By Eleni P. Austin
Tanya Tucker possesses a survivor’s story that rivals a classic Country song. And that seems wholly apropos since she’s been a part of the Country music firmament since 1972. Decades before LeAnn Rimes or Taylor Swift made news Tanya had a Top 10 hit at age 13 with “Delta Dawn.”
A native of Seminole, Texas, Tanya began performing as a young kid. She began saxophone lessons at age six, two years later she made an auspicious debut singing with Mel Tillis. Soon enough, she was performing in Las Vegas and came to the attention of Billy Sherrill, who was head of A&R at Columbia Records. Although he wanted her to record “The Happiest Girl In The Whole U.S.A.” (later a hit for Donna Fargo), Tanya suggested “Delta Dawn,” having recently seen Bette Midler perform it on The Tonight Show. Her instincts proved correct; the song shot to #6 on the Country Top 100. It even landed on the Pop charts.
Throughout the ‘70s, she recorded a string of hit singles, including “Love’s The Answer,” “What’s Your Mama’s Name” (which reached #1), “Blood Red And Goin’ Down” and “Would You Lie With Me (In A Field Of Stone).” Jumping to the MCA label, she decided to upend her image by going in a Rock & Roll direction for her 1978 record, TNT.
In the early ‘80s, Tanya embarked on a tempestuous relationship with Glen Campbell, who was 22 years her senior. Their passion, fueled by jealousy and a plethora of substances, nearly derailed both their careers. But throughout the decade, she managed to score several Top 10 hits. Her popularity waned in the ‘90s, but she still continued to record at a furious clip. That slowed as the 21st century dawned. Between 2002 and 2009, she only released two albums.
For the next decade, she dealt with health issues, the death of her parents and the general malaise that gripped the music industry. Tentative plans to have Shooter Jennings (son of Country legends Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, and a fine musician in his own right), produce a new album took a turn for the better when he enlisted his pal, alt.country superstar, Brandi Carlile, to co-produce. In turn, Brandi, a lifelong Tanya Tucker fan, cobbled together a list of original tracks and a few canny covers. The album was recorded in under three weeks.
While I’m Livin’ arrived in 2019 and shot up the charts. Critical acclaim was unanimous, and the album even received four Grammy nominations for Song Of The Year, Best Country Solo Performance, Best Country Album and Best Country Song. (She won the last two categories). Late 2022 saw the release of The Return Of Tanya Tucker, a feature-length documentary that chronicled the making of While I’m Livin. Earlier this year she was inducted into The Country Music Hall Of Fame. In between, she returned to the studio with Brandi and Shooter and recorded her 26th album, Sweet Western Sound.
The record opens with the surprising one-two punch of “Tanya” and “Kindness.” Although the former bears her name, Tanya doesn’t appear on the track. Instead, the listener is treated to a bare-bones, acapella paean that the late, great Outlaw legend, Billy Joe Shaver, left on her answering machine. It includes this knowing couplet; “The glow from the light all around her shows all her beauty so well, she looks like a heavenly angel, but Tanya is meaner than hell.”
That snippet quickly folds into the latter, written by Brandi’s longtime collaborators and identical bandmates, Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Chugging guitars are wed to sturdy bass, keening pedal steel and a shuddery, shuffle rhythm. Tanya wraps her contralto croon around spiritual lyrics that speak to life filled with euphoric highs and soul-crushing lows, before achieving a measure of sangfroid; “I have traveled down the long and twisted roads, through the darkened streets not many souls have known, I’ve seen beauty some may not understand, I found glory in the ruin of the best-laid plans/There were times tomorrow felt so far away, it seemed as though the bitterness was here to stay, and though I’ve pushed down on my anger through my tears, I have always felt the love of God so near, I’ve been everything there is to be, so come on baby, show some kindness to me.” Gospel-inflected harmonies wash over the chorus, weaving a sacred and secular tapestry of voices.
On her last album, Tanya co-wrote a song with Brandi, for this outing they have penned two. “Ready As I’ll Never Be,” is the album’s first single, it originally accompanied Tanya’s 2022 documentary, The Return Of Tanya Tucker. The painterly arrangement is powered by scalloped piano notes, mercurial pedal steel, shadowy guitar and a thunking beat. The opening verse deftly sketches out her rise to fame with just a few sharply-turned phrases; “I felt you calling, I saw you start, from the old town movies to the bars on the boulevard, the bells were ringing, the Gypsy soul, straight to the smart-mouth little girl from Seminole/All you outlaws and the Opry queens, they wrapped those golden arms around the baby of the family, to stand beside you was more than enough, I always was and always will be looking up.” But even as she acknowledges her good fortune, she pays fealty to those who paved the way for her. She also confronts her own mortality every time she has to say goodbye to a mentor or hero; “It’s bittersweet, but it’s a hell of a silver lining, I tell the same old stories, y’all get your wings…and I watch them doves fly, sooner than me, I guess I’m ready, or as ready as I’ll never be, I’m as ready as I’ll never be.”
