Tanya Tucker Is Back And Taking No Prisoners

Aug 23, 2019
Originally published on August 23, 2019 8:07 pm

Tanya Tucker has always been a hellraiser. The 60-year-old country singer who shot to fame with Delta Dawn in 1972 at 13 has made a career out of charismatic sass, an outlaw image and a signature vocal performance to back it up. Throughout Tucker's career, there have been bestselling albums, awards and recognition including an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. There have also been bouts with drug addiction and rehabilitation. Now, Tucker is back with her first full-length studio album in over a decade, called While I'm Livin'.

Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings are credited as the album's producers, and Tucker says it was Carlile and Jennings who persuaded her to release new music in the first place. The songwriting on the album was highly collaborative among the three, and though she doesn't fashion herself as a songwriter, Tucker says that one song on the album, "Bring My Flowers Now," had been on her mind for years.

"It was a song that I've had an idea for ... I'm thinking about 40 years maybe," Tucker says. "It took us about 20 minutes to write it. ... And so I say, 'Well, it took me 40 years and 20 minutes to write the song.' "

The message of the song is to cherish people while they're with you because you can't do it when they're gone.

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"I've always wondered, even since I was a kid, why they sent flowers; and people — that's the only time they get together or see each other, is at a funeral. That didn't make sense to me. It just kind of had it back-asswards to me."

In terms of the album's production, Tucker felt at home with the team she assembled because it reminded her of how she used to record her albums in the 1970s — all in the recording booth together: "And if somebody messed up, we would do it all over again."

"This situation with Brandi and Shooter, we did all this live," Tucker explains. "It's like going back to the beginning. I don't think I could have done this album that way if I hadn't had that experience in the very, very beginning of my career."

Looking back on her career, Tucker says she was associated with the "country outlaw" movement mostly as a comparison with other female country stars at the time.

"I think maybe it was that in country music, especially most of the gals, they didn't move around much. They pretty much stood there and say — and sang great, I might add," she says. "I can't do that. I can't stand still. I think that might have got it started. Plus, I dressed a lot different than most of the gals and country music. You know, I had leather on, them tight pants and when I moved, I moved because I felt it."

After making music professionally for almost 50 years, Tucker says the main lesson she has learned about the creative process is she can't do it alone.

"I just kind of let go, let God," Tucker says. "That's the name I choose to call my higher power and I let him rock through me because the one thing I do know after all these years is that I'm not doing it by myself. It's coming through me. And there's a reason for that. I don't know what it is, but I just know that it is."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The September 1974 cover of Rolling Stone featured a closeup of a teenage girl's face looking over her shoulder. And this was the headline. "I'm Tanya Tucker. I'm 15. You're Gonna Hear From Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELTA DAWN")

TANYA TUCKER: (Singing) Delta Dawn, what's that flower you have on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?

CHANG: By that time, she had already had a string of hits, starting with "Delta Dawn." And over the decades, she kept returning to our radios. There were hit albums, Grammy nominations and an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Now Tanya Tucker is back with her first album of original music in 17 years. It's called "While I'm Livin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING MY FLOWERS NOW")

TUCKER: Bring my flowers now while I'm livin'. I won't need your love when I'm gone.

CHANG: My co-host Ari Shapiro spoke with Tucker about the new album.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: "While I'm Livin'" was produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, a new generation of country stars. Those fresh ears and fresh ideas helped Tucker finish a song she'd been thinking about for decades, "Bring My Flowers Now."

TUCKER: It was a song that I've had an idea for - I'm thinking about 40 years, maybe. And it took us about 20 minutes to write it, to finish it. And so I say, well, it took me 40 years and 20 minutes to write the song (laughter).

SHAPIRO: What was the core of this that was rattling around in your brain for 40 years?

TUCKER: Well, I had the chorus, but I just couldn't come up with the verses and tried many times to do it and just never was successful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING MY FLOWERS NOW")

TUCKER: (Singing) Wish I'd been a better friend, a better daughter to my mother. There's no going back when your back's against the wind.

SHAPIRO: The first time I heard this song, it reminded me of something my father said to me while my grandmother was in her last days. And he said, if you've got a choice between flying out here while she's alive and coming out for the funeral, come see her now.

TUCKER: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: You know?

TUCKER: That's exactly right. Because I've always wondered, even since I was a kid, why they sent flowers. And people, that's the only time they get together or see each other, is at a funeral. That didn't make sense to me. Just kind of had it back-asswards (ph) to me.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TUCKER: And I like to share and be with someone when I can. Of course, you know, our schedules these days makes it difficult. But do the things and see the people that you really need to see and - 'cause you sure all can't do it when they're gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING MY FLOWERS NOW")

TUCKER: (Singing) If your heart is in them flowers, bring 'em home.

