Child stars have a way of losing their luster in adulthood, but country singer Tanya Tucker is a rare exception. She had her first hit single in 1972, when she was only 13. In 2019 she released her 25th album, and she’s currently on tour. Whatever the secret is to career longevity, Tucker has figured it out.
She spent her early childhood in Wilcox, Arizona, where country music was the only option on the radio. By the time her family moved to Utah, Tucker already knew she wanted to sing for a living. With her father’s help, she went to contests and auditions, landing in-person and radio gigs that made producers and talent managers take notice. Although she was only 12, Columbia Records snapped her up in 1970; she remained with major labels for the next 30 years.
Her debut album, Delta Dawn (1972), was named after her breakout single. Despite the urgings of her Columbia producer, Billy Sherrill, Tucker chose the Larry Collins song “Delta Dawn” after hearing Bette Midler sing it on TV. Her instincts were right on: the single hit the No. 6 spot on the country charts. Another single, “Love’s the Answer,” also reached the top ten.
Tucker was rare at the time for focusing on her lower register, giving her a melancholy yet gritty sound that distinguished her from her female colleagues. A good example is “New York City Song.”
The next two years brought a string of No. 1 singles, including “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and “Will You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone),” each of which had an album named after it. Both of those albums, produced by Sherrill, featured The Jordanaires as back-up singers plus the string arrangements of Bill McElhiney, known for his work with Roy Orbison, Connie Francis, and Patsy Cline.
An eponymous album that is not a debut usually indicates that an artist has switched labels, and that was exactly the case with Tanya Tucker (1975), the singer’s first record for MCA. The producer was Snuff Garrett, who had made a name for himself working at Liberty Records in the late 1950s and early 1960s with early rockers like Bobby Vee and Del Shannon.
While some tracks are thickly glazed with strings, there are also some rock/pop elements, particularly in the use of drums and synths. That dreaded crossover of rock and country that purists feel ruined country music definitely has some roots here. “Traveling Salesman,” a song by Gloria Sklerov and Harry Lloyd, is a good illustration.
In 1976, Tucker started working with producer Jerry Crutchfield, which led to huge commercial success in Top Ten singles like “You’ve Got Me to Hold On To” and “Here’s Some Love.” The biggest single from Ridin’ Rainbows (1977) was “It’s a Cowboy Lovin’ Night” – are you sensing a common theme in her most popular songs? – but the best track on that album is “White Rocket.”
It was written by Van Hoy and features (uncredited) electric guitar solos and an arrangement that owes more to prog rock than to Nashville. The topic is also outside Tucker’s usual comfort zone, dealing with the sordid life of a homeless alcoholic and the escape that drinking gives him.
Three albums later, on Dreamlovers (1980), Tucker was still working successfully with Crutchfield. They may have hoped that the nostalgic country-star power of Glen Campbell on two songs would get fans’ attention, but it was the solo song “Can I See You Tonight” that charted highest by a long shot.
The arrangements are dependent to an unfortunate degree on a wobbly electric keyboard sound and generally tend toward the saccharine. There is one exception, the Sterling Whipple number “Don’t You Want to Be a Lover Tonight,” which has some pleasingly bluesy guitar work by Johnny Christopher.
The early 1980s were a period of pain and struggle for Tucker. A string of relationships failed, most of them with celebrities and therefore covered in embarrassing detail by the media. Her singles weren’t selling, and her label dropped her. Through all of this, she suffered from worsening alcohol and drug problems.
After friends and family finally convinced her to go to rehab, she took a few years off from the studio and touring. Her comeback offering, Girls Like Me (1986), was her first with Capitol records, which would remain her label into the 1990s. With a new pop-flavored country sound, she once again found that sweet spot with the public, pouring out hit after hit for the next few years, including “If It Don’t Come Easy” and “Strong Enough to Bend.” In 1991, the Country Music Association named her Country Music Artist of the Year.
That same year, she released what would be the highest-charting album of her career, What Do I Do with Me. Although it was not a single, the best song on that record is “Bidding America Goodbye,” which illustrates the death of independent farming in the US. The lonesome harmonica work is by the great Terry McMillan.
A standout album from the 1990s is Soon (1993), featuring perhaps the best arrangements, best instrumental players, and best sound production of any of her records. The sentimentality and synth-reliance of the 1980s was behind her at this point, so the studio was packed with fantastic country session musicians like guitarist Brent Mason and fiddler Rob Hojacos.
“Sneaky Moon,” by Bill LaBounty, has a genuinely bluegrass feel. This is surprising, considering LaBounty made his name as a soft-rock composer; clearly, he had absorbed his new genre in a profound way, and Tucker delivers the folkish melody and glib lyrics with her usual grit.
In the 21st century, Tucker has continued to put out albums once in a while. The indie projects Tanya (2002) and My Turn (2009) did not garner much attention. After a ten-year break, her latest effort is While I’m Livin’ (2019). Released on Fantasy Records, it was produced by a singer who owes a lot to Tucker’s style, Brandi Carlile; Shooter Jennings, songwriting son of Waylon Jennings, co-produced. Make no mistake, this was no sad last-gasp effort of a has-been: While I’m Livin’ won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album!
Besides producing, Carlile also contributed most of the material for this record, co-creating songs with her usual team, Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Among those is “Seminole Wind Calling,” an old-school country gospel number that seems to travel back decades to a time when country music had a different, simpler definition.