Following the road less traveled has built a remarkable career for Alyssa Bonagura.
Since she was a child, the Nashville singer-songwriter has pretty much lived her life on the road. She toured the nation growing up with her musical parents Baillie & the Boys’ Kathie Baillie and husband Michael Bonagura. And by the time their daughter was ready for college, her resume boasted music memories that would make most country acts green with envy.
She was three when she sang Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” on Ralph Emery’s Nashville Now TV show. At age 10, she recorded a duet with Kenny Rogers for his 1998 holiday album, Christmas From the Heart. By 16, she scored her first national tour opening for Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. When she graduated from Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts in 2009, Sir Paul was there to personally present her with her degree in sound technology. And, yes, her name was pronounced correctly when it was her turn to walk.
“Paul is awesome,” Bonagura said during our CMT.com interview. “He comes every year to give degrees. Funny enough, people in England get my name right. I guess they’re used to seeing more Italian names over there.”
She has also performed at England’s Glastonbury music festival and shared concert bills with Ringo Starr and the Who. During her time in England, she wrote “I Make My Own Sunshine” to keep on the sunny side in the dreary British weather, and the song went on to become the official soundtrack for a popular Lowe’s commercial. Then Steven Tyler recorded a version for his debut country album We’re All Somebody From Somewhere.
No big deal.
“I would die if I didn’t have music in my life,” she said. “I think that it helps me understand life and love because it’s like writing in a journal. You get to reflect on your day, and when you don’t remember certain things down the road, you go back and you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I wrote that.’ ‘I Make My Own Sunshine’ was one of those songs for me. I’m proud to be a messenger and get these songs out to people so they can make their own sunshine. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to help the world in some way.”
Between chat about music, Bonagura cupped a steaming mug of ginger tea in the quiet area upstairs at the Frothy Monkey coffee shop on a rare Saturday at home in Franklin, Tennessee.
Her outfit for the day totally rocks. The black Free People boots tied up to her knees were a gift from her boyfriend Graham Whitford, guitarist for the Nashville rock band Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown. A camel-colored maxi vest and her long brown hair hide an ornate silver necklace with cosmic embellishments that scream bohemian warrior princess.
On her head is a wide-brimmed fedora hat adorned with three hand-me-down feathers. One is from a white owl Whitford once saved from becoming road kill while on tour the Shakedown. She found the long pheasant plume backstage at a Gary Clark Jr. concert. That night, her other group with Ruby Stewart, the Sisterhood Band, opened the show. The final feather is from a red-tailed black cockatoo that’s native to Australia. A friend brought it back from a trip Down Under as a souvenir.
“He told me that if I wore it in Australia, I would get arrested because it’s illegal,” she admitted.
This week, the Sisterhood are booked for West Coast run and start a two-month tour in the U.K. and Ireland with Ruby’s rock star father, Rod Stewart, on Nov. 12 in Liverpool. Later in the evening, Bonagura has a gig playing with Jessie James Decker at the Grand Ole Opry, a world stage she’s always wanted to perform on as a solo act.
“That’s my dream to be out on the road making records all the time,” she said. “I told Graham, ‘We better be in a band sometime together soon so that whenever we get married and have kids, they can come out on the road with us.’ It’s the best form of education.”
Bonagura’s latest 10-song album Road Less Traveled is her story. Recorded live in seven days at the end of summer 2015 with friend and engineer Mark Petaccia, the collection shows Bonagura’s highly imaginative songwriting and musical talents in their purest form without any additional fixings of autotune and synthetic tracks. All the songs were written or co-written by her and she played at least 11 instruments on the album including ukulele, lap steel and a Hammond B-3 organ.
“Just keep doing it until we get it right,” she said. “That’s the way we did the record, and it pushed me. For the first time, Mark helped me create something that has ever really sounded like the me that I’ve heard in my head. I’ve never been able to accomplish it. This is it.”
Road Less Traveled kicks off with the freewheeling “Coming Up From the Underground,” which has Bonagura singing of being a player just living for the love of the craft. Co-written with hitmaker and guitarist Jedd Hughes, the song celebrates a musical takeover of underground sounds.
The title track plays out like a declaration of independence, honoring living life on one’s own terms with an open heart. “Rebel,” “Crying,” “Who I Want the World to See” and “Like a Child” offer beautiful soul searching as Bonagura’s voice carries melodies into registers only songbirds like her and Joni Mitchell can reach.
Written for Whitford, “I Wanna Marry You” is her “When I’m 64” by the Beatles. She smiled recalling the morning she wrote the song.
“I wrote it for him one morning while he was still sleeping,” she said. “He heard me singing it and he came down to the kitchen for coffee. And I was like, ‘I wrote you a song.’ Super fun. He’s great. I’m sure we’ll get married soon.”
The collection closes with “Angel” a beautiful acoustic tribute to her late friend and mentor, Nikki Mitchell. For 22 years, Mitchell was the president and CEO of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter Music and she was the owner of the River Café in Normandy, Tennessee. A Texan with a heart for adventure, she lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in 2013.
Before she passed, Mitchell flew around the world in a single engine plane with her friend Rhonda. Together, they flew the path of the Russian Night Witches, a fleet of female fighter pilots who bombed German troops in World War II flying single engine planes.
“They almost died a few times,” Bonagura said. “They were flying over Alaska when all of the plane gears froze. They looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we’re not going to freak out. We’re just going to keep going. If we go, then we go and it’s our time. And if we don’t, then it’s not our time.’ That was her thing: When something crazy comes your way, keep your cool and not worry about it. That’s how she lived life with cancer.”
“I’ve always written about my truths always,” she added. “And this whole process has been super empowering for me because I realized I can accomplish things on my own. Fear is the biggest thing that holds us all back, and we create it ourselves. You don’t have to pay attention to it. It doesn’t really exist. Why be afraid and follow everybody else? That’s no fun.”