Tanya Tucker is having her makeup done. “My face man is putting my face on,” she jokes, cuddling her chihuahua in her lap. “What do I look like without makeup?” she asks, as though repeating a question that, in this case, wasn’t asked. “I look more like the frog than the princess! I could give Kermit a run for his money!” She lets out a loud, hearty laugh at her own expense.
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This is one of those behind-the-scenes secrets that everybody understands is part of the celebrity process but so few people, especially the celebrities themselves, talk about. But Tucker doesn’t seem to care who knows about her face man. She’s more than comfortable giving a peak behind the curtain and seems more than happy to puncture her own public image from time to time. She can be brutally honest sometimes — about herself most of all, but also about others, even about her new album, While I’m Livin’. Her first studio album in 10 years and her first album of new material in 17 years, it’s a dusty, durable collection of old-school country songs mostly written by Brandi Carlile, who co-produced with Shooter Jennings.
Introducing her to a new generation of listeners, While I’m Livin’ emphasizes the ache and break in Tucker’s voice, which have taken on a new twang in recent years as she surveys her life and legacy. She settles naturally and eloquently into Carlile’s story-songs about women on the run, women at crossroads, women struggling to be heroic, women worrying over memories until they’re threadbare. She even reinterprets Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” as a late-in-life lament, filling the rooms of that home with even more longing.
As her dog squirms on her lap and her face man works his magic, Tucker explains that the album almost didn’t happen. In fact, it almost didn’t happen several times. For one thing, she wasn’t looking to record a comeback record, partly because she didn’t think she needed to record a comeback record and partly because she felt the country industry wouldn’t make room for her again. “I didn’t find them,” she says of Carlile and Jennings. “They found me.” Shooter she’d known since he was a kid, so there was “an automatic familiarity. I know him. I have a love for him that runs deep.”
Carlile was a different story. “I didn’t know about her, but she was looking for me, wanting to do a record. I didn’t even know who she was. My kids had to tell me how great she is.” Even with the encouragement of her kids, she wasn’t sure she wanted to entrust her voice to these two potential collaborators, who weren’t even alive when she made her debut in 1972.
But the last time the record almost didn’t happen was right before they were scheduled to start recording. “I was in Texas for Christmas, right around Austin, and I couldn’t face the songs. I just didn’t like them. I had already canceled the album a couple of times, and I was trying to get Shooter on the phone.” She wanted encouragement, some reassurance that she was doing the right thing, but out on the Lone Star planes, cell phone reception can be scarce. “I couldn’t get him! I was out there standing on top of a tree trunk my friend had cut down, holding the phone up in the sky and trying to talk to him.”
Tucker didn’t hear a hit among the songs Carlile had written with Tim and Phil Hanseroth. “I didn’t hear anything like a ‘Luckenbach, Texas’ or a ‘Delta Dawn.’ At this point, whatever I come out with has got to be phenomenal. It can’t be run of the mill. I thought the songs might not be good. They’re good songs, but they’re not strong for me. But Shooter, when I finally got hold of him, said, I’m asking you to trust me on this. Do it for me. You said you’d do anything in the world for me. Okay, you’re playing that card now?”
Tucker likens the whole process to a rollercoaster. “You’re going up that big incline and you’re thinking, Good god, what have I gotten myself into? Why did I agree to this? And then you get to the bottom and you go, Let’s do it again!”
That’s an apt metaphor for Tucker’s nearly fifty-year career, which has more ups and downs, twists and turns, thrills and spills than the Cyclone at Coney Island. Born in Texas to a family that moved around the American West — first to Arizona, then to Utah, then to Nevada — she voiced her ambitions early, announcing at eight years old that she wanted to be a country star. It didn’t take long for her to make that particular dream a reality: Just four years later, before Tucker was even a teenager, she scored a massive hit with her debut single, “Delta Dawn,” written by Alex Harvey and Larry Collins (himself a former child star).
Often dressed in white lace dresses that reflected the ’70s fascination with an idealized ’30s, she sounded like a force of nature, a child with a voice that could express adult complexities, adult nuances, and — it can’t be denied — adult desires. What often gets lost in discussions of Tucker’s early career is her craft. She’s always had the ability to home in on the kernel of a song, its defining sentiment or contradiction, and project it to the rafters. “Delta Dawn” is not kiddy fare; it’s the story of an aging southern belle waiting for a suitor to take her “to his mansion in the sky.” But Tucker settles into the song as if she’s lived it, her mighty vocals conveying unexpected compassion for the character.
