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Tanya Tucker: The Teenage Teaser

Grown men follow her from town to town. Young boys camp outside her door. Fans call her the female Elvis, and she loves it. It’s cool, it’s neat

Tanya Tucker

Tanya Tucker, circa 1970s.

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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.

She consciously defies labels. MCs throughout the country pronounce her “delightful.” Nashville’s country stars think of her as a real pro. Middle-aged audiences describe her as a charming entertainer. Lechers see her as a torrid teenaged sex-pot and prepubescent boys look on her as a Holy Grail. And all she wants to do is sing.

On a sweltering summer afternoon in Uvalde, a southwest Texas town of 10,000, Tanya Tucker and Johnny Rodriguez were at the home of a friend of their families, a stereotypically tall Texas Ranger named Joaquin Jackson. He had decided to throw a little (32 gallons of) beer-and-barbecue party for about 50 friends just before the concert at the Uvalde Civic Center.

Tanya toured this summer with Rodriguez, the 21-year-old Chicano country singer from Sabinal, a dusty settlement 20 miles east of Uvalde.

Rodriguez, a dusky, aquiline-nosed six-footer, flashed a Valentino smile and Tanya delivered perfunctory greetings. As she walked out of the house and into the backyard, she was followed closely by her father, Bo. Pale and wavy-haired, Bo is a muscular, chain-smoking, vaguely owlish, outgoing former prospector. He shook hands gingerly; both his arms had been broken in a recent car wreck when he was rushing Tanya to a date. His wife Juanita’s back had been broken in the wreck and she had left a hospital just the day before this Uvalde date. Bo had his arm casts off so he could get back to driving the big Caddy and managing his daughter’s tour.

Tanya Tucker is never alone, never permitted to go off by herself. One of the Tucker clan or a trusted friend is with her at all times. Don, 30, a shorter, stocky version of Bo, acts as her driver and road manager and even accompanies her into public restrooms. If other women are there, he asks them to leave. There is some intangible fear that she might be a kidnap target and a very real apprehension about some of the followers she attracts.

An attractive 15-year-old in body-fitting outfits singing “Would You Lay with Me” draws a peculiar cross-section of fans. Lesbians, for one thing, Don Tucker said. Also horny males of all ages. After a Little Rock show, a man there began following her bus with his Mustang and stayed with the tour for two weeks until fatigue caused him to run off the road one night. Adolescent males camp outside her motel-room door. In Altoona, a 14-year-old tries to explain for himself and a buddy: “Tanya is our age and she’s a good singer. We love her. She’s the best.” She also inspires a fierce protective spirit. Truckers watch for the Tanya Tucker bus and via their citizens-band radios keep Don advised of the location of “Smokies” (cops) so he’ll know when to gear the tour bus down from its maximum speed of 82 mph. Policemen gravitate to her side at concerts, eager to lend a stiff arm to discourage persistent fans. Give them an autograph and a smile and they’ll follow her anywhere.

Bo Tucker and “Happy” Shahan, owner of the Alamo Village, a nearby tourist ranch where Rodriguez was first discovered by Tom T. Hall, led the way back into the parlor where, flanked by their beaming mothers, Tanya and Johnny had finished “Delta Dawn” and were working through “Pass Me By.” One of Rodriguez’s nephews was crawling over the carpet with a toy M-81 tank; another was pulling Joaquin Jackson’s trophies off shelves. But lulled by beer, meat and music, no one minded, and the living-room show continued until an hour before showtime.

Happy herded the crew into the yard. “Hot damn,” he yelled. “Is Tanya ‘Rodriguez’ ready?”

“I’m ready, Happy.” She tripped out into the yard, stopped and studied the pink-and-gray marble-streaked sunset. She turned to Shahan. “You know where I wanta be? I wanta be out at your ranch, ridin’.”

Happy embraced her. “Darlin’, you love horses so much, I’m just gone give you one. You come out to the ranch tomorrow and take your pick.” She did.

