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Tanya Tucker, Brandi Carlile on Country Star’s Surprise Grammy Nominations Triumph

“I just won’t go away, see?" says the most nominated country artist. "They’re going, ‘God dang, man, we thought we’d gotten rid of her.'"

The Grammy Awards pretty much elected to ignore veteran artists this year with anything more than a token nod or two — with one very happily glaring exception. In a year otherwise dedicated largely to ingenues, country star Tanya Tucker was rewarded with four nominations for “While I’m Livin’,” the comeback project that was lovingly curated and co-produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings.

It’s been 26 years since Tucker was nominated for a Grammy at all, and 47 years since she first contended. As disinterested as the Grammys were in really getting into bed with other legends this year (with Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Sheryl Crow being completely shut out), the Recording Academy pretty much collectively declared that, yes, as a matter of fact, it would lay with Tucker in a field of stone.

“I’m beside myself — I guess that’s what you say when you’re from the country,” Tucker tells Variety. “I just won’t go away, see? They’re going, ‘God dang, man, we thought we’d gotten rid of her.'” In earnest, though, the singer says, “I really haven’t got my head wrapped up around it. First, I thought about how hard everybody else has worked to make this happen. I was sharing that with Brandi, and she said, ‘Don’t forget how hard you worked for it. We worked for about a year, and you worked for almost 50 years.'”

Carlile will vouch for that end of the conversation, deflecting credit back to her heroine, although she’s up for three Grammys herself this year, two of them for co-writing with Tucker. “She will always think that everybody else is carrying her, and that’s a beautiful quality in a person,” Carlile says. “But what it is is that no one in the world has Tanya Tucker’s voice or the ability to tell a story like Tanya Tucker. … And this [the nominations] is such a game changer for her.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 03: Brandi Carlile and Tanya Tucker perform at The Drop: Tanya Tucker at the GRAMMY Museum on October 03, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy )
CREDIT: Courtesy The Recording Academy

Tucker doesn’t see these four nods — the most for any country artist, and most for any artist over 40 (she’s tied there with Thom Yorke, 10 years her junior, who also has four) — as any kind of culmination of her journey of ups and downs.

“It boggles my mind a little bit to think about how much I’ve been through, and how much more there is left to do,” she says. “It’s been a long hard climb. But I’m sitting here at the edge of the hill, looking up at Mount Everest, and I’m finally ready to go. Mount Everest would be the ultimate goal, to be everything that God put me here to be and made me capable of being. It’s hard to realize that myself. It’s a wonderful thing when you have a lot of other people that realize it for me. I’m just kind of following suit. I’ve got a really good team of climbers. And we’re all ready to put our boots and our outfits and gear on and go for it — and make sure we have plenty of good food and champagne at the top.”

She corrects herself. “Champagne was a Freudian slip. I mean my tequila, of course.” (Tucker launched her own line of the liquor, Cosa Salvaje, back in March.)

Carlile told Variety what some of the emotional motivation was behind her and Jennings getting Tucker to sign on for her first album since the early 2000s, and one that had a more personal, autobiographical and Americana-like quality to it.

“When Tanya started talking about why she hadn’t made a record in 17 years, it’s because when she lost her mom and dad, she wasn’t who she wanted to be,” Carlile says. “There were things in her life that were keeping her from being as close to them as she could be, and music brought them so much joy. Any time she did music or got an accolade, it really brought her closer to her parents. And when they died, she just couldn’t do it anymore.” Although Tucker never ceased being a road warrior, as a recording entity, “she stopped, and she said that it was because she felt like there was more love behind her in her life than there was ahead of her. And me and Shooter set out, if nothing else, to prove to her that that is not true — that although we’re not her mom and dad, we, the people in the world that love country and American roots music, love her unconditionally, and that there’s more love ahead of her than behind her.”

This is a milestone in a wider crusade that Carlile has been undertaking for Tucker, who first became a star as a young teen in 1973 with “Delta Dawn”: to help get the singer into the Country Hall of Fame. “In all fairness to the Hall of Fame, Tanya disappeared,” Carlile points out. “But she’s back now, and it’s time to do the right thing. And I think that the Grammys have put the best foot forward, and now it’s time for us all to follow suit.”

Carlile talked about having discussions with Rick Rubin before she went into the project, and reconnecting with him recently when she and Tucker went out to his place to do a podcast. “This is what Rick Rubin said would happen when we talked about how apprehensive Johnny Cash was going into ‘American Recordings’ and singing those songs. It’s not a forcefulness. There is no tyranny here. All it is is support — you know, you support and you love your heroes into believing that they’re worthy. Because they may or may not on their own. And she doesn’t, just like Cash didn’t. And Rick told me that if accolades that were monumental and important came through, that she would understand in a big way how valuable she was and rise to the occasion. That’s what’s happened.”

Besides Carlile and Jennings, Tucker credited her new label, Fantasy, new management, Paradigm, and new PR, Adkins Publicity, for helping her reach this point. “Shooter and Brandi saw it way before I did, but at the same time, it sort of coincided with me having new management, which was a big step for me,” she says, confirming Carlile’s thoughts about her complicated family/business ties, “because after my daddy it was hard for me to imagine I could even be managed by anyone else besides my dad. I think I was probably the last one on the train, and now we’re all aboard.”

She also didn’t want to make it sound like she was re-starting completely from scratch when she has “all the great Tanya fans that have been there all along and worked on building the fan base. … No matter how old or how young you were, everybody loved Elvis. Everybody was one age when they went to see him. That’s what I wanted all my life, to be that way — ageless, and have my music be ageless. To be playing for my fans’ kids’ kids, that’s the best accomplishment of all. The Grammy nominations are icing on the cake. Now if we can just get the cherry! One good cherry.”

When it’s pointed out that she has a big look at the Grammys this year and some other notable superstar releases got nada, Tucker gets philosophical on their behalf.

“Springsteen’s had some good years, and so has Madonna. She’s been a big winner and she’s had her big old day. But I don’t think I’ve ever had mine. And maybe that’s one reason” for the multiple nominations. “Maybe it’s the fact that, like I said, I won’t go away and keep putting one foot in front of other and work as hard as I can. That’s not saying I like it all the time. Because I don’t. But the guys digging ditches probably don’t like it, either.

“But I think [the other veteran artists] will have their day again, because Springsteen isn’t going anywhere, either. I think he’d be the first to say: power on. He’s a nuclear act like Madonna and the other ones, and he has a fan base most of us would die for. I’m on his tail, though! And I do like his tail, though, with the bandana hanging off.”

Country’s queen of quips isn’t quite done yet. “It’s a matter of taste,” she says, “but I hope I’m the flavor of the year. Baskin Robbins, watch out. There’s a new flavor in town!”

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