They say you are the company you keep, and by that logic, Tanya Tucker’s friendships and associations with figures such as Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Glen Campbell mean she is an icon of formidable stature. She is, of course, an icon for reasons far greater than that, but the country music industry hasn’t exactly acted that way, as it allowed her personal life to eclipse her achievements as an artist.
Tucker got her first taste of fame at age 13, when she released her breakout hit “Delta Dawn.” The following year, she dropped another track titled “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” which told a fictional story of a young girl seeing her father murder her mother and her mother’s lover. Despite the graphic nature of this song, a David Allan Coe-penned single she released six months later titled “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)” became more controversial even with rather tame lyrics. This backlash followed her to a 1974 show at the Fort Worth Stockyards, where Billy Minick (who is now a co-owner of Billy Bob’s) booked her.
“He said it was a family entertainment place, and he didn’t think I should do that song, so I didn’t,” recalls Tucker. “The song was about David Allan Coe writing wedding vows for his brother’s wedding.”
The song was controversial for no other reason than Tucker being 15 at the time of the single’s release. What twisted sexual pathology lingered into the psyche of Nashville remains a mystery, but many inferred from the song a tone of sensuality where none was even remotely intended. Sensationalism like this followed Tucker throughout her youth, but she was able to overcome it.
Her longevity is made manifest in While I’m Livin’, her first full-length album in 17 years. The album boasts production from both Shooter Jennings and Brandi Carlile. The former was at the wheel in terms of the album’s creative direction and even suggested the project in the first place, but even at his urging, Tucker was reluctant to take on Carlile.
“I had no idea who she was,” Tucker explains. “I didn’t know if the songs were strong enough for me. At the time, I just couldn’t really hear it, and I told Shooter that. He talked me into coming [to the studio] anyway.”
Jennings’ resolve paid off. “When I met Brandi, it was change at first sight.” Following her inclusion in the project, Carlile came to Tucker with an even more difficult sell in suggesting she cover Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.”
“I said, ‘You’re crazy. I’m not going to be caught loitering around that song. It’s already been done. There’s nothing I can bring to that song,’” Tucker says. “She asked me about three or four more times.”
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Tucker’s leaps of faith have paid off. Upon its release last month, While I’m Livin’ turned out to be a critical and commercial success. It peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, No. 2 on the Billboard Folk Albums chart and No. 68 on the Billboard Hot 200. Tucker has also had more recent presence in the spotlight, between an Americana Music Honors & Awards appearance and her first Farm Aid performance since 1985.
At this point in her life, Tucker is more introspective than ever. In the past few years alone, she has lived to see the deaths of many important people in her life: her parents, her former romantic partners Haggard and Campbell, her former producer Billy Sherrill and her friend George Jones. In the spoken intro on the While I’m Livin’ single “Bring My Flowers Now,” Tucker urges the listener to not wait until a person’s death to express appreciation of their life.
“It was [an observation] I had a long time ago,” Tucker says. “But it also became more important as the years went on. It wouldn’t have been as good if I had written it when I thought of it.”
It’s a profound thought, but then again, people also celebrate the lives of others during birthdays. Tucker’s show at Granada Theater on Oct. 10 will coincide with her birthday, and that makes for a perfect opportunity to take her wisdom to heart.