Brandi Carlile and Tanya Tucker: A collaboration for the ages

If it seems like Tanya Tucker has been around forever, she has — by popular music standards, anyway. But after 22 studio albums in about 25 years until 1997, she only released one in 2002, another in 2009, and then no more for ten years. That’s where Brandi Carlile came in.

It was producer Shooter Jennings who actually suggested a collaboration between the two music powerhouses to give Tucker a comeback album, though the 64-year-old had never heard of Carlile at the time. That work on 2019’s While I’m Living would pay off — earning Tucker her first Grammy win for country album of the year and country song for the single Bring My Flowers Now.

Their collaboration also included the documentary The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile, which chronicles the making of the album and the singer’s return to live performance – and includes the original song Ready as I’ll Never Be, which the two women took notes.

“There are a lot of goodbyes in her life and that’s what this song is about.” says Carlile. As with “Flowers,” the process on “Ready as I’ll Never Be” was triggered by Carlile turning Tucker’s casual wisdom into music.

“It’s something Tanya said to me that night [singer-songwriter] Billy Joe Shaver has died. She pointed out that because she’s the youngest of those peers and generation of country music icons, she probably has to watch all of them “get their wings.” And she said, ‘Well, honey, I’m ready, ready like I never will be.'”

“She does it,” says Tucker. “I spit it out and she decodes it. She is doing a great job.”

It helps to have the brilliant singer-songwriter behind “The Joke”, “Broken Horses”, “Right on Time”, “Throw It All Away” and so many others as Tucker’s musical translator, someone who’s probably in the Songwriters Hall lands of fame.

“The melody is so haunting; she put it together so well,” Tucker says, then taunts Carlile over a line she wrote, “‘The snow doesn’t fall in Texas…’ I said, ‘Whoa. Don’t you remember we had a freeze in Texas last year?’”

They laugh again, lightly, like friends who can push each other deep in weeds, then turn and giggle. This text eventually became “Snow Doesn’t Fall in Willcox” (Arizona), a reference to one of Tucker’s hometowns.

“That’s what comes from listening to Tanya talk about stories,” says Carlile. “She told me about her first time coming to Nashville and wanting to be on the Walk of Fame: ‘I heard you call / I saw your star / From the old movies to the bars on the boulevard.’ How they wanted her to walk into the Grand Ole Opry and she wanted to stand outside and look at the stars.

“‘The bells rang for a gypsy soul’ – and she was a family of itinerant, fugitive, magical beings,” says Carlile of Tucker’s formative show business days, which were mentored by the likes of Loretta Lynn and many others. “‘The wily little girl from Seminole / All you outlaws and Opry queens / Who put their golden arms around the family’s baby’ – because that was Tanya, the family’s baby.”

Tucker sings with emotion: “Wrap these golden arms around the baby of the family.”

Carlile quotes: “’Standing next to you then was more than enough / I always was and always will be looking up’ – this is how I envision Tanya’s rise in the music industry; I assume she was the baby of the family.”

Carlile calls Tucker a “young legend” because, despite 50 years in the business — Tucker was just 13 when her “Delta Dawn” hit the big time in 1972 — she’s far younger than the artists she dreamed up. On the one hand, that means the comeback that Carlile was instrumental in engineering could just be the start. On the other hand, it means Tucker has witnessed more than her share of endings.

Tucker says, “Mm-hmm, with the likes of Ernest Tubb and Loretta [Lynn]; I’m just so thankful I got to hang out with these guys.”

“I just imagine them putting an arm around them and leading you onto the stage with them,” says Carlile. Tucker is considered “one of those stars in that ether, but she’s so much younger than them. It’s been a tough 20 years and it’s going to be a tough 20 years from now because, like Loretta, they’re going to be leaving a little sooner. I think ‘ready as I’ll never be’ has a deeper meaning now that we’ve lost Loretta,” who was one of Tucker’s closest friends and mentors. “That’s really what it’s about.”

Tucker says, “It’s almost like the song comes before the feeling. Some of that feeling.”

“She talks about her parents getting their wings,” adds Carlile. “She talks about watching pigeons fly. This is how Tanya talks about life and loss. I just listened to her.”

“Watching pigeons fly / before me,” Tucker sings. “That’s what my sister said when she woke me up and said, ‘Daddy got his wings today.’ So Brandi took it and did exactly what I would say if I could.”

Carlile has credited Tucker as one of her major vocal influences: “I gotta tell you, she covered one of my songs, ‘That Wasn’t Me.’ And when Tanya sings your song, it’s not your song anymore.”

Tucker laughs out loud, but Carlile is serious: “When I sing it, I’m imitating you now. I sing your licks, your runs, all the things you’ve done because you’re such a definite singer-performer.”

Carlile is making it a habit these days to bring her idols back on stage – she’ll be playing next summer with Joni Mitchell, who has been semi-retired since their surprise performance together at this year’s Newport Folk Festival.

“Working with my heroes is one of my favorite things to do,” she says. “I can’t believe this is my job.”

“Not just working with them, but making a damn difference! A big difference,” says Tucker, who would know. “You do it, you make a difference in their lives.”

“It’s a whole lot of symbiotic joy for everyone,” says Carlile. “I’m having as much joy as Tanya from this renaissance period in her life that she fucking deserves!”

When asked if coming back after a long layoff has changed her view of what she does, Tucker says, “Maybe I’m more proud of what I’ve done. Grateful and proud.

“I might feel bad – we all go through days – but when someone comes up to me, and it may sound cheesy, but it’s true, and say, ‘Your music got me through times when I didn’t think I could it would make it’ – That brings it back to, ‘Okay, maybe I’m a little important.’” Brandi Carlile and Tanya Tucker: A collaboration for the ages

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