SHAPIRO: When you listen to these songs and then you listen to albums that you recorded in the '70s, what kind of an evolution do you hear? Or do you think this is just a very clear, straight throughline?

TUCKER: In those days, we recorded all those records or those tracks - "Delta Dawn" on up to - probably the first MCA album was the only time, the first time, I ever did an overdub or ever had a set of headphones.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying you recorded them as though it was live? Everybody was in the room. They were doing a take, beginning to end.

TUCKER: Exactly. And if somebody messed up, we had to do it all over again.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TUCKER: So, you know, that was the way. And I thank the good Lord for that because this situation with Brandi and Shooter, we did all this live.

SHAPIRO: So this is kind of, like, a throwback for you?

TUCKER: It's like going back to the beginning.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

TUCKER: I don't think I could've done this album that way if I hadn't had that experience in the very, very beginning of my career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WHEELS OF LAREDO")

TUCKER: (Singing) And if I was a white-crowned sparrow, well, I would float upon the southern skies of blue. But I'm stuck inside the wheels of Laredo wishin' I was rollin' back to you.

SHAPIRO: I hesitate to ask you to point out your flaws, but imperfections can create beauty, right? So is there somewhere on this album that you can point to something that you might have wanted to smooth over, but because it is a little rougher it actually works better?

TUCKER: Yeah. I could tell you a lot of things.

SHAPIRO: Give me one.

TUCKER: You know, well, the one is on "Laredo," at the very end. The one, the - the very last, (singing) wish I was rollin' back to you. Wish I was rollin'.

I wanted to go way up on it, and I didn't.

SHAPIRO: I just got goose bumps.

TUCKER: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WHEELS OF LAREDO")

TUCKER: (Singing) Wish I was rollin' back to you. Wish I was rollin' back to you.

SHAPIRO: You've always been associated with the country outlaw movement. Do you identify with that label? What does that mean to you?

TUCKER: Well, I think maybe it was that in country music, especially, most of the gals, they didn't move around much. They pretty much stood there and sang. And sang great, I might add. I can't do that. I can't stand still.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUSTANG RIDGE")

TUCKER: (Singing) Now I'm flyin' like an angel on Dead Man's Run. I got the devil ridin' on my tail.

I think that might've got it started. Plus, I dressed a lot different than most of the gals in country music. You know, I had leather on and tight pants. And when I moved, I moved because I felt it. You know? And I think they took it and kind of went to the outlaw side of things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUSTANG RIDGE")

TUCKER: (Singing) I ain't never goin' back to Mustang Ridge.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about the song "Hard Luck" because I know it's actually an old tune, but it seems almost autobiographical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD LUCK")

TUCKER: (Singing) Now look at my life and all the trouble I've had. Shows what you get when you got to be bad. Hard luck. I keep truckin'. Born to a hard-luck world.

Well, we changed a lot of the lines 'cause at first, when I first heard the song, I didn't like it at all.

SHAPIRO: Really?

TUCKER: The lyrics - just, no. It wasn't a really great demo, in my mind (laughter). You know, I try to hear through a lot of things, but I couldn't even hear through that one. But when we started working on it, we changed the lyric. And it works. And everybody's singin' on it. I mean, I got my lawyer, got my managers. Dennis Quaid's on it. My...

SHAPIRO: What?

TUCKER: ...Friend, Norman Howell, and Trisha. He's a stunt man that actually got me the horse for the album cover. And just so many different people were singin' on it. It was a lot of fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD LUCK")

TUCKER: (Singing) Oh, my story's so sad.

SHAPIRO: I'm just picturing everybody crowded into the studio around the microphone.

TUCKER: It was really cute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD LUCK")

TUCKER: (Singing) Oh, so bad. Listen up, y'all.

SHAPIRO: So you now have been making music professionally for almost 50 years.

TUCKER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What do you think you understand about making music now that you did not understand when you were that mega-famous teenager?

TUCKER: You know, I just kind of let go, let God. I think that's the name I choose to call my higher power. And I let him rock through me. Because, you know, I've - the one thing I do know after all these years is that I'm not doing it by myself. It's coming through me. And there's a reason for that. I don't know what it is, but I just know that it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T OWE YOU ANYTHING")

TUCKER: (Singing) Aw, I've got somethin' to say.

SHAPIRO: Well, Tanya Tucker, it has been so great to talk with you. Thank you for joining us today.

TUCKER: Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you.

SHAPIRO: Her new album is called "While I'm Livin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T OWE YOU ANYTHING")

TUCKER: (Singing) Learnin' the hard way? It might be easier than you think. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.