A ragged caravan of huge cars soon arrived at the Civic Center, a pink-brick Spanish shell surrounded by palm trees. Tanya and Johnny went into the dressing room, which was a Winnebago parked outside the back door.

Inside, perhaps a thousand country fans were lugging picnic coolers to long folding tables that were scattered around the hardwood dance floor. Due to local laws, this was a “brown bag” dance. No alcohol was sold but you could bring in liquor in paper bags or beer in coolers. Moms and Pops sat down at the tables and commenced to drinking while the youn’uns crowded around the stage and waited for their sex symbols. The 15-year-old girls were primed for Rodriguez, while their younger brothers were calling for Tanya. A perfect package show.

Tanya, in brown leathers, pranced inside the Winnebago: “I saw the cutest lil’ ole puppy dog today on the road. I just wanted to take him home with me.” The local promoter gave her thigh an obvious squeeze, and she pretended not to notice.

Tanya opened the show and from the first had to dodge the outstretched hands of high-spirited young ranch hands. Still, there was no encore. She was playing with a pickup band and the crowd was there for Rodriguez. 

Tanya Tucker

The next morning, the Rodriguez and Tucker clans gathered at Shahan’s Alamo Village. Bo was sitting on a rough-hewen bench outside the Cantina, the Village’s showroom. Tanya and Johnny were off riding Shahan’s horses and shooting Joaquin Jackson’s machine guns and .357 Magnum pistols in the desert.

Bo and Juanita married in Denver City, Texas, when both were 15, and they chased around the country, first in search of oil, then of copper. Tanya was born October 10th, 1958, in Seminole, Texas, near the New Mexico border. From there, the Tuckers drifted throughout the Southwest, Bo getting work where he could find it. He drove heavy equipment, flew planes and prospected for copper in Arizona and Nevada.

Bo Tucker alternated between pulling on a toothpick and a Winston while he talked. “Tanya was tryin’ to sing as a child,” he said. “I never even thought about her singing till one day she walked up and said, ‘Daddy, you wanta hear me sing a song?’ I said, ‘Sweetheart, you couldn’t sing your way out of a paper sack.’ She backed up about 10 foot and showed me she could sing. She let me have it.”

“After that, we’d come to town to the fairs to see Ernest Tubbs or Mel Tillis or Leroy Van Dyke and she’d wanta sing with ’em. She was nine then and they’d let her and she’d just tear the crowd up. She’d sing at anything: The Vets club around Henderson, Nevada, where we lived, they got to callin’ her the ‘Little Cheatin’ Heart Girl’ on accounta her singin’ that song. And they got to callin’ her the Girl with the Golden Voice and first one thing and another.”

“She told me she wanted to make a record. She thought all you had to do was go down to Nashville and make one and start sellin’ it to everybody that came along.” Tanya made some tapes, singing “For the Good Times” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” and Bo gave them to a woman composer he’d heard of. She’d written songs for Presley. She and Tanya then contacted Sherrill. “They pulled him away from one a them dice tables at the Riviera in Vegas and got him to listen. He called us into Nashville and he cut that ‘Delta Dawn.’ Her and Billy are just like bread ‘n butter in the studio. He found the song for her and at first she didn’t like it. Then she got to workin’ on it up in the room and she said, ‘Daddy, that’s a monster.’ Of course, it became a Number One hit. Donald, where’s Tanya?” He turned suddenly to Don, who got up without a word and loped off in search of Tanya, whom Bo had just seen galloping by on a chestnut mare.

“Yeah,” Bo continued, “Tanya just done it on her own. I once drove her 800 miles to let her do two numbers on the Judy Lynn show, ’cause she wanted to do it.”

It suddenly became crystal clear that, rather than the Tuckers pushing her into show business as some writers have claimed, she was leading and the Tucker family was following. The ambition and drive were hers entirely.

