Tanya Tucker: While I'm Livin'
The renaissance of Tanya Tucker has been percolating for some years now and on August 23, 2019 the world got to see what she has been brewing up. Even with an astounding twenty-five studio albums under her belt, Tanya Tucker proves that she still has a lot of music to make and entertaining to do. While I’m Livin’ is a culmination of songs that fit the narrative of her life-long outlaw country music career. Tucker has always had plenty of tender ballads on her resumé, but she has never been shy from putting her edgier side on display. The newest release is a synthesis of both those personas. It is everything she stands for wrapped up in a masterfully created work of art. I’m just glad that Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings championed the art she had left to make. Even while pushing the boundaries with Tanya, they understood and respected her knowledge and experience. It’s been 17 years since Tanya has released a record. This one had to be special. And it is.
In preparation for the release of While I’m Livin’, Tucker signed with Fantasy Records in May of this year. In a press release, Fantasy Records President, Margi Cheske said, “Tanya Tucker is an original outlaw who bucked the country music establishment and became a living legend in the process – which makes Fantasy her perfect home. We’re thrilled to work with Tanya, Brandi and Shooter and help bring this stunning new album to the world.”
There are very few albums in this world that I am fully satisfied with all the way through, like I am with this one. There isn’t a single song I have the urge to skip when listening to this album. Between the lyrics, the vocals, the arrangement, and the production, Tucker’s crew hit this one on the head. I never doubted that this record wouldn’t produce remarkable results though. Recorded at the historic Sunset Sound Recording Studio in Los Angeles, California, and produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, the credit list is deep and impressive.
From the first listen of the leading tracks, my initial thought was that, in my head, I can hear Brandi Carlile performing these songs. Head on over to the credits and there it was confirmed, Brandi Carlile and her songwriting team of twin brothers and bandmates, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, penned a majority of the songs for While I’m Livin’. Being such talented harmonizers, I was not surprised to hear the Hanseroth brothers and Carlile providing background vocals for nearly all of the tracks. Shooter Jennings and his own bandmate, Ted Russell Kamp, can be found supporting the music on piano and bass, respectively. Other players of note are the husband and wife team that make up Alt-Country band, The Mastersons - Eleanor Whitmore on tenor guitar and mandolin and Chris Masterson on various guitars, Chris (Pow Pow) Powell on drums, Rich Hinman on pedal steel, Josh Neumann on cello, and Trina Shoemaker with shakers.
Carlile cited that their original inspiration for the projection stemmed from the resurgence of Johnny Cash after he was approached by producer, Rick Rubin, to formulate the stripped-down, back-to-his-roots 1994 album, American Recordings. After approaching Carlile to write songs for the project and then learning that she was such a big fan of Tanya Tucker, Jennings asked if she would like to co-produce the album with him. Carlile jumped at the chance to put the country icon back in the spotlight after a nearly two-decade hiatus from recording music. Carlile and the Hanseroth brothers took specimens of Tanya’s life and revitalized her story in each of the songs for While I’m Livin’. Even the songs not written by the three-piece songwriting team were chosen very specifically and intentionally.
There is no secret that Tanya Tucker has lived quite the life of ups and downs, personally and professionally. She has amassed dozens of accolades, entertained several high-profile romances - some tumultuous, raised a family, and spent time in treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. It’s no wonder that the song “Hard Luck” was chosen for her to record. With a few tweaks in lyrics to make it fitting for her, the song was originally written by John C. “Pete” Bailey, David Lee Mitchell, Raymond L. Turner and Jerry Ontiberoz and recorded in 1978 by rockers, Josefus. Tucker’s version was released in late June as her first single from the new album. Also, accompanying her single release was a full-length music video that featured Shooter Jennings and Brandi Carlile playing poker and listening to live music with Tucker and friends at Nashville’s American Legion Post No. 82. The setting for the video is Brandi keeping a watchful and worried eye on Tanya while Shooter encourages the debauchery. I can tell that video was a lot of fun to make with Tanya, Shooter, and Brandi jumping on stage performing the song before Tanya and Shooter ride away on the motorcycle she won in the card game.
One of the tracks that was selected rather than written for the project was “The House That Built Me.” The song written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, made famous by Miranda Lambert in 2009, did not originally receive a warm reception from Tucker. A fan of Miranda’s, Tanya did not feel she could give the emotionally charged song the justice it had already received by Lambert’s performance. After some coaxing from Carlile and a few lyric changes to put the song into the perspective of a mother returning to the home where she raised her children, Tucker finally agreed to record it. I think it was brave for Brandi to present this song to Tanya for the exact reason that she did not want to record it in the first place. However, with the special attention it received with the new lyrics and a stripped-down production, I think Tanya did a beautiful, heart-felt job on this song. There is a great sense of nostalgia and emotion tied to this song and it takes a special artist to evoke those feelings in the delivery. I think Tucker’s raw, raspy voice helps to conjure those emotions for the listener.
The final song on the album is a bit of a philosophy and a request of Tanya Tucker’s – “’Bring My Flowers Now’…while I’m livin’.” “I won’t need your love when I’m gone / Don’t spend your time, tears or money on my old breathless body / If your heart is in them flowers / Bring ‘em on.” The song, written by Tucker, Carlile, and the Hanseroth twins, encompasses the idea of enjoying all that life has to offer and showing your love and gratitude to your loved ones now, rather than after they have passed on. In an interview for Rolling Stone, Tucker said, “‘Delta Dawn’ has always been my favorite song that I have ever recorded and the pinnacle of my 50-year career. But I think now, ‘Delta Dawn’ has to move over for ‘Bring My Flowers Now.’” “This song came from my heart; it’s about showing love for the ones we have now before they are gone.” There are no bells and whistles in this recording. It is literally just Tucker’s lamenting vocal backed by Carlile on piano - a stark, yet appropriate approach to the realization of morality.
I’m grateful that I was raised in a household that celebrated women in country music. There was always music playing in the house and it usually consisted of the female greats like Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire, and of course, Tanya Tucker. For an adolescent girl who sang solos in her school programs and wrote poems and music lyrics to internalize her teenage angst, knowing Tanya Tucker landed her first hit at the age of 13 was encouraging and empowering. She has inspired generations of women with her strong will and fearless attitude on life and music. It is my hope that projects like this one and that of Rick Rubin’s continue to inspire more music to be made by and of the icons that are still living amongst us.
Photos Courtesy of Danny Clinch: