Tanya Tucker: Another Day, Another Rodeo
photo: Derrek Kupish
Tanya Tucker is sitting outside Blackbird Recording Studios in Nashville’s Berry Hill neighborhood, talking about baboons. Well, baboons, orangutans, baby tigers, ocelots and all kinds of wild things. Never mind that 30 minutes earlier, she’d finished playing her then-unreleased Sweet Western Sound for industry leaders, media and Grammy cognoscenti in Blackbird’s largest room. She’d much rather talk about Jane Goodall’s simian preservation work, Lone Nielsen’s orangutan refuge in Borneo, the elephant sanctuaries in Thailand or even her friend, ‘70s film star Linda Blair’s pit bull rescue.
“I was dating this billionaire one time,” she reflects as her dogs scamper at her feet. “A five-time-over billionaire; he only knew hundred dollar bills! To buy a coke, he’d use a hundred dollar bill. It was amazing. Every time I got on his plane, 150 grand! You know? Like that. Anything I wanted—stone crab legs out of season, whatever, there they were!”
It sounds like an unthinkable dream come true. There’s only one thing: “He didn’t like dogs,” Tucker half snorts as she delivers the coup du grace. “Because in his childhood, one barked all night and kept him awake. I said, ‘Well, that’s a deal-breaker!’”
In her white jeans, form-fitting Western patterned button-snap shirt and black hat, she settles back in the chair still laughing. What would’ve been most people’s ship coming in was her reason to keep moving on—no regrets, no rancor, just one more story to tell.
Beyond possessing a voice that’s raw heart set on stun with just enough tequila and smoke to suggest a life lived, Tucker’s greatest strength may be the fact that, up or down, win or lose, she’s unafraid to inhabit life the way she chooses. A teenager when the original Wanted! The Outlaws—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessie Colter, Tompall Glaser—project was certified platinum, her career was marked by a sense of brio that made the redhead a soulmate to their tribe.
At 13, her gospel-feeling “Delta Dawn” almost hit No. 1, followed by the Dusty Springfield sultry “Blood Red & Goin’ Down” and the swept-up dustiness of “What’s Your Mama’s Name?” Her hits were frank, full-frontal examinations of grown-up things. Somewhere between Southern Gothic and Lolita, the flamethrowing singer grabbed people’s attention. Nominated for Female Vocalist at the Country Music Association at 14, she was fearless. Produced by Billy Sherrill, who is known for work with Tammy Wynette and George Jones, her uncanny ability to grab the grit and carnal implication of songs made her a marketer’s dream.
By the time “Would You Lay With Me in a Field of Stone?”—written by iconoclastic renegade David Allan Coe— conquered country radio, she’d been on Rolling Stone’s cover. Nashville didn’t know what to make of the kid whose father/manager was an acolyte of Colonel Tom Parker; Tanya didn’t care what the business thought.
Having been raised dirt poor—her family sometimes searching under their couch cushions for her lunch money—she came to win. “I’d just go in and try to do the best vocal possible. I put all the feeling I can into songs,” she says of that gift. “My dad taught me that at the youngest age. That’s what you need to do.”
Tucker has always lived wide open and done as she’s felt, whether that meant releasing a rock album called TNT, mounting a return to mainstream country music or having a baby without being married. In fact, she’s had more acts than almost anyone in Nashville.
A championship horseback rider, she knows the ride isn’t over until you get off the horse. Because old-school country fans are loyal, she never feared the valleys. She just kept working, whether it was a honky tonk or the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. It’s what you do if you’ve had 89 singles and built an audience across multiple decades.
Still one never forgets a voice like that— not Shooter Jennings, who remembers the firebrand personality as his dad’s buddy growing up, nor Brandi Carlile, who sang Tucker’s hits with her mother. Before Carlile ascended as the first female Grammy force since Sheryl Crow, she and Jennings had a conversation about the 1991 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. Each had their own perspective and both had a massive respect for Tucker’s gift.
She wrote a few songs and found a few others. In spite of Tucker having no clue who Carlile was, she adored Shooter— always a risk taker, the platinum blond maverick figured, “Why not?”