“She has a natural ability,” said Bo, “to do just about whatever she wants. Like ridin’ a horse. I bought a wild one and I worried a little bit about it but she said, ‘No, daddy, that’s the one I want.’ And she broke it.”

“She’ll prob’ly wind up in movies. That’s what she likes. She done a little show with Robert Redford [Jeremiah Johnson], just a bit part but she seemed natural for it. She was just as relaxed as could be.”

“We just let her breeze along and do it the way she wants to. She don’t worry about her money; that don’t mean nothin’ to her. She was drawin’ an allowance of $250 a week and I cut it back to $125 ’cause she wasn’t spendin’ hardly nothin’. Some of these bookers try to cheat us. This ol’ boy the other night said somebody had counterfeited a buncha tickets. I said, ‘Buddy, I couldn’t face that little girl in the mornin’ if I let you cheat me’.”

“We’re bein’ very careful with finances. I don’t want her to wake up some mornin’ and havta ask, ‘Daddy, where’s my money?’ But I’ll tell you what: That little girl’s gone be a millionaire before she’s 16. And I got a $5-million insurance umbrella over her head right now. Yessir, she made a hit record before she really went onstage. Before anyone really heard her. She’s gettin’ into pop now. We’re lettin’ the people decide what she is.”

“She played the Flamingo in Vegas and they wanted her back, but I wanta save her for the big rooms. Here’s the thing: You put one in there too quick, it don’t draw. If you hurt an artist in one place, it takes a long time to get over it. That’s the secret. You build a singer just like you do a fighter. If you fight him against another fighter, too quick, you might get him whipped. You wait till the right time and then you got the heavyweight champion. That’s the way Colonel Parker done it.”

Tanya and Rodriguez finished an impromptu singing session in the Cantina and she came over to talk. She fixed me with an unwavering gaze and talked without hesitation.

“No,” she said, “I never even think about the adult world or the child world. All my life I’ve been around adults except when I went to school. Maybe it’s my dad’s fault-he takes credit for that because he’s the one who brought me up and he’d tell me things and make me understand and that’s the way I saw it and I just grew up older than I am, I guess. People say I act older and look older and talk older and sing older, but I don’t know. You don’t find many 15-year-olds with a strong voice. To me-I think everybody should be able to sing, but it’s not that easy. Just like I can’t play guitar or walk a high wire. That’s easy to some people.”

She ordered a Coke and continued. “I never was outgoing in school. I really don’t know that I’ll ever regret missing a ‘normal’ childhood. I don’t think so, because I’m gettin’ to do so many things that other kids can never do. Of course, sometimes when I would miss a dance at school I would think, ooohhh, why can’t I get outta this business? But really, where will those kids be five years from now? What will they be doing? I just wouldn’t be satisfied with a $75-a-week job as a secretary or something. We need ’em, but I just wouldn’t be satisfied.” 

“To me, $5000 a night isn’t good enough right now, you know.” She laughed with disarming charm and half-sneezed: “Oohh, excuse me, I think I’ve got a cold. If you make more money, you seem to want more, you know, it’s weird. No, I never thought consciously I’d be a professional singer, but my dad did. I just couldn’t believe it’d happen to me.”

“Every time I hear those original demo tapes I think, ‘Oh, my Lord, how could he ever have signed me.’ My voice was terrible back then. Billy thought my voice had possibilities. He was a little leery, you know, of signing up a 13-year-old girl and everybody was puttin’ him down and sayin’, ‘Well, her voice’s gonna change and Billy’ll be in bad shape,’ but my voice just kept gettin’ better ‘n better and stronger ‘n stronger.”

“When I started, I was kinda dead country-country was the only way. But pop is good. Kids sometimes have a bad outlook on country music because they’ll hear a record that even I don’t like. Most of my songs–I have rock fans and one of ’em told me about ‘Horseshoe Bend.’ He said, ‘The only thing country about that song is the words.’ They like it because it suits the country people and the rock people. I think that’s good because I want to suit everybody. I don’t wanta be labeled just a country singer. Right now I guess I am but I’d rather, you know, be labeled like Elvis.”

