While I’m Livin’
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Tanya Tucker albums do not belong in the dollar bin of a local record store, let me just make that perfectly clear.
But, that’s exactly how I first discovered her music last year when I pulled out a well-worn copy of her 1972 debut, Delta Dawn, from the bargain bins at Permanent Records, one of my favorite record shops here in Los Angeles.
I was familiar with Helen Reddy’s version of “Delta Dawn,” after all I was a kid in the ‘70s. But I had never heard Tucker’s version (which preceded Reddy’s) until I brought my Delta Dawn album home from the record shop. Upon first spin, I was instantly wowed by Tucker’s sturdy southern drawl, weighted vocals, and self-assured delivery of lyrics whose meanings had to have been way beyond her comprehension as a newly-minted teenager singing about sex, obsession and lovers walking out the door.
Immediately, I began diving into Tucker’s early discography on Spotify and buying more copies of her old records from more bargain bins in more record shops. The effortless vibrato that Tucker wields, those comfortable song arrangements, and her pointed storytelling ability are stellar. It’s no wonder she’s scored twenty-three Top 40 country albums, released forty Top 10 country singles (with ten of them hitting number one on Billboard’s country singles chart) and sold more than twenty-five million albums.
But the fact that I could find many of those albums in bargain bins on the floor while other country music stars of her era like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash resided in the higher-priced upper bins said a lot about how far the 10-time GRAMMY nominee’s star had faded since her last string of country hits in the early nineties.
In the media, Tucker’s often referred to as a badass “outlaw” of country music, partially for her gutsy Elvis-influenced stage persona, and partially for her hard-partying ways. Even though her sexy image and well-worn vocal styling inspired other kickass women of country music like Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson (who name-checked Tucker on her 2004 hit, “Redneck Woman”), the last few decades have been spotty for Tucker in terms of album output and commercial success.
Tucker’s last album of original studio material was 2002’s Tanya, which peaked at #39 on the country charts, but kept her hardcore fans happy and got her back out on tour. Then came Tucker’s 2009 covers project My Turn full of re-recorded country classics originally sung by male artists she grew up listening to. Even though it peaked higher than Tanya did on the country charts, Tucker isn’t proud of My Turn, as she told Entertainment Weekly recently, “It should have been called My Sh***y Turn … they didn’t use the final vocals I made. I had no control.”
Since then she spent a significant amount of time away from the spotlight and, recently, tried to find a record label to release a self-produced album of new songs called Messes. According to Tucker, though, no one was interested. It looked like her brightest days as a commercially viable country music artist might have been behind her.
Enter Shooter Jennings, the wildly creative southern-rock singer-songwriter son of country music’s iconic outlaw couple, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. He’s released several solid albums that landed on the country charts (please give his Giorgio Moroder tribute album Countach a spin) while enjoying success as an album producer for very different artists like Guns N’ Roses’ bassist Duff McKagan, Marilyn Manson and Brandi Carlile for whom he co-produced (along with Dave Cobb) her 2018 album, the GRAMMY-winning By The Way, I Forgive You.
Having known Tucker since he was a child, Jennings felt it was time to bring her back into the spotlight and, eventually, he got her to agree to do an album of originals with him at the helm. Soon after, he brought on Carlile (who included her songwriting and composing collaborators in the effort—twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth) to co-produce the album because she was an over-the-top superfan of Tucker.
What they all managed to record during just three weeks in a Los Angeles studio (check out the album trailer to see cameras catching the moment Carlile first meets Tucker) is the very definition of “lightning in a bottle.”
For Tucker, While I’m Livin’ is a career-best, much-deserved renaissance album featuring seven character-driven original songs (mostly written by Carlile and the Hanseroth brothers) and a trio of perfectly selected covers. The tightly-written and pristinely-produced 35-minute collection cradles the roots sound and singular storytelling flourishes of Americana music with the sawdust and spit of Country to create a vehicle that absolutely ignites and revitalizes Tucker’s sound, career, and legacy.
The Jennings/Carlile-produced endeavor begins with a chase story in “Mustang Ridge,” where Tucker assumes the role of an outlaw woman on the run who’s broken out of a Texas jail and is currently speeding south through The Lone Star State, presumably to cross the border into Mexico where she can hide from the American authorities for the rest of her life.
