Book Review: 'Nickel Dreams: My Life'
Tanya Tucker was 13 when she recorded ”Delta Dawn” in 1972, a slightly suggestive Southern gothic tale of a woman who’d gone plumb crazy out of love. The opening line, ”She’s 41, and her daddy still calls her ‘Baby,”’ lets you know things weren’t likely to change for the song’s faded rose, trapped by circumstance and a too-influential father.
It’s impossible not to draw comparisons while reading Tucker’s NICKEL DREAMS: MY LIFE (Hyperion, $23.95), which she wrote with Nashville author and longtime friend Patsi Bale Cox. Whether Tucker and her producer simply picked songs that reflected her sexy, father-obsessed, and somewhat dangerous personality, like ”The Man That Turned My Mama On” or ”Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” or whether it was the repertoire that molded the woman in waiting, seldom have a singer’s life and art mirrored each other so perfectly. Tucker’s headline-grabbing, wild-child escapades — a violent, high-profile romance with the much older Glen Campbell, two out-of-wedlock babies, and a stay at the Betty Ford Center for alcohol addiction — have made her country’s most controversial performer. No wonder her license plate read ”Ms. Bad Ass.”
The first third of Tucker’s memoir may be slow going for fans eager to get to the salacious parts, but it nicely sets up her family’s hardscrabble background and Tanya’s inevitable destiny. Beau Tucker grew up fatherless in Depression-era Oklahoma and so poor that when the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd knocked on his door for food, he left behind a .22 rifle and a $20 bill, mostly out of sympathy. Since Beau, who married at 15, experienced no childhood of his own, he saw little problem in sacrificing his daughter’s as soon as she demonstrated talent and a desire to perform. By the time Tanya was 11, her father had her playing some of the roughest bars in the West. The elder Tucker moved heaven and earth to jump-start her professional career — even gambling away their last dime in an effort to win seed money — but you get the sense he did it as much because she was the golden goose who could support the family as to fulfill her dreams.
Tanya obviously wants her manager/father — known as a very loose cannon in music circles — to be the hero of the book, but their relationship raises more questions than it answers. Tanya suffers from an identity crisis and terrible self-esteem (”It’s almost easier for me to take a cussing than a compliment. Maybe it’s because I feel deep down that I deserve cussings more than compliments”), and the reader, who guesses early on that Daddy might be at the root of her astonishing promiscuity, gasps when Tanya compares her father’s traits with those of her laundry list of lovers. ”After all,” she says, ”he’s the one I’ve been trying to please all these years.”
Throughout, Tanya comes across as a likable renegade, mooning a cop, giving away her last dollar to friends, resurrecting her career in the mid-’80s when it was all but dead and buried. While she never spills the beans about the plastic surgery that has rendered her barely recognizable, she’s otherwise penned one of the most honest of showbiz books, ratting on scheming stars, fessing up about drugs, and criticizing music-industry kingpins.
In Nickel Dreams‘ final chapter, Tanya hopes for marriage with her new boyfriend, landscaper Jonathan Cummings, and promises to take more responsibility for her life. But before the book hit the stores, the romance was off, and she had boldly flashed her boobs for partygoers at an Epic Records event, calling it in the press ”a Tanya moment” and tossing it off to ”a couple of drinks.”
”I wish I could end this book with a big revelation and tell you I discovered the secret of happiness,” she writes in conclusion. ”That’s just not gonna happen.” And probably won’t. Tanya is 38, not 41, but her daddy does still call her Baby. B