Red was transfixed. He was standing on the pitcher’s mound, a dusty gray hillock in the middle of Veterans Memorial Field in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and he was staring straight into the most beautiful navel in show business. The navel was visible only when its owner, Tanya Tucker, moved, for it was partially hidden behind the dangling fringe of her skin-tight, white, Elvis-styled suit. Every time it moved, Red moved. He pressed closer to the stage, which was just a series of plywood panels raised two feet above the playing field. He elbowed past two dancing 12-year-old boys, who stopped long enough to give him peculiar glances he didn’t notice.
Tanya was halfway through Presley’s “Burnin’ Love,” a throaty, searing version that would curl your short hairs, and she and the band were pulling out all the stops for the crowd of about 600 attending the Fifth Annual Altoona Fire Fighters Show.
Red stepped in front of a paraplegic in a wheelchair to gain that precious piece of mound right in front of Tanya’s microphone. He was breathing heavily and swaying in time: Gotta hunka hunka burnin’ love. He began clenching and unclenching his fists and drops of sweat broke out on his upper lip and vast forehead. His wife, who gamely clung to one of his arms, had no way of knowing that her 39-year-old husband had just fallen like a lead sash for a 15-year-old. His T-shirt, which barely covered the beer belly, was soaked through with sweat and he was totally oblivious to his surroundings. Hunka hunka burnin’ love! He swayed like a cane pole. Tanya tossed her golden hair, planted her left foot forward and began twitching her lower body.
Her face was a study in wide-eyed childish innocence, but her body had another message and her knee drops and pelvic thrusts raised the temperature several degrees around the stage. During “C.C. Rider,” she leapt off the stage and looked around with a smothered giggle. “I hope my pants didn’t rip,” she said, casually. Full beads of sweat popped off Red’s face; he craned his neck to inspect the possible rip. He was visibly perturbed as Tanya enticed an eight-year-old boy to her with a wiggling finger, then bent over and kissed him.
Even before Tanya finished her last number, Red was off and first in line at the table at stage right, where her brother Don was selling her albums for $6 and her 8-track tapes for $7. He found a 10 in his worn wallet and bought a tape.
Tanya barely made it back to her bus before the stampede. About two hundred subteens swarmed the stage, trampling several of their own. She hurriedly locked the door, changed into a yellow sunsuit and put Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown tape on the bus’s sound system before opening a window to sign autographs. Red waited 45 minutes until the crush of children around the bus subsided. Then he wordlessly handed Tanya the tape to be signed. His jaw muscles were working furiously and it was obvious he was rehearsing a line or two to pull on her. Finally he blurted one out: “Doncha get tired a writin’ your name all day?” It didn’t sound as suave as he had imagined and a sick grin was frozen on his face. Tanya looked up momentarily with a bright smile: “Did you say writing or riding?”
He thought momentarily, phrases flashing across his lips, and finally exclaimed: “Both!”
Tanya smiled. “Yeah, I get a little tired.” She looked back down to the stack of tapes she was signing with a big “T,” after which came “anya” and “ucker” and a happy face.
Red managed one more response: “Yeah!” After that, he got tense and became almost rigid. His mouth half-opened once but nothing came out and, at last, with a spasmodic jerk he turned on his heel and grabbed his wife and stalked off. He’d had his moment and blown it. Tanya didn’t even notice.
When she was 13 — two years ago — Tanya Denise Tucker found herself on a rocket. She doesn’t know how far or how fast it will take her-she professes not to think about it much-but she’s determined to hang on and give it one hell of a ride. If her instincts support her ambition, she fully intends to be the next Elvis. Child stars, especially in C&W where Tanya got started, have not been that rare-or successful. Brenda Lee is Tanya’s best-known parallel. She had her first hit at age 15. Now 29, she has gone through 10 years of the hits just not coming; today, she is back on the country charts with “Big Four-Poster Bed.” In Nashville there’s the case of Troy Hess, nine-years-old and a recording artist since age three. But his taste, spoonfed him by his father, runs to songs called “Mama, Don’t Go Topless” and “The Attempted Assassination of George Wallace.” Troy can be found on Broadway in Nashville singing for tourists.
Tanya Tucker struck an immediate chord in the country audience. She has had five Number One country hits in two years, including “Delta Dawn,” “Blood Red and Going Down,” and “Would You Lay with Me (in a Field of Stone).” She has Nashville’s top producer, Billy Sherrill-his other major artist is Charlie Rich-working for her. She has limitless ambition and energy, complete backing from her family and a powerful, instantly identifiable voice-low, brassy and vibrating, like a country Ste. Marie. And she has a natural stage presence that is all things to all people.