In a nod to Tucker’s early country hits like “Delta Dawn,” “The Man That Turned My Mama On” and one of my personal favorites, “Blood Red And Going Down,” “Mustang Ridge” begins with the chorus of the song that immediately sets the scene (“I’m never goin’ back to Mustang Ridge / If I ever make it out alive / If you don’t see me by the risin’ sun / You’ll know I had to take the dive”) and calls out Texas locales along the way (“I’ll be halfway ‘cross the southern horn / Too late for turnin’ back / And if I die tonight on the Hays Street Bridge / I ain’t never going back to Mustang Ridge.”)
Now, I’m not a cartography enthusiast, nor am I an expert on the geography of Texas. But, I was so enthralled by the tale Tucker was spinning (“I got my knee on the wheel and I’m feelin’ free / With my hobnail on the gas / I just crossed over the county line / Tryna make it up to Wild Rose Pass,”) and I was so curious about all the locations she was naming in the song that I pulled up Google Maps to follow along. I tracked where Tucker’s protagonist was speeding down the I-35 towards the Hays Street Bridge in San Antonio as if it was a car chase on live TV.
Tucker sounds simultaneously alive with purpose while also steeling herself for eventual defeat (and death), “I leave you now with a heart of stone,” she confesses in the opening song’s final lyrics, “Sometimes the past is hard to outrun.” Only an artist and vocal stylist who has really lived can successfully breathe both of those emotions into one song. And Tucker nails it.
Taking on characters and really selling their story has been Tucker’s M.O. since the very beginning. As a young teen, she easily commanded extremely adult-oriented songs like “Delta Dawn,” “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and the controversial “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone)” and sold those stories to country music audiences with a side of slightly cocky diction and copper-colored twang that belied her teenage years. She’s been a storyteller from day one.
On While I’m Livin’, Jennings, Carlile and the Hanseroths provide this great narrator with interesting new first-person stories to tell. Carlile has called the album an autobiography of sorts, given that the majority of songs written by her and the Hanseroths are the artistic result of the creative trio going down the rabbit hole of Tucker’s personal life and professional history (they talk in interviews about literally Googling her). They honed in on Tucker’s well-publicized highs and lows to create characters, settings and songs inspired by those moments.
Throughout While I’m Livin’, Tucker steps into the shoes of each new character and fills them out by imbuing their story with raw emotions from her own extremely colorful life. In the salty breakup stomper “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” she’s a woman fed up with her husband’s cheating ways and says goodbye with a middle finger up in the air (“Now, you can keep my tears and my good years / And your Sears and Roebuck ring / And I'll take this show on down the road / I don't owe you anything”). Tucker delivers the barbs and kiss-offs with piss, vinegar and a barrel full of swagger—the same qualities that made her year-long, dramatic and cocaine-fueled romance with “Rhinestone Cowboy” singer Glen Campbell in 1980 such a frothy, tabloid magazine-selling affair.
In lonesome ballad “The Day My Heart Goes Still,” Tucker looks heavenward as she celebrates her late father, Beau, who was also her manager for the majority of her music career before passing away in 2006 from lung cancer. It’s the most tender moment on the album; an opportunity to hear Tucker’s softer side as she makes a promise to never forget him (“Until they put me in the ground up on some hill / I don't think I'll ever get my fill / I'm gonna love you 'til the day my heart goes still”).
The songs written specifically for Tucker are shockingly authentic as hell when they’re put to work through Tucker’s addicting steel wool and sandpaper-brushed vocals. The album was recorded with no overdubs, just an old school approach of “if we screw it up, we start over again,” as Carlile sat with Tucker through every vocal recording.
Tucker’s signature vocal husk and heft are stronger and more potent than ever, especially when they’re set against the more stripped-down arrangements like those heard on “Rich” and “Wheels of Laredo.” Naturally, Tucker’s voice has deepened—a result of maturity, no doubt, but also partly because of a 2008 facial chemical peel accident where she briefly inhaled flames, permanently altering her voice. But, the vocal changes are welcome here. They widen her maternal warmth and spice up her southern sass, while implying that several roads of varying degrees of difficulty have been well traveled by Tucker in her lifetime so far.