After the tour with Rodriguez, Bo and Tanya expanded operations. They bought Sonny James’s old Flxible bus and painted “Tanya Tucker” on the side in blue and gold. They hired a tight five-piece band that was as proficient with rock as with country. They worked up a new routine that included current pop as well as country hits. “Burnin’ Love” and “Steamroller Blues” became the anchors of her set. She started doing 200 one-nighters a year.

Her band worked up an elaborate introduction to build the suspense before her appearance onstage. Her stage movements were natural to her, but she worked more on close crowd contact. She quit wearing her hair in pigtails and she discovered makeup. Stardust blue eyeshadow, Maybelline Ultrafrost, Charlie makeup and Clairol’s Crazy Curl. A Grant’s electric hair curler accompanied her on the road. She also quit wearing jeans and dresses and found tight-pants outfits that complimented her 5’4″, 115-pound frame. She no longer resembled a child.

She also got booked on a year’s schedule of fairs and rodeos, a crazy schedule of one-nighters six and 700 miles apart. She had already quit school during her freshman year and told interviewers she would take correspondence courses, but the touring left her precious little time for anything. She crossed and crisscrossed the heartland of America countless times, racing in one typical week from Culpeper, Virginia, to Agawam, Massachusetts, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Wyandotte, Michigan, to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Hayward, California, and back to Alexandria, Minnesota.

On the way from Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Peoria, Illinois, Tanya awoke, got off the bus and saw the restaurant: a Dutch Pantry. She folded her arms and tapped her right foot, a danger signal that Don ignored. “I ain’t eatin’ here,” she said. “I ate at one of these in Tennessee and it was terrible. I ain’t doin’ it. I’m goin’ to that Colonel Sanders down there.” She gestured to a red-and-white Kentucky Fried Chicken stand half a mile down the road. Don was impatient: “No you ain’t, Punkin. You can’t go down there alone. We’re gonna eat here.”

The standoff continued until I finally said that I’d rather eat chicken and I’d take responsibility for Tanya’s safety.

We strode off down the blacktop. “Yeah,” she replied to a question. “I sure do get tired of bein’ chaperoned.” She walked faster and began singing “The Air That I Breathe” at the top of her lungs. A car slowed and three teenaged occupants studied her closely: Is it?-naw, it can’t be, and they roared off. Inside the Colonel’s chicken emporium, she tied into a deluxe dinner and traded gross food jokes. She particularly liked ones about crispy critters and fried chicken feet. “I can’t talk like this around daddy,” she confided. “He gets sick if I even mention snakes. After I saw The Exorcist, I went out and ordered some split-pea soup.” She leaned back and roared with laughter and the half-dozen patrons looked around questioningly. You’re not safe even in Cambridge, Ohio.

“This business of constantly being chaperoned,” I asked again, “doesn’t it get to you sometimes?” “Yeah, it does,” she nodded, “but sometimes when I’m alone, man, I go outta my head. I mean, I like to be alone with someone I know, like my boyfriend Mike, and not be bothered. Like me and my boyfriend can go do somethin’ and not be bothered. But I get kinda tired when people come up and ask for your autograph when you just wanta have fun or somethin’. That’s the way it goes, I guess.”

“But, naw, I haven’t worried about bein’ kidnapped. There’s too many other people they’d wanta get. Somebody like Ford’s daughter would have more money. Course, if they’re crazy, you couldn’t tell. That’s why my dad, he looks out for it.”

“You haven’t met Mike, have you? He’s pretty cool. I’ll show you some pictures. He’s a cowboy and I like cowboys. It’s funny-people don’t really want me to have a boyfriend. They don’t wanta hear about it. Parents-they want me to sing and then go home and cook or somethin’. They have their fantasy of me. Well, just like me-I wanta think that Elvis is perfect.”

“Maybe then,” I said, “you shouldn’t meet him.” “You’re right,” she replied.

