Album Review – Tanya Tucker’s “Sweet Western Sound”

The question is not if Tanya Tucker’s Sweet Western Sound will be nominated and win Grammy Awards. The question is how many, and which ones. This is a commentary on the quality of the songs and recordings on this album for sure. In one song after another, soaring emotional moments are capture that wet the eye and roil emotions only disturbed by the most powerful of musical expressions. But Grammy recognition is also the reality of any album involving Brandi Carlile at the moment.

Sweet Western Sound is the second pairing of newly-minted Country Music Hall of Famer Tanya Tucker with the producing team of Shooter Jennings and Brandi Carlile. Shooter, Brandi, and Carlile’s Hansrorth twins also have a heavy hand in writing and performing on the album. This was the same team behind the 2019 Tanya Tucker comeback album While I’m Livin’ that walked away with two Grammy Awards and was nominated for two more, so there was little to no incentive to mess with the chemistry.

Perhaps even more so than While I’m Livin’, the new album is filled with one emotional wallop after another. Heavy on balladry and Baldwin pianos, it embraces the reminiscent and reverberative themes of a performer in the twilight of her career, while attempting to reconcile with a past that at times was troubled, doing so with honest assessments, a little remorse, but no outright regret due to the battles fought, and the lessons learned along the way.

The album is crowned by the song “Ready As I’ll Never Be,” which is a sentimental, reflective, and cuttingly autobiographical work from an artist looking back on a legendary career, and the looming inevitability we all must reconcile with as we age. “Kindness” asks the audience for sympathy and appreciation, similar to Tanya’s Grammy-winning “Bring My Flowers Now” from her last album. “That Wasn’t Me” is an outright cry for absolution, with the list of personal offenses that flashed in headlines throughout Tanya’s career setting the backdrop for the song.

Other legends of country music also make appearances on this album, either personally, as songwriters, or as inspirations. The late Billy Joe Shaver bookends the album with an a capella rendition of the song “Tanya” that he wrote for Tucker. “Letter To Linda” is a tribute to Linda Ronstadt, who Tucker took as a role model. And speaking of overlooked country legends, “When The Rodeo Is Over (Where Does The Cowboy Go?)” was co-written by the great Billy Don Burns.

But similar to While I’m Livin’, Sweet Western Sound will leave country audiences a little wanting. If anything, it’s even more Americana and adult contemporary in sound and scope than the previous album, doubling up on emotional ballads built out from the piano to the point where they’ve taken Tanya Tucker from a honky tonker to a torch singer.

“Waltz Across A Moment” written by Shooter Jennings is undoubtedly a superbly-composed song done right by Tanya’s performance with her smoky and character-filled voice allowing you to believe every word is straight from the heart. But this is the song that populates the album’s title, “Sweet Western Sound,” and it’s neither Western, nor a waltz. This leads into “Ready As I’ll Never Be” that will undoubtedly be nominated for Grammy(s), because that’s what it was written by Brandi Carlile to do. But consecutive piano ballads begin to crater the momentum of this record.

Instead of feeling like a revitalization of Tanya Tucker’s career, Sweet Western Sound comes across almost like a epitaph, or a eulogy in how it makes reference to Tucker’s impending death and decline when she’s only 64. The final song “When The Rodeo Is Over” chased by Billy Joe Shaver’s words from the grave blanket everything with a pall as opposed to injecting new life into the career of a woman who hopefully has many years of kicking ass left.

You see Tanya Tucker perform live and it’s a high octane country show. Similar to Billy Joe Shaver who performed well into his older years, Tanya Tucker is twangy, animated, and very much alive. On stage she’s Tanya Mother Tucker. But on this album the sentimentality gets to be so much. The only respite is the steel guitar-laden and shuffly song “The List,” along with “Breakfast in Birmingham” featuring Brandi Carlile.

We talk about how on great albums, the songs become something greater than the sum of their parts. For Sweet Western World, the opposite may be the case. There’s little texture or range in the emotions to engage the listener and keep things interesting. It’s a slightly short album at 35 minutes. But it feels even shorter since the lack of variety makes everything run together.

All that said, you pull an individual song off of Sweet Western Sound, and you’re likely to be floored. Unquestionably, the weight of many of these moments is heavier than most. This is an album of haymakers that doesn’t hold back, and goes for the maximal emotional impact on every track. But every album needs its lighthearted and upbeat moments too. This is what makes the deeper, more meaningful moments that much more engrossing and impactful.

Undoubtedly though, Sweet Western Sound will be very effective for what it was designed to do: win Grammy Awards. For Tanya Tucker, and Brandi Carlile. And when it does it will be hard to argue against, because its brilliant moments unquestionably soar.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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