Tanya Tucker, unmistakable with her neon pink hairdo, is sitting at the bar — “my office,” she calls it — of an old-school Italian eatery in Nashville’s midtown neighborhood. The 60-year-old country singer who shot to fame with “Delta Dawn” in 1972 at 13 and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone at 15, has just finished her lunch of Chicken à la Tanya, an off-menu dish made at her request, and a dirty martini. Spying Miranda Lambert leaving the restaurant, she hustles outside to say hi and pitch her a song that her oldest daughter Presley has written about smoking pot in a parking lot.
Tucker is trying to find a third female voice to join them on the song and thinks Lambert would be perfect. “Or Cardi B,” she says when she’s back at the bar. She came close to having some facetime with the “Money” rapper earlier this summer at Bonnaroo, where she sang her new song “The Wheels of Laredo” with Brandi Carlile. “I was pissed because I didn’t get to meet her,” Tucker says.
She’s been all but joined at the hip with Carlile however, performing with her at awards shows and festivals. The Grammy-winning Americana singer-songwriter co-produced Tucker’s new album While I’m Livin’ with Shooter Jennings and has made it her mission to do for Tucker and her legacy what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash with his American Recordings.
“She hasn’t been given the respect she deserves because she was a child star,” says Carlile. “As she grew up and fell on hard times, I don’t think she was given the same grace an artist like Waylon and Willie and Cash were given for the times that they maybe didn’t live up to their own standards of healthfulness. She should be lauded in the same way that so many of these amazing outlaw men are.”
Tucker certainly lived an outlaw life similar to those country idols, especially when it came to her high-profile romances. She never married but dated plenty, linking up with Merle Haggard, Don Johnson and, most famously, Glen Campbell when she was 22 and he 44. “If we’d met later on, when I realized what kind of love we had, we’d probably have died together,” she says.
She also got hooked on cocaine and entered the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment in 1988. “I knew once I tried it that it would help me lose weight, and I felt a little overweight,” she says of her introduction to the drug. These days, she enjoys her vodka martinis, the occasional cigarette, and her weed pen, which she puffs on after lunch.
The hardest behavior for her to kick, she says, has been her inability to trust. After her father-manager Beau Tucker died in 2006, she lost her great protector (she salutes him with the song “The Day My Heart Goes Still” on While I’m Livin‘). “I cannot ever trust like that again,” she says.
Even when she met Carlile, her biggest champion, it took some persuading to agree to record an album of unfamiliar songs, most written especially for her by Carlile and her collaborators, the twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Just days before sessions were to begin at Sunset Sound in L.A., Tucker called Jennings to cancel.
“I said, ‘Shooter, I don’t think these songs are right for me. I don’t hear no ‘Luckenbach,’ I don’t hear no ‘Delta Dawn.'”
After Jennings, who grew up around Tucker (she calls him “Lil’ Waylon”), appealed to their shared history, she relented and showed up ready to flex a voice that Carlile describes as “singular” and “tough.” It complements Tucker’s hard-as-nails, no-bullshit image. “If somebody pinches my ass, I’ll knock the shit out of them,” she says when asked about sexual harassment in the music industry. “I got no problems with that.”
But for all her brash talk, Tucker reveals a softer side on While I’m Livin’. She recalls lean years traveling with her dad on “Rich,” which plays like her own “Coat of Many Colors” story, and delivers a vulnerable cover of the Miranda Lambert smash “The House That Built Me.” In “Bring My Flowers Now,” the album’s high point, she sings about wishing she had been a better daughter to her mother Juanita, who died in 2012. Tucker wrote the piano ballad with Carlile in the studio and recorded it before the ink was dry. “We all think we’ve got the time, until we don’t,” goes its most gut-wrenching line.
Tucker is hesitant to describe While I’m Livin’ as a comeback. “My least favorite word,” she says. But she’s feeling nostalgic and begins to reminisce about her child star days, like the time she met Elvis and turned her cheek when he tried to kiss her.
She doesn’t know who Mason Ramsey is, but raises an eyebrow when told the 12-year-old country singer yodeled his way to a record deal. “He’s a yodeler? Better have another gig too.”
She also remembers all the makeup she had to wear for her 1974 Rolling Stone photo shoot. “I went, ‘My dad ain’t never gonna like this,'” Tucker says and suggests doing another cover, one that plays off the original’s headline of “Hi, I’m Tanya Tucker, I’m 15, You’re gonna hear from me.”
“It should be, ‘Forty years later, I’m Tanya Tucker,'” she says, “‘and you’re still hearing from my ass.'”