Brandi Carlile, the most nominated female artist at the Grammys this year, is more known for her own records than her occasional moonlighting as a producer. But in the midst of all her recent pre-Grammy activities, she found time to co-produce an album for one of the biggest country stars of the 1970s and ‘80s, and her first childhood idol, Tanya Tucker. The title: “While I’m Living.”
Carlile is also executive-producing a documentary film about Tucker, to be titled “Delta Dawn Then and Now: The Return of Tanya Tucker.” Cameras were rolling for the doc as Carlile and co-producer Shooter Jennings helmed the sessions for the album at a Hollywood studio in January.
“She’s the most fascinating person in country music right now, and no one knows it,” Carlile told Variety as we sat down with her for the cover story in this week’s issue. “The world’s going to be like, how did we forget about Tanya Tucker?”
Tucker hasn’t released an album of new material since 2002’s “Tanya” or a collection of any sort since 2009’s album of classic covers, “My Turn.” But before her output slowed she had 40 singles reach the country top 10. In the 1970s, six of them went to No. 1 — ironically, her best known song, “Delta Dawn,” was not among them; the breakout hit peaked at No. 6 — and in the ‘80s, she had four more reach the top.
“I think that it’s time for us to remind the world that she’s influenced a whole corner of country music that no one else has even touched,” says Carlile. “I mean, she would tell you that Wanda Jackson and Connie Smith did it before her, and they did. But that kind of sassy toughness you hear in any of today’s singers — that Loretta-after- a-bottle-of-Scotch thing — that’s Tanya Tucker. That’s where Miranda (Lambert) gets it from. That’s where Kacey (Musgraves) gets it from, especially on her previous album, ‘Pageant Material.’ That’s where Maren (Morris) gets it from, on ‘My Church.’ And Gretchen Wilson, of course [who name-checked Tucker in ‘Redneck Woman’] — and that’s where I get it from.
“And we’ve forgotten. To be fair, it might be Tanya’s fault we’ve forgotten. But I think most of us are more than open to being reminded, and that’s why the record’s so f—ing good, and that’s why the documentary might even be better.”
To help get in the right mindset, Carlile sought consultation from one of her most famous former producers, a guru with some experience in re-introducing legends. “Rick Rubin mentored me prior to making this record about how he approached Cash to do something like this,” she reveals.
Originally, Jennings was going to be the sole producer. But well before production got underway, he brought in Carlile, whose Grammy-nominated “By the Way, I Forgive You” he had co-produced. Says Carlile, “Shooter called me for songs initially, and I went off (on a rant). I was like, ‘I was f—ing 7 the first time I sang ‘San Antonio Stroll.’ I was 8 when I sang ‘What’s Your Mama’s Name, Child?’ And then I went into ‘Delta Dawn,’ ‘Two Sparrows in a Hurricane,’ ‘Strong Enough to Bend,’ ‘Last Teardrop.’ My Tanya thing is, like, real.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, you’re a real fan. … No, I don’t have any business getting near this thing without you.’”
Tucker was a point of bonding for Carlile and her mom, who used to perform in bars, sometimes bringing the pre-teen Brandi along with her. To Carlile, the “Delta Dawn” singer was the best of all possible female-country-diva worlds.
“I loved Patsy Cline because Patsy Cline was loud,” she says. “Mom loved Tammy (Wynette) because Tammy had this cry. And we both loved Tanya because Tanya was both — she was loud and she had the cry.”
Jennings was glad to have Carlile get involved beyond the songwriting level — although that was major, since Brandi and her musical partners Phil and Tim Hanseroth ended up writing nearly every song.
“She handled Tanya and sat in the room with her for every vocal,” says Jennings. “She had this fan hat on, but then was just such a champ at going through every vocal nuance with her. She said to me early on, ‘You got the music and the band, I got Tanya.’” He hopes to co-produce more records with Carlile: “I think that it’s etched in the sands of time for us to be doing records together.”
Carlile recalls the intimacy of the sessions, which she calls “one of the biggest highlights of my career. She let me right in her space. She sits on a stool singing into the mic and I sit there on one knee next to her and I tap on her leg with a pencil. She wants that… She swears and tells dirty jokes and is hilarious. I’m like, ‘Tanya, what are we going to do next week when we don’t get to hang out with you?’ She says, ‘Oh baby, everything is hanging off of me.’ She’s like a more vulgar Dolly Parton. Actually, Linda Perry told me yesterday that Dolly’s a bit vulgar too. I just didn’t know!” she laughs.
On a serious note, Carlile hopes this album is the start of a renaissance for Tucker. “For some reason, in country music, we have a way of not telling legends they’re legends until they’re 80, when we could have told them when they were 60 and they would have still had 30 years to teach us and stay in the spotlight and stay relevant to us. We wait until they’re so old, before we have these tributes for them, and it’s beautiful” — she’s set to participate in an all-star Loretta Lynn tribute in Nashville in March, in fact — “but we should have done this for Willie when he was 60 and should have done this for Loretta when she was 60. So this record’s called ‘While I’m Living’ because I’ll be God-damned if we’re not going to tribute her while she’s living.”
Tucker just turned 60 this past fall, which may come as a shock to anyone who remembers her being touted as jailbait as a sexy 15-year-old on the cover of Rolling Stone in the mid-‘70s. As a youth, she had “the oldest sounding young voice I ever heard,” Carlile says, opening up her phone to play “Delta Dawn.” “While I’m Living” could be the album to prove she’s finally grown into that voice.
Carlile also recently produced a second album in a row for a favorite Americana duo, the Secret Sisters.
“Producer is the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t know how to do it without getting so emotionally invested in it that it’s ridiculous,” she admits. “I can’t make any money at it. And any money I have made at it, I give back to the band at the end of it, because by the time I’m done I care about it so much that I want them to spend it on styling or a good publicist. So it’s not lucrative for me, and I feel like every time I make a record it takes a couple years off my life. But I know there’s something to why I keep doing it, and I just have to find a way, I think, to do it more casually. Because,” she laughs, “you may have noticed that I’m a little obsessive.”