Jump forward 25 years and two decades into Carlile’s career as a lyrical, storytelling singer/songwriter of rare quality, the kind who straddles roots music, Americana, pop and country and reached a golden climax with a triple-Grammy score for 2018’s By The Way, I Forgive You album, she could repay Tucker’s for her inspiration.
Carlile wrote and produced with Shooter Jennings (son of Tucker’s old drinking partner, Waylon Jennings) Tanya Tucker’s 2019 Grammy-winning country album, While I’m Livin’. It was a comeback of sorts for Tucker, long sidelined by the establishment, and the circle was complete.
So how much of her interest in working with the veteran – whose first hit was in 1972 – was to connect or celebrate that teenage self and what Tucker meant to her then?
“Some of that was subconscious I’m sure, and I love that experience in retrospect [but] at the time I was feeling a little bit slighted as an American roots artist and wondering why so many of our matriarchs had been forgotten or not upheld,” Carlile says. “And the reasons for that, especially with Tanya, were blatantly misogynistic.
“The exile that was imposed by the country music establishment was just a purity test, plain and simple. She had a problem with drugs, she had had a problem with alcohol in the past, she got around town and caused problems and closed down bars. Basically did all the things that we worship her male counterparts for doing. With her it was deemed inappropriate and she was blacklisted.”
So there was some element of righting a wrong?
“I thought if there was anything I could do with this time in my life, after a Grammy and my album doing so well, it was to illuminate this issue and get involved with it,” she says. “When I was invited to become part of the project I became obsessively determined.”
That respect for a woman who was willing to be frank, direct and defiant, in a field where women for so long were asked to be anything but, extends into the even murkier world of politics.
When we speak it’s soon after Elizabeth Warren verbally eviscerated presidential aspirant, Michael Bloomberg, in Las Vegas. Carlile was yet to see the Democrat debate, but was already primed.
“Oh yes, whoa!” she says as I detail some of Warren’s best lines. “I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Warren’s, huge. I think she is fantastic. I’m actually quite fond of about half of our candidates. I’m probably going to have a glass of wine and watch [the debate].”
Carlile has long abandoned any idea being a political animal is risky for an artist. She told a newspaper last year, that being political doesn’t come from outside her anymore, it comes from who she is. Or as she puts it today, if you’re existing outside the borders of what once was assumed to be the only way to live “you become innately political just by trying to change the understanding of that”.
“So much of my life and so much of my understanding of civil rights and politics in this country has to do with me being gay, and the fact that I got married before it was legal,” says Carlile, who is married to former philanthropy manager Catherine Shepherd, with whom she has two young daughters.
“[And] what I had to go through to live in the same country with my wife, the fact that I am listed as the father on my children’s birth certificate because we don’t have a template for same-sex parenting, or parenting and family structure outside of our cultural understanding of it,”
From this has sprung a wider passion. Carlile cites the plight of displaced people and refugees; the struggles on America’s southern border; her country’s relationship with firearms; “and a problem with greed and our inability to look out for the poor or the other or to want to take care of anyone who looks different to us”.
“These are political issues that I have awoken into by being gay, becoming a mother, trying to raise daughters in this time of the world,” she says. “If you are not political, you are lying to yourself.”
Brandi Carlile will play Hamer Hall, Melbourne, April 6; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, April 8; and Bluesfest, Byron Bay, April 9-14.
BEST OF BLUESFEST
Some other highlights from the six days of Bluesfest 2020
- Emily Wurramara – a musical poet in two languages, English and Anindilyakwa, and one of the most promising talents from the Northern Territory.
- Patti Smith – a towering figure in music and, latterly, literature, the American was about to give up touring two years ago. Australia called her back.
- Zucchero – the undisputed king of Italian soul and rhythm and blues.
- Alanis Morissette – the return of one of the major feminist icons of ’90s music.
- The Allman Betts Band – a reminder of not just Bluesfest’s origins in the blues but scions of a southern American institution: Devon “son of Gregg” Allman and Duane “son of Dickey” Betts.
- Amadou & Mariam – the joyous end of Mali’s musical traditions
Bernard is a freelance writer who specialises in music.