Tanya Tucker, Brandi Carlile, Shooter Jennings on Hand-Crafting a Country Comeback

In a freewheeling Q&A, Carlile vows to get her heroine into the Hall of Fame, and tells why Tucker and Joni Mitchell should be rowdy friends.

Tanya Tucker Brandi Carlile Shooter Jennings
Courtesy The Recording Academy / Rebecca Sapp

It’s a new dawn for Tanya Tucker, who, while most of the world wasn’t looking, went from being a teen country superstar who sounded 13-going-on-60 to, you know, actually being 60. Tucker is now getting the kind of career reappraisal she’s been due ever since she grew into that voice, which now, as then, rings — or rasps — with the maturity and mischief of the ages.

These fresh assessments don’t usually come without the assistance of a next-gen acolyte with marquee value. In Tucker’s case, she had two such re-enablers as producers and cheerleaders for her new album, “While I’m Livin’,” her first new collection in 17 years. Shooter Jennings is a longtime family friend and son of one of her hell-raising ‘70s contemporaries, Waylon; Brandi Carlile grew up doing Tanya-oke and worshipfully counting Tucker as her biggest childhood heroine.

No pair could have been better suited to the task of reclamation for Tucker’s cred than Carlile and Jennings. And no one could have been more skeptical about this mission than Tucker, who nixed their efforts to produce an album for her until, as if by an occult hand, she was drawn into an L.A. studio in January to record what is certainly the album of her adult career, if not its entirety.

Consisting mostly of songs written by Carlile and her bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth expressly for Tucker, “While I’m Livin'” may be the album that reminds the Country Music Hall of Fame cognoscenti that someone has slipped their minds along the way. Variety had a revealing and hilarious conversation with Tucker, Jennings and Carlile backstage at the Grammy Museum last week, just before an appearance there that perhaps was intended to prompt Recording Academy members into remembering that they, too, have overlooked Tucker for a trophy before now.

Voters in either the Hall of Fame or Grammy camps should learn something from the lesson of how Carlile stalked Tucker until she got her way: This is a woman who will hunt you down.

Variety: Tanya, when Gretchen Wilson mentioned you in her “Redneck Woman” hit in 2003, you had a big fan who was kind of giving you a cultural moment. Now you’re having a bigger moment with another huge fan… slash celebrity… slash talent…

Carlile: … slash stalker.

Tucker: Yeah, this is just a little alike. But not very similar. The director said, “Hey, would you come down and do this video with this new girl, Gretchen Wilson? She mentions your name in the song.” I went, “Yeah, somebody played me the song a couple weeks ago, I thought was cool. Sure, I’ll do it for you.” So I went down and met Gretchen and did my part, and then we went to the back of one of her buses. I was counting the buses and I went, hmmmm. So we get in the back and she says, “You got any advice for me?” And I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, when you don’t get your way, act like a…” She said, “What, a bitch?” I said, “No, no, no. Nobody wants to help a bitch. Act like a baby.” [She feigns tearing up.] “’This is my stuff, and I just want it to be great.’ Just act like a baby. Everybody wants to help a baby!” Because babies only react to what is really hurting ‘em, you know.

Carlile: That’s actually good advice. Shit, I’ve been doing it wrong all this time. Are you telling me I didn’t have to work this hard these last 20 years?

Tucker: “Act like a damn baby!” That was my advice to Gretchen. And: “Get rid of all these new buses.”

Tanya, in the thank-yous on the new album, you talk about how you remember standing on a tree stump in Texas, while Shooter was trying to talk you into coming to L.A. to record the album, as scheduled. Was it really coming down to the wire?

Tucker: I was standing on it trying to get reception, and we were cutting in and out. The last thing I remember Shooter saying to me was, “T, you always said you would do anything in the world for me.” And I went “Ooh, you’re gonna use that card? It’s awfully early in life.” Shooter said, “Point that bus toward L.A. Don’t even listen to the songs anymore. Just get here, and me and you and Brandi are going to get in a room and figure this out, and if you don’t like it, then you don’t have to do it.” So I went, “Okay, let’s go.”

Jennings: The good news was, you had my bus driver driving you temporarily, so I knew if you turned around, I would get a call.

Tucker: That’s right — that was your driver! So you would know first. I didn’t think of that. Oh, shit, now, see, that was another ploy.

Jennings: That was coincidence.