Many hours later, the tour members awoke to find themselves pulled off Iowa Highway 14, the bus tucked into a little gravel driveway between Ed’s Standard Service Station and the Crest Motel. There were no other structures visible in either direction: nothing but endless rows of corn. The sun was straight overhead and there was not a cloud in the sky and it was stiflingly hot. The slightest breeze carried with it a stomach-turning stench of manure. The air-conditioning on the Flxible was broken and as Bo Tucker shut off the engine and stood up, his sweat-stained trousers and shirt stuck to the seat. He had not slept, having dogged in from Peoria, and he was going to be up the rest of the day working on the air-conditioning. 

Tanya Tucker

Meanwhile, Tanya tossed fitfully on her bunk in the rear of the bus. After leaving Peoria, she had sat up telling ghost stories late into the night. She had done three good shows in Peoria, at the Heart of Illinois Fair there, even upstaging Loretta Lynn, who was the fair’s headliner. Lynn’s sidemen paid her a compliment when they came over to the bus to swap Loretta’s tapes for Tanya’s. “We want to hear some good music, somethin’ besides country for a change,” one had said.

Tanya had been a virtual prisoner the entire day. Besides the shows at 2:30, 6:30 and 9:30, she sat for three local interviews and three lengthy autograph sessions.

Her menu for the day consisted of two tacos, an apple fritter, a lemonade and a sno-cone. After her last show, she had half an hour to herself before the Flxible pulled out for the next fair, in Allison, Iowa, and she looked forward to a swim at the motel. No soap, said the motel manager, pool’s closed. She decided to eat instead. The only restaurant open in downtown Peoria, a bar/cafe called the Copper Kitchen, wouldn’t serve her because she is a minor. One of her band cried out in frustration, “Let’s just kick in some of these goddamn windows. So this is how it plays in Peoria.” Tanya laughed, breaking the tension: “I’m with you, brother!”

The next morning she slept late while Don unpacked the bus and Bo hiked over to Ed’s service station for a Coke and a call to the nearest GMC parts house. Alan Kolbi, Tanya’s lead guitarist, woke in the number-two bunk and called sleepily, “Where are we?” “Allison, I-o-way,” replied Rich Dennison, the pianist, from number three. “Well,” Kolbi asked, “do we have rooms? Is there a pool? Is there a damn restaurant? Well, is there a goddamn pinball machine? Jesus Christ.” He turned over in disgust and went back to sleep.

The rest of the band straggled over to Ed’s for a country picker’s breakfast-can of Pepsi, bag of potato chips and a Snickers bar-and set up their floating poker game in the motel’s yard. Bassist Joe Culp walked a mile into Allison in search of a newspaper and came back shaking his head. “They wouldn’t sell me one. The lady said you have to subscribe and then the paper boy’ll brang you a copy. She said they don’t print no extry copies. I’ll be glad this tour gets over with; we done played every weird town in America.”

An hour later, Tanya emerged from the bus and stretched, catlike, then rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She walked languorously up to the poker game, a vision of Southern girlhood: barefoot, wearing cut-off jeans and a snug patchwork blouse that was tied just above her navel. She plucked a dollar bill from Culp’s shirt pocket and threw it on the table: “Deal me in, boys.” After she lost the dollar, she grew bored and located a water hose and turned it on her band. “Them cards was worn out anyway,” Culp shrugged philosophically.

The motel manager came out to look her over. “This useta be a poker-playin’ town,” he tried to strike up a conversation.

Tanya laughed. “But now it won’t draw flies.”

“Well,” he tried again, “whatever happened to them boys that killed Stringbean? That sure upset me.” Dennison broke out laughing. Tanya tactfully suggested they go find the local burger joint.

