Bassist/singer/songwriter Shonna Tucker has been busy in the two years since she parted ways with the Drive-By Truckers. There were the “Sweet Soul Cookin‘” videos she did for YouTube; there’s the farm she and guitarist John Neff have been tending a few miles outside of Athens, GA (with duties that include donkey midwifery); and, of course, there’s music – all kinds of music.
What began as a series of get-together-over-a-pot-of-beans jam sessions evolved into something more: Tucker, Neff, guitarist Bo Bedingfield, keyboardist Neil Golden, and drummer Clay Leverett are Eye Candy – and their debut album is A Tell All, released on the Sweet Nectar Records label. While Tucker is the band’s principle songwriter (she shares credit with Neff on one track, “Arielle”), the liner notes for A Tell All sum things up the best: “All songs brought to life by Eye Candy.”
The vibe of the album’s 10 cuts range from Muscle Shoalsy grooves to gentle messages of love, all shaped by the quintet and producer Kyle Spence. At times Tucker doles out bold lyrical statements; at other moments, her words deserve some proper pondering to suss out their meaning – or attempt to, anyway. The bottom line is, Shonna Tucker is in a good place, both figuratively and literally – and A Tell All is a fine soundtrack to that fact.
We had a chance to talk with Shonna recently (on a day when she had cell reception on the farm) about her band, her new album, and what’s for supper.
BR: Here, Shonna – I want to get this part out of the way: “Former Drive-By Trucker; former Drive-By Trucker; former Drive-By Trucker; former Drive-By Trucker.” There … that ought to do it. Let’s talk about Eye Candy and the new album.
ST: (laughs) Well, thank you for that. Yes, I’ve seen it or heard it plenty …
I remember talking to Jay Bennett in 2008 – seven years after he left Wilco. Just about anything that had ever been written about the guy began with “former Wilco member …” and it always would be, no matter what else he accomplished. Jay told me at the time, “Yeah – I kinda come with my own built-in lead paragraph.” I know you need to put things in context, but I’ll never forget him telling me that, either.
I know … but I figure it is what it is for me – and for the rest of my life, I will be a Drive-by Trucker. I take advice from [Shonna’s ex-husband and former Trucker] Jason Isbell – we’re good friends and we stay in touch. Jason’s an inspiration for having dealt with that the way he has over the years. He’s made his own name for himself, but I still see the Trucker name every once in a while. (laughs) That’s the way it is and I guess we just need to embrace it.
Absolutely – and onward we go. So, I’d figured out along the way that “Jimmy” in “When Jimmy Came” was a baby donkey. What didn’t make sense at first were the lines about things had changed now that he was around: “This is as close as you get/Just the smell of my hair …” I knew you were dedicated to your critters, but that was pretty extreme-sounding. And then I realized: that’s the momma donkey talking
That’s totally correct! (laughs) And you’re one of the very few people that have recognized it. (laughs)
It’s a classic gal group/wall of sound/rockin’ arrangement, but … as much of a genius as Phil Spector might have been, I don’t think he ever would’ve come up with a song from a donkey’s point of view. (laughter)
Well, I write about things that happen around me. And John and I have a little piece of land out here – we have chickens and donkeys and dogs everywhere. When I left the Truckers I had nothing but time to be here with this land and that’s what was going on: we had a little pregnant donkey and I became totally, totally obsessed with this donkey, taking care of her and bonding with her. I slept out here in a tent in the garden beside her for nearly two months –
Yeah … I became a little bit of a crazy donkey lady during her pregnancy. (laughs) I really formed a tight, close bond with her and was genuinely concerned about her well-being. When this baby came, it was like family – like my nephew. (laughter) I just couldn’t help but be inspired by her and what she was going through. And that’s where the song came from.
So then let me ask you: we’ve all known the kind of women you write about in “Linda Please”: tough as nails but good-hearted and putting up with a lot. But now I’m wondering if that’s not another donkey song, as well.
I hadn’t let that one slip out yet … but yes. (laughter) But those are the only two on the record about the donkey. (laughs) But you know, at the same time, it’s also about a lot of women that are out there.
Absolutely – who are almost scared that if they share the load they’re lugging with somebody else, they’re going to lose their own grip on it altogether.
I’ve never had a child of my own, but I’ve seen people trying to be too tough at times and not asking for help. It blows back sometimes.
Well, hopefully we learn. Somebody told me when I was young, “Some people live and learn; others just live.”
That’s so simple, but it’s so true.
Well, on the new record, I play some acoustic guitar on quite a few songs. That’s usually how I write.
That’s what I was going to ask you: you have a knack for melodies –
Well, thank you.
No, that’s a statement of fact, not a compliment.
Well … (laughs) I appreciate it, anyway. It’s a challenge for me; I have to work really hard at melodies.
At the same time, there are some riff-based tunes that sound as if they might’ve been birthed from a bass line.
That’s true, although – I think – “Family Dinner” is the only one on this album. And that song taught me a valuable lesson as a songwriter who is going to be the bass player and the singer: you better be prepared to sing and play the bass lines you’ve written at the same time. (laughs) It’s taken a lot of practice.
Oh, I bet – it’s such a funky and soulful thing. Who are some of your bass heroes?