Tucker: I bet you the carpet’s worn out from me pacing after I talked to you. And that was about the 2nd of January, and we were supposed to be in the studio on the 7th.

Carlile: Good memory! That was exactly the date. This is after she f—ed up our Christmas by canceling on Christmas. [Tucker had called the Carlile residence on Christmas day to say she was backing out of doing the album.]

Tucker: I don’t know if these guys know this, but I had sent the songs to several people that I trust, and one of ‘em was Jerry Crutchfield, my old producer. And I sent ‘em to Paul Overstreet, one of the great writers. But I never could get anything to text me back or call me back and say, “These songs suck. I agree with you, don’t do ‘em, they’re awful.” Nobody would get on my side.

Carlile: Tanya, somebody sent me this article that some asshole wrote saying, “You know, the only thing I don’t like about this Tanya Tucker album — it ‘s really, really good, but Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings are totally trying to control Tanya Tucker.” I’m reading the article and I’m like, “Well, you know what? You’re goddamn right we are!”

Tucker: Paul Overstreet called me and said, “These songs, I can see where they would be good… Maybe you jeopardize your reputation for being able to pick a hit record — everybody knows that you can do that…”

Carlile: Tanya prides herself in being able to pick a hit song. But a hit song’s a curse now. It’s not a blessing.

Tucker: Paul said, “But what have you got to lose? You want to go out there? I’ll go out there and hold your hand while you’re there.” I thought that was so sweet.

Listening to this album, it seems like: “Well, of course she’d want to do this.” So why was it such a hard sell for you, Tanya, all the way up to when you started recording?

Tucker: I told ‘em, “Man, I don’t hear a ‘Luckenbach, Texas.’ I don’t hear a ‘Delta Dawn.’” I just didn’t feel they were what I should do. And I tell you, I’m usually right, but I have never been so wrong in my life. And I’ve never liked it so much, either. When I first walked in the studio, I had not met Brandi yet. Of course I know Shooter. And when I went in the door and I met everybody, I had a very comfortable feeling. And from then, I think if Brandi had said, “Let’s go out and slop the hogs, and then we’re going to go over here and do some karaoke,” I’d probably have done anything she said at that moment. Whatever — I’m with her!

Carlile: Where were we gonna slop a hog on Sunset?

Tucker: Or pick up dogshits, you know, or whatever. Whatever you wanted to do, I would’ve done it. She didn’t know that, probably, at the time. I’ll tell you what, it’s an experience I would never want to have not gone through. Making this record, when I look back on it, I go, oh my God… I never had anybody right in the vocal booth with me the whole time, telling me, “Well, maybe try it like this.”

Carlile: I can’t believe you let me get away with that.

Tucker: Nothing was the same on this record as in the past. The only thing that’s even close is that I don’t think I could have done this record with these guys if I hadn’t had the experience of making records with Billy Sherrill (in the ’70s). Because everything then was live, too. I didn’t know what overdub meant! And he wouldn’t give me any headphones. So I compare that. We had a little more luxury now because we could stop every now and then and go, “Sing a line again.” But once I was out of the studio, that was all she wrote.

Carlile: She was working so hard, and she never once got angry and impatient or snapped at any of us, not one time. She always was like just an outpouring of love. And we wanted to surround Tanya with love the minute she walked in the door, because we knew it was a big thing for her to do this for the first time in all these years. And then we were not going to let go when the record was done. And we haven’t let go, and that’s because we love her.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy The Recording Academy / Rebecca Sapp

Tucker: No, most producers are done when you leave the studio. These two are just getting started helping me. And I’m going, good God, she’s got this career that’s blowing up, and he’s on the road… The whole experience was almost like it was surreal, like maybe I dreamed it. Shooter knows me, but I got to thinking way later, how could Brandi and the twins, not knowing me, write these songs that were custom-fit for me? And then also, how do you know I’m not going to be a jerk to work with? That’s not my nature. I mean, I’ve got the reputation, but…

Carlile: Well, I did book a one-way ticket. [Laughter.]

Tucker: My bad reputation’s made me a damn good living, okay? But I just felt so much support. And it just came easy. Except for “The House That Built Me.” That was our only problem. [Tucker almost refused to cover the song that Miranda Lambert had already made famous, and even now is just getting comfortable with the idea.]

