Album Review: Tanya Tucker’s ‘While I’m Livin”

With Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings co-producing, country’s loud outlaw avatar finds her footing in quieter, confessional roots music.

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.

“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.

Tanya Tucker
“While I’m Livin'”
Fantasy Records

Popular on Variety

Album Review: Tanya Tucker's 'While I'm Livin''

More Music

  • Kendrick Lamar House Manhattan Beach

    Kendrick Lamar Drops Nearly $10 Million on Manhattan Beach Mansion

    When he’s not performing to packed arenas worldwide — the international “Damn” tour wrapped up last year with over $62 million in gross receipts — Kendrick Lamar has long resided in L.A.’s South Bay region, specifically in the posh seaside city of Manhattan Beach. And after a reported long spell as an area home renter, [...]

  • Benjamin Wallfisch - scoring session, Abbey

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch Signs With Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has signed with the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for worldwide representation, in partnership with London-based agency COOL Music Ltd. A top composer, whose scoring credits include “It Chapter Two,” Shazam!” Hellboy,” “Hidden Figures” and “Hostile Planet,” among others, Wallfisch has worked on over 75 feature films and is a member of the BAFTA [...]

  • Spotify logo is presented on a

    Spotify VP Paul Vogel Talks Subscription Prices, Label Licenses, Podcasts

    The annual Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference gives representatives from major companies the opportunity to present to the investment community, and Paul Vogel, Spotify’s VP and head of financial planning & analysis, treasury and investor relations, spoke on the streaming giant’s behalf on Tuesday morning. While many of his comments were statements frequently heard in the [...]

  • Def Jam, Astralwerks Launch Label Divisions

    Def Jam, Astralwerks Launch Label Divisions in South East Asia

    Universal Music Group today announced what it calls a significant expansion of its recorded music operations across South East Asia with the launch of two new label divisions: Def Jam South East Asia, to focus on the hip-hop scene within the region, and Astralwerks Asia, a label “with a true focus on nurturing talent within Asia across [...]

  • WME Nashville Promotes Becky Gardenhire to

    WME Nashville Promotes Becky Gardenhire to Co-Head

    Becky Gardenhire has been elevated by WME to the role of co-head of the Nashville office, making her the woman holding the highest rank at any agency rooted in the city. Gardenhire joins three other co-heads of WME Nashville, Scott Clayton, Joey Lee and Jay Williams. More Reviews Film Review: ‘Send Me to the Clouds’ [...]

  • Kane Brown 52nd Annual CMA Awards,

    CMT Boosts Kane Brown, Luke Combs, Dan + Shay as 'Artists of the Year'

    Country music’s youngest superstars don’t always catch a break with the CMA Awards. When the latest slate of nominations was announced, Kane Brown had none, and Luke Combs had a far-from-leading three. But CMT is making up the difference by including these two ascendants as part of their annual “CMT Artists of the Year” slate, [...]

  • Mandy Moore Drops New Single and

    Mandy Moore Drops New Single and Video, First Album in a Decade Due Early 2020

    Just days before the season premiere of her NBC show “This Is Us,” Mandy Moore dropped a new song and video called “When I Wasn’t Watching.” The song is the lead single from her first album in a decade, which is slated for release early next year. The song was produced by longtime collaborator Mike [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content