By Andrew Vickery
Shonna Tucker is sitting at her kitchen table in the rustic farmhouse she shares with pedal steel guitarist John Neff just a few miles from downtown Athens. “I love it here,” she says. “After spending all that time on tour, it’s nice to come back to a peaceful environment that’s not like the road at all. It helps me keep some kind of a balance and gives me something to worry about other than myself.”
Tucker toured relentlessly during the eight years she spent as bassist with the rock band Drive-By Truckers. In addition to traveling across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia, she appeared on albums including The Dirty South (2004) and contributed her own songs to Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (2008), The Big To-Do (2010) and Go-Go Boots (2011). She also joined DBT in backing up Bettye Lavette on her Grammy-nominated album, The Scene of the Crime, and Booker T. Jones on his Grammy-winning album, Potato Hole.
But in fall 2011, Tucker left the band and in a note to fans on her website said, “It’s time for me to move on to the next great thing, whatever that may be.” She came home to a house spilling over with vinyl records and myriad musical instruments and from this new “office” began writing songs.
The band that she would assemble had already started taking shape during a jam at the farmhouse when she, ex-Trucker bandmate Neff and Athens guitarist/songwriter Bo Bedingfield worked up a cover version of “Strawberry Wine.” “Bo and I both love that song,” she says, “and we thought it sounded great.” Inspired, the trio added drummer/vocalist Clay Leverett, who fronted Lona and the Chasers and has a well-known penchant for classic country and George Jones, and worked up half a dozen songs. In March 2012, they made their debut appearance as Shonna Tucker and Eye Candy opening for Cracker at the 40 Watt in Athens.
They used to let me come into the studio while they worked so I was able to learn a lot about life in the studio that I otherwise would have [had] to learn on my own.
The band quickly added keyboardist Neil Golden, a veteran of celebrated Athens bands The Glands, Elf Power and Japancakes, and hit the studio with producer Kyle Spence of Harvey Milk. “We didn’t set out to make a particular sounding record,” Tucker says. “I had the songs ready to go, so the guys and I just went for it.”
The result, A Tell All, is set for release Oct. 15 on Sweet Nectar Records, and in more ways than one, the album reflects Tucker’s roots.
Growing up in Muscle Shoals, Ala., she began playing music when she was only eight years old. “My dad showed me some chords on the guitar,” she says, “but then he noticed that I was picking out bass lines.” She stayed with it, learning bass parts from her father’s Southern soul and country albums and playing in Shoals-area bands in high school.
Tucker also learned invaluable lessons from members of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. “Until I met these guys, I had no idea that songs like ‘Mustang Sally’ were recorded right here in my hometown,” she says. “They used to let me come into the studio while they worked so I was able to learn a lot about life in the studio that I otherwise would have [had] to learn on my own.”
That homegrown Muscle Shoals groove is evident on A Tell All, as are influences from Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to Joe Tex and reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff. “We listen to records here at home all the time anyway,” Tucker says. “So depending on what we were about to work on in the studio, I’d listen to a particular artist to get me into a good mindset.”
The ten songs in the collection are short and sweet, riding high on Tucker’s breathy vocals with the ace band’s hooks and harmonies weaving around her thoughts on “love, jealousy, nights on the road and nights in the kitchen.”
Though she has been focused on music with the new band and new album, Tucker is equally passionate about Southern cooking. Her Twitter pics are as likely to be of kitchen creations or freshly picked okra as snapshots from the road or studio. Combining her loves, Tucker has a little treat in store for fans who pick up the new album—a fold-out poster featuring six original recipes. “It’s traditional Southern cuisine with a healthy twist,” she says. “We were planning on releasing a full cookbook with this album, but the book is not quite finished.”
Life on the farm can be idyllic, but for Shonna Tucker, it also seems to have served as a muse. And whether it is music or food, as for whatever’s next, Tucker says, “I am going to keep on exploring soul.”
The release show for A Tell All is Oct. 19, 2013 at the 40 Watt.