Well, first and foremost, I have to say David Hood – Patterson’s dad – who was the Muscle Shoals session player. I happened to grow up there in that town and met David Hood when I was 12 years old – I started playing bass when I was 10. I was just really, really lucky to grow up in that situation; in that environment. David was a great mentor to me and is still one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met.
Oh, let’s see … there are guys like Duck Dunn and James Jamerson, of course – and then I kind of went through a bluegrass phase for a while, so there are players like Mark Schatz who I admire, too.
You can hear them in your playing, but you have your own style, as well. Getting back to “Family Dinner”: the song is where the album title comes from. I have to laugh, though, as you’re not really “telling all.” You’re messing with folks a little bit here – it’s more about the way they choose to take it rather than what you’re actually writing about. Of course, at this point, it’s not only your music that’s on stage, but your life, as well.
Yeah … that’s true. (laughs) There’s not really that much juice on the record – I’m not spilling the beans at all. (laughs) And yes, I think there are going to be some downers and negative folks out there; people who were really pessimistic about what I was going to be doing … I just kind of giggled about it. That’s the point of the album title: it’s not a tell-all at all. There may be a couple of secrets in there, but no one will ever know and that’s not the point of the record: I wasn’t out to do anything except make good music and be a little bit light and funny. (laughs)
Honest and true, I believe you – except …
The song “Arielle” is so disarming. The first time I let the album play through while I was driving, it was those gentle keys, the sweet-sounding vocal, and that easy Tex-Mex rhythm guitar that I picked up on. The first time I really paid attention to the words, though … Jesus, Shonna. That’s creepy; that’s tough stuff.
You know, that’s probably one of the only songs on the record I may never explain. You’re right – it is a very creepy song. I don’t usually write about that kind of stuff, but it happened and it’s true and I didn’t stop thinking about it over the years; it made me angry enough to write a song about it.
Again, I just didn’t want to flat-out talk about anyone in particular; it was just a bad situation that I needed to say something about. I wanted to make it vague … and make kind of a pretty song out of it.
Well, it is – and then it takes you by surprise.
Well, thank you – that was kind of the point of it.
Well, if the bad soul you wrote about is out there for real, I hope they burn in Hell.
Well, yeah – me, too. I can tell you that there was a very young girl involved, but she will never, ever know that anything happened … and that’s all I can say about it.
Well, thank you for sharing that. If “Your Jealousy” was aimed at anyone in particular, wow – it’s like an ol’ Muhammed Ali punch.
(laughs) It didn’t take me long to write that song. It was one of those songs that just came out of the clear blue … it probably took me an hour to write it.
Again, it’s another tune with a sweet melody – and then you put an ear to the lyrics and there are phrases like “you protect the guilty a-holes and the selfishness …”
We put “Jimmy” out first but we think “Jealousy” is the one with – as you said – the punch. (laughs) Johnny says “You’re saying what a lot of people think but won’t say.”
Let’s pause for a second – how did you put the band together? Now, that Neff fella you kinda knew about … (laughter)
Yeah, we are a couple, of course. That was a natural. And then the others guys just kind of came along. They were all dear friends and incredible musicians and writers – with their own bands and their own records – who would just come over to hang out and play music.
Bo, for instance, just came over one night and I had cooked some dinner. We were sitting around and had some acoustic guitars out, having a good time and singing … and I said, “Hey, you want to hear a song I just wrote?” I think it was “Jealousy”.
After I played it, Bo was like, “That’s great! Let’s get together next week …” (laughs)
We started calling Wednesday night “Practice Night” – I’d cook up a big pot of beans and whoever wanted to show up, showed up. Before long, the same four were showing up every time, you know? We all agreed it was something we wanted to keep doing.
We ended up calling Kyle Spence, a good friend who has a studio over here in East Athens. We scheduled studio time; went in; and started recording. I suppose I had a little over half the record written when we went in and was still writing.
Bo and John are a good guitar team.
Oh, Bo and Johnny have had such a fantastic time. It’s been great to watch: besides our practices, Bo would just come over and the two of them would spend hours together, working out parts and becoming that team you speak of.
It’s hard to focus sometimes when we’re playing live because what they’re doing is so beautiful. (laughs)
How would you describe the role of Neil’s keyboards in the band?
Neil brings a whole new twist to things – I think he saves us from a stereotypical alt-country-sounding thing. He uses some wacky fingers over there on those keys and I love it. (laughs) I just love what he brings to the table.
To me, Clay’s drumming is like that: I’m hearing things that fit the song perfectly, but they’re not what a lot of people would’ve come up with for drum parts.
I think that explains Clay in a nutshell. He just lives up the road and has been friends with Johnny for 15 years. They’ve played in all sorts of bands together; all sorts of crazy road trips. (laughter) Plus Clay’s singing – he sings his ass off. He’s back there singing those high parts and nailing them without missing a beat.
I’m a sucker for a singing drummer, anyway.
Oh, Shonna … Levon.
I know. I’ll go to my grave remembering the experience of playing at his Barn with the Truckers. Singing with him on “The Weight” … I’m tearing up just talking about it.
I hear you. My wife and I made the trip to two of the Rambles over the years. We sat alongside his drum kit both times … oh, what memories. He’d smile and it would light the Barn right up.
Wouldn’t it? I think that was the greatest smile in the world.
Well … I’m going to have us both bawling here. (laughter)
Click right HERE to read the rest of my interview with Shonna Tucker on Jambands.com