Country star Tanya Tucker and her friend and producer Brandi Carlile are as ready as they’ll ever be to be considered for film awards, as a song they co-wrote for a documentary they both starred in this year is in the mix of current contenders. That song, “Ready as I’ll Never Be,” a very personalized ballad about watching the next generation up pass on, is a heart-tugger, and should be under consideration if voters get a chance to hear it — which Tucker admits she very much hopes they will.
“I’d love for the world to hear it,” Tucker tells Variety. “I just want the opportunity to be heard. And then if they don’t like me, that’s fine, but just listen to me, just for three minutes.” And, she adds in characteristic fashion, “If the Oscars are gonna give me a nod or a kick in the ass — either one, I appreciate it!”
The song appears at the end of “The Return of Tanya Tucker, Featuring Brandi Carlile,” a Sony Classics doc that played festivals like SXSW and Telluride and then premiered in theaters in November. It chronicles the making of Tucker’s comeback album, 2019’s “While I’m Livin’,” which won two Grammys (her first in a 50-year career) in 2022. The movie theme is her first new music since that album.
Says Tucker, “It’s about losing my heroes, because I started out at a young age — 13 — so I got to hang out with some of my biggest heroes, and then they leave this world before I do. And I have to keep watching ’em fly away. So that’s what it’s about — and losing my parents, too, because they were my heroes. And Billy Joe Shaver… Loretta Lynn (who just died this fall, with Tucker performing at her televised memorial service)… I mean, back to Elvis. It’s really a special song to me.”
Carlile tells the full origin story of how the tune came about, and how it was her job to translate one of Tucker’s trademark funny but meaningful sayings into something more stoic for the studio. “The night Billy Joe Shaver died, I was in Nashville, and I went to go meet up with Tanya and Leslie Jordan for dinner. I met Tanya out on the street as she got out of her car and I put my arm around her and said, ‘I’m so sorry about Billy Joe,’ because she loved him, so much — like, they were soulmates. And she was so stoic about it, and rugged, like she can be when she’s in her zone. And she said, ‘Oh baby. Well, you know, I’m gonna watch every single one of them get their wings.’
“And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s right, huh? Because you are the youngest — all your friends are older than you.’ And I was relating to it. Instantly, I related to it,” says Carlile, who, now in her early 40s, is known for working with heroes in their 70s, like Elton John and Joni Mitchell.
“She goes, ‘Yep, I was the youngest. So I’m gonna watch every one of them get their wings. You know, I guess I’m ready. Ready as I’ll never be.” And I was like, ‘Oh, Tanya, what you just said is really profoundly affecting me. And as soon as this dinner is over, I’ve gotta go write that into a song.’ She thought she was kind of making a light–hearted, John Prine-y joke, you know. And we’d also just lost John, who she also had a really important relationship with. So I went home and I wrote it based on her life, about, her aspirations to go and be at the Opry, and the way that Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn and Dolly opened their arms to her, and her relationship that she had with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard and (Johnny) Cash and just the way that all these older people kind of wrapped her up and mentored her.
“And how, as luck would have it, she’s gonna be here longer than those guys, because she was only 13. And so she’s having to relive this over and over and over again. And she’s really got nothing but spiritual gratitude for it, because she is ready to accept the consequence of their mentorship, which will be watching ‘em go, or as she puts it, get their wings.”
With 50 years of hits behind her, it is often surprising for people to learn that Tucker is only 64. You’e thinking she has to be older, “and then you realize she’s not,” Carlile says. “That’s why I wanted to call the last album ‘While I’m Livin’,’ because I kind of wanted to be like: Wake up, people! We have her here right now. We get to enjoy her. Let’s not miss this opportunity like we’ve missed it with so many other women, you know? She can still do the fucking splits! She’s Tanya Tucker.
“And she feels these things, but she doesn’t know how to communicate this way. She doesn’t like saying it like this. So as a co-writer, as a friend, and as a producer, she kind of lets me write her words as they come out kind of funny and in one-liners, into these songs, and then she sings them. That’s how she talks to people — she chooses a song based on whether the lyrics speak to her. So she’s so hyperactive and funny and such an entertainer that she feels things like ‘Ready as I’ll Never Be,’ but she doesn’t really, I don’t think, want to know how to say it in any other way than through songs. So I’ve been able to be a bit of a harbinger of that kind of message for her. Because she can’t be serious without some help,” Carlile adds with a laugh.
Her second album with Carlile and Shooter Jennings in the producers’ seats is due on Fantasy next summer, with the title “Sweet Western Sounds.”
Tucker says she also has a one-off single in the can that she’s hoping to put out, written by her friend Dennis Quaid, called “On My Way to Heaven.” Kris Kristofferson provided and appears in a music video that was filmed.
“Kris Kristofferson sang on it, and this probably might be his last song he ever sung. Brandi came in and did a few harmonies on it. Then I wanted to do a video, and I want the world to see it because everybody needs to hear this song, because it’s for everyone. We’re all on our way to heaven, hopefully. And with Kristofferson in the video, if I didn’t do take that opportunity to have him in this video, I would’ve kicked myself later. So we’re editing the video now. John Carter Cash is the director, Johnny Cash’s son. How wild is that? And Quaid’s in it. I think it has such a great deep message and I want it on every Christian outlet there is, every atheist outlet, I don’t care what,” she laughs. “And it’s not a money thing. I mean, I spent money doing it, a lot of it, and trying to put the video together, it ain’t cheap, but it’ll be worth it if I get the opportunity to be heard.”
Right now, Tucker is appearing in her first film lead role ever, in the Paramount+ film “A Nashville Country Christmas.” Between that and this year’s documentary, she would appear to be on a roll. But she has a very specific further aspiration in the film world.
At a National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards banquet in L.A. earlier this month, Tucker was given a lifetime achievement award, as was “Frozen” director Jennifer Lee, earlier in the evening. When Tucker got to the podium, she made a joking-but-serious plea to Lee to be considered as voice talent in a future Disney movie.
“Do you know how I’ve been wanting to be a Disney character?” Tucker told Variety after the ceremony. “I mean, people keep telling me, ‘You’ve got such a recognizable voice.’ Well, I don’t get the calls. I ain’t got the call yet! I want the call,” she repeated, for good measure.
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