Nashville's New Country Cousin

Aug 30, 2016
Originally published on August 30, 2016 11:45 am

To older country fans, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn are the ultimate examples of superstars who stayed true to their humble roots. Tara Thompson, 28, happens to come from Parton's mountains and Lynn's bloodline. The younger singer, typical of her oversharing generation, translates their down-home pride into tell-all songs.

When most people hear the name "Loretta Lynn," they picture a country-music icon whose life inspired a Hollywood movie. When she was a kid, Thompson had no clue Lynn was a country superstar.

"My grandma and her are first cousins, so they grew up together," Thompson says. "I never really knew she was that big of a deal, I don't think, until middle school, whenever I started realizing I can get extra credit with Loretta Lynn autographs. And I'm like, 'Wow, she really is a big deal.'"

You'd think Thompson would've thrown her cousin's name around when she came to Nashville chasing her singing dreams after high school. Instead, she spent long nights covering classic country tunes in a downtown honky-tonk that drew a mostly tourist crowd. Thompson was so convinced that her big break could walk through the door at any moment, she even sang on Christmas Day.

"You'd think being related to the queen of country music, I would know just a little bit more," Thompson says. "But I didn't wanna use her and I didn't want to go through her and use all her connections. I wanted to do it myself."

It wasn't until Thompson got into songwriting that a record label took interest in signing her. Her personality came through in dishy storytelling. When her sister got engaged out of the blue, Thompson turned it into "Vows," a song about an ill-fated shotgun wedding.

"I think she got scared of the song, and they went to the courthouse instead and saved money. That being said, my brother did get married in a storage unit. That's probably another song I have to write," she says, laughing.

Thompson has come up with a lot of fun writing ideas with her producer, Alex Kline. Sitting in her tidy West Nashville bungalow, Kline says she's never worked with an artist less interested in love songs.

"I literally have a little space on my phone, you know, the modern-day notebook, where I just write down all of the ideas that I'm saving for Tara, because I'm like, 'No one else will write this,'" Kline says.

Like one of their new songs, which sounds like texting shorthand for an explicit phrase. Thompson points out it's not.

"White. Trash. Female," she says. "WTF."

A lot of Thompson's songs are cheeky celebrations of attitudes that highbrow types might view as low-class. Her mom, Allison Taffer, says her daughter has a lot in common with cousin Loretta.

"Loretta's never — I don't even know if she knows the word snobby," Taffer says. "And Tara's definitely, definitely like that."

"What you see is what you get," Thompson adds. "This one over here, I'll tell you a funny story. Hope you don't get mad."

She launches into a long story about a catfight at a cheerleading convention. And, no, her mom doesn't get mad. Thompson comes from a long line of women who find humor in life's messier situations. Her grandmother, Diana Webb, gets a kick out of hearing her granddaughter sing about a one-night stand that took place atop a kitchen appliance.

"Every time I play it for somebody, I go, 'Be quiet. You've gotta hear this part. You've gotta hear this part,'" Webb says.

"Well, see, I told you," Thompson says. "You think I'm unfiltered, look at them."

Now that Tara Thompson has put herself and her songs out there, she's got family members lining up to supply her with material.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And if you like old-time, down-home country, well, it doesn't get better than Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Still, there is a new gal in country. Twenty-eight-year-old Tara Thompson is in that same tradition. Her songs celebrate the mountains, the humble roots, but with titles like "WTF." That would be white trash female. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN in Nashville has this profile.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: When most people hear the name Loretta Lynn, they picture a country music icon whose life inspired a Hollywood movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER")

LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter.

HIGHT: When she was a kid, Tara Thompson had no clue Lynn was a country superstar.

TARA THOMPSON: My grandma and her are first cousins, so they grew up together. And I never really knew she was that big of a deal, I don't think, until, like, middle school, whenever I started realizing I can get extra credit with Loretta Lynn autographs. And I'm like, wow, she really is a big deal.