While I’m Livin’ may have been the best and greatest risk of her life. Having received her first Grammy nomination at 14, Tucker not only won Best Country Album and Best Country Song for “Bring My Flowers,” she was nominated for Best Song in the all-genre Big Four categories.
Even if many in the throng clamoring for her time weren’t the tried and true Tuckerheads, she welcomed all with open arms. Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival aren’t standard country fare, but audiences loved her brazen vocals and larger than life stage persona.
Sweet Western Sound, her second Carlile/Jennings proposition, is more feisty and freewheeling than 2019’s Livin’. During the past four years, The Hanseroth Twins and Carlile have immersed themselves not only in Tucker’s history, but also her essence. Likewise, Tucker was more involved and invested this time around. Having already worked together live in the studio, everyone understood the process.
The result is something a bit rougher around the edges, but every bit as polished in terms of songcraft. Opening with “Tanya,” a voicemail message from the late Billy Joe Shaver, the 10-cut song cycle offers a rumination on aging cowboys, restless souls, dreamers who exist on the fringes and rambling types who see adventure everywhere they go.
Tucker and Carlile exchange verses on “Breakfast in Birmingham,” sending almost existential postcards from the road. With Bernie Taupin providing lyrics— including “a copper eagle flying,” “hippies on the shoulder,” “tie-dyed, golden hair and free,” “a purple Firebird” and “the same C-sharp harp,” as well as references to Jakey Hess in heaven, old hymns and an Arthur Alexander song, “Birmingham”— the tune delivers an impressionistic freedom, seeking that person who understands and is waiting.
“That song,” Tucker savors, clearly delighted. “I had to look up some of it. Jake Hess was one of Elvis’ influences; I knew him. And that line—“bacon cooked up good and crisp for gone”—I kept asking what that means. But I loved it! I loved the line, just what is it exactly? Which is the beauty of Bernie Taupin.”
The less structured songwriting is not old-school Music Row and, indeed, Tucker confesses that prior to the release of Livin’, she had some hesitation about the songs. “I didn’t know if they were a strong enough,” she says. “But I call it a God thing [to trust like that]. I’ve never been so glad to be wrong in my life.”
Having delivered While I’m Livin’ in 2019 and then having spent the next 15 months touring to support it, Tucker has devoted a lot of time to pondering her nine lives. Though she’d lived in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, she’d never played the storied Troubadour. (She jokes, “We did a lot of things back then, and the party didn’t start until I got there—and it was over when I left.”)
While promoting Livin’, Tucker finally mounted its legendary stage. What was an emotional two nights—ultimately released as Live at the Troubadour to benefit Save Our Stages during the extended pandemic lockdown—also provided the inspiration for one of Sound’s most moving songs. Written with Shooter Jennings, “Letter to Linda” pays homage to the woman many consider to be the queen of ‘70s California rock, pop and country.
“When I was walking in for soundcheck, I heard Linda Ronstadt’s version of ‘Desperado’ on the sound system,” Tucker recalls. “It stopped me in my tracks. I remember the first time I heard Heart Like a Wheel with that right combination of country, pop, rock. It was everything I wanted to do.
In her dressing room, she wrote Ronstadt a letter expressing her admiration for the music she’d created and the places she’d held in pop culture’s consciousness. Having shared the correspondence with Jennings, her co-producer suggested they turn it into an actual song. Unabashed and honest, the lyric offers a woman-to-woman tribute of the highest order: “You always were my favorite, the greatest and that still goes/ I just had to reach out to you/ And say, “You shaped me with your songs”/ I wanted to be just like you, Linda/ You left an unforgettable, incredible stamp on me.”
Tucker understands who she is and how people read her. It informs the sweet irony of her salty Carlile cowrite “The List.” Rattling off some of her failings, Tucker delivers the self-accepting, self-aware admission that whatever accounting you’ve got is “gonna be shorter than mine.”
For all the brio and bad rep, Sweet Western Sound lands more philosophically. The once wild child—as Emile Zola said— “came to live out loud.” Riding her horses, staking her claim on several hundred acres outside Austin, she admits, “It takes a few years to get through this reputation, you know? Was it that bad? I don’t know. But I tell ‘em all: ‘My bad reputation’s made me a damned good living.’”