While Tanya reveals a measure of gravitas and introspection on “Ready…” her trademark sass and smart-assery are on full display for “The List.” On this second collaboration with Brandi, breezy guitars, agile bass lines, searing pedal steel and Honky-Tonk piano are tethered to a steadfast, clip-clop gait. Her dulcet tones can’t camouflage her defiant mien, “…I ain’t gonna make excuses, I’ve since lost all track of my demons and their muses, so if you’re still keeping score, then you can keep your heart attack.” On the break, slippery, skip-to-my-lou guitars intertwine with shadowy pedal steel. It just gets better from there, keeping her rebellion check has never been Tanya’s style. As the sparkling instrumentation cloaks an irresistible melody, as she unleashes a take-no-prisoners diatribe disguised by a sunny, sing-a-long chorus; “Aw make me a list, do what you gotta do, you heard stories about my past and they’re probably true, hey, make me a list, that’ll be fine, if you wanna sling mud in my face, tell you what, you can get to the back of the line/I don’t live in the past, it ain’t gonna last, and the years ain’t always been kind, but the list of things you don’t like about me, is gonna be shorter than mine.”
The best tracks hopscotch across the record, beginning with “Breakfast In Birmingham.” On this duet with Brandi (who shares a co-write with legendary Elton John lyricist, Bernie Taupin), sun-dappled guitars lattice across shimmering pedal steel, bucolic banjo and flinty bass lines and a stickity beat. Laid-back lyrics offer gimlet-eyed perspectives as they separately make their way to Alabama’s Magic City. Brandi is already on the move; “Just a little static breakin’ up the Beatles, AM wake up, Tuesday morning tunes, It’s a turquoise-blue good mornin,’ with the copper eagle flyin,’ whipping through the plains, north across the motel-rendezvous.” Meanwhile, Tanya admits some morning malaise, “You know me, I’m still a-movin,’ just as slow as ol’ molasses, bacon cooked up good and crisp and gone,” But she has her eye on the prize; “Moved into Alabama in a purple Firebird, looking for some love, looking for some words to write a song.” Brisk banjo riffs dart around sepia-toned pedal steel on the break, before long, the pair are name-checking tie-dyed hippies and late R&B and Gospel luminaries, Arthur Alexander and Jakey Hess. By the time arrangement accelerates on the chorus, their aspirations along with their destinies have coalesced.
On “City Of Gold” Tanya trades her Southern Country bona fides for a rustic Laurel Canyon flavor. Meandering guitars are matched by lonesome pedal steel, shivery Mellotron, lithe bass lines and a tick-tock beat. This track wouldn’t seem out of place on a classic Fleetwood Mac album. Lyrics explore a surfeit of emotions as Tanya easily slips into the skin of a young musician looking for success in the bright lights of the big city; “The sun sets in the west, but I’m strolling down Hollywood Blvd. I don’t believe I’m done just yet, I took the hard knocks and the broken dreams…” Twinkly piano and weepy pedal steel refract the optimism and rebellion with hints of melancholy in this wry reflection; “They got jet planes and bullet trains-take you where you anywhere you wanna go except for yesterday/I wear my sadness like this summer dress, when the wind blows through, I feel beautiful-Honey, ain’t that the way?”
Extending the West Coast affection, “Letter To Linda,” written by Tanya and Shooter, is an encomium in epistolary form that honors probably the greatest, purest and most protean singer of the last century, Linda Ronstadt. It’s anchored by sultry keys, gritty guitars, smoldering pedal steel, spidery bass and a stutter-step beat. Unfolding like a typical fan letter, the lyrics address the Parkinson’s diagnosis that has robbed Linda of her singing voice before edging into even more personal territory; “I wanted to be just like you, Linda, you left an unforgettable, incredible stamp on me, a voice from heaven above to the body below, If I close my eyes I can still feel the glow of ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ reaching out from my radio, I thought you should know, rest easy Linda, you already stole the show.” Celestial backing vocals ebb and flow beneath the verses. Shot through with grace and humility, every verse is suffused in affection and adulation. Artist to artist, Tanya honors a debt she’ll never completely repay.
Other interesting tracks include Tanya’s take on Shooter’s wistful piano ballad, “Waltz Across The Moment” She also take a run at the anthemic “That Wasn’t Me,” which was written by Brandi and the Hanseroth Twins for her Bear Creek album. The record closes with “When The Rodeo Is Over (Where Does The Cowboy Go)” Plaintive pedal steel and chiming arpeggios cradle willowy piano notes, loose-limbed bass and a barely-there beat. Perspicacious lyrics paint an evocative portrait of a would-be World champion, decades past his prime; “Whiskey on his breath and the age in his eyes, he’ll hitch a ride on the interstate and fade into the sunrise.” Rather briefly, fantasy and memory intersect; “Now Sedona, she’s a vortex, but she’s sweeter than the coast, he smokes cigarettes he can’t afford, and whistles to a ghost, his boots belong to a memory, and his spurs belong to rust, he’ll be picking up his turquoise and leave the buckles in the dust.” It’s a roughhewn elegy more bitter than sweet.
Sweet Western Sound hits that sweet spot, tender one minute, twangy and tough the next, proving While I’m Livin’ was no one-off. With Shooter and Brandi by her side, hopefully Tanya Tucker will achieve the same late-career renaissance that Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and even her old beau, Glen Campbell experienced. Clearly, she still has a few more tricks up her sleeve and a lot more music to make.