HIGHT: You think Thompson would have thrown her cousin's name around when she came to Nashville chasing her singing dreams after high school. Instead, she spent long nights covering classic country tunes in a downtown honky-tonk that drew a mostly tourist crowd. Thompson was so convinced her big break could walk through the door at any moment that she even sang on Christmas Day.

THOMPSON: You think, being related to the queen of country music, I would know just a little bit more. But I didn't want to use her, and I didn't want to go through her and use all her connections I wanted to do it myself.

HIGHT: It wasn't until she got into songwriting that a record label took interest in signing her. Her personality came through in dishy storytelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOWS")

THOMPSON: (Singing) Rumor around this town is that high-waisted wedding gown. It's hot in month two or month three.

HIGHT: When her sister got engaged out of the blue, Thompson turned it into a song about an ill-fated shotgun wedding.

THOMPSON: I think she got scared of the song, and they went to the courthouse instead and saved money.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOWS")

THOMPSON: (Singing) I'll give you a year's supply of cigarettes if they make it past Labor Day. Hey, I just saw the groom making out with a bridesmaid. If she's still got a ring by Halloween, I'll throw in a case of Crown. This blessed union is doomed to go down. Yeah, we're all taking bets while they're saying vows.

My brother did get married in a storage unit. That's probably another song I have to write (laughter).

HIGHT: Thompson has come up with a lot of fun writing ideas with her producer, Alex Kline. Sitting in her tidy west Nashville bungalow, Kline says she's never worked with an artist less interested in love songs.

ALEX KLINE: I literally have a little space on my phone - you know, the modern-day notebook - where I write down all of the ideas that I'm saving for Tara because I'm like, no one else will write this.

HIGHT: Like one of their new songs, which sounds like texting shorthand for an explicit phrase. But as Thompson points out, it's not.

THOMPSON: White trash female - "WTF."

HIGHT: Kline grabs an old acoustic guitar from the corner of her living room.

THOMPSON: One, two, three, four.

HIGHT: And they run through the first verse.

THOMPSON: (Singing) Got a fresh fall green, spray-on tan, cold Steel Reserve 40 in my hand and a folding lawn chair, painting my toes as pink as my single watt. I'm blasting a boom box tape cassette, the best of the '80s, Tammy Wynette. The neighbors all whisper underneath their breath, WTF.

HIGHT: A lot of Thompson's songs are cheeky celebrations of attitudes that highbrow types might view as low-class. Her mom, Allison Taffer, thinks her daughter has a lot in common with cousin Loretta.

ALLISON TAFFER: Loretta's never - I don't even know if she knows the word snobby, you know? I mean, and Tara's definitely like that.

THOMPSON: What you see is what you get. This one over here - I'll tell you a funny story. I hope you don't get mad.

HIGHT: She launches into a long story about a catfight at a cheerleading convention. And, no, her mom doesn't get mad. Thompson comes from a long line of women who find humor in life's messy situations. Her grandmother, Diana Webb, gets a kick out of hearing her granddaughter sing about a one-night stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEONE TO TAKE YOUR PLACE")

THOMPSON: (Singing) Yeah, I know this is a sports bar. You know I'm a fan of NASCAR. I'll have two Coronas - one for me, one for the hot girl I just turned into, yeah. I can came in here to get a man, and I know the man I want.

DIANA WEBB: Every time I player this for somebody, I go, no, be quiet. You've got to hear this part.

TAFFER: You've got to hear this one part.

WEBB: You've got to hear this part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEONE TO TAKE YOUR PLACE")

THOMPSON: (Singing) It ain't you I'm looking for. I'm looking for someone to take your place on the couch, on the bed, on the porch in the truck, up on the Maytag, with some money, who can kiss, who can dance. Any chance you could find me a little ash tray?

THOMPSON: You think I'm unfiltered? Look at them.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Wonder where I get it from.

WEBB: Yeah, I am unfiltered.

HIGHT: Now that Tara Thompson's put herself and her songs out there, she's got family members lining up to supply her with material. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.