Shooter Jennings has spent his lifetime in the recording studio, first with his father, the country great Waylon Jennings, and then as a performer and producer with his own legacy. He’s seen a lot of amazing things over the decades, but few top the sessions he co-produced with Brandi Carlile for country legend Tanya Tucker’s “While I’m Livin’.”
He calls the 10 days they spent together “magical” and credits Carlile with bringing out the best in the sometimes-reluctant Tucker.
“Once we got in there, she just went right to Tanya,” Jennings said. “She was really like her No. 1 cheerleader and kind of convincing her to give these songs a shot. And it was really good, the way she kind of rallied around Tanya and kept her positive. I’d be in there working on a song, sitting down with the band and we’re about to cut [an instrumental] track, and she’d be like, ‘Tanya’s ready to sing!’”
The sessions were magical enough that Tucker earned four Grammy Award nominations, including all-genre Song of the Year, Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance for “Bring My Flowers Now,” and Best Country Album for “While I’m Livin’.”
And Carlile will garner trophies for her songwriting and production work if “Bring My Flowers Now” and “While I’m Livin’” win at the Sunday, Jan. 26, ceremony in Los Angeles. The Maple Valley resident is also up for a Best Country Duo/Group Performance Grammy for her “Common” collaboration with Maren Morris, a partner in her all-female country supergroup The Highwomen.
It’s a rare feat for an individual artist to be nominated as a performer, songwriter and producer at the same awards ceremony, especially on different projects. And this all comes a year after Carlile earned three Grammys and a standing ovation at the 2019 awards.
Last year was “really busy, but life-affirming,” Carlile said. “Deep work on my soul — supporting other artists, trying to support other women, creating a narrative around The Highwomen — and it just keeps going. It keeps unfolding because guess what? Now I’m going back to the Grammys.”
Her work this past year has convinced Carlile to invest more time in producing other artists, something she’s come to later in her career.
“I’ll never stop doing it because other artists really inspire me,” Carlile said. “And my attachment to production is kind of an emotional one. I want to get to the bottom of what the artists are feeling and help them convey that as authentically as possible. So I kind of want to be a support in the studio.”
Previously, she produced her two albums prior to “By the Way, I Forgive You,” the hit 2018 album that was guided in the studio by Dave Cobb and feted at the Grammys. She also has produced two albums for angelic folk-country duo The Secret Sisters and has collaborated with singer-songwriter Candi Carpenter — all of this working alongside her longtime bandmates, “The Twins”: Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
Jennings and Carlile are not frequent collaborators and came to the Tucker project from different worlds. Jennings comes from one of country music’s royal families and has carved out a career of his own as an uncompromising country rocker and an occasional outside agitator. And Carlile comes more from the Americana side, though she has a traditional country voice that might fit comfortably on the AM dial circa 1959.
Despite their different backgrounds, the musicians share a love for old country and for Tucker, who has been a fixture in country music since her first hit single, “Delta Dawn,” made the Billboard Top 10 in 1972, when she was just 13. She remained an occasional presence on the charts and in the tabloids over the next three decades.
She’s been active this century, but was no longer a central figure in the world of country. Jennings, in fact, was shocked to find out it had been 17 years since she’d released an album of original material when he reached out to Tucker about recording a cover for a band he was producing.
“I just couldn’t believe how good she did and just how unbelievable the scene was, the experience,” Jennings said. “I said to her right there, ‘I would love to do a record on you.’ She thought I was crazy.”
A week later, Carlile asked Jennings to play piano on “The Joke” during an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” He told Carlile he was going to record Tucker and Carlile excitedly told him of her love for the iconic singer. He followed a hunch and asked her to co-produce “While I’m Livin’.”
They got to know each other extremely well over the next year through a Dropbox file. Carlile would upload songs she was writing with the Hanseroths for the project and Jennings would shoot back songs he found from the songwriting community that he thought might fit. He put together the band, and she brought in folks like Trina Shoemaker, the sound engineer who mixed the work of Sheryl Crow that Carlile loved so much. An affinity grew.
“She’s a visionary,” Jennings said. “And I loved that, and we both look at the world in a very similar way, and we also look at it in a very different way. Because of that, I think we come together and really connect. You don’t see many people that come along like her that just have this drive and this energy to make art and find and enjoy it and bring it to people.
“She does so much work,” he said. “Even all the campaigning with the Grammys and stuff like that, I could never do that. She goes there and fearlessly walks in the room and gets what she needs, you know? And it’s great. I think she’s a magical, magical person.”
Carlile compared “While I’m Livin’” with Johnny Cash’s career-reviving 1994 album, “American Recordings,” which he made with legendary producer Rick Rubin, and critics generally loved Tucker’s return. Country music fans (and journalists) love a comeback story, and the album was one of the format’s reasons to celebrate this year. So it was only a little bit of a surprise that “Flowers” was included among the eight nominees for Song of the Year when the list was announced in November.
“It’s a song that is about a heavy topic and it’s well done,” said Tom Roland, a longtime country music journalist in Nashville who writes a weekly column for Billboard. “And it’s also by an artist with a lot of legacy who’s now attached to Brandi, who’s highly, highly regarded. There’s all kinds of things that fit together that, of course, it would get attention.”
Tucker carried the title and basic premise for “Bring My Flowers Now” for decades before sharing the idea with Carlile and the Hanseroths. There’s no telling how many versions were tried and rejected before the “While I’m Livin’” sessions. Roland said “it came out because she was in the right room with the right people who could draw that out.”
The song faces long odds at the Grammys, if you listen to common sense and the Las Vegas oddsmakers. She’s going up against a teen hitmaker in Billie Eilish, plus other established pop sensations like Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey and Lizzo.
Roland thinks there is special love for songs like “Flowers,” though.
“It’s one of those kinds of songs the Grammy voters really, really like,” he said. “And part of that is because creative people, part of their goal is they want to make a difference in the world and this is the gift that they have. So a song like that … makes people stop and think about their lives and what the value of their life is, and question if they’re living it correctly or not, you know? Those kinds of songs, that’s why people are here in this town.”