In their book “Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000,” Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann neatly summarize the popular impression of Tanya Tucker that was formed way back in the seventies and has never entirely worn off, even as her career approaches the half-century mark. Tucker, they write, was “the naughty Nashville gal with a rollicking reputation, the jezebel with a string of love affairs, the mother of out-of-wedlock kids, the sexy dresser, and the free-spirited party girl with a saucy outlook and sassy mouth.” Although there are only four women who’ve had more success than Tucker on the country singles chart, each of whom is referred to on a more or less first-name basis by America—Reba, Dolly, Loretta, Tammy—she is still taken less seriously than her musical output has long since warranted.
“A woman’s life ain’t just a list of worst things she has done,” Tucker, now sixty-one, sings on the opening track to her new album, “While I’m Livin’.” Like most of the tracks on the record, the song “Mustang Ridge” was written specifically for Tucker, by the powerhouse Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile and her longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Like Tucker, the song is both forthright and mysterious, even a little cagey. The narrator is on the run for some unstated reason, dogs and devils at her heels, and she has faked her own death, maybe. What’s certain is that she’s gone. “Got my knee on the wheel and I’m feeling free,” she cackles, an outlaw content with the choices she’s made, which others tsk-tsk.
“While I’m Livin’ ” might be the best record of Tucker’s career; it is certainly one of the albums of the year. Tucker’s first studio album since “My Turn”—a marvelous collection of country standards that she released in 2009—and her first album of new material since “Tanya,” from 2002, “While I’m Livin’ ” is full of gut-punch numbers, single-size story songs that somehow assume universal proportions. The record should help remind people why Tucker has, over the years, inspired so many rebellious country women—from the Dixie Chicks to Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson, who, on her signature tune, “Redneck Woman,” sings, “I know all the words to every Tanya Tucker song.” Tucker doesn’t consider her new project a comeback, though. “I never went nowhere,” she recently told the Associated Press. “I prefer to call it a relaunch.” Her rejection of the term is not hard to understand. Where comebacks are concerned, as with so much else, she’s already been there and done that. But, at a time when women are making the most of the best new country music but are still mostly getting shut out of country radio, the return of Tanya Tucker is about as welcome a comeback as I can imagine.
It is startling to think now of how early on Tucker was defined, in the press, by her sex appeal and her offstage life. Tucker was barely a teen-ager when she cut her first single, “Delta Dawn”—a Top Ten country hit—in 1972. Two years later, she was the subject of a Rolling Stone cover story with the headline “Tanya Tucker: The Teenage Teaser.” Written by the legendary music journalist Chet Flippo, the profile leads with an unsettling anecdote about a man “breathing heavily and swaying in time,” with his wife on his arm, staring at what Flippo calls “the most beautiful navel in show business.” Later in the piece, Flippo writes, “An attractive 15-year-old in body-fitting outfits singing ‘Would You Lay with Me’ draws a peculiar cross section of fans,” and notes that her audience included “lesbians, for one thing,” and also “horny males of all ages.”
In Tucker’s memoir, “Nickel Dreams,” written with Patsi Bale Cox, she says it was mostly fun, at first, and even empowering to flirt with audiences, to bump and grind, à la her oft-cited role model, Elvis Presley, who was reinvigorating his reputation for sensual performance in the years when Tucker was becoming a star. And it’s true that Tucker—along with Johnny Rodriguez, the too-often-overlooked Mexican-American country heartthrob with whom she frequently toured early in her career—brought a degree of youthful sexual energy to her performances that country music hadn’t seen before. She was, in the estimation of Bufwack and Oermann, country music’s “first female superstar with an open, free sexual image.” Loretta Lynn acknowledged Tucker’s influence, if only jokingly, in 1975, when she told a reporter that she’d recorded her controversial single “The Pill” with Tucker in mind. “There she is, just sixteen years old and singing, ‘Would you lie with me in a field of stone,’ ” Lynn told the Tennessean. “She needs to know about the pill!”
But what really made Tucker exceptional was her voice: a husky alto that, from the beginning, had a knowingness to it, honed sharp. She wielded a deadly vibrato and sounded like a grown woman long before she was one. Her material, chosen with the guidance of the producer Billy Sherrill, tackled mature subjects: her signature singles were tragic story songs, obsessed with mortality and regularly featuring a body count. In “Delta Dawn,” Tucker sings of a homeless woman bound for “a mansion in the sky.” “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” from 1973, concludes with the death of Buford Wilson, a man who has been wrongly accused of pedophilia. In the haunted “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” from the same year, Tucker sings from the perspective of a woman whose father once dragged her along with him as he set out to murder both her mother and a man her mother has run off with. “At times like these, a child of ten never knows exactly what to say,” Tucker sings, somehow lending the matter-of-fact memory of the father’s distress a tone that feels just right, at once forever traumatized and preternaturally sage. Even Tucker’s tender reading of “Would You Lay with Me (in a Field of Stone),” country’s version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” has death on its mind. That “field of stone,” after all, isn’t only a metaphor for the struggles awaiting romantic commitment—it’s a graveyard.
