Five moving stories from Roots N Blues headliner Brandi Carlile's memoir - one includes Dolly Parton

Aarik Danielsen
Columbia Daily Tribune
This cover image released by Crown shows "Broken Horses" by Brandi Carlile. (Crown via AP)

Brandi Carlile has written dozens and dozens of songs — nearly all of them along a spectrum from good to sublime. And still, I'll forever read her name and hear a crack in her voice.

As the title track to Carlile's 2007 album "The Story" moves toward its cloud-parting payoff, the singer's voice breaks open like a seed as she delivers the lyric "All of these lines upon my face / Tell you the story who I am." That crack fulfills the word "all," investing it with a lifetime's worth of emotion. 

Upon first listen, the moment might seem like a break in Carlile's confidence. After hearing the song numerous times, it becomes clear the crack is the confidence. Vulnerability derived from assurance.

Carlile is among the headliners at September's Roots N Blues festival. She will ride a wave of significant new work to Columbia: the album "In These Silent Days" will hit just a few days after her set. And Carlile's book "Broken Horses," released earlier this year, exists among the best rock memoirs in recent memory.

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The book recreates the crack in Carlile's voice for 305 pages. Lyrical in its own way, "Broken Horses" is a testimony to the power of vulnerability enmeshed with a secure sense of self. 

A tally of remarkable quotations from "Broken Horses" could fill five articles. Carlile dedicates the book, in part, to her "family of fellow misfits on the island of misfit toys." 

"Anyone who's been rejected by this realm and its interpretation of your faith, but never by your Creator," she continues. "To the repulsed, rejected, reformed, reaffirmed, the redeemed. Your immeasurable worth precedes you."

That's worth the price of paper and ink alone. Within just the first 50 pages, Carlile delivers other indelible gems:

"I think God quite clearly has a preference for analog tape."

"I still can't bring myself to go out onstage in ordinary clothes ... I see it as a sign of disrespect to the audience and to the art of entertainment. It's not about having fancy clothes and being rich; it's about communicating to the crowd that you understand the evening is special." 

Rather than transcribe each memorable line, here are just five moving anecdotes that contribute to a greater picture of the artist, to "The Story" of the storyteller Brandi Carlile.

1. Carlile's first sunny songs

Songwriters often flinch at the memories of their earliest songs — the ham-fisted lyrics, the lack of structure. Carlile has little to cringe about if her first attempts resemble the lines she quotes early in "Broken Horses." Describing the sort of child she was, Carlile offers a couple phrases that are — appropriately — childlike but reflect a simple, winsome sort of light:

"I was shy and quiet but very clever. I was good at rhyming, had an extensive vocabulary, and had already dreamed up some songs—'Smile at the sun, smile at the sun, life is so much fun, when you smile at the sun.' I still hear the melodies."

2. Killing it at the (Northwest) Grand Ole Opry

Following the path of her singer mom, young Carlile — she estimates being 8 or 9 —auditioned for the Northwest Grand Ole Opry and landed a spot on the stage. Her rendition of "Tennessee Flat Top Box" wasn't perfect, but it changed everything. Carlile writes:

"I knew I would always feel most at home in that tension and embrace. The song went too fast and the guitar player stumbled through every musical interlude ... but the applause at the end was the nail in the coffin of any other path I might have gone down in life. I never wanted to leave that stage. Or if I did, it would have been to step down into the audience and just sit with them for the rest of the evening. I wanted to be with the people who I suddenly believed understood me."

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3. The Rick Rubin experience

Carlile thoughtfully lays out the many little labors and fateful trips an artist takes in search of a record deal. These stories offer solidarity and wisdom to any musician trying to find their place. As labels flirted, then passed, Carlile and her bandmates were offered the shot to play for legendary producer Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers). 

At an initial showcase, an allergic reaction to cough medicine prevented the singer from functioning anywhere near her best; she could barely function at all. Rubin graciously paused the showcase, and brought the band out for a second chance the following month. 

Rubin's reaction to their first song, as Carlile documents it, was lovely and surprising. Before they could start a second number, he called the opener "incredible," then asked them to go back and play it again. 

"We would play it three times before he let us move on to the next song. He asked us to play that one three times too," Carlile writes. "We were there for an hour. We played three songs nine times ... We had gotten our record deal." 

The relationship with Rubin didn't come to full fruition — at least from a label perspective (he did produce Carlile's 2009 record "Give Up the Ghost"). But his interactions with Carlile and her band kept them going, and added shine in the eyes of other companies.

Brandi Carlile performs during the tornado relief benefit concert ,“To Nashville, With Love,” at Marathon Music Works Monday, March 9, 2020.

4. Telling the Obamas "thanks"

Carlile proposed to Catherine Shepherd just after then-President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage — the two wed in September 2012. The songwriter penned a letter of appreciation, and kept in correspondence with Obama. Later, after the Supreme Court declared a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, Carlile and Shepherd visited the White House. There, they heard Prince and Stevie Wonder perform and expressed their gratitude in person.

"We got to tell the Obamas how much they influenced our engagement and made one of those memories that you pass along like a folk song," Carlile writes. "We always try to keep in touch with them. They were extremely kind and generous to my family." 

5. Dolly Parton's prayer

In 2019, Carlile curated a remarkable lineup of women performers to play the Newport Folk Festival, including her band The Highwomen — featuring past and future Roots N Blues performers Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby — Amy Ray, Sheryl Crow and Lucy Dacus. One of the most significant "gets" was Dolly Parton, and "Broken Horses" tells the tale of Carlile convincing the American icon to come out for the show. 

Before the performance, the two shared a moment of clarity and affirmation. Carlile responded to Parton's simple "How you doin?" with an expression borne of stress and fear. Carlile details what happened from there:

"She took my face in her hands and closed her eyes. 'Alright, then ... let's pray,' she said.

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When Dolly Parton prayed over me, I believed in God again. Every part of my soul came crashing to the earth like it was riding on lightning. I became connected to it again. ... The prayer is just between me and Dolly. But it was life-affirming and I like to think Dolly prays for all of us like that."

"Broken Horses" is available via Crown Publishing. Carlile will play Roots N Blues at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25. Learn more at the official Roots N Blues website.

Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at adanielsen@columbiatribune.com or by calling 573-815-1731.