With the release this week of her new album While I’m Livin’, Tanya Tucker proves once again that she’s among the finest, most unique country singers on the planet. Through nearly 50 years of hits, professional highs and a few well-publicized lows, the Seminole, Texas, native has established herself as a preternaturally gifted entertainer and a force to be reckoned with. Yet, one gnawing question remains: Why is she not yet in the Country Music Hall of Fame? In celebration of While I’m Livin’, we look at 10 of Tucker’s most captivating performances through the years.
Delivered with bold conviction, the subject matter of 13-year-old Tucker’s Top Ten debut single didn’t quite jibe with her tender age. But she managed to pull it off with a tremulous vocal that suggested maturity and wisdom beyond her years. Tucker’s signature song (in spite of numerous covers in 1972 alone), it’s now a bona fide country classic thanks to her chilling rendition.
“What’s Your Mama’s Name”
The forlorn tale of a man in search of his former lover and a young daughter, Tucker’s captivating vocals once again walk the fine line between childhood innocence and worldly womanhood. Ten months after her debut single, her third hit became her first Number One country song and the title track of Tucker’s sophomore LP.
“Blood Red and Goin’ Down”
A grisly murder ballad, this one cast Tucker in a lead role as a 10-year-old caught in the middle of her parents’ doomed union. Pulsing with Southern Gothic drama and resulting in a pair of bodies “soakin’ up the sawdust” on a barroom floor, she surveys the scene with a mix of turmoil and unsettling matter-of-factness.
“Together Again” (with George Jones)
Tucker’s reverence for Jones and her playfulness at the seductive nature of his stone-country vocals come through immediately in this early Eighties performance of the Buck Owens hit, which was simultaneous with her romance with Glen Campbell. She feigns a swoon and calls out for him just as Jones starts singing, but their honky-tonk chemistry is no mere act.
One of a handful of women often called the “Female Elvis,” Tucker entered her rebellious 20s with the rock-tinged TNT LP, which included this blistering version of “Heartbreak Hotel.” In spite of its rock leanings, the record, which also includes a mesmerizing take on John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” became the singer’s second-highest-charting country album. Splashing Tanya on the album cover with a microphone cord clenched between her black-leather-clad thighs was perhaps the most overt example of a galvanizing crossover experiment.
Taped onstage in 2011, during Connie Smith’s Artist-in-Residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Tucker demurs as Smith introduces her as a “fine songwriter.” Yet, there’s plenty of evidence in this introspective cut, penned with Eddy Raven and Frank J. Meyers. A heartbreaking postmortem of a doomed romance, it emerged as the title tune of the unjustly overlooked 1982 LP she made for Arista Records, not long after her relationship with Glen Campbell imploded.
“Down to My Last Teardrop”
A post-rehab tabloid sensation by the late Eighties and early Nineties, Tucker was in need of a career reboot and it would arrive, thanks in part to the works of songwriters including Paul Overstreet, Don Schlitz, and Beth Nielsen Chapman. This bubbly Paul Davis-penned tune was among the very best of the era. Tucker’s effervescent personality was well-suited to the golden age of country-music video and she takes full advantage of her gifts in this clip, which came just ahead of her long-deserved CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy.
“Take Me Back to Tulsa” (with Presley Tucker)
“She’s just like me, late to the gig,” Tucker jokes of her eldest daughter, Presley, while introducing her to an audience. Ripping into the Bob Wills Western swing classic and backed by a cracking band, the two play with the song’s lyrics, dance and prance across the stage, and in the process Presley proves she is just like her mom, with a great set of pipes and charismatic stage presence.
“Old Weakness (Comin’ on Strong)”
Before this year, Tucker’s most recent album of all-new material was the 2002 release Tanya. A sparkling array of new tunes and well-chosen covers, it kicked off with one of two songs previously recorded by Patty Loveless (the other being “Over My Shoulder”). This country rocker, captured live in concert, allowed Tucker to emphasize her raspiest vocals and the cool swagger she exudes so effortlessly.
Now sporting hot pink hair, the older, wiser but no less confirming Tucker has teamed with co-producers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings for While I’m Livin’, a stunning, exuberant album that ranks among the year’s best. “Nobody’s fault and I won’t pass the buck, was my own hard head and little bit of hard luck,” she sings in this cocksure cover of a tune by obscure Houston hard-rockers Josefus. Sure, she’s survived a few brushes with hard luck, but the 60-year-old Texas tornado has survived and continues to thrive, with cyclonic energy, fierce independence, and a healthy dose of couldn’t-give-a-shit.