Perhaps that’s the actor in her. Even before she scored that hit, Tucker had scored a bit part in the 1972 Robert Redford flick Jeremiah Johnson and would appear in a steady stream of films throughout the 1970s, including Georgia Peaches in 1980 and Hard Country the next year. With each album, she gradually modernized her persona, often sporting skintight bodysuits that resembled neither the bespoke finery of old-school stars like Loretta Lynn nor the come-as-your-are denim of the outlaws. To the grumblings of the establishment, she came across like country’s answer to Suzi Quatro or the Runaways, integrating a bit of punk and glam into her vision of country (or, given the timeline, perhaps those other artists were answers to Tanya Tucker). She gained a reputation as a party girl, and she did little to dispel it even as it followed her into the 1980s and then into rehab.
Perhaps that’s why it seems that Tucker has never gotten her due in Nashville, has never been adequately hailed as an influence on subsequent generations of country singers both male and female. In histories of the genre — including Ken Burns’ Country Music in 2019 — she’s too often relegated to footnote status, mentioned as someone who had a few hits when in fact she directed the course of the genre in the 1970s and beyond. Delta Dawn is one of country’s great debuts, whose mix of pop production (courtesy of Billy Sherrill), rock attitude, and toughened twang still sounds ahead of its time. You can hear Tucker in the arena aspirations of the hat acts in the 1990s and the new outlaws working today. You can hear her everywhere, except maybe the radio.
Even when she was a teenager, Tucker never sounded young in her songs. She always brought what seemed like the weight of life experience to her performances, not to mention the knowledge of death. “When I die, I may not get to heaven,” she sings on her cover of Ed Bruce’s “Texas When I Die,” which she rode to number five on the country charts. Like his original, her version of the song devolves into a sing-along, although hers sounds rowdier and more restless: the soundtrack to one of those brawls that ends with someone thrown through the front window. She’s flipping the bird at the Grim Reaper, laughing at the prospect of meeting her maker, but there’s a catch in her voice, a knowing hesitation in her delivery, as though she’s trying to reconcile oblivion with existence, death with life. Might as well throw that punch or throw back that shot of tequila while you can.
Death looms ominously in her songs. On its surface, her 1975 hit “(Would You Lay With Me In A) Field of Stone” sounds like a sexual invitation, which may strike contemporary listeners as uncomfortable or exploitive. But Tucker neither backs down from that aspect of David Allen Coe’s lyrics nor lets it obscure the song’s darker implications. That field of stone is a cemetery: Would you lay beside her for eternity? Are you able to commit not only your life but your afterlife? Are you prepared for eternity?
It appeared Tucker’s career might not survive the ’70s, much less her 20s. As a new generation of new traditionalists like Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam commandeered radio playlists in the 1980s, Tucker was plagued by scandal and addiction and essentially disappeared for the first half of the decade. When she returned in 1986, she was 28 and already a hardened veteran in the industry, but adapted seamlessly to new sounds and styles in country music. Just as Delta Dawn is one of country’s great debuts, Girls Like Me in 1986 is one of country’s great comebacks, launching a string of hit singles that continued well into the 1990s.
A highlight from this era, “Two Sparrows In A Hurricane” is a country tearjerker penned by Mark Alan Springer that tells a simple story of young lovers growing old together. Tucker sings it like it’s the sequel to “Field Of Stone,” with a tenderness in her delivery that makes it all the more devastating. In fact, she might even be serenading her younger self on the chorus: “Trying to find their way with a head full of dreams … They’ve heard it’s all uphill, but all they know is how they feel.”
When she finally made herself get into the studio with Jennings and Carlile, Tucker didn’t look back. The trio clicked immediately. “It was instant,” Tucker says as her face man finishes up. “If I could only have one thing in the world, what would it be? It would be to be comfortable. That’s my favorite feeling, and they made me feel totally comfortable.” Almost too comfortable, in fact. What you hear on While I’m Livin’ is mostly first takes. “It’s just what came out of my mouth, and I might have preferred to fix a few things. Just some little things. But Brandi and Shooter were adamant. I had to be the singer, not the entertainer. I’ve never been a real fixer anyway. When you have to start fixing things, I don’t think you’ve done your job.”
She still doesn’t hear a “Delta Dawn” or a “Luckenbach, Texas,” but radio hits are hard to come by in the late 2010s, especially for women and anyone over 30. Instead, there’s a “Wheels Of Laredo” and an excellent “High Ridin’ Heroes” and a poignant “Bring My Flowers Now” — sturdy songs that Tucker turns into mournful ruminations and epic celebrations, that speak eloquently to her past and her present, that may represent another impossible comeback for one of country’s most successful artists. She’s already busier than she’s been in years, not only performing at the CMAs in November but recording with Dennis Quaid and Kris Kristofferson.
And she’s happy both of her young collaborators are along for the ride, in particular Carlile. “I’m her biggest fan. It’s so cool that she’s turning me onto her fans and I can introduce her to mine. She’s got a hell of a lot more fans than I do! I’d probably work with Brandi the rest of my days.” For now she just wants to enjoy those new listeners and get on to the next project, the next tour, the next album. “I have to many things I want to do that I haven’t done, and I’m running out of time.”