After debuting on a guest shot on the Drive By Truckers’ Decoration Day, Shonna Tucker took over full-time bass duties for the band’s last three albums. In addition to providing a steady rhythm for the Truckers three-guitar attack, Tucker wrote and contributed vocals to a trio of tracks on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which was released in January via New West.
The first time most people heard you, you were playing upright bass on “Sounds Better in the Song” from Decoration Day. Now you’re the full-time bassist. How many different instruments do you play?
I would say I only really play bass and upright bass. I write on acoustic guitar, which I actually learned to play when I was eight. I have a piano that I pick around on, too, but I’m a bass player first and foremost.
Do you have other musicians that influence your playing?
David Hood is a longtime idol and dear friend. He played the bass so many soul classics–Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Etta James. David and I live in the same town. When I was old enough to be driving around town and seeing shows, I’d seek David out and watch his every move. I also met Patterson [Drive-By Truckers frontman and Hood’s son] through David.
Was it intimidating to step into a band?
I knew that all I wanted to be was a musician, so there weren’t very many reservations. There certainly weren’t any about being young or being a girl. Learning 120 songs in two weeks was pretty tough, but most of the time you just get up on stage and go with it. We play without a set list, so it’s still like that sometimes. Part of the fun is not knowing what the hell’s going to happen.
Drive-By Truckers was a boy’s club for a long time. Was it hard for you to deal with as a woman?
It was a natural progression for me. I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. When I was a kid I played baseball and I would always be outside getting dirty or playing with the goats. When I got older and started playing in bands, not too many girls played, so I had to get used to being around boys all the time. I got past being a girl pretty quick when I was a teenager playing clubs. Joining the Drive-By Truckers was nothing. I wanted to prove myself as a musician, and I was able to do that by joining the band.
That said, being in a band is a tough lifestyle for anybody. Being a woman doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it. Although I don’t think that I’d want to go out on tour with a bunch of girls.
I’ve heard you’re a soul-music fanatic. Where does that come from?
I think I was born that way. I’m a natural bass player. I’m a passionate person and it’s passionate music. When I was first picking up bass, the songs that I wanted to learn were all the old soul songs, and most of them were David Hood.
What are some albums that were important to you growing up?
Music was really important to my family, but my parents didn’t buy a lot of music. It was more that the radio was always playing. We did have a few albums lying around the house though, and those got a lot of play. I remember that one them was a George Jones greatest-hits, and my dad was always a big Creedence fan. I remember hearing a lot of them growing up.
What are you listening to right now?
There are so many things, but I really stick to the classics. I’m listening to lots of Eddie Hinton right now, and the Band is a constant. I also loved the new Levon Helm album. As far as newer things go, the Dexateens have put out a new record, and they’re always great. We recently played a concert with the Felice Brothers in New York, and I’m a big fan of theirs now. They sound a little bit like the Band, but with the Pogues thrown in.
You have to be pretty stoked to have songwriting credits on the new album.
This has been a significant change in my life, to be honest. I’ve always been a bass player first. Writing had been on the back burner for me, but it was time.
Tell me a little bit about the songs:
“I’m Sorry Huston” is pretty straight forward. An old guy knocked on my door at about nine o’clcok in the morning looking for my neighbor. That’s a little odd, because I live way out in the country and don’t get many visitors. He was asking all kinds of questions about my neighbor and his horses. He was so concerned about them. I felt bad that I couldn’t help him out. I got to thinking after he left that there was a song in there. I started writing, and in about twenty minutes I was done with it. Then it was down to me with a guitar and Garage Band. It probably took five or six hours to figure out how to get my voice and the guitar together, but I was able to finish it well enough to take it into the studio.
I wrote “Home Field Advantage” in the studio. I went in with “Huston” and “Purgatory Line,” and those were written within three days of one another. I guess I was just on one of those crazy, mystical rolls, because the band broke for dinner and there was another song ready to come out. I stayed back with one of the interns, Ben, and worked out the chords and the lyrics. I asked Ben if he could the get equipment working, and we recorded the bass and my vocal. By the time the guys got back, we were done and they recorded their parts over the original track.
For “Purgatory Line,” I sat down with a piece of paper and tried to write a song. I had those words in my head, and I was going through a lot of things in my life at the time, so I was feeling in the mood of the song. I grew up in the Church of Christ. There was a lot of talk about heaven, hell, and purgatory in my house. I tried to channel that into the song. I ended up happy with the result.
I hear some classic country in these tunes. Were you listening to some Dolly or Tammy Wynette?
Not really. I’m mostly attracted to male singers. Levon Helm is an idol, but I really can’t sing like I want to. I want to sing like Mavis Staples, Bobbi Womack, and Otis Redding. I’m not a singer, though. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to sing the music the way I hear it in my head.
Was it difficult was it to translate your vision into the final product?
It wasn’t that hard, because I didn’t think of any of my songs as a complete idea. I knew there was more, and when the band added their parts they morphed into DBT songs. They were complete then. We all share writing credits, and I think that’s important. We all trust each other with our songs. The whole process was magical and beautiful. I can’t wait to do it again.
What kind of songs are you working on now?
I’ve been scribbling. I’ve got notebooks everywhere around my house. I’m still learning about my process and who I am as a writer. I’m just writing everything down right now. We’ll see what happens.
When you’re not writing or playing music, how do you spend your free time?
When I’m home I cook a lot. I go to the grocery store four or five days a week. I also love to play with my dog Eddie. I drink a lot of tea and a little bit of wine. I go fishing every now and again.
What’s something that people would be surprised to know about you?
I have never taken a puff off a cigarette.
How have fans reacted to the new lineup?
It’s been amazing. The whole transition was smooth and beautiful. We expected to have some bumps and a little bit of bullshit along the way, but Spooner is a superstar and John Neff is just great. The fans have been really supportive and positive. The change has made the band stronger. It’s been all great.
What’s the best DBT song that you didn’t write?
I can’t pick one, so I’ll give you four or five. I think “Heathens” is great, and “Love Like This” and “Women Without Whiskey” are also favorites. “The Living Bubba” is also a beautiful song.
That’s a hard question to answer: No matter what you say, you’re probably going to get in trouble.