“Now, a woman’s life ain’t just a list of the worst things she has done,” sings Tanya Tucker on While I’m Livin’. The line arrives during “Mustang Ridge,” the sing-along mission statement that opens Tucker’s first album of new material in 17 years. There’s a reason Tucker wants to make that point up front: unlike her male Seventies outlaw contemporaries whose exploits only ever seemed to bolster their iconoclast images, Tucker’s musical reputation has always been bogged down by her tabloid exploits. “As she grew up and fell on hard times, I don’t think she was given the same grace,” Brandi Carlile, the album’s co-producer has said. Tucker’s next couplet then, is just as important, delivered with a staggered phrasing that suggests a world of hurt: “I leave you now with a heart of stone/Sometimes the past is hard to outrun.”
Nearly 50 years after the singer became a child phenom, While I’m Livin’ arrives as a much-deserved course correction from Tucker. The album — part legacy-bolstering roots project, part first-person confessional — shows a more sensitive side of the former country star, so much so that Tucker was initially hesitant to record this batch of songs, which was co-produced by Carlile and Shooter Jennings and largely written by Carlile and her frequent collaborators, Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
Ballads like “The Day My Heart Goes Still,” “Bring My Flowers Now” (a moving callback to 1972’s “Smell the Flowers”) and a stark rendition of Miranda Lambert’s signature “The House That Built Me” reveal a cracked-voice veteran vulnerability from Tucker that recalls the late-career records of her peers like Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. Long associated with the glitz of Los Angeles and Vegas, her latest collection, much of which takes place along the dusty dirt roads and sweeping plains of the rural South (specifically, Texas) re-situates Tucker in her rural Southwestern origins.
Thankfully, Tucker’s latest never succumbs to old-age weariness. “Hard Luck” is a roots-rock stomp; “Seminole Wind Calling” conjures the country-gospel of her breakthrough debut “Delta Dawn;” and “I Don’t Owe You Anything” is a sassy kiss-off from a middle-aged mother who’s had enough. “Darlin, I ain’t growing old with you/I don’t need your front porch swing,” Tucker sings over a down-home acoustic arrangement, fed up and bemused as she disavows a lifetime of working in the service of others. “I raised up all your babies/I don’t owe you anything.”