Seventeen years before future teenaged superstar Taylor Swift was even born, Tanya Tucker, another teen with a remarkably mature voice and an impossibly strong sense of self, debuted on the country chart with “Delta Dawn.” The haunting story of a 41-year-old woman who wanders the streets of Brownsville, Tennessee, “looking for a mysterious dark-haired man” was more than some adult singers could have tackled at the time. But for the mature-beyond-her years Tucker, the song, which Nashville record producer Billy Sherrill first heard Bette Midler sing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, became a Top 10 country hit in 1972.
Remarkably, the Texas-born Tucker was just 13 at the time she recorded it. She would reach Number One on the Billboard country chart for the first time a year later with “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and follow that with “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” and “Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone).” Other smash hits included “Lizzie and the Rainman,” “San Antonio Stroll” and “Here’s Some Love.” All of that chart-scaling at such a young age led to the history-making achievement of 1974, when the feisty teen with the Elvis growl in her voice graced the cover of Rolling Stone with the prophetic headline, “Hi, I’m Tanya Tucker, I’m 15, You’re Gonna Hear From Me.” A year later, she signed a recording contract worth $1.4 million.
As her career progressed, Tucker’s hard-partying ways – and a series of ill-fated romances, including a tabloid-splashed one with fellow performer Glen Campbell – nearly overshadowed and threatened to outright extinguish the talent that had come to light at such an early age. After a stint at the Betty Ford Clinic and a dry spell at country radio, Tucker returned with another hot streak that included such Eighties and Nineties radio staples as “Strong Enough to Bend,” “Walking Shoes,” “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane” and “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love,” which she recorded with Paul Overstreet and Paul Davis. On the night she gave birth to her second child, son Beau Grayson, Tucker was named the 1991 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, an honor that was long overdue. The mother of older daughter Presley and younger daughter Layla, Tanya penned her autobiography, Nickel Dreams, in 1997, with music journalist Patsi Bale Cox. In 2009, she released her most recent album, My Turn. She continues to perform, as well as work on new music.
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Although her early success in country music would leave her just as much to live up to as her wild-child reputation would leave her plenty to live down, Tucker is a shoo-in for future Hall of Fame induction. On Friday, November 14th, a special exhibit devoted to her life and career opened at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Rolling Stone Country was invited to preview some of the artifacts in the exhibit, which includes a denim suit with rhinestones spelling out “Delta Dawn,” various gowns she’s worn at awards shows and special events, and a custom-made pink motorcycle. There’s also her very first record player, a series of Elvis Presley concert tickets (not surprising for someone who was quickly branded the “female Elvis”) and, of course, her own personal copy of that 1974 Rolling Stone issue. Tucker, now 56, sat down with Rolling Stone to talk about the items in the exhibit and to share some of the memories they conjure up for her today.
Have you always kept and collected memorabilia from your career?
Like a pack rat! But as much as whatever I still have, what I’ve given away or lost is much greater, I’m sure. Like, where’s that TNT [album cover] outfit? I have no idea. There’s a watch that Glen Campbell gave me that he bought in Geneva, Switzerland. I can’t find that. I’ve got a beautiful ring that he gave me, and I would like to recover that. But I’ve got just a little bit of pretty much every era of my life. You know who was good at that? George Jones. He was kind of OCD. You’d see his closet; you could eat breakfast in there.
Your little record player in the exhibit is so sweet. When did you get that?
I got it when I was nine years old.
What was the first 45 that you ever had?
It was probably Elvis Presley, [singing in her best Elvis-like voice] “Don’t Cry Daddy.” That record player is what I used to play a song for George Jones. I ran into him one night on the lake with [Nashville restaurateur] Mario [Ferarri]. I pulled up my boat and hitched it up to Mario’s big boat. I said, “Man, Possum, I’ve got a song for you. It’s amazing I saw you today. But you’re gonna have to come out to my ranch to get it.” Sure enough, it wasn’t but a week later and here he was in his station wagon, with his Bermuda shorts on and one of those old wife-beaters. He came all the way out to the ranch all by himself? My mother answered the door and she said to me, [whispers], “Tanya, George Jones is at the door!” That’s her hero. I said, “Well, just get him some iced tea. I know what he came for but I’m not quite prepared. I thought, “What am I going to play [the record] on?” So I went and got that little turntable and I played him “Bartender’s Blues” by James Taylor. I said, “Now, you cut that and you’ll have you a hit.” So four months later he cut it. [The song became a Top 10 hit for Jones in 1978.]
Did you have a pretty big collection of records when you were growing up?
I did. I remember distinctively seeing Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” which Glen played on. Then next to it, I’d see an Elvis or a Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette.
Were you the kind of kid singing with the hairbrush in the mirror?
Oh yeah, the mirror is your best rehearsing tool. Because you’ve got to know how you look. People might think you’re vain, but that’s not what it’s about. I’ve always said rehearsal halls should be fully mirrored, because the band can see how shitty they look sometimes! It’s a real learning tool.