Brandi, in writing these made-to-order songs, did you give yourself homework, like you felt you needed to bone up on every aspect of her life story to get the lyrics right?

Carlile: A lot of the credit goes to the twins (Phil and Tim Hanseroth) for that, because yeah, they did. Actually the person that probably had the least impact on the songs was me. Because Shooter wanted to support Tanya in the music emotionally. He wanted to make sure that she had songs to sing that represented what her personality was really like and represented people that she loved. And then the twins wanted to write songs that were about the landscape of Tanya’s life, the places that she’s lived in and the places that she’s traveled to.

Jennings: And at the very end Brandi slid in with the two big home runs, which were “I Don’t Owe You Anything” and “Bring My Flowers Now.”

Tucker: Correct me if I’m wrong here, Shooter, but Shooter’s kind of over here holding the fort (with the band and overseeing all of the recording), and this one (Carlile) is with me in the vocal booth. She’s a leader, though. There’s no “Well, do you think we should do this?” No, it’s “this is what we’re gonna do,” and I went, ulp! Especially if she can lead me, she’s got to be damn good. I don’t let nobody lead. If somebody asks me to dance, I say, “I’ll dance with you if you let me lead!”

There are so many specifics that refer back to Tanya’s life in these songs — and so many local and geographical references, the album should almost come with a map. Was the fact that the songs were so custom-written maybe part of the resistance to doing them?

Carlile: I feel like it was. Yeah. I just feel like it was on a subconscious level, maybe.

Tucker: You know, I didn’t really think about it too much until after we left the studio, till after I heard the mixes. And I went, “Ohhhhhh.”

Carlile: “Gosh, I lived in a trailer, too!”

Tucker: I’m on the phone with the twins: “How did you guys do this?” Also, I wanted to know: What’s a hobnail? What’s a Jamboozie? [In the new song “Mustang Ridge,” Tucker sings, “Got my knee on the wheel and I’m feelin’ free / With my hobnail on the gas.” In the poignant “Wheels of Laredo,” it’s “I put on my favorite jacket for Jamboozie.”)

Carlile: Yeah, that was a text I got one night, too: “What the hell’s a Jamboozie?” I said, “It’s a music festival in Texas, Tanya, where you used to live.”

Tucker: And every time I sing it live, everybody goes, yayyyy! I’m glad they know what it is.

Carlile: You sent me a text one time where you were like, “I’m rolling into Griffin, Texas. Take a load off, Tanya.” [On a phone call, Carlile heard] the Band is playing in the background. And I thought, well, if she likes the Band, she’s going to be able to connect to this music — like, rhythmically, because that’s what I was feeling, that drum-and-bass thing.

Tucker: Well, let me tell you something. Last night [on the plane to L.A., on American Airlines’ in-house video system] I saw that show Brandi did on the ACL (Austin City Limits). Have you seen it?

Jennings: Yeah, it’s out of control, it’s so good.

Tucker: There are very few times I ever look at another artist. I’ve been in the audience a little bit for Brandi, and once for Lee Ann Womack, but very, very seldom. I just can’t do it (watch other singers perform). And I just watched that thing and went, “Oh my God.” I’m clapping in first class, and everybody on the plane’s looking at me.  I just want to say, some of those songs that you did, I’d like to sink my teeth into.

Carlile: Yeah? I’ll be damned.

Tucker: Not the ones where you go way up here in Nova Scotia land. [She feigns a high-pitched squeal.] They burnt the hell out of my voice (when Tucker was young), so I lost my falsetto. She goes waaaaaay up there. But I want to try some of that kind of music.

Carlile: Tell me which ones!

Tucker: Oh, which not ones? Probably the one that you go way up there. [She lets out another mock high note.] The one you said was hard to sing, or hard to write. [Tucker sings a bit of “Party of One,” from Carlile’s 2018 album “By the Way, I Forgive You.”]

Carlile: Oh, God, that note, that’s a female high C.

Tucker: “I’m yours, I’m yours…” I want to try that. Or, okay, I’ll tell you the one I want to do: “That Wasn’t Me” [from 2012’s “Bear Creek”].

Carlile: No one can sing like Joni. Tanya, I went out to have a bottle of wine with Joni Mitchell last night, and we opened up the computer and watched your video, and she loved it. [Carlile became friends with Mitchell after a 2018 tribute concert; she’s set to perform Mitchell’s album “Blue” in its entirety at L.A.’s Disney Hall Oct. 14.]

