Before we get started here, let’s just firmly establish that I am all for the new Tanya Tucker comeback record While I’m Livin’, and all the effort and attention behind it. As Tanya’s first original record in 17 years, it has undeniably helped put Tanya back on the map after she’s been ignored for way too long. Producers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings deserve all the credit in the world for taking the initiative to make this record happen, and it arguably wouldn’t have without them. It has shined a renewed spotlight on Tanya that has been too long in coming, and hopefully will continue to burn bright for the rest of her life and career.
This week at AmericanaFest in Nashville, Tanya Tucker has been one of the centerpieces. She presented the Americana Artist of the Year award to her producer Brandi Carlile Wednesday night (9-11) as part of the Americana Music Awards in a touching moment. Afterwards she took the stage at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley for a stirring performance that included Carlile guesting on stage. Tanya Tucker is back, and it arguably wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for While I’m Livin’.
However, despite reviewing the record positively, there were a couple of curious and concerning things about the project. First, the production style was more in the Americana mode as opposed to the traditional and Outlaw country Tanya Tucker’s career is known for. This isn’t a deal killer or anything, but with the dearth of women in country and Tanya’s history with the genre, it’s a little disconcerting to see her career take the Americana approach. Nothing against Americana, but if country women continue to be steered away from country music proper, it will only exacerbate the problem. It’s also understandable why women and older artists seek out the Americana community for support, because they often fail to find that support in country. But country music needs its women and country legends, and according to Brandi Carlile, it was a concerted effort with While I’m Livin’ to make Tanya part of the Americana crowd.
But more curious about the album is how thin some of the songwriting came across. Much of the record was written by Brandi Carlile and her long-time collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth for Tanya Tucker specifically. Some of the songs work really well, like “Mustang Ridge” and “The Wheels of Laredo.” Other’s feel quite formulaic and undercooked. And that wasn’t just my opinion. It was the opinion of Tanya Tucker herself.
“I didn’t know if the songs were strong enough,” Tucker told Entertainment Weekly, in an interview posted on the release date for the new record, August 23rd. Tucker also said the songs “had things in there I wouldn’t say,” despite being written for her. “I pick commercial songs. I’m one of the best at that,” Tanya also says, and explains how she reached out to legendary songwriter Paul Overstreet to get validation that the songs weren’t any good. As explained in the article, Tanya Tucker was so frustrated by the songs and Brandi Carlile’s production approach that she quit the project numerous times during the process.
“Every couple of days, she’d call the whole thing off,” Carlile told Entertainment Weekly. “I called Rick [Rubin] and said, ‘Is this a thing? Should I be deterred by this, or just keep going?’ He said, ‘Keep going, because she has one of the most iconic voices, not just in country but in rock & roll.”
Tanya Tucker also didn’t like the idea of re-cutting “The House That Built Me.” Written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, the 2010 single was arguably the biggest hit for Miranda Lambert, and is one of Miranda’s signature songs. “I really did not want to be caught loitering around that song because Miranda had taken it as far it can go. But Brandi talked me into it.”
Tanya Tucker was also frustrated that Brandi Carlile wouldn’t allow her to fix some of her vocal takes that she believed were less than stellar. Ultimately though, as the story goes, Tanya began to trust Brandi Carlile and the process, and came around on the record. “I know I came into this [album] thinking it was all wrong. But I come to find out, it’s not so bad being wrong. In fact, I kinda like it.”
But the question that remains is, was this the best process for someone like Tanya Tucker? Is “kinda like it” good enough? If we had heard about any other artist being asked to record songs written for them, or material they weren’t particularly fond of, or that didn’t represent their perspective on the world, there would be great concern. This is the ever-present criticism of how Music Row and mainstream country regularly conducts recording sessions, with heavy-handed producers calling the shots as opposed to allowing the artists themselves to pick their material and dictate the creative direction, with the producer standing by to aid the process.
If the results were universally revered, then perhaps this wouldn’t be a worthy discussion. But again, some of the material on While I’m Livin’ feels thin and formulaic, like taking Tanya’s story, and adding them to established templates of country songs as opposed to truly original expressions. In fact Carlile says herself, “I had the background on her and I also had templates. I’d say, ‘Hey, Tanya lived in Vegas, so let’s do a gambling song.’ Or, ‘She’s rough around the edges, so let’s make a prison song.’” The talk of how Tanya’s legacy is on par with Johnny Cash, and that Brandi Carlile hopes that a new series of albums will do a similar thing for Tanya as it did for Cash during his American Recordings era seems a little presumptuous, and could set up unattainable expectations.
In a strange sort of op-ed/promotional piece posted on Rolling Stone Country by Brandi herself, Carlile says, “[Tanya’s] ruggedness, honesty, and brokenness don’t seem like attributes to her, but you and I know they are. We’re still working to convince her of that, but I think it’s going to take us three more records.”
That’s the reason it seems important to pipe up about the process of how While I’m Livin’ was recorded. If there’s more records on the way, perhaps they should allow Tanya Tucker to try and pick her own songs, or at least some of them, or fix her vocal flubs if that’s what she’s most comfortable with. There also seems to be a sense around this project as if Tanya Tucker needs to be coddled like an elderly artist. Time may not have been as kind to Tanya as others since she started in the business at such an early age (13). But she is only 60-years-old. Vince Gill is two years older, just to put it into context.
Again, While I’m Livin’ is a really solid record, and the effort here is not to run it down, or the importance of what Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings have done to put Tanya Tucker back on the map where she belongs. But a lot of the chatter at this week’s AmericanaFest is how great Tanya Tucker is, but how many wished the record would have been just a bit better, how some of the songs feel weak, and if Tanya is truly going to have her late career Johnny Cash moment, it’s going to take a better effort the next time in the studio. Tanya Tucker came to like this record, and that’s an important point to be underscored. But it’s also important that artists are allowed to be in control of their music, especially when it comes to legends, and the community of Americana where control should always primary be in the hands of the artist.