Also, in terms of authenticity, the three covers on the album are correctly chosen to tap into Tucker’s wild ride of a life. “Hard Luck” is a boot-tappin’, table-slappin’ stomper originally recorded by Houston country-rockers Josefus. While singing lyrics like, “Nobody’s fault and I won’t pass the buck / Was my own hard head and little bit of hard luck,” Tucker leans into her memories of the mistakes she’s made as she slides herself into the revealing lyrics. You don’t go from topping charts, winning awards and signing lucrative record deals as a teenager to going broke and moving back in with your parents eight years later without understanding life’s mistakes and your role in creating them. But, acceptance and acknowledgement permeate her stamp on the song along with her trademark “Texas Tornado” IDGAF attitude.
“High Ridin’ Heroes” was a cover song hand-picked by Jennings since his dad Waylon guested on the original version by country music singer David Lynn Jones from his 1987 album Hard Times on Easy Street. Here, Tucker most skillfully marries her previous ‘80s tabloid magazine-fodder life experience to the lyrics. "I had a blast. I drank more, I did more coke than anybody, I could last longer than anyone else,” she reflected on that time period to NPR in 2009. Those partying days eventually landed Tucker in the Betty Ford Clinic in 1988 right when she was two years into a very successful comeback on the country charts that started with the 1986 release of her Girls Like Me album.
So, when Tucker sings her slightly revised take on Lynn’s lyrics (“She's been to hell and to Texas / And she knows how it feels / To be ridin' that hot streak / And Drunk on some back street / Fallin' off the wagon / And under the wheels”) it all rings true because Tucker knows about simultaneously being at the top of the charts, but at the bottom of an addiction.
All these years later she’s earned the right to sing about an experience that’s so far in the rear view. If there’s any song that this entire album revolves around, it’s “High Ridin’ Heroes.” It encompasses Tucker’s highs of hit-making and the three children she birthed and raised, along with the lows of battling alcohol, cocaine and an insular country music industry that began to move on from her after she widened her sound in more of a rock direction (a country music “no-no”) with her 1978 album TNT.
But the real cover stunner on While I’m Livin’ is Tucker’s take on “The House That Built Me,” Miranda Lambert’s first #1 hit on the country charts in 2010. The torch song about going home again was GRAMMY-nominated for Song of the Year and Best Country Song plus it won Lambert a GRAMMY for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Lambert’s version of the song (written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin) tells the pained story of a young woman returning to the house in which she grew up, but someone else now owns it. Tucker’s version tweaks the POV when she takes on the role of an “empty nester” mother approaching the homeowners of the house in which she raised her kids. The results are chill inducing.
The first time I listened to this song was on a Sunday morning as I was doing laundry. The minute Tucker started singing “I thought if I could touch this place or feel it / The brokenness inside of me would start healing…” I started to tear up. I’m not a woman, mother or parent, so I could not identify with this story from the perspective of personal experience. But Tucker’s pleading and plaintive vocal delivery helped me sympathize. Perhaps it’s because Tucker’s youngest child is freshly out of her teen years that she was able to really connect with the story here; it feels like she really opened up her life to let the song inside her.
The album’s closer, “Bring My Flowers Now,” is the only song that actually began with some spare lyrics written by Tucker years ago. On the final day of recording the album, Carlile convinced an unsure Tucker to work together and finish the song so they could record it. It’s a somber, hopeful plea to show someone how much you love them now while they’re alive (“Bring my flowers now, while I'm living / I won't need your love when I'm gone”).
After almost five decades in country music, Tucker’s maturity and honesty demand and deserve our undivided attention as she ruminates in the song on her life so far (“All the miles cast along the shadow / I take a couple back if I could / I’d have learned to play guitar, tell my daddy more I loved him / But I believe for the most part I done good”). It’s the perfect coda to an album that reignites interest in Tucker’s artistry, vocal styling and superhuman storytelling abilities. This is also the perfect allegory for her resurgent career—let’s all bring Tucker her flowers now by listening to what she wants to sing about.
What’s apparent after listening to While I’m Livin’ is that Tucker is now a newly-inducted and finally-celebrated matriarch of country music with a solid, sturdy voice that’s earned its color and character through years of hits, headlines and hollowed-out moments that would have ended the careers of lesser women and men.
This is by far one of the best albums of the year. And if the universe is fair, it should be the impetus for GRAMMY nominations in November as well as Tucker’s long overdue and deserved induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Tucker has emerged on While I’m Livin’ with equal parts grit and grace. As lovers, searchers and consumers of good music, we are the better for it.
Welcome back, Tanya. Your next best chapter has just begun.
Notable Tracks: "High Ridin’ Heroes" | “Mustang Ridge” | "The House That Built Me" | “Wheels of Laredo”