Tucker: Did you tell her you sang the ass off of “A Case of You”? Tell her that if she ain’t got no compliment, I do. I’d love to meet her. I’ll tell you, [pointing to Carlile] I’ve never heard anybody sing a song like that, ever. She’s the greatest singer, ever, ever, this one. There’s nobody that sings better than her. I don’t care who they are. Celine Dion’s a great singer, Michael Bolton’s a great singer, but I can only take one or two songs and I’m like, zzzzz, exhausted. But you’re just getting started (singing low) on a song, and then all of a sudden you freak ‘em out: “You think that’s high? Watch this.”

Brandi, it seems like this year, or maybe for all time, Tanya and Joni are kind of your twin spirit animals. Do they have anything in common at all?

Carlile: They don’t actually have very much in common at all. Joni’s very quiet. But here’s the thing. They’re so different, but I think Joni would f—ing love Tanya.

Tucker: I already love Joni. She’s way behind.

Carlile: I think Tanya would light up Joni’s smile like nobody else. Because I’m not quite naughty enough to do it. Joni likes audacious people. I think her favorite person in the world is Chaka Khan. And Tanya is Chaka omega… When Chaka Khan and I last hung out, she walked in the room — she’d met me before, but she didn’t remember — and walked up to me and  took the glass of wine out of my hand and goes, “Bitch, you’re not drinking this.” [Laughter.] Instead of “hello.”

Tucker: Brandi says, “I’m going to Joni’s right now for enchiladas. Then I’m going to Monterey to see Ellen and I’m gonna hang out with her for a little while.” I’m like, “Okay, whatever. I’m going to damn play Waco.” [Laughter.]

Shooter, we have to ask about your relationship with Tanya, because in the liner notes she refers to you as “little Waylon.” Does anybody else get to call you that, or is she the only one?

Jennings: She’s the only one. I actually said it first to her, because I was trying to (convince her to do the album and) I said, “It’s gonna be okay. Little Waylon is gonna be in the corner. Just consider me that, throughout the process.” (The album came about because) I had gotten her to sing a duet on a track I was producing for this band Hellbound Glory for a Record Store Day release, and after that, I said, “I want to do a record.”

Tucker: Then you said, “It’s going to be on me,” and that’s what got my attention. [Laughing.]

Jennings: Then I saw Brandi really briefly after that and told her about it. [Jennings had co-produced Carlile’s “By the Way, I Forgive You.”] Actually we were on stage doing rehearsal for the Colbert show when I told her about (planning to do a record with) Tanya — and she freaked out.

Carlile: You said, “I think I just heard a little Tanya Tucker in your voice.” And I’m like, “You’re goddamn right you did!”

Jennings: So I said, “I just hung with her.” And you about fell over, almost. I didn’t know that part of you. That moment was the entire linchpin for this album… And then Tanya and I saw each other at the (Country Music) Hall of Fame and started talking about it again.

Carlile: Speaking of the Hall of Fame: We’re going to get Tanya inducted.

Tucker: You can either get me inducted or induced. I’m gonna be induced into the Hall of Fame.

Are you trying to finally get her a Grammy this year, too, after three nominations?

Tucker: Don’t look at me.

Carlile: I think it would be great. I think that recognition will add to her legacy in a really big way.

Tucker: Brandi’s the kind of person that I think, realistically, I should be paying her, because I’ve got people I pay that should be doing the shit she’s doing. I mean, she ain’t right. In Texas we say that: “It ain’t right,” which means too good to be true.

Carlile: You’re helping us, too.

Tucker: If Brandi got anything from me, she took me and made it really great — kind of like Merle Haggard took Lefty (Frizzell) and made it great. Merle was like, “I’m gonna take everything you got, and now I’m gonna go.” And that’s what happened. I was thinking, too, when I was watching you (on the ACL concert video) last night, “Why can’t I…”  Listen, I’m not jealous. There’s no jealous bone in my body. I search myself and I can’t find one. But when you said, “We’ve been together for 30 years,” I’m like, mmm, that makes me jealous, working with people for that long.

Carlile: My boys (the Hanseroth twins)? Yeah, we’ve been together 20 years. I’m not quite old enough to have anybody in the band for 30 years, yet.

Tucker: With me, it’s like, two months — time’s up!