One of the hardest things to describe in music is what makes a melody excellent. It’s a bit like design; success is supposed to be somewhat self-evident. But in general, one listens for an inner balance and a confident arc, like a good story. Too many skimp on these values, composing notes to fit chord changes, when it’s wiser to work in the opposite direction. Nashville’s Dara Tucker could give clinics in melody. Her qualifications are evident in her dozens of original songs and grounded in her unique path into songwriting - a paper keyboard.
LISTEN TO DARA TUCKER'S STRING CONVERSATION AT 31:15.
She lived in Switzerland in her post collegiate years, working on her German and feeling music begin to tempt her away from her aspirations in international business.
“It was my way of expressing that feeling of isolation and loneliness that I had at the time,” Tucker says in an interview for WMOT's The String. “I remember working through a couple of melodies. And I had no recorder or anything. I actually got a piece of yellow tablet paper and I had drawn a keyboard out on it so I could play through melody lines in my head and try to solidify what I was singing.”
That exercise in the mind’s ear, knowing where a song will go before the decoration is applied, started as a method and became a calling. Tucker rented a real keyboard and developed her voice. Before long, based on a few fleeting but intriguing impressions from television, she took a chance on Nashville. The move was, she says, kind of a whim. “I wanted to be part of a scene and I wanted to write. That was my first and greatest interest, and still is.”
This all began in her home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Tucker was raised in a family steeped in musical ministry. Gospel was the only music on her radar for years, giving her a deep grounding in harmony and vocal artistry, even if it didn’t become her life’s field.
“It was never really my world and never really my expression,” she says. “I didn’t feel there was a place for me in that world. There was really nothing for me to say. It was like how many ways can you say 'Praise God'? That’s great, but that music exists and has existed for a long time. And I just don’t have anything to add to that.”
Then she discovered the soul-searching R&B of India Arie, who burst on the scene with a celebrated debut in 2001. “She really kind of brought something alive in me,” Tucker said. “Because she was able to write about things and sing about things that I really didn’t hear many other people singing about.”
Tucker’s decade-plus in Nashville has been a case study in the Music City pigeonhole problem. She’s been highly regarded, winning back-to-back Jazz Vocalist of the Year honors at the Nashville Industry Music Awards, for example. Yet even in these genre-defying times, a “jazz” label can be a millstone for a composer with songs that could easily translate to pop or country. Tucker’s own two recent albums, Oklahoma Rain and the 2019 opus The Seven Colors, paint across lines and swirl traditions together.
“That’s been a little bit of a source of frustration and searching for me since I started out,” Tucker says in our interview. “I have so many different influences, and as someone who considers herself somewhat expansive creatively, it can be a difficult thing to narrow yourself down to one or two lanes. And where the industry is concerned, it’s not feasible to do everything.”
A couple of recent events may shift the conversation. She met pop bluesman Keb’ Mo’ just as he was trying to figure out how to write a song around a hook he liked on a topic he didn’t understand. Tucker brought her expertise to the table and they co-wrote the title track to his new album Oklahoma. And then there’s The Seven Colors, produced by nationally renowned guitarist Charlie Hunter, an artist who spans the jazz and jam band scenes. The record’s title and sound is an explicit declaration of pride in her many, overlapping influences. It would be entirely reasonable and advisable for song scouts and producers in any of Nashville’s mainstream formats to use it as an A&R vehicle. As you’ll hear, Dara Tucker would be up for that.