Q&A with iconic roots singer Tracy Nelson, one of the most powerful voices in American music, has a new excited album

"A life well lived to me is having someone you love in your house. And plenty of animals. And few regrets."

Tracy Nelson: Life Don’t Miss Nobody

Tracy Nelson, one of the most powerful voices in American music, has emerged from a lengthy recording hiatus with the album of a lifetime, a musical self-portrait spanning her entire career. Life Don’t Miss Nobody (BMG; release date June 9th) is a 13 track collection that stretches back to her start as a guitar-picking Wisconsin teen playing coffeehouses through an unparalleled career, now in it’s sixth decade, singing blues, country, New Orleans R&B and gospel, and performing in such storied music meccas as 1960s San Francisco and 1970s Austin in her epic, genre-busting musical journey. But this is no nostalgia trip. The title song is a brand-new composition from the woman whose “Down So Low” has become a modern standard. She’s kept busy performing and recording with long-time musical friends in projects like Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues and with the freewheeling all-star Blues Broads – Angela Strehli, Annie Sampson and Dorothy Morrison. Even so, roots lovers have waited a long time for a new Tracy Nelson album, and no one’s more excited than Tracy.     

(Tracy Nelson / Photo by Amy Richmond)

Life Don’t Miss Nobody is Tracy Nelson’s own Great American Songbook, featuring iconic composers like Hank Williams, Ma Rainey, Willie Dixon, Allen Toussaint, Chuck Berry, Doc Pomus, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Founding Father of  American Song, Stephen Foster. Foster’s “Hard Times” in here in two settings, both featuring Tracy on 12 string, the first time she’s recorded on guitar since her 1964 debut, Deep Are The Roots. Tracy’s labor of love includes the album’s personnel. Produced by Roger Alan Nichols (Steven Tyler, Larkin Poe) and tracked at Nashville’s Sound Emporium in just three days, Life Don’t Miss Nobody features the state-of-the-art roots rhythm section of piano masters Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton, Brian Setzer) and Steve Conn (Bonnie Raitt, Sonny Landreth), upright and electric bassist Byron House (Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), drummer John Gardner (Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift), Larry Chaney (Edwin McCain) and Mike Henderson (SteelDrivers, Chris Stapleton) on guitars.

Interview by Michael Limnios                   Archive: Tracy Nelson, 2013 interview

Special Thanks: Tracy Nelson & Mark Pucci Media

How has the Blues/Roots music influenced your views of the world? How do you understand the music, and the meaning of life?

Blues and roots music is the world, pared down to the basics. I don’t think it’s understanding the music so much as feeling it that makes an impact. As for the second part of your question, I don’t think I have an understanding of the meaning of life, except that it don’t miss nobody. Life’s too short to spend time on trying to figure it out. 

How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

A-For me it’s all about the muscle. I warm up and then sing a song that works me and makes me feel good. I maintain my stamina by being lazy and not working harder than I have to.

What moment changed your music life the most? What do you think is key to a life well lived?

I think the first time I heard Robert Johnson. It opened a world that was beyond my narrow Norwegian upbringing and hit me in the face. A life well lived to me is having someone you love in your house. And plenty of animals. And few regrets.

Do you think there is an audience for blues/roots music in its current state or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

Blues just seems to survive and prevail. I’ve been through many eras of its resurgence with different generations “discovering” the blues. I can see no reason why that shouldn’t continue. I just hope it stays to some degree with the raw simplicity of the style. Artists like Jontavious Willis and Christone Kingfish Ingram are the hope for the future.

"Blues and roots music is the world, pared down to the basics. I don’t think it’s understanding the music so much as feeling it that makes an impact. As for the second part of your question, I don’t think I have an understanding of the meaning of life, except that it don’t miss nobody. Life’s too short to spend time on trying to figure it out." (Tracy Nelson / Photo by Amy Richmond)

What were the reasons that made the 1960s to be the center of Blues / Folk researches and experiments?

That’s a great question. Off the top of my head, or rather from my own experience, hearing music that stripped the message to the bone, after a time of cultural blandness and sterility, was so enticing and fulfilling. The Smithsonian collections and the Robert Johnson re-issues (I’m not sure they ever went away actually) just captured my heart and head. And oddly, I think maybe rock and roll kicked off a musical back to nature interest.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

I’m not sure how it affects people; I just know that it does. That’s the best purpose of music. Each person will have their own personal response to what they listen to and the hope is that it stirs something uplifting in their soul.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Do songs slower than you first think you should. And respect and appreciate your musical gift. It’s not given to everyone. And June Carter once gave me this advice: “be kind to the people you meet. That way you don’t have to cringe later on when you meet or remember them.” 

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Megan Thee Stallion and Taylor Swift seem to be doing okay for themselves.

(I love and respect both of these women). I remember when a woman couldn’t open a show. And Bessie Smith sold a million records during the depression.  When I first put my foot in the professional artist world it was relatively easy to get noticed.  Grace Slick and Janis were huge at that time and every label was looking for their version. Of course, since no-one could possibly fill that bill they were generally disappointed. I guess I’d say there’s been a steady rise in respect and attention to the power of women artists. Only took about a hundred years.

"I think the first time I heard Robert Johnson. It opened a world that was beyond my narrow Norwegian upbringing and hit me in the face. A life well lived to me is having someone you love in your house. And plenty of animals. And few regrets."

(Tracy Nelson / Photo by Amy Richmond)

Currently you’ve one new release. How do you describe "Life Don’t Miss Nobody" songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I haven’t made a record in over 10 years. I’ve been wanting to do every one of these songs for a really long time. I wanted to get a little bit of everything, all the kinds of music that I love. I’ve recorded with every one of these guys many times, with exception of Kevin McKendree, who absolutely killed. Each time I think I know what I'll get from them and each time they surpass my expectations, make the songs more wonderful than I could have imagined and make my job easy and fun. I cannot say enough about what a gem Roger Nichols is. He’s a brilliant engineer, as well as musician. As a producer he brings not only superb technical expertise but great insight, patience and JUST the right amount of direction. Willie  Nelson's producer and the engineer at the session said that he put more creative effort into doing that song than they’ve ever seen him do. I was so honored by his respect. I challenge anyone to get as close with Willie’s phrasing as I did. It was such fun singing with him again. Marcia and I wrote that years ago. I sent the chorus and part of the first verse to Marcia and she turned it into an anthem about Katrina. And that song just keeps being current. Folks in Ukraine, folks in fires and floods, people are losing their homes.

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