Shonna Tucker says she never thought of herself as a frontwoman for a band. She was just a "bass player in someone else's band" in her native Muscle Shoals, Ala., and then for eight years with the Drive-By Truckers.
But when she left the Truckers in late 2011 and headed to her farm house in Athens, Ga., she started writing songs immediately.
"I've always written in the background to myself in my little notebook, but I've always been a bass player in a band," she says. "I just kind of dabbled in singing—barely! And I was a closet writer this whole time. I never really gave myself a chance or had the opportunity to delve in and see what kind of writer I really was until this."
Then, while hanging out with some musician friends one day, Tucker mentioned she'd written a few songs.
"We were just hanging out, actually, and I thought it'd be a good idea—‘Hey, I've got these songs, want to hear it?' And it just kind of happened naturally. Before we knew it, we were gathering at our house every Wednesday for practice," she says.
And that began a year-long process of writing, recording, and touring with Tucker's new band and her first post-Truckers album, A Tell All, released last October. Though the touring band is a slightly different lineup than the musicians who recorded Tucker's "country-soul" album, everyone's a familiar face on the Athens music scene. Former DBT guitarist John Neff and keyboardist Neil Golden ("He plays with so many bands in town—you just call him up, and he'll show up and know exactly what to do," Tucker says) are on the record, and drummer Paul Trudeau and guitarist Marcus Thompson joined the band for the tour.
"We've got such an incredible group of players right now," Tucker says. "They've become my friends since I've been there, too. Real friends. And I'm fans of them as people and fans of them as musicians."
And Tucker says she wasn't the one who named her backing band Eye Candy.
"We were throwing around names, and I believe it was John who said ‘Eye Candy,' and I said ‘That sounds pretty good,'" Tucker says. "We just thought it was funny. It gets to a point when you think too much about a band name, or anything—a title, anything—and at a certain point you think ‘Well, I guess you should just name it and it will become its own thing.' So we picked the one that made us laugh."
But Tucker's songs don't always inspire laughter. The subjects cover a wide emotional range, inspired by personal experiences.
"I don't tend to write about made-up stories," she says. "It's all very personal. Almost everything on here is directly personal. And it's kind of all over the place. It's personal relationships, it's nature—there's songs on the record about two different donkeys, so it's all over the place."
While writing the album, Tucker says she went through periods of not listening to any music for days at a time, but she kept returning to Dolly Parton and Bobbie Gentry records when she needed a little push to capture a specific mood. But she also says she admires Parton and Gentry for their abilities to write about the subjects to which Tucker is drawn.
Looking back, Tucker says she not surprised she went straight into a music project after leaving the Drive-By Truckers, but she is surprised at how quickly she picked up writing her own material. She's looking to maintain a balance between being home and touring with Eye Candy this time around, though, as she ventures into some unfamiliar territory as the leader of a band.
"There's so much involved with being up front and singing," she says. "First of all, I have to work so hard at singing. I still am, and it's a constant thing for me. I'm not a natural singer. I have to work really hard at being an okay singer. … And then obviously you have to communicate with the crowd, you have to be charming, you have to remember the lyrics, all these things you never really think about. You're standing up there with the microphone and everyone's staring at you. You can't just stand back there and jam out."
Tucker and Eye Candy have been on tour around the Southeast and Midwest for a couple of weeks, and will wrap up the short tour in Maryville on Saturday. The shorter tours are part of keeping that home/touring balance after being on the road for eight straight years with the Drive-By Truckers.
"Even though we do tour a little, we're not on the road like that," she says. "It's not the same lifestyle right now. It's more of a balance for me."
And after the tour?
"Lord, who knows, with me?" Tucker says with a laugh. "Honestly, no plans at all. It's a good idea to keep my options open wide open right now and put myself out there for more projects. I feel really good about it. I feel driven, but I don't have a specific goal right now. I'm ready, though, whatever it is."
She's satisfied with that answer until she remembers there is one thing she definitely wants to do.
"I do want to buy some more land, though, so I can have some more goats so I can have goat cheese," she says. "That's one of my goals: Whatever projects I need to undertake for my goat farm."