When country superstar Tanya Tucker started to record her new album, While l’m Livin’ — her first to feature original material in 17 years — she questioned every single thing about it.
“I didn’t know if the songs were strong enough,” she tells EW. She also felt the lyrics “had things in there I wouldn’t say.” Even the person who’d been hired to co-produce it, the celebrated singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, caused her concern. (“I didn’t know who the hell she was.”)
It only increased her reticence that Carlile seemed pleased with some vocal takes she herself considered flawed. “I thought, ‘I’m sure they’re going to be able to fix some of this stuff,” Tucker says. “But Brandi talked me out of fixing anything.” She managed to do so with a line that finally made Tucker understand Carlile’s vision for the project. “When she told me, ‘This is Tanya Tucker, the singer, not Tanya, the entertainer, I finally got it,” she says.
She even came to love it, a feeling many Tucker fans — as well as those of Americana music — will likely share. Though the 60-year-old star has released more than two dozen albums of fresh material in her four-decade career, scoring major country hits in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, she has never issued anything as raw, pure, and edgy as While I’m Livin’. In a separate interview, Carlile says she understands why Tucker would have trouble warming to such a project. “Tanya will always be uncomfortable deviating from the glitz and glamour that people love about her,” she says. “But some of that obscures her soulfulness. I wanted to shine a light on Tanya Tucker as the tough and weathered interpreter. That’s what I first fell in love with her music for — the grit and the growl, the cracks and imperfections.”
In that sense, Carlile took roughly the same approach to Tucker that Rick Rubin had on the American Recordings series that he produced for Johnny Cash. Both clarify the artist’s character, distilling their essence. Carlile even wound up going directly to Rubin to seek his advice when she thought the whole project might go south. “Every couple of days, she’d call the whole thing off,” says Carlile. “I called Rick 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.”
That quality long ago established Tucker as one of just two female stars in the early “outlaw” country movement (the other being Jessi Colter). Like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, Tucker helped bring a rock attitude to country, starting with her breakthrough 1972 hit “Delta Dawn,” which she cut when she was just 13. Two years later, she made the cover of Rolling Stone with the memorable headline: “I’m Tanya Tucker. I’m 15. You’re Gonna Hear From Me.”
Such defiance made Tucker a role model for all future outlaw country women, from Shelby Lynne to Gretchen Wilson (who name-checked her in her 2004 hit “Redneck Woman”) to the most recent wave of Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price.
Despite her gutsy character, many of Tucker’s biggest hits have featured rather slick production, driven by a keen sense of what sells. “I pick commercial songs,” Tucker says, proudly. “I’m one of the best at that.”
She certainly didn’t hear that quality in the songs written for her by Carlile and her usual collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth. To test her judgement, Tucker sent their tracks to the legendary country songwriter Paul Overstreet, as well as to other writers she trusts. “I was wanting them to say they just suck,’’ Tucker says. “But nobody did. Paul said, ‘You might take a risk on losing your reputation for picking hit songs. Then again, it might open some doors for you.”
Besides, it wasn’t like Tucker has been having much luck in the music industry of late. After her Tanya album barely broke country’s Top 40 in 2002, the once prolific star started to step away. Her last release, 2009’s My Turn, which found her covering songs by male country stars she had grown up listening to, wound up a disaster, by her estimation. “It should have been called My Sh—y Turn,” she says, with a cackle. “They didn’t use the final vocals I made. I had no control.”
She had more personal issues to deal with as well. Tucker began to experience health problems from the chronic fatigue disease Epstein-barr. And both of her parents died, leaving her emotionally bereft and without management. (Her father had handled her career from the start). “I quit touring. I didn’t have a band,” she says. “I went out to Malibu and sat in the sun and spent a lot of money.”
After Tucker decided to come back to earn some more, she went to the labels only to find little interest. For some time, the country star Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon) had been casually talking to her about producing a new album for her. But things didn’t really kick into high gear until Jennings asked his friend Carlile if she had any songs to contribute. “I said, ‘Hell, yeah! And can I watch it go down?’” Carlile says. “He called back and said, ‘Actually, you should be the one producing this with me. You really are that big a Tanya fan.’”
Tucker finds it astounding that Carlile and her partners managed to write songs so finely attuned to her character before they even met her. But, says Carlile, “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.’ Basically, we wrote a musical biography of Tanya.”
While Carlile and her team wrote seven of the album’s tracks, they also included a few covers, including one that’s been closely associated with Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me.” “I really did not want to be caught loitering around that song because Miranda had taken it as far it can go,” Tucker says. “But Brandi talked me into it.”
Tucker herself wrote the lyric for “Bring My Flowers Now,” which contains the title phrase “While I’m livin’.” It’s a fitting declaration for someone who has just entered her seventh decade. Asked about her age, Tucker says, “I would prefer to be 20 or 30 again. I have so much to do and I lost a lot of time there between records. I need to play catch up.”
Carlile hopes this album will help her do just that by exposing her to a new audience. “Tanya isn’t seen in the way that she should be,” she says. “For the Americana audience, she’s been forgotten and she’s their matriarch. We have a lot of lessons we can learn from a woman like this.”
In turn, Tucker feels grateful that she’s been given a new opportunity. “I know I came into this [album] thinking it was all wrong,” she said. “But I come to find out, it’s not so bad being wrong. In fact, I kinda like it.”
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