Photo by Danny Clinch
Tanya Tucker gave up on the idea of music earlier this century.
Approaching her 50s, a career of more than 30 years behind her, and a life lived hard, sometimes unwisely, often with a defiant roar, there seemed little point. Or more accurately, the woman whose ninth number one declared she was “strong enough to bend”, had little heart for it.
“After both my parents were gone, my dad [who had managed her initially and guided her later] being so instrumental and so much a major part of my life my career, I have to say I lost my mojo,” says Tucker with a husky tone and an accent with more western bite than southern drawl.
“I had lost two of the people that I would never be loved like that again and I went into a kind of depression really. So I didn’t have the desire.”
A country music life begun in a blaze of attention and glory, when as a 13-year-old she sang Delta Dawn as a mix of religion, social commentary and preternatural wisdom, was petering out.
Her last album of new material was released in 2002. Her last hit, was older still. Her audience ageing faster than a knackered rodeo rider. And even when she did feel a rekindling of interest in making music no one was taking her calls.
You could imagine the record label suits: Tanya Tucker? From the ‘70s and ‘80s? The one who had been the youngest but by no means weakest of the hellraising, genre-bending crew of so-called “outlaw country”, with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Ely, Steve Earle? How was she even alive? Why would anyone care?
Turn the calendar to 2019 however, and Tucker chuckles that “I went from no one interested to my phone ringing off the wall, interviews every day, TV this and that”, including Australia where, to her regret, she’s never been. And those people who’d not bothered taking a call? “I’m 60 years old, not 20 years old, and I just pick and choose now what I really want to do, what I want to say and who I want to say it to.”
The turnaround can be traced directly to the first sounds from her new record, While I’m Livin’, an album made by musician/producer Shooter (son of Waylon) Jennings, who she’d known all his life, and singer/songwriter, and lifelong Tucker fan, Brandi Carlile, who she didn’t know at all.
How did they get Tucker on board?
“Well, one thing was Shooter wanted to do it. And the other thing was I was ready to get back in and make a record. God knows I was ready for some new songs,” says Tucker, who isn’t afraid to admit she nonetheless got cold feet and looked to pull out.
“But then it was just happening and I found myself in the middle of it, not quite sure at first about the songs. But Shooter got me to LA and I met Brandi for the first time and felt like I’d known her forever. It’s like this was already written in the stars, that this was going to happen.”
On its 10 songs which mix modern and older country feels, Tucker, sounding like a woman who’s done more, drunk more, and paid for it more than we’ll ever manage, tells a recalcitrant “I made your bed and I made your lunch and for the last time your clothes are out to dry” but now “I don’t owe you anything; recounts being “stuck inside the wheels of Laredo” when she’d rather “float upon the southern skies of blue”; and tells of someone, maybe rather close to home, with “Red eyes and that old hat/Whiskey bent and busted flat/She’s a credit to her flaws”.
If it felt as if the 38-year-old Carlile, who this year won three Grammy Awards to add to her four other nominations since 2015, seemed to know her better than anyone else, Tucker barely recognised the name and had not even heard her singing until she saw the younger woman perform at the Grammys after they’d finished in the studio.
Now as well as seeing her as a friend she calls Carlile “a great leader” in and out of the studio. “She can lead me to the water,” Tucker says. “She don’t have to make me drink; I’m willing to drink.”
The closeness extended to Carlile sitting in the vocal booth with Tucker when she did the tracks. Something that had never happened before. How long did it take for her to trust Carlile?
“About 10 minutes,” she says immediately. “The minute I met her it was a done deal. She’s known me all her life, singing my songs, and she knew a lot about me anyway but she and [co-writers Tim and Phil Hanseroth] had researched me too. They wrote those songs and they did a damn good job.”
So much so that there were only a few instances when Tucker had to tell them that’s not how she’d say it, or not what her father had done, or query a modern reference. “Not enough to put my name on the songs though,” she says pointedly.
While a lot of these new songs came from the writing triumvirate, the “while I’m livin” chorus for the song Bring Me Flowers Now, had been in Tucker’s head for nearly 40 years.
“I had the chorus for so long – I’ve got several like that in my head and on papers somewhere - but sometimes it just don’t come all at once, and I was a kid when I thought of that,” Tucker says. “When Brandi said to me let’s finish that song idea you had, it was the last song we did, I probably looked like a deer in the headlights, but we did it. She sat at the piano and we started singing and finished it in about 25 minutes and I went right into the vocal booth and was reading it off the paper, my own handwriting. And that’s what you hear.
“There were a couple of things I’d have liked to fix but she’s wouldn’t let me fix anything. She wanted it to be real and the way she expressed it to me, in her Brandi Carlile way – and nobody else talks to me the way she does - was that this was Tanya Tucker the singer, flaws and all. ‘You are raw, real and great and people need to know how much better a singer you are now than you even used to be. You were great then, but you’re greater now’. I had a lot of support.”
That’s not always been the case, as we know. Take the example of an interview on TV’s American Bandstand in 1976 I came across recently, where the 17-year-old Tucker was asked “what more is there for you to do?” It was both patronising and outrageously foolish a question at the time, but I wonder if it is any more appropriate now?
“I remember the first time I was nominated for female artist of the year [at the Country Music Awards], I was 14, and I remember being in the bathroom and [country gospel singer] Barbara Fairchild was in another stall and she said to me ‘right Tan, you know what, I didn’t vote for you’ and I said, why not? And she said ‘well, if you’d won this, you’d have nothing to look forward to’,” Tucker says.
“I thought, are you crazy? Of course I went on to be nominated eight times [before finally winning in 1991], the redheaded stepchild of country music - everybody beat me. I won’t get into that.”
I choose not to mention the equally outrageous 10 Grammy nominations without a win, but it doesn’t matter. Not when there are at least two or three projects on the go, touring to do, and maybe one or two calls from an apologetic suit.
“Awards and things are not something that I will put on that list of things I have yet to do; there are so many things, and I am getting concerned that I’m running out of time to do all the things I want to do,” says Tucker. “More music for sure. I’m really running behind and I feel like I’m playing catch up here.
“All I want is a chance to be heard.”
While I’m Livin’ is released on August 23.