Spotlight: Shonna Tucker
Shonna Tucker has always been regarded as one of the guys—a jeans-clad, natural blonde holding her own alongside her swarthier male bandmates in the Drive-By Truckers. Now that she’s a frontwoman, she keeps different company.
“I’m actually standing in the middle of three donkeys as we speak,” she chuckles over the phone.
The beasts were acquired as a security measure after Tucker and John Neff—once the Truckers’ steel guitarist and now the leader of Tucker’s backing band, Eye Candy—set up a homestead of sorts four miles outside of Athens, Ga.
“We had a little fox problem with our chickens,” she explains. “So I started researching. All my years growing up around farm animals, I never knew [anything about] donkeys at all. But I read a lot about how they were guardians over the livestock. Then I thought, ‘Well, that makes perfect sense.’ [That’s]
why you see one donkey standing in a field of cows or goats or something.”
Only, they didn’t want to doom their four-legged sentinel to a solitary existence. So they adopted one donkey and then found him a companion, who turned out to be pregnant. The entire family gets screen time in the promotional video for Tucker’s solo debut, A Tell All. And even though she tends to be studiedly vague about the origins of her songs, an especially persistent journalist recently got her to admit that “ma, pa and baby ass” were the inspirations for the album’s opening track, “Since Jimmy Came,” an insinuatingly hooky, Southern power-pop tune about a couple whose intimacy is interrupted by their high-maintenance bundle of joy.
Tucker’s far more comfortable speaking in general terms about how these new songs reflect the texture of her surroundings and her influences. It’s clear, for instance, that she’s studied the way that Bobbie Gentry’s songs illuminate scenes of down-home domesticity.
“I did listen to a ton of Bobbie Gentry while we were making the record,” Tucker affirms. “And yes, I do relate to her in that she’s very country and she sang a lot about her environment, which happened to be bugs and country things. While I was writing these songs, I’d just left the Truckers, and I was at home 24/7, and I live on a farm. There was a lot of nature and food around me at that time, and I just happen to write about what I know.”
Tucker drew her album title from her country-funk number “A Family Dinner,” whose dinner-table talk, on some level, recalls Gentry’s 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” though its tone is far more harmonious than the earlier song’s. Still, there are those who’ve taken A Tell All to mean something else entirely, and scoured the 10 songs for any evidence of tabloid-style guts-spilling.
“I thought that it would happen,” she says, “and I was OK with it, because I’m not airing anything. The few juicy bits that I do tell—nobody will ever know what I’m talking about, hopefully. I’m not out to get anybody at all.”
One could translate “anybody” as the Truckers, who were Tucker’s hard-touring comrades for eight years, as she supplied her smart, solid touch on bass and, following the departure of her ex-husband, Jason Isbell, began contributing in the songwriting and singing departments. Why would she want to give
up her spot in the lineup of the Southern Gothic alt-rock powerhouse?
“I won’t really go too deep into that,” Tucker says, measuring out her words, “but it was a lot of years on the road. I adore being on the road, but I really, really adore being at home. And I love to get dirty and I love to dig and cook and play with chickens. I feel like that just simply balances me. It makes you remember who you are and your priorities. Because when you travel so much, you can live almost in a bubble of sorts. Your reality is not the same as everyone else’s. I kinda don’t like that, when it gets to be too much of that. I like to relate to people. I like to relate to more people than I was relating to.”
So it was a desire for groundedness, as opposed to a solo career, that Tucker had her sights on when she split from the group in 2011. But the songs started coming almost immediately, and Neff heard their potential.
“We pulled together our friends,” she recalls. “The first time we got together as a group, [we were] sitting around—nothing important, no intentions. I said, ‘Here’s what I just wrote.’ Everyone just kinda fell into it and started playing. We just kept getting together on Wednesdays, and I would cook a pot of beans and we would sit around and play. Before you knew it, we were getting serious about working these songs up, scheduled some studio time and that’s how the record came about.”
With all eyes on her, Tucker shows off a different side of her personality, too. There is a coyness to her cover art and press photos, and her merch poster is emblazoned with her gluten-free Southern recipes.
“All my years in the Truckers, I didn’t have time for that,” says Tucker. “I just had to throw on my jeans, and it was a big, sweaty rock show, you know? So I’m having fun being a little bit girlie for a minute.”