Tanner Adell: Country's Past, Future, Present

Tanner Adell: Country's Past, Future, Present

By Joan SummersMay 22, 2024

Tanner Adell might describe her signature sound as “glam country,” but it’s more than that. It’s the future of country itself; it’s a future she’s been sprinting towards since well before her feature on Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, or her induction into CMT’s Next Women of Country. “The day I moved to Nashville, I was sprinting, and then I never stopped in the last three years," she tells PAPER.

In a grove beneath the signature Hangout, the Gulf Shores haunt that Hangout Fest is named after, Tanner Adell sings, dances, rocks out on multiple instruments and even belts an acapella rendition of “Happy Birthday” to a fan near fainting. The heat hasn’t gotten to her one bit, at least from appearances, and for a moment the crowd seems to forget the sweltering sun. That’s how powerful her force of nature talent is in person: strong enough to make you forget the sun even rises in the sky at all.

The singer-songwriter — and fashion obsessive, as she makes clear to me later — burst onto the country music scene with 2022’s “Love You a Little Bit,” one of her earliest singles, later included on the deluxe edition of her debut album, 2023’s Buckle Bunny. The title track propelled this momentum further, with Adell hustling behind the scenes to make ends meet while chasing stardom in Nashville. In her trailer after the set, she tells me: “I sold everything that I had to be able to get there. I moved into low-income housing. I had my lights turned off. I had days where there was only cold water.”

Still, she never let the cracks show. On stage, she’s as polished as peers who’ve been doing this decades longer, the strength of her creativity and artistic vision showing in every minute detail of her outfit, her setlist, her skill on the guitar and banjo. Her outfit, custom-made by Levi's, is encrusted with ribbons and rhinestones. Her fans in the crowd are equally dolled-up; from my vantage stage right, I spot in cowgirl hats and boots and glitter and everything else that seeps through the doorway into “glam country” she’s thrown right open.

The inimitable nerve that propelled her to pack up and move to Nashville also shows in so many other ways. Like a tweet from earlier this year that, at the very least, aided along the feature on a Beyoncé song she’d prophesied about since her earliest memories: “As one of the only Black girls in country music scene, I hope Bey decides to sprinkle me with a dash of her magic for a collab.” I ask about those dreams and prophecies later. “I wanted to make sure over the last three years that I put in the groundwork, so that when the moment came, that I was going to open the doors, I’d be ready," she says.

Later, I leave her trailer shaken, knowing I’d just sat down with someone who will — no matter the shape of the industry to come — shake things up forever. My colleagues back in the holding area pick up on the energy crackling all over me, grip tight around my voluminous skirt, a grin cutting clear across my face. They ask how it went, and I tell them: “I don't even know where to begin. You’ll just have to see for yourself.”

Read PAPER's full conversation with Tanner Adell below.

Congrats on the release of “Whiskey Blues.” Let’s start there. As you’re getting back in the studio, what are you being drawn to sonically and artistically right now? What inspirations are you pulling from?

I love Olivia Rodrigo. I love “Driver’s License,” I love Guts. I’ve loved “Deja Vu.” It feels like she’s the first artist in a really long time to scream into the mic, and be like, “This is how I’m feeling!” My mood right now is writing exactly what I’m feeling and thinking and going through. I’m currently in the middle of finishing up my album, that may or may not be coming out by the end of the year.

Is this something new?

This is new! I’ve been writing it since last July, but there are songs on it that I wrote a couple of years ago, that I felt very, very deeply tell my story. Parts that I haven’t really talked about publicly. I’m entering this new mood, and “Whiskey Blues” kicked it off. I disguised it with a killer, pop diva vocal, and it has such a fun beat. But when you break it down, if you read the lyrics, it’s deranged? I’m moving into that, and speaking my truth. It’s the mood right now.

When you talk about speaking your truth, I’m reminded of your song “See You In Church,” because I was raised evangelical. I watched your video back when you put it out about growing up in the Mormon church and realizing all these things about what you’d been taught growing up. Did you find it hard to put that song out, or was it healing for you?