The Dairy Sweet, Allison’s gathering place, was a pre-fab metal building boiling in the sun. Inside, a cluster of local teenagers downed Cokes before taking their jacked-up Chevies and Fords back out for more high-speed runs up and down Highway 14, which seemed to be the only local diversion. No one recognized Tanya, despite a large poster of her on one wall. It was a putrid brown, pink and blue and advertised her and her “country-western band” appearing at the Butler County Fair. She wrinkled her nose with disgust: “That’s the work of my so-called management firm, my ex-management firm. After this tour, we’re doin’ our own bookin’ and I’m takin that ‘country & western’ off the posters. Elvis don’t have any labels.” She winked.

“Hey, Tanya,” Glenn Barber spoke up, “when you gonna name us, when you gonna name the band?”

She looked up from her cheeseburger: “I’m not gonna. Elvis didn’t name his.” The subject was closed.

She was not at all pleased with her show that night. Even though she got two standing ovations, she had to sing off a flatbed truck about 15 yards from the grandstand and the success of her show depends on working with a close crowd, especially with adolescent boys who normally crowd around her stage.

“If I can’t get close to a crowd, I’m dead,” she said.

As the Flxible rolled through the Iowa night, Milwaukee-bound, the poker game started up again and Tanya was singing “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room.”

Would that, I wondered, go over well with her usual audiences? “No,” she laughed, “but I like rock. I like Elton John, the Allman Brothers, Redbone, Dave Loggins, John Denver and Lobo and Lightfoot and uh-Elvis! But not his old stuff. Some girl told me that she thought I was hittin’ some notes Janis Joplin had been tryin’ for and I guess I should take it as a compliment but I don’t see any comparison in our voices. I saw her on Good Night America when they had all the dead singers. Jim Morrison–did you ever meet him? He musta been crazy! Did you ever meet Hendrix? I bet he was way out. It’s too bad they got that way but they should’ve never gotten into it.

“Now,” she said, anticipating my question, “there is drugs in country music but not with the female artists. But it seems like rock music attracts all that. I couldn’t stand to watch Black Oak Arkansas or David Bowie.” She stuck out her tongue with distaste and giggled. “Now I think I like Alice Cooper. Not his stuff, but I like him as a person. He seems to be pretty straight. It’s hard, bein’ straight in that position. Not many people are that tough.”

What about the obvious next step, that of cracking the pop market? “I’m not really sure about what it’ll take to do it. They want me to go into it eventually, because you have a bigger audience and bigger record sales. Not many people can cross over. It’s easier to go from pop to country than from country to pop. Like John Denver is doin’. He’s big in both markets and people just love him. And, uh, Olivia Newton-John, she just happened to get lucky. I’d rather go into it slow and easy. Management is the biggest problem holdin’ country singers back. The singers don’t know what to do and the managers don’t either. I don’t really want a manager.”

“If I did have a rock hit, I don’t know that I’d change anything. I might do a little heavier stuff. I’d still stick with stuff like ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Annie’s Song’ and ‘If You Talk in Your Sleep, Don’t Mention My Name’ and my own songs. Nothin’ real far out, y’know.” She yawned expansively and hugged herself, looking more and more like the little girl she used to be. “I like rock audiences because they show their feelings more. That audience tonight-the old people sat back and sat on their hands. The young people let you know. They show me they really like me. Oh-did I tell you I met Peter Rudge in New York? Well, he wanted me to have dinner with Mick Jagger but I said I didn’t really care to.”

Her face took on the round-eyed innocence that audiences find so engaging. “Can you imagine? Peter wants me and Mick Jagger to perform together in the Orange Bowl. He said he’d get Mick Jagger to put his arm around me. But-I don’t know.”

She grew bored and restive and suddenly reached for my cigarette and, winking at me, pulled out a string of firecrackers and began lighting them one by one and throwing them toward the front of the bus. The series of explosions quickly broke up the poker game: Cards and nickels and dimes flew through the air as the players dived for cover. Don, who was driving, tried to cover his ears, steer the bus and yell at her at the same time. “Goddammit Tanya, cut it out!” She just laughed and dropped a couple of firecrackers under Don’s feet.

