Concert Review: Tanya Tucker Brings Sensitivity and Classic Swagger to the Troubadour

Her L.A. gigs showed how essential her new Brandi Carlile/Shooter Jennings-aided album is... and how rocking her touring show already was.

Tanya Tucker
Chris Willman / Variety

Tanya Tucker took time out Thursday during the second of two shows at the Troubadour to sign a copy of Rolling Stone handed up to her from the front row — the famous 1974 issue that had her face on the front alongside the headline “Hi, I’m Tanya Tucker, I’m 15, You’re Gonna Hear from Me.” She sang a snippet of Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone” while reminiscing about how much, or little, the honor meant to her. “I really didn’t know what it meant to be on the cover. I still have never read the damn thing!” the now pink-haired singer confessed. “But it’s kind of cool, when I think about it. I think they need to have a recap: ‘Forty-five years later, I’m Tanya Tucker and you’re still hearing from me.’”

Our collective hearing has gotten a little better, lately, when it comes to Tucker. That’s largely thanks to the efforts of a couple marquee-name producers, Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, who’ve endeavored to boost her visibility with a long-term goal of getting her an honor even more worthy and elusive than a return magazine cover: a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Their initial salvo in doing that is a new album, “While I’m Livin’,” Tucker’s first record of new material in 17 years, which in the short term has at least had the effect of getting the singer booked in front of tastemaker crowds like the ones that sold out the Troubadour for two nights this week, who might never have driven out of town to see her on the fair-and-casino circuit.

The superb “While I’m Livin’” has been compared to the records that Johnny Cash did late in life with Rick Rubin, or the booster shot Jack White gave Loretta Lynn, part of a modern tradition of cred-reestablishing albums meant to awaken a younger demo even as they further chisel the old guard onto Mount Rushmore. The comparison is apt as far as it goes. But there’s one crucial distinction, as Tucker’s Troubadour appearances quickly made perfectly clear: Unlike some of those other predecessors, Tucker is still very much — to borrow the show-biz parlance of James Brown — a get-on-up, stay-on the-scene sex machine.

That’s just to say, it’s abundantly clear that the long time-out she took from the recording studio hasn’t been matched by any major breaks from her crowd-pleasing touring routine. There was a nearly off-the-charts level of swagger Thursday at the Troubadour, as Tucker, who still fits into her bedazzled Peter Nygard jeans (“I’ve been wearing his clothes for about 35 years, and I’m just glad I can get into some of them. They stretch,” she said), would tilt herself onto one high-heeled boot or the other while hooking her thumb in her belt to strike an eternal funky-cowgirl pose. “While I’m Livin’” has a lot of reflective, reminiscing material that she could sing from a rocking chair, when the time comes, but right now she’ll sing those songs and still rock it out, too, even copping a few Elvis moves along the way, thankyouverymuch.

Part of why Tucker is at such a sweet nexus right now — venerated hero and hot mama, both — is because doctors Carlile and Jennings helped catch the disease early… the disease of neglect, that is. “For some reason, in country music, we have a way of not telling legends they’re legends until they’re 80,” Carlile said in a Variety interview earlier this year, “when we could have told them when they were 60 and they would have still had 30 years to teach us and stay in the spotlight and stay relevant to us… We should have done this for Willie when he was 60 and should have done this for Loretta when she was 60. So this record’s called ‘While I’m Livin’ because I’ll be God-damned if we’re not going to tribute her while she’s living.”

Not every star that makes a “cred” album later in a career has an easy time integrating the new stuff amid the hits that have worked for decades. (Cash didn’t keep doing concerts long enough to find out how “Hurt” would go over in Bronson.) So it’s actually kind of surprising how well integrated the “While I’m Livin’” material felt, with six of the album’s 10 songs gracefully shoe-horned into Tucker’s time-honored act. There were points of connection that made old and new feel more of a piece than you might’ve expected. Tucker has certainly positioned herself as a good-time gal over the years, but her career wasbuilt on two highly lyrical and, dare it be said, poetic ballads, “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)” and “Delta Dawn,” which bookend her show. So the foundation is clearly there for Tucker to drop in something with as much of a singer/songwriter sensibility as the new album’s “Wheels of Laredo” and “Mustang Ridge,” when drawing the line between David Allen Coe and Carlile isn’t that tough.

By the same token, Carlile and Jennings (and Brandi’s co-writers, Phil and Tim Hanseroth) have given Tucker a couple of more upbeat, feistier new anthems, too, in “Hard Luck” and “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” songs that are automatic crowd-pleasers whether the crowd is in Wyoming or WeHo.