“See You In Church” is a little bit of my — and I don’t really use the word "ratchet" — but it’s about my wild side. It’s this juxtaposition of what I was doing during the week and then still having to show up and act like I’m this perfect person. And how exhausting that is. Now I am trying to be as vulnerable as possible, and let my walls down, and that can be really hard. But I’m trying not to let those walls come back up, and prevent me from sharing with people. There’s a lot of people like you and me, and it’s really important that people know this! This is my year that I am spilling everything.

I mean, that lifestyle of kissing boys in the backs of trucks, partying, running into people you don’t want to see you like that, and then having to see them in church that Sunday. So, you played an unreleased song for us during your set. Can you spill on what it’s called, or when we can expect it?

“Silverado” is the name of it. It’s an early tease for the album and it’s about a part of my journey in Nashville. I picked up and moved everything to Nashville. I’d never been there before, and I sold everything that I had to be able to get there. I moved into low-income housing. I had my lights turned off. I had days where there was only cold water. There was a night where I had an event, and I had been out all day, and I didn’t have a car, so I was literally riding those Lime scooters around Nashville.

Oh my god, not the Lime scooters!

In the sleet, uphill, both ways. I was like, I literally have half an hour to get ready, so I sat in front of my mirror, holding my phone light up to the mirror, trying to get as much done as I could. I ended up wearing sunglasses at night, because I was not confident I had gotten my makeup where I needed it to be. “Silverado” is the more extroverted, hopeful side of that. The chorus is like, yeah, we’re broke, but we ain’t broke down! We’re getting through this. We’re wishing on the stars that we can’t see behind the clouds, we’re still wishing on them, we know that they’re there. It’s that hopefulness. I’ve written songs that are more of my interior life, that go into the same story as “Silverado," but done in a very different way. “Silverado” is more of a little snack off the album, and I’ll be playing it all summer.

I made a mistake by reading Instagram comments on my way over here, listening to “Buckle Bunny,” and browsing what people had to say on Youtube. There’s so many people who seem to think you wrote the song not knowing what “buckle bunny” means. Do you ever feel frustrated by how people who approach your music that way or do you pay it no mind?

There’s too many people that love me! You know what I mean? I think I’ve learned very quickly that the energy that I want to spend is on the people who love me, who love my music, and the people who get it. That’s all that matters.

I find it cool that the song takes this thing that is a misogynistic thing men say about women —

And women who are not girl’s girls also say about other women!

Exactly, and you flipped it on its head and made it a feminist anthem.

That’s what it means now, as far as I’m concerned. Everyone wants to be a buckle bunny this summer.

Divas link up!

Absolutely, divas link up!

To follow up on that, I was listening to you just now talk about low-income housing, getting your lights turned off, and those are some of the most “I’m in a country song right now!”

I mean, that’s my whole life. I feel like I’ve lived a unique situation, between California and Wyoming. I saw both sides, which is why I love that everyone is saying the music is “glam country.” That’s what I am, “glam country.” At the end of the day, I was showing up even though my life was falling apart. I was showing up with the ribbons and the nails and the makeup, and I made sure that I could do my makeup really well. Nobody even knew, nobody could tell that the last two and half years, it’s been faking it ‘til I make it, and making my own clothes and thrifting and finding ways to be able to show up onstage or at an interview or an event looking like a billion dollars.

I loved your outfit from your set today: the skirt and top with the horse show ribbons? Were they… are they called horse shows? I am so far from what the right word is, probably.

[Laughs] I mean, they’re just ribbons honestly. But you get them when you win things, or sometimes when you lose. But my mom grew up doing rodeo, so I’ve loved these ribbons for such a long time. I’ve walked into the house in Wyoming, and there’s a huge wall, and it’s her wall of ribbons. She’s got a whole warehouse full of trophies from when she showed horses all around the world. Hold on, let me show you this. [She sets down a giant buckle.] I brought it just in case, my dad polished it up. This is from 1976, it’s from a championship that she won. IQHA stands for International Quarter Horse Association. Riding culture is very much a part of my life, and I grew up around that, and my mom was like a horse whisperer. You’ve never seen someone like that with horses before. Then, on the other end, I’m like, in LA, going to auditions as a seven-year-old. That’s the juxtaposition.