“Well,” she said brightly, “that was fun. Where were we? You wanted to know about suits? OK. I’d been wearin’ things like the Delta Dawn suit and country dresses because that’s what all little girls wore. Then I decided, am I gonna be like the other girls or am I gonna be different? I decided to be different. I went shoppin’ one day and found some far-out stuff and found my black suit. It looks like leather and it fits real low, real tight, it fits fantastic. And that suit just started buildin’ my image. I can also imitate Elvis in that suit. I can’t imitate him in a dress. And it doesn’t seem right singin’ ‘Would You Lay with Me’ in a pantsuit. I’d feel ridiculous. And, of course, guys go for it. I had ’em make the white suit then. My dad likes the gold suit but I don’t. I’m havin’ some more made, purple and blue, low-cut pants with a bolero vest. I think my dad’s gonna get me a personal designer for my stage clothes and a personal designer for my everyday clothes.”

“I’m workin’ on some suits for the band. I want them to be the best lookin’ band on the road, the sharpest and-to be the band. Just like Elvis, he’s got the band. I mean, it’s number one. Of course I can’t have that many pieces right now, but I want my band to be the best country band on the road. They are a good band and they’re good guys and don’t give me any trouble. Some men would feel belittled takin’ orders from a 15-year-old girl but I joke with ’em and I can tell ’em to do somethin’ and they’ll do it because they respect me. Hardly anyone in the business associates with their band but I do. They say, ‘Let’s go bowlin’, and I go bowlin’ with ’em or swimmin’ and we have a blast. I’ve become friends with ’em and I’d hate to have to fire any of ’em, that’s the only bad thing.”

By then it was two in the morning and the Flxible rolled along at a steady 82 down the cornfield flanked highway. Her band members got tired and went off to their bunks but her energy showed no signs of flagging. “Goodnight, Rich,” she said fondly, “goodnight Little Joe, Big Joe, Glenn, Al.” Don went off to bed and Bo took over the wheel.

Tanya went around turning off the interior lights until there was only a pale circle of light falling softly over us. For the first time, she seemed infinitely fatigued.

“Yeah,” she said, “sometimes the pressure gets to me. I do get tired. These next few months will be worse because Columbia, between dates, is flyin’ me to radio stations and press interviews. I’ll just take a lotta vitamins and press on. It will be worth it, in the end. People ask me…I would like, I would like to get married, maybe when I’m 18 and then I’d like to semi-retire. Just kinda lay out a while and lay back-then it’d be worth the effort and time. I’d like to do one date for $20,000 and then come back and go fishin’ and raise my cattle and horses. I’d like to be able to turn down a show to go to a horse show instead. Whatever I feel like doin’, I’ll call the agency and say, ‘You got any jobs?’ Noooo-I’d like to stay in it as long as I can, as long as people’ll buy my records. The Delta Dawn album is sellin’ more now than when it came out and all my albums are sellin’ real well and five years from now they’ll prob’ly sell more than in the beginning. ‘Delta Dawn’ ‘s gonna be around a long time.”

“Oh,” she sat up excitedly, “I never told you this. I met Larry Collins–who wrote half of ‘Delta Dawn’ -before I cut it when he tried to pick me up at the King of the Road in Nashville. He didn’t know who I was and he was embarrassed. He couldn’t believe I was only 13 and already recording. He asked who my producer was and I said Billy Sherrill and he was impressed. I didn’t even know who Billy Sherrill was then.”

“Collins isn’t the only one who would like to pick you up,” I observed dryly. “I’ve talked to a dozen teenage boys the past couple of days who see you as the sex symbol of their generation.”

She laughed prettily and pretended to preen herself. “That’s pretty cool. I don’t wanta be a sex symbol-well, I don’t know. It kinda seems that way, don’t it? A lotta people have branded me as the ‘female Elvis’ and I don’t mind that at all. That’s neat. I mean, how much higher can you get? Elvis is the biggest. You can’t get any bigger.”