Tucker has made no secret of the fact that she had to warm up to some of the material that Carlile and company personalized for her on the new album, something she alluded to while introducing “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” “Brandi wrote this song for me in Vegas last December, and I think it’s a pretty cool song. I’m starting to really kind of like it,” she said, as if that surprised her. “See what you think.” What we think is that it’s a song she should keep in her set forever. It’s as determinedly Texan-sounding as anything she’s ever recorded, even though the feminist theme — middle-aged woman comically tells off her no-good husband, now that the kids are finally out the door, and he is too — isn’t a subject that’s a mainstay of honky-tonks. Anyway, you’d be hard pressed to find more pleasure in a single bit of phrasing on any record in 2019 than the climactic moment in this one, where, after saying “I raised up all your babies,” Tucker growlingly draws out the phrase: “I don’t owe you a Gawd-dayyyyng thay-ayng.”

Setting down into a chair for the one really sedate song of the night, the new album-closer “Bring My Flowers Now,” Tucker offered thanks for the recent assist. “I hadn’t ever met (Carlile) and I walked down into the studio at Sunset Sound and it was just an amazing connection. But I just couldn’t figure out how three people could go into a room and write songs for and about a person, custom-fit, and they don’t even know who I am. And how did she know I wasn’t going to be a real asshole? I’d be scared if I was her. But she wasn’t.”

There were memories of other studios and other producers, too. After saying that playing the Troubadour had been “a long time in coming,” she introduced her 1975 No. 1 hit “San Antonio Stroll,” recorded “when I was 16, a few short years ago,” as something that “in fact I cut right down the street at Larrabee,” a legendary studio that was, indeed, located just six blocks away before its demise. “I think it’s a bar now,” she added. (Yes: the famous recording studio has been replaced by a Western-themed gay nightclub called Flaming Saddles, where Tucker would surely be very, very welcome to make a cameo her next time in town. )

Late in the show, she seemed at a genuine loss for what to include as her penultimate, pre-“Dawn” number in a set that does shift a little from night to night. “I’ve always loved everything that I’ve made — except for a couple times,” she said, veering into a nostalgic detour. “My first producer (Billy Sherrill) was a little left of center, maybe. That’s why I have a spot in my heart for crazy people. Because nobody logical ever gave me a shot, ever…. So I really don’t know what to do here.” Whispering in her ear over 400 shouts, her bass player gave her a suggestion, and she was off to the races with “It’s a Little Too Late (to Do the Right Thing Now),” complete with a spread-legged pose, a turn toward the drum riser to do something that was just a little closer to countrified Ann-Margret hip-shaking than twerking, and some windmill effects to accompany the slamming instrumental coda.

To be sure, a Tucker show would have been a sight and sound to behold even without Jennings and Carlile riding to the rescue. Her band is certainly up to the task of reviving hits like 1978’s “Texas (When I Die),” a cleverly placed up-tempo segue out of the similarly death-themed “Bring My Flowers Now” that gave Tucker a happy, two-stepping afterlife in the Lone Star stars. With an extended break solos on the electric and acoustic guitars, piano, fiddle, drums and five-string bass, this was the kind of number that showed West Hollywood how an old-school country roadhouse show is done.

But we need to hear Tucker’s voice, too, in every kind of figurative and literal sense, and that’s what “While I’m Livin’” has given her back in a big way. Tucker has confessed in interviews that she really wasn’t sure about the new songs when she went in to record them, which seems kind of hilarious when you listen to the record, because she sounds like she’s been living and connecting with the songs for 20 years. And it may have taken a mega-fan like Carlile, who was inspired by a latent androgyny she found in Tucker’s raspy vocals and macha persona, to come up with a material that accentuates both her feminine and masculine sides without making her either too soft or too self-consciously bad-ass. A star less sure of herself than this one might have been put off by Carlile’s claim that she’d been an inspirational figure to a young gay woman exploring her own sense of androgyny; not Tucker, who in an appearance a couple of weeks ago at the Grammy Museum made the joke that she can’t wear skirts because her balls would show.

It’s no wonder the merch stand at the Troubadour sold out early Thursday of an item bearing the legend “Real Men Listen to Tanya Tucker” — something that kind of goes without saying but is worth putting on a T-shirt anyway. Other than Willie, she’s about the best remaining exemplar we’ve got left of country’s ‘70s outlaw era. (There’s Jessi Colter, of course, too — who has her own album on the way with Margo Price as producer — but she’s always had a gentler, more recessive, power-behind-the-throne persona.) If you doubt her enduring credentials in that department, consider how few other stars of her stature would ask Ron Jeremy to introduce her, then (almost) close the show with “Amazing Grace”: that’s outlaw.

Getting Tucker her stateswoman due ahead of schedule has its benefits: How many of us took Cash or Haggard for granted enough to pass up easy opportunities to see them on their last tours, but would pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity now? These are mistakes we have a chance to atone up for by seeing Tucker while she’s living. And strutting.

(For Variety’s recent joint interview with Tucker, Carlile and Jennings, click here.)