During the winter of 1982 I caught a ride east to Wyoming with a woman who made parachute paraphernalia for a living, on her way to visit her boyfriend, a married attorney from Utah. We didn’t have a lot to talk about, and not much in her tape tray was encouraging.
So it was that Tanya Tucker caught my ear. She was just then disentangling from Glen Campbell, in between her days as the Lolita of country music, several commercial rebirths, and an array of tabloid foibles. But there, on an indifferent album filled with largely forgettable material, shone an extraordinary voice.
Over the years I’ve rescued a handful of her records from the quarter bins, convinced that somewhere, somehow, the magic of that voice must have been captured for more than a song or two. The Australian archivists at Raven have made the matter simpler, assembling her most successful songs (10 country #1s, 21 top-5s), spanning 25 years, on two discs.
It’s all there: the odd glimpse of sparkling brilliance, handfuls of missed moments, and dreadful treacle. Lots of dreadful treacle. Once tagged “the female Elvis” — presumably because of her overt sexuality — she’s come perilously close to living up to that curse. Except, of course, that her early hits (“Delta Dawn”, “What’s Your Mama’s Name, Child”, “The Man That Turned My Mama On”), good though they are, come nowhere close to what Elvis cut in Memphis.
The Upper 48 Hits suggests that, like Elvis — or his model, Dean Martin — Tucker has casually betrayed her gifts, and that she has been the frequent victim of bad material. It doesn’t help that Tucker had the misfortune to record during the 1970s and ’80s, as very little of that production — airless, punchless perfection that has neither the warmth of classic analog nor the snap of modern digital — wears well. Just listen to the drum roll on “Lizzie & The Rainman”, or to the keyboards that introduce “One Love At A Time”, and cringe.
Yes, her appearance (and no little marketing jujitsu) made it easy to misinterpret David Allan Coe’s “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)”, but in all fairness she sings it straight and simple, with a supple sadness no teenager should be able to manage. Or, maybe that’s what teens are best at.
An early ’90s alliance with Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon inspired her to begin writing her own material, but those songs didn’t chart. Instead, she had her last #1 with the vapid “If It Don’t Come Easy” in 1988, which will make you yearn for Mutt Lange’s smart production of Shania Twain.
Throughout, her voice reminds of her enormous potential, for she gives periodic evidence of the brass, the power, and, yes, the finesse she is capable of. At 44, there is still time for Tucker to record an album which lives up to that potential. Nobody wishes to believe their best work was done as a teenager, but time is running out.