It’s also given her the bedrock for backto-back albums that will be deemed postOutlaw classics. Clear-eyed, tender without being mawkish, she’s created a sense of what cowboys lose when you take away the things they don’t just love, but need.
The album’s closer, the elegiac benediction “When the Rodeo Is Over (Where Does the Cowboy Go?)” feels like a lullaby for the many icons who’ve influenced her. Waylon, Willie, Cash, Kristofferson, Haggard, Shaver—all are men who sang and wrote songs until the end, music sustaining them the same way rodeo sustains cowboys.
For Tucker, who had to postpone vocals for Sound due to dental issues, the need to make music is ingrained. It is also ordained. When she first arrived in Los Angeles for these sessions, Carlile had a notion they should begin with “When the Rodeo Is Over” as a way to set the mood.
“If you like this song, we’ll start with it,” Tucker says, recalling their conversation the night before the first session. “I liked the song so I called Craig [Dillingham, Tucker’s longtime boyfriend] and said, ‘Hey, listen to this.’”
She sent him off to the next room to take in the song. After a bit, she called after him: “Hey, you like it?”
Dillingham appeared in the door, laughing. “Like it? I wrote it.”
Written years ago with Billy Don Burns, the Larry McMurtry-evoking, washedout cowboy song distills the stoicism that marks a certain kind of man. It was, indeed, the first song recorded.
And when they got down to finishing vocals at the Sunset Marquis’ Nightbird Studios, it was Dillingham—rousted from bed at 3 a.m.—who appeared “in his cowboy boots and regulars” to deliver a particularly moving harmony part.
“He came down the elevator and was right there in the studio,” she says. “He’s such a great singer—one take and he just nailed it. Then, he turned around and went back to bed.”
This spring, after years of whispers about why she wasn’t in, Tucker was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Considered the ultimate honor for the unabashedly American genre, the woman known to dye her hair fuschia acknowledged nursing a certain ambivalence.
“I didn’t know this was so important to me, you know? For so long, I thought, ‘I don’t really care about being in there— doesn’t matter one way or the other to me,” Tucker says. “But one day, I thought, maybe I should want it.
“Bobby Bare said, ‘I got one vote, but you know, she should’ve been in there.’ That made me feel good,” she continues. “And then, when it was announced, [producer] Frank Liddell calls me, and says, ‘Well, the Hall of Fame just got better.’ That was sweet, that’s when it hit me.”
While she’s fluid in her emotions, she doesn’t dwell in the maudlin, even when it’s deserved. Instead of tears, she did the most classically Tucker thing she could think of. While some people might pop champagne corks or pose for pictures, she had a horse delivered to the Country Music Hall of Fame, walked out of the announcement press conference, mounted a black Friesan stallion and rode straight to the Ryman Auditorium.
“I was 9 years old, and my dad was doing some demos, and I kept saying I wanted to go to the Grand Ole Opry,” she recalls. “I was bugging him to death and he finally said, ‘Get in the car.’ We stopped on the way at the Hall of Fame, where it used to be at the end of Music Row, and all the little bitty stars were out front, but we couldn’t afford the $1.50 to go in.
“So, I’m out there looking. My dad’s mad at me because he thinks we should be working. My Mom’s filming us. My dad says, ‘Now look down there. You ain’t never going to be down there; you’re never going to do it.’ My mother later said, ‘I told him he was being too hard on you.’ Then we went to the Grand Ole Opry and waited in line to get in there—no air conditioning, hard pews. He looked down at me, and went, ‘Now don’t you wish you was up there doing it instead of down here watching it?’
“From that moment on, I’ve never been a good audience person. I can’t sit in the audience; it’s too much. But you know, I proved my dad wrong! He was always right about everything, but I proved him wrong just this one time.”
She makes a ring with her lips and exhales like she’s whistling. Shaking her head, she takes it all in, then continues, “I did it. The Hall of Fame—and while I’m living, too.”