Those early- to mid-seventies hits are the recordings upon which Tucker’s artistic reputation rests. In “Nickel Dreams,” she gives much of the credit to Sherrill, whose humid country-soul settings benefitted from “an underlying religious urgency, that old Southern Baptist feel.” But Tucker soon left Sherrill in pursuit of a more pop-rock approach and the larger audience that might result. She continued, for a time, to have major hits on country radio with her new pop sounds, but, as the seventies wound down, successes grew fewer and farther between. “Lizzie and the Rainman,” from 1975, was cut with Cher’s producer and sounds like “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves.” The next year’s mellow “Here’s Some Love” evoked Olivia Newton-John’s soft-rock balladry. Tucker’s songs “It’s a Cowboy Lovin’ Night” and “Texas (When I Die),” from 1977 and 1978, respectively, should be recognized as rowdy, randy masterpieces of the outlaw-country era—and probably would be, too, if that style weren’t still so widely thought of as a good-old-boys’ club.
1978 is the year that Tucker released a still too-little-appreciated album called “TNT.” On the cover, she poses in black leather pants, her butt cocked and a microphone cord pulled taught between her legs. Not unlike contemporaneous offerings from Linda Ronstadt, “TNT” was more or less split evenly between covers of old rock-and-roll standards and up-to-date arena rock. But, as a play for a wider audience, it didn’t work: Tucker has never had a significant crossover hit. She disappeared from the radio in the first half of the eighties, going a few years without releasing a new album. She was, nonetheless, more visible than ever, partly because of a cocaine-fuelled fling she had with Glen Campbell, a bigger star more than twice her age. The relationship was bookended by a pair of People magazine cover stories, from June, 1980 (“The wildest love affair in showbiz today: Campbell, 44, and Tucker, 21”), and May, 1981 (“It’s kaput for the Rhinestone Couple, and a spurned Tucker tells why”). Tucker’s fame was also magnified by frequent appearances on TV series, such as “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.”
And then she had her first big comeback. In 1986, working with the producer Jerry Crutchfield, Tucker released the album “Girls Like Me.” Featuring four Top Ten hits, the album launched Tucker on one of the greatest runs in country-chart history: in the next eight years, she notched twenty-three Top Tens, including four No. 1s. Though these singles have yet to be canonized in the manner of her earlier hits, several of them should be. Most are sharply observed tales of loss and persistence, delivered in a voice that’s brittle and cracked but still sparkles. Tucker sings the heartbroken revenge fantasy “I’ll Come Back As Another Woman” with bitter, bone-chilling confidence. “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane” is a parable for the cliché that love can conquer all; Tucker phrases it with such gulping generosity, and the synth-cradled melody is so gently comforting that you believe it. On these second-act hits, Tucker was no longer the wild and wise child; she was a full-grown romantic, who managed to be, at the same time, hard as nails.
Tucker’s voice has never had so much rusty texture as it does on “While I’m Livin’.” On this new album, her phrasing never hurries, whether she’s laughing bitterly or falling to a few whispered words for emphasis. In “The House That Built Me,” a backward-glancing Miranda Lambert hit, from 2010, Tucker tweaks the lyrics so that they evoke not a young woman but an empty-nester visiting the house in which she raised her children. “I thought if I could touch this place or feel it, this brokenness inside me might start healing,” she sings. Even before Tucker is through the line, she’s conveyed the futility of that quest.
Carlile, who, in addition to co-writing the songs, produced the album, with Shooter Jennings, might seem like an odd match for Tucker. Her gifts are arena-size, and her default setting is “anthem.” Her best songs emote like power ballads, even when they’re not. She and her collaborators manage a similar trick on “While I’m Livin’,” and to great effect. The narratives are mostly little private moments, and the melodies are mostly slow-rolling—arranged acoustically, with quiet, empty spaces everywhere. But each one strives and triumphs like it’s been packed with key changes and crescendos. “The Day My Heart Goes Still” confesses defeat (“I don’t think I’m ever gonna get my fill”), then repeats it until we understand it as a victory. “Hard Luck” has an irresistible everybody-join-in chorus, pointing to a life’s worth of scars and bad breaks as a reason to keep moving on. “I Don’t Owe You Anything” is a woman’s wise-cracking, jig-dancing little kiss-off to her husband: “Hell, I raised up all your babies!” Tucker sings, opening her heart to the years that will, as Kate Chopin once put it, belong to her absolutely.
Because it’s a late-career country-music comeback, “While I’m Livin’ ” is bound to be compared to Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings.” But Rick Rubin, the producer of the Cash album, succeeded in part by shrinking Cash’s complexity to a kind of two-dimensional rebellion. Carlile and Jennings have done the opposite: Tucker has never sounded so well-rounded. Perhaps the strongest example is “Bring My Flowers Now,” the album’s closing track and the one song on which Tucker gets a co-writing credit. It’s a list of things she wishes she’d done differently—learned to play guitar, been a better daughter and friend—but it’s also filled with sunrises and babies “and the little things I cherish on my way.” Backed only by Carlile playing a churchy piano that feels like a comforting arm slung over your shoulders, Tucker shares what she’s learned and is still learning. “The days are long, but the years are lightnin’,” she sings. “They’re bright and they will never strike again.” The old vibrato trembles with regret but also with anticipation.
“While I’m Livin’ ” is not going to initiate a third string of Tanya Tucker radio hits. Women have very nearly been segregated out of the mainstream country format for years, and sixtysomethings are unwelcome, no matter their gender. But the album does capture one of America’s great vocalists at her peak. One hopes that it will make more people see that Tucker really does belong in the same breath as those first-name-basis superstars—Reba, Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy—and that she should be celebrated accordingly, in the present. “Bring my flowers now,” she sings. “I won’t need your love when I’m gone.”