Another of the artifacts is your copy of Rolling Stone with the legendary cover story about you. What do you think when you look back at that now?
Well, I can’t believe Chet [Flippo] has passed. [A former Rolling Stone editor and editorial director at CMT, Flippo, who wrote the cover story about Tucker, died in 2013]. He toured with us quite a while. I sit back and think, “Can you imagine what would’ve happened if Chet hadn’t done that article?” Never mind me being on the cover. I had no connection to Rolling Stone. When I was a kid, do you think I read Rolling Stone? I was reading Tiger Beat, for God’s sake. I was Donny Osmond’s biggest fan. I had no earthly idea. But everybody kept talking about it and I’m going, “OK, but we ain’t got the cover for Country Music magazine yet.” That would have impressed me a little bit more at that time. The Rolling Stone photographer did some great shots. I had so much fun doing that session because it was like I was New York vogue. When I look back on it I think it’s pretty cool. I don’t know why you don’t do a recap: “I’m Tanya Tucker, I’m 56, and you’re still hearin’ from my ass!”
When you look back, do you think country music was ready for you at the time?
The first time I came to Nashville, that’s when I should have gotten started. I was ready. But they weren’t ready for me. Nine years old, singing “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man”? My dad always said, “Tanya, you’ve got two big problems. One is you’re a girl and the other is you’re a nine-year-old girl. You’re gonna have to sing it with twice as much feeling as the person that made the hit on it. Not sing it better, but with twice as much feeling in the song.” My dad would make me sing it over and over and over. “Sing it like Hank Williams. Lay right in there.”
You still seem very driven. Do you have the same sense of urgency about your career and other things?
It’s never gone away. I think, “I’m running out of time, I’m running out of time.” But, then again, I enjoy kicking back. But if I kick back too much, I think I’m lazy. I’m not doing what I should be doing. “Oh, there’s a spot right there. I need to clean that.” I had that from the beginning, “Hey, I’m nine years old, let’s get to it!” The urgency is still there but it’s there in a different way. I’m more urgent to help others and in creating a better world. I know it sounds really lame but if I can use my music to help others, then that’s what I’d like to do. It’s about making this world a better place and trying to change things that have been wrong a long time.
In using music to help others, does that include new music to be released anytime soon?
We need to get this music out. Garth [Brooks] did it finally. He did what I tried to do, but I just had the wrong group of people around me. He did it the right way. But that’s all a bridge over untroubled water. It depends on what part of the river you’re on, what bridge you’re on. I’ve burned a few and I’ve built a few. Someone told me one time that I’m part of the old that can hang with the new [artists]. You just might be the bridge between the two: Tanya “The Bridge” Tucker [Laughs].
Do you have a particular memory of when you realized your own music was universal?
I was riding a jet-ski in the Bahamas because my daughter wanted to do it. I was sitting there waiting on her and this guy, we started talking about music, he said, “Hey, are you famous, are you a singer?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You know who my favorite singer is?” I said, “Who? Elvis?” He said, “Aw, he’s OK…. Paul Davis. He’s my favorite.” This is a black guy with a jet-ski rental place in the Bahamas. He couldn’t have said anything better to me. It was like Paul [who passed away in 2008] was saying, “Hey, T, I’m up here watching you.”
Being in such a position, what kind of lessons do you think you could impart to artists on both sides?
Oh my gosh, I have too many answers to that question! My dad always said, “When you answer that, tell ’em, ‘Listen to your parents.'”
One of the things in the exhibit that seems to be connected to how you’ve controlled your career and your image is the jar of Tanya Tucker salsa. It’s one thing to have your name on a record but it’s another to have it on…
On a product that’s… uh, what’s the word? Defective! [Laughs] They went in and changed my recipe. It didn’t taste anything like what I did. They wanted cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s such an insidious world. Because you got to have the eye line [on store shelves]. Mine might be down on the bottom row. I think we should not be worried about selling to the masses. We should be worried about having a beautiful product in a beautiful jar that tastes like I wanted it to taste. And that wasn’t even close. It was the wrong people, too. I have managed to be successful through more wrong people trying to kill my career than anybody I’ve ever known!
What you’ve just said goes back perfectly to lessons you’ve learned. It doesn’t have to be about salsa. It can be about anything.
Yes! Be careful and be on top of things. Like Taylor Swift. She ain’t no pushover. She’s like Dolly [Parton]. She’ll cuss you out and you’ll like it. Me, I’ve got to get all mad before I can… there’s just too much anger everywhere. I think the best thing to do is to constantly be grateful. Be thankful even for the bad times. I would’ve listened a lot more to my dad, if I had it to do over, because I would have been a lot bigger star. Now I’m on my own, he’s not here. [Beau Tucker passed away in 2006]. If I can make him proud before I die, that’s all I need to do. I used to think my dad and God were the same, not two separate entities. [Laughs] Of course, I want to make God proud but I want to make my dad proud for the reasons that my dad would be proud.