Music, in its popular form, is very much the dominion of the young. Unlike many other disciplines where the wisdom of age is revered and rewarded in expanding wealth and prestige over time, music is a career that is often marked by the brightest lights near the beginning followed by diminishing returns for all but a select few who attain that coveted “legendary” status. Tanya Tucker had her first hit at the age of 13 with 1972’s “Delta Dawn.” Ironically, the song was about looking back at the life of a 41-year-old, her wilted beauty, and her lost lover. Tucker was so young at the time, her label Columbia Records was inclined to lie about her age. But even at 13, the voice and soul of Tanya Tucker possessed a character and feeling well beyond her years, giving her the capability to sing “Delta Dawn” and anything else with conviction and authority.
“Delta Dawn” would be the beginning of a career that would have wild mood swings of failures and successes, and was marked at times with tumultuous moments, including high profile relationship with Glen Campbell, Andy Gibb, and a much older Merle Haggard. Tanya Tucker would morph from teen country crossover to rugged Outlaw, and over it all amass stats that should eventually warrant inclusion in the Hall of Fame. But for much of the last two decades Tanya has been woefully overlooked. Now with the help of Shooter Jennings, as well as Brandi Carlile in both a songwriting and production role, Tanya Tucker is looking to cement that coveted “legendary” status for herself that insulates you from music’s ageist mood swings and amnesia, and she’s doing it with her first record of original material in 17 years, the aptly named While I’m Livin’.
The construction of While I’m Livin’ is a little unique, with Brandi Carlile and her two famous twin collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth writing seven of the album’s ten songs. But these were not just songs they had laying around after Carlile’s own recording sessions, they’re compositions they specific crafted for Tanya Tucker and taken from an intimate understanding of her life and story. Also helping to flesh out the new record is a rendition of the Miranda Lambert’s biggest single “The House That Built Me” penned by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, and “High Ridin’ Heroes” by David Lynn Jones that was once recorded as a duet with Waylon Jennings. Tucker herself helped pen the final song of the set called “Bring My Flowers Now” with Brandi and the Hansroth brothers.
It’s the voice of Tanya Tucker that compels the country listener to seek her records out. It’s always been a mixture of worn leather and honky tonk smoke, even at a tender age. Some may call it husky, including those who mean that in a demeaning manner. But it’s hard not to fall prey to the “lived it” notions the tone of Tanya Tucker conveys, and how it cracks in all the right places to punctuate emotions in the most important moments. At 60 years of age, the voice of Tanya Tucker is no worse for the wear. It’s is better for it, building from her history both on and off the stage to become synonymous with pain and country music itself.
While I’m Livin’ reminds you of the vocal virtues of Tanya Tucker in case you forgot, or weren’t around yet to remember. The first two songs of “Mustang Ridge” and “Wheels of Laredo” fit like a glove in the little crevice of the soul reserved for good country music. But some of the songwriting feels a little thin in other places, like new takes on old country themes, which isn’t a bad approach in itself, except when they don’t really convey anything new.
Brandi Carlile recently referred to Tanya Tucker as an equal in legendary status as Johnny Cash, and the Rick Rubin era of Cash has been cited as a direct inspiration for this project. But Cash and Rubin knew how to pick songs that seemed like they were destined for Cash the entire time, regardless of who wrote them or made them famous first. While I’m Livin’ feels more like working with what you have, instead of putting the feelers out and workshopping material to get the best ten songs possible. “House Than Built Me” is a beautiful song, but one nobody will ever do better than Miranda. “Hard Luck” and “Rich” are fine, but are too pedestrian to appreciably add to Tucker’s legendary output.
The instrumentation and arrangements are always passable on While I’m Livin’, but struggle to create a unique sound. The songs sit down in sort of an average Americana production style, and feature a lot of piano. Only the song “Rich” has steel guitar and full country instrumentation from what is supposed to be a country queen. While I’m Livin’ ends strong though, with “Seminole Wind Calling” hearkening back to Tanya’s birthplace in far west Texas, and the tender moments of “Bring My Flowers Now” are hard to not feel deep down, even if this is another song idea that has been done often in country music and beyond.
Possibly the greatest asset of While I’m Livin’ was the ultimate aim of the record, which was to remind the world of the contributions and talent of Tanya Tucker, and to reboot her career for a new generation of country fans. So often country legends fall into obscurity in the final decades of their lives. That won’t happen with Tanya Tucker. While I’m Livin’ assures this, and feels like the first step in a revitalized career.