreaker,” get their strength from plainspoken, hummable melodies and precision arrangements often dressed up in organs and strings and mandolins. Harmony vocals are another strength on display in many of these songs, sweetness and raw emotion hanging together in the air in thrilling tension as she holds out those long notes.
Bonnie Whitmore is a product of a pretty interesting childhood. Raised in Texas by a classically trained opera-singer mother and singer-songwriter father, along with a talented violin- and fiddle-playing older sister, Whitmore naturally became influenced by and drew inspiration from her family. At age 8, she started to play bass, joined the family band and toured Texas. Later, she learned to play acoustic guitar and cello, then, at 16, Whitmore began writing her own material and performing with local musicians. Her sophomore album, Embers to Ashes has all the trappings of great country music – the stories, emotion, and reality. It takes the listener on a turbulent journey from the beginning to the end of a relationship, chronicling the anger, heartbreak, pain, and loss. Although, mainly a country album, Whitmore does expand the sound with a rockabilly, Western swing influenced title track, rock-infused “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” and the Roy Orbison-like “Please Take the Words Back,” but it’s her ballads like “Cowboy Lullaby” and “Love Too Sweet” with their melancholic melodies and Whitmore’s tender yet aching vocals that standout the most.
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