I also love vintage items, one of a kind items. I’ve always tried to incorporate that into my style, so the horse ribbons that we have, those aren’t my moms, but my grandma’s getting all my mom’s ribbons together to send to me. Also, Bill Wackermann, who I would say is my creative director and stylist, really helps me decide things, and hone in on what my true, personal style is. He had the idea to incorporate those for a magazine shoot, and they put them on me, and I was like, “Oh, this is it.” I love ribbons, and I’ve been wearing ribbons in my hair for probably the last year or so, and I tie them onto my clothing, everything is ribbons everywhere. It’s been really fun, picking and choosing and my family members sending me items that are really special to them, but trusting me with them.

I’m going to say, so this is on the record: Sandy Liang, if you’re listening, we need a partnership for Tanner!

Yeah, Sandy!

So the outfit today, did you make it too?

Levi’s made the outfit today! They did one for Stagecoach, they reached out and wanted to do one custom and I was the first artist they had ever collaborated with for Stagecoach. I was like, I would love to, and we have these ribbons … and they said they loved it! I designed it, and they made it. Then they made this one as well, and we’re going to be partnering throughout the summer for some of these big festivals. It’s crazy to go from like — [gestures around herself at the buckle and ribbons] — to Levi’s making me custom clothes.

I mean, it’s this moment that you’re in with your career right now. One thing I connect to so much in your music and art, as do so many fans, is how you have such a distinct and specific point of view. I’ve heard you talk a lot about what you took away from your time in Wyoming, but I wonder what you also took away from growing up in California?

I think LA is what gave me the stars in my eyes. I think that’s where the performance side, and the entertainment side, the glam, I got from LA. I think if it was just Wyoming, then I would just be tilling the field, planting seeds, farming, and I still do want a farm. If it was just LA, I don’t know, I feel like I’d be a badass editor-in-chief, but I like having both sides. Music is what bridges those for me, and I started writing really, really young. I’m half and half, and I’ve been half and half my whole life: biracial, California, Wyoming. LA gave me the “glam” in “glam country.”

You were also just inducted into CMT’s “Next Women of Country,” congratulations. You now stand amongst alumni like Kacey, Kelsea, Marren. Did you wrap your mind around that immediately, or did it take a second to process what the inclusion means?

I used to rant, like “I just want to be on the ‘Women of Country’ playlist on Spotify. Why don’t they see me? Am I not making enough noise? The day that I was put on the playlist, I was screaming, I was so excited. I felt like my foot was in the door. Obviously, this year, I am a “Next Woman of Country.” Leslie Fram is kind of the mind behind CMT’s “Next Women of Country,” and she’s been a voice not only for women of color, but for women in general, because it’s not just women of color that have a hard time in country music. It’s a little bit of an extra weight on our shoulders. It’s women, period, that have a very hard time getting on the radio, getting gigs, getting opening slots for bigger artists. It’s a very male-dominated space.

And men don’t have the same questions asked of the music they make. No one ever says, “Is such and such man country enough?”

Never. They’re just up there, doing what they do, and then they get their bros to open for them. I hope you’re all listening right now: Put me on tour with you, damnit!

Put her on tour!

It’s carving out a space for women to feel important and valued. So shout out to Leslie, because she organizes all that, and she really is a huge part of getting girls on the radio.

Last question: There’s a lot to be said, and that has been said, about being on a Beyoncé album. Did you feel like, in the aftermath, you wanted to jump straight into work, hit the ground running, keep up this momentum?

No, and I’ll tell you why. Because the day I moved to Nashville, I was sprinting, and then never stopped the last three years. I’ve been running! I don’t know if it’s intuition, if I have secret powers and I’m a psychic, I don’t know. But since I was very young, I have always said, I know I’m going to have a song with Beyoncé. I don’t know when, but I just know it’s going to happen. Literally, when I was young! I wanted to make sure over the last three years that I put in the groundwork, so that when the moment came, that was going to open the doors, I’d be ready. So I’ve been preparing. I was mid-sprint when she decided to put me on that album.

I think for young artists too, it’s important to hear that. I think there’s some famous saying about this: If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.

Yes! Stay ready.

Photography: Alive Coverage