Before there was a name and a place for it, an “outlaw” was what Tanya Tucker was in the years following her gentle country smash with the gospel lilt, “Delta Dawn,” in 1972. A hellraiser and heartbreaker (Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell were just a few of her noted lovers), Tucker made as many headlines for her wild-woman antics as she did her sultry, shushing nasal voice, her swaggering attitude and her earnest, emotional way with a lyric. But trouble and time took its toll on her life and career, and by the end of the ’90s, Tucker’s then schmaltzy hit-making reign had slowed its roll, awash in all the clichés of glitzy, glossy, overproduced country and too many pills and cocktails.
Now, when men have lived that life, be it a Keith Richards or an Elton John, they’ve been gifted with knowing winks, book deals and Hollywood biopics. Their grace in sobriety (if that comes) is met with the adulation of sainthood. For a lady such as Tucker, the reward has been mostly scorn, pity or gossip column mentions, unless she’s prostrated herself to the public and powers that be and made way too many amends.
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“Now, a woman’s life ain’t just a list of the worst things she has done,” Tucker sings, quietly and defiantly, on “Mustang Ridge,” the bold defining track from her first album of new material in 17 years, “While I’m Livin’,” co-produced lovingly by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, with truly poignant songs by Carlile and her writing team, Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
Moments such as “Mustang Ridge” unfurl with an honesty that stings with the ring of wincingly pained truth. “I leave you now with a heart of stone,” she sings in the song’s more bitter than sweet final lines. “Sometimes the past is hard to outrun.”
Bathing an older and wider (but hardly wearied) Tucker in warm, amniotic tones with elegantly simple adornments — spare, but, nothing as stark as Rick Rubin’s Johnny Cash “American Recordings” — means you get more pure tart Tanya for your buck.
The rootsy Bob Seger “Night Moves” soundalike “Hard Luck” and its lust for playing life to the nth degree, and “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” a torrid tale from a woman of a certain age who isn’t afraid to speak her mind (or show off her libido), are shining moments of empowerment and dare-to-thrive dignity. “Darlin’, I ain’t growing old with you / I don’t need your front porch swing,” Tucker cat-claws, atop scuffed, all-acoustic instrumentation.
Sass aside, however, it’s the rough-hewn ballads of “While I’m Livin’” that best show off Tucker’s stately grace and rugged zeal, even in the face (and voice) of mortality.
There’s a raggedly emotional and threadbare take on the Miranda Lambert smash “The House That Built Me” that proves to be as eerily autobiographical for the somber singer currently taking its reins as it was for the one who first made it famous. “The Day My Heart Goes Still” and “Bring My Flowers Now” are elegiac, yet reveal a similar unfettered passion for life’s sweet last drops, as they did the unfiltered life that got her there.
“Don’t spend time, tears and money on my old breathless body” she sings, slowly, on the pensive, cuttingly pragmatic “Bring My Flowers Now,” before continuing, “If your heart is in those flowers, bring them home.” From start to finish, Tucker’s line reading on “Flowers” is as rubbed raw as a freshly skinned knee or a slapped-red face.
Jennings (son of Waylon and Jessi Colter, the greatest outlaw country couple of them all), Carlile and company sound as connected to Tucker’s wide dusty prairies, sunshiny grassy knolls and the life she once lived there — and beyond, in the smoky bars and cocaine-filled hotel rooms that came later — as the singer is. Without regret, Tucker takes the intuitive songwriting of these younger collaborators and proudly inhabits their biographical approximation of her nine lives with earnestness and ease.
“While I’m Livin'”