Let Tanya Tucker have her long overdue moment back in the sun.
Ever since Rick Rubin aided in the resuscitation of Johnny Cash’s flagging career in the ‘90s, there has been a renaissance of sorts for formerly great artists making late-career comebacks with the help of hip, younger artists and proteges. The 21st century, in particular, has seen a veritable explosion of the phenomenon with artists in myriad genres experiencing a bit of renewed interest within the increasingly ADD-addled zeitgeist. More than any other genre, however, country music has long been one in which elders are granted the respect their storied careers often warrant. With Cash, who had slid into mediocrity by the ‘80s, his resurgence was simply a matter of having a sympathetic producer bring the Man in Black the quality of material he had long been lacking due to the cultural shifts within country music.
The majority of those artists who subsequently followed a similar path towards a semi-revitalized career (or at least elevated cultural profile) were also paired with material that harkened back to their creative peaks, particularly in the case of those artists who relied on writers to bring them the hits on which their careers were built. With While I’m Livin’, Tanya Tucker is but the latest artist to be given the reverential treatment at the hands of a group of younger artists, this time in the form of Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings. With Jennings behind the boards and Carlile, along with longtime writing partners Phil and Tim Hanseroth, providing the songs, Tucker is in essence returned to her vital earlier years in terms of strength of material.
While I’m Livin’ is full of songs that recall her breakthrough years without relying on an overly nostalgic approach. Instead, Jennings and Carlile help ensure While I’m Livin’ is full of songs both very much of the moment in terms of sound and production (doesn’t hurt that Carlile’s work with the Highwomen arrived a mere two weeks later), while simultaneously tapping into the timeless nature of the best that country music has to offer. In this way, While I’m Livin’ is both a return to form and a victory lap of sorts for Tucker, who had all but retired at the turn of the century. But here she proves herself back in fine form, tearing through ten tracks that do nothing but justice to the truly bad-ass cover image of Tucker easily handling a bucking steed.
Opening track “Mustang Ridge” eases the listener in, riding a mid-period outlaw country groove that would not have sounded out of place on an album like Shotgun Willie. “The Wheels of Laredo” is a slow-burn of a ballad that borrows from classic cowboy imagery without sounding weakly derivative. Much of the remainder of the album rides this similar balance between low-key outlaw country and cowboy balladry, all delivered in a weathered voice that speaks of a lifetime of experience.
“I Don’t Owe You Anything,” in particular, is a kiss-off tune in classic outlaw country fashion that rolls along with a laundry list of grievances directed at an ex: “Well, I made your bed and I made your lunch/ And for the last time, your clothes are out to dry/ …Darling, I ain’t growing old with you/…I raised up all your babies/ I don’t owe you anything.” It’s an effective refrain that takes to task the hellraising husbands who usually end up featuring prominently in the outlaw narrative.
With all its introspective balladry, While I’m Livin’ feels more like a rumination on a life lived hard and full than any sort of victory lap or return to form. “High Ridin’ Heroes,” in particular, takes this idea to the extreme: “She’s been to hell and Texas/ And she knows how it feels/ To be ridin’ that hot streak/ And drunk on some back street/ Falling off the wagon/ And under the wheels.” With her desert-dry raspy delivery, Tucker sounds for all the world as though she’s lived the words she’s singing. Yet the only vaguely autobiographical track also happens to be the only one Tucker helped write, the album closer “Bring My Flowers Now.” It essentially sums up the attention granted her with the recording of the album itself: “Bring my flowers now, while I’m living/ I won’t need your love when I’m gone.” In other words, thanks for giving me my time now instead of praising my greatness after the fact.
So the question then becomes, who’s next? One can’t help but think that Juice Newton is sitting by a phone somewhere waiting for her shot. And why not? “Angel of the Morning”—her biggest, most well-known hit by a mile—is enjoying a bit of a cultural resurgence at the moment, soundtracking a tonally daft moment of gross-out humor in IT Chapter Two. So whaddya say? Let’s bring back Juice in 2020. But in the meantime, let Tanya Tucker have her long overdue moment back in the sun.