“An executive of another record company,” I said, “told me that if you were one of his acts he’d stop having you record what he called ‘scurrilous’ songs.”

“Well,” she huffed, “people get the wrong ideas. Like I had an interview in New York City the other day and the guy was an older man and he asked me to name my songs and I said ‘Would You Lay with Me in a Field of Stone,’ and he said, ‘What? You’re 15 and you sing songs like that?’ I said, you don’t even know nothin’ about it-you haven’t even heard the song, that’s just like judgin’ the book by its cover. I gave him the record and he called me the next day and said, ‘I liked you when I interviewed you but now I love you.’ Oh-a DJ was announcing ‘Would You Lay with Me’ and he said, ‘I’d slide down a razor blade into alcohol, if I could, darlin’.’ ” She cackled.

“I think I’ll use that song for my wedding vows. There’s not much love like that hangin’ around. You don’t find it on every street corner. But some people would like to try to tell me what I should and should not sing. Not anybody I’d listen to. My producer told me people would expect me to sing somethin’ like ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ or ‘Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me.’ They don’t expect me to sing somethin’ about women, you know. I think two radio stations wouldn’t play ‘Lay With Me.’ So I just think their minds were in the gutter, they were thinkin’ bad, not me. Some people are always gonna take anything you say dirty. But we don’t need them anyway. We sold 300,000 copies. This one so-called writer, all he asked me about was sex and I finally told him I’m not interested in that at all.” She winked: “Not yet.” She stood up: “I’m goin’ to sleep. Any more questions?”

“OK, one more: Those suits — is it hard for you to get into them?” “It’s easy. Why?” She placed one hand on her hip and posed coquettishly.

“Nothing. Only they’re very photogenic. Also, as a man said last night, they’re very ‘taht.’

She giggled: “It don’t help if they’re taht if you don’t got a good body. Goodnight.” She touched me lightly on one arm and I suddenly realized that, just like all the men and boys she mesmerizes from the stage, she made me feel that it was very important that she like me.

Her two shows at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, a mammoth fair on the shores of Lake Michigan, went well. She was booked at the Schlitz Beer pavilion, next to the Miller Beer stage where Mose Allison drew about 500 persons, compared to her crowd of 3000 or so. But Tanya’s attention was on the big main stage, a large yellow tent 300 yards away where Helen Reddy was singing “Delta Dawn” for 15,000.

“I’d like to be on that stage with Helen Reddy,” she said evenly. “I’d blow her right off that stage.”

She walked onto her own stage, where 10 policemen surrounded her. One of them introduced himself as “Officer John, of the country/western squad. Tanya’s OK. I like her records, but she reminds me a little of Brenda Lee.” His eyes bulged out when Tanya reappeared in her tight white suit and he edged onto the stage to “ensure crowd control.” Tanya was pleased: She had plenty of young boys at stageside to kiss during “Sunshine” and she got a great reception for her Elvis imitation in “Steamroller Blues.” After the first show, Officer John appointed himself point man of the flying wedge that escorted her back to the Flxible for the autograph session.

After two encores, she asked Officer John to take her to the midway to check out the rides and he and three other officers escorted her through the teeming crowd. She took in a freak sideshow, the “Congress Of Oddities” where, for once, she was speechless as she watched a hunchback drive five-inch nails and icepicks up his nostrils. When the midway shut down at midnight, the flying blue wedge took her back to the Flxible.

At the Downtowner Motel, Bo and Tanya got off to get ready for a flight for Hollywood, where she had a scheduled screen test at Universal the next day. Tanya hugged all her band members goodbye and kissed Don. The Flxible pulled away for the all-night drive to Nashville: Five $200-a-week sidemen headed back to Music City for three days of rest before the string of one-nighters started up again.

Rich Dennison leaned out the window and yelled, “Hey Tanya, button up yer blouse!”

In This Article: Coverwall, Tanya Tucker

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