When it comes to country music folklore, the story of Tanya Tucker’s rise to fame at only thirteen years old is nothing short of legendary. The tale has been hashed and rehashed countless times by media outlets in the five decades since it happened, but for those not in the know: in 1971, twelve-year-old Tucker recorded a demo that made its way into the hands of an executive at Columbia Records in Nashville. By 1972, she released her debut album, from which two songs (“Love’s the Answer” and “Delta Dawn”) reached number five and six, respectively, in the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart. 1973’s sophomore record, What’s Your Mama’s Name, saw two number-one singles (“What’s Your Mama’s Name, Child” and “Blood Red and Goin’ Down”), cementing Tucker as a fourteen-year-old country music sensation. By fifteen, Tucker was on the cover of Rolling Stone. Her lyrics—which were generally penned by adult songwriters—centered around themes of love, heartbreak, grief, family, loneliness, and rural American life. This, coupled with her signature raspy vocals, imbued Tucker with an air of wisdom and maturity before she was even old enough to attend high school.
But this story has been told a million times, and anyway, the chapter Tucker is writing for herself nowadays is arguably the best one yet.
In the years that followed her meteoric rise to success, her musical career endured commercial highs and lows, but the fiery authenticity she delivered with her very first release never died. Nearly fifty years later, Tucker’s hair is bright pink, she is a recent double Grammy winner, a mother of three, and that fire is burning brighter than ever before.
2019’s While I’m Livin’, Tucker’s first release in a decade, kickstarted a career renaissance. Though Tucker has always been a master of communicating the hardships of adult life, she now has the life experience to back up the pensive themes of which she’s always sung, and that wisdom shines through all ten tracks. Her voice is richer now, and tags her work with the impression that she not only understands the trials and tribulations she sings of, but has known them herself.
Though Tucker’s commercial success has waxed and waned in the years since her earliest smash hits, she has always been considered a country music icon. However, While I’m Livin’ is arguably one of – if not – Tucker’s finest releases. Both a critical and commercial success, the record recaptured the attention of old fans and drew interest from younger generations who missed the initial Tanya Tucker buzz. It also earned her both her first and second Grammy award. “Bring My Flowers Now,” a wistful meditation on cherishing your time with loved ones before its too late, took home Best Country Song, and While I’m Livin’ was named Best Country Album of the year.
The success of the record can largely be attributed to Tucker’s performance, but also to the heartfelt lyrics, most of which were penned by Brandi Carlile, a fellow female country musician and Roots N Blues Festival headliner, and Tim and Phil Hanseroth. As a longtime fan of Tucker’s, Carlile jumped at the opportunity to write for her, and the two have since formed a close creative relationship.
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted Tucker’s Bring My Flowers Now Tour in 2020, but the social and political reckonings that occurred during that year made the album, with its subtle social statements, all the more touching. “I Don’t Owe You Anything” offers a cool and collected dose of old-school female empowerment. No kitschy buzzwords, no half-baked attempt at being woke, the song simply tells the story of a woman who decides she’s done putting up with her husband’s – for lack of a better word – bullshit and leaves him without a second thought. Even more subtly, “The Wheels of Laredo” examines the lives of two lovers separated by the Mexican-American border in lyrics that read like poetry, which some have suggested are meant to be a lamentation on the United States’ ongoing immigration debate.
On a more personal level, songs like “Mustang Ridge” and “Seminole Wind Calling” seem to allude to Tucker’s own life experience. The latter details a deep yearning to return to Seminole, Texas, Tucker’s birthplace, while the former tells the story of a woman attempting to flee both Mustang Ridge – another town in Tucker’s home state – and her own past. Like so many women before her, Tucker is no stranger to having the highs and, in particular, the lows of her personal life exploited by the media for the sake of the attention economy. Though her long list of musical achievements are rivaled by few – male or female – the media still spends far too much time dissecting choices she made decades ago. She seems to nod to this when she sings, “Now a woman’s life ain’t just a list / Of the worst things she has done / I’ll leave you now with the heart of stone / Sometimes a past is hard to outrun.”
Through her nearly five decades of performing, Tucker has generally sung songs written by others, but on “Bring My Flowers Now,” she lent her talents to both the vocals and the lyrics. The result was a masterpiece. The album closes with this gentle tune, which is equal parts mournful and joyous. Its simplicity allows Tucker’s voice to truly shine, and for the bittersweet lyrics to resonate.
This album establishes Tucker as a perfect role model for our times, especially for young women. Despite a storied past and the media’s relentless attempts to overshadow her well-earned musical feats with stories of scandals and dating gossip, Tucker has routinely honored her gifts and now, a half-century after her initial step onto the scene, this iteration of Tucker uses the fire she’s harbored since youth to set her sagacious experience ablaze. Though she’s in her sixties, her hair is pink, she wears glittery suits, and she is already working with Carlile on a follow-up to While I’m Livin’. She is a woman who chooses not to be defined by her past, but rather by who she is and what she does now. And I, for one, am incredibly excited to see what she has in store for us next. Come see her on September 24th, 2021 when she headlines Roots N Blues Festival in Columbia, MO.