How Brandi Carlile led Tanya Tucker to better appreciate her own worth

New York, NY - October 19, 2022: Tanya Tucker, left, and Brandi Carlile sitting at a table outside of the New York City Public Library in Manhattan. (Clark Hodgin / For the Times)
Tanya Tucker, left, and Brandi Carlile talk about their collaboration on an album, a documentary, and a new song. (Clark Hodgin / For the Times/Clark Hodgin)
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If it seems as if Tanya Tucker has been around forever, she has — by popular music standards, anyway. But after 22 studio albums in about 25 years through 1997, she released just one in 2002, another in 2009, then not another for 10 years. That's when Brandi Carlile stepped in.

It was producer Shooter Jennings who actually suggested a collaboration between the two music powerhouses to give Tucker a comeback album, even though the 64-year-old had never heard of Carlile at the time. That work on the 2019 album, "While I'm Living," would pay off — earning Tucker her first Grammy wins, 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 features the original song "Ready as I'll Never Be," which the two women co-wrote.

"There's a lot of saying goodbye in her life, and that's what that song's about," says Carlile. As with "Flowers," with "Ready as I'll Never Be," the process was sparked by Carlile turning Tucker's casual wisdom into music.

"It's something that Tanya said to me on the night that [singer-songwriter] Billy Joe Shaver died. She pointed out that because she's the youngest of these peers and of this generation of country music icons, that she's gonna have to probably watch all of them 'get their wings.' And she said, 'So, honey, I'm ready, ready as I'll never be.'"

"She does it," says Tucker. "I spit it out and she unscrambles it. She does a great job."

It helps to have as Tucker's musical translator the brilliant singer-songwriter behind "The Joke," "Broken Horses," "Right on Time," "Throw It All Away" and so many others, someone likely to wind up in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

"The melody is so haunting; she put it together so well," Tucker says, then ribs Carlile about a line she wrote: "'The snow don't fall in Texas ...' I said, 'Whoa. Don't you remember we had a freeze last year in Texas?'"

They laugh again, easily, as friends do who can get deep in the weeds with each other, then turn around and chuckle. That lyric eventually became "The snow don't fall in Willcox" (Arizona), a reference to one of Tucker's hometowns.

"It comes from listening to Tanya talk about stories," says Carlile. "She told me about the first time she came to Nashville and she wanted to be out on the Walk of Fame: 'I heard you calling / I saw your star / From the old time movies to the bars on the boulevard.' How they wanted her to go inside the Grand Ole Opry and she wanted to stand outside and look at the stars.

"'The bells were ringing for a gypsy soul' — and they were a family of traveling, transient, magical beings," Carlile says of Tucker's formative show-business days, mentored by the likes of Loretta Lynn and many others. "'The smart-mouthed little girl from Seminole / All you outlaws and Opry queens / That wrap their golden arms around the baby of the family' — because that's what Tanya was, the baby of the family."

Tucker sings, with feeling: "Wrap those golden arms around the baby of the family."

Carlile quotes: "'To stand beside you then was more than enough / I always was and always will be looking up' — That's how I imagine Tanya's coming up in the music industry was like; I imagine 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 big in 1972 — she's much younger than the artists she came up with. On one hand, that means the comeback Carlile was instrumental in engineering could just be the beginning. On the other, it means Tucker has borne witness to more than her share of endings.

Tucker says, "Mm-hmm, with people like Ernest Tubb and Loretta [Lynn]; I'm just so thankful that I got to hang out with those guys."

"I just picture them putting an arm around her, leading you out on stage with them," says Carlile. Tucker's "considered among those stars in that ether, but she's so much younger than them. It's been a tough 20 years, and it's gonna be a hard 20 years from now because of the fact that like Loretta, they're gonna leave a bit sooner. I think 'Ready as I'll Never Be' has a more profound 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 came before the feeling. Some of the feeling."

"She talks about her parents getting their wings," Carlile adds. "She talks about watching doves fly. This is all the way Tanya talks about life and loss. I just listened to her."

"Watching doves fly / sooner than me," Tucker sings. "That's what my sister said when she woke me up and told me, 'Daddy got his wings today.' So Brandi took it and made it exactly what I'd say if I could."

Carlile has called Tucker one of her primary 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 guffaws, but Carlile means it: "When I go sing it, I'm mimicking you now. I sing your licks, your runs, all the things you did, because you are that definitive of a singer-interpreter."

Carlile is making a habit these days of bringing her idols back to the stage — she'll be playing with heretofore-semi-retired Joni Mitchell next summer following their surprise performance together at the Newport Folk Festival this year.

"It's one of my favorite things I get to do, work with my heroes," she says. "I cannot believe that's my job."

"Not just working with 'em, but making a damn difference! A big difference," says Tucker, who would know. "You do it, you make a difference in their life."

"It's a whole bunch of symbiotic joy for everybody," says Carlile. "I get just as much joy as Tanya from this Renaissance period in her life, which she f—ing deserves!"

When asked if coming back after a long layoff has changed her perspective on what she does, Tucker says, "Maybe I get to be prouder of what I've done. Thankful and proud.

"I could feel bad about myself — we all go through days — but when someone walks up to me, and it may sound corny but it's true, and says, 'Your music got me through times when I didn't think I was gonna make it' — That brings it back to, 'OK, maybe I do matter a little bit.'"

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.