Tres Chicas: Tanya Tucker, Diana Jones, and Alecia Nugent
During the winter of 1982-83 I hopped in a Volkswagen Rabbit with a woman I didn’t know who manufactured parachutes and drove from Seattle to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, allegedly to cover the national para-ski championships for Outside magazine. As it turned out, I didn’t actually have an assignment…this was before e-mail, and I hadn’t sense enough to call the theoretically assigning editor. And, probably, because I was just out of college and being published in Outside would have made my career, I imagined, I didn’t call to hear “No,” just figured I’d write the piece and send it along, and good things would happen.
Yeah. Not so much.
Para-sking was and and may still be a biathlon kind of event in which one parachutes onto a mountain side for accuracy, and skis a giant slalom course for speed. I happened to know a woman named Joy Burtis who was the first (perhaps only?) woman to quality for the national team, no mean feat.
The woman who owned the Rabbit was having an affair with a jumping lawyer married back home in Utah, and they spent the event in his Winnebago. I spent the weekend discovering that not only was I afraid of heights (and they put me in a helicopter with no door on it to photograph people jumping out of it, one of whose main chute didn’t open and so he landed on his reserve in the middle of a sled dog race), but I can’t handle altitude. At all.
We didn’t have much to talk with on the way home, so we listened to the stereo. This was 1982. I was into punk and new wave and old blues, and what she had to listen to was mostly country. We settled on one or two Tanya Tucker cassettes for most of the trip. We also had to stop and pay for a hotel room on the way home so she could watch the final episode of “M.A.S.H.”
Once home I went down to Peaches and plucked a couple of Tucker’s albums from the cut-out bin, because there was assuredly something to her voice — a tone, an aggression, an astringent resonance — which cried out for attention. Like the cassettes I listened to all the way home, those LPs, whatever they were, were spotty. A song her or there. Glimmers of magic, but only the edges of it. I’ve never been able to tell whether she, like Elvis, couldn’t tell good material from bad, or whether she, like Elvis, fell prey to the machinations of labels and ill-suited producers. Or whether she, like far too many musicians, simply shoots herself in the foot. (And I mean utterly to leave aside the tabloid episodes of her personal life, which interest me not at all.)
Tucker has a new album of Bakersfield standards, produced by Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam’s producer and guitar player for many years, but no longer) which comes out June 2 on Saguaro Road. It’s called My Turn. (Saguaro Road, the press release says, “is the new imprint recently launched by Direct HOldings Americas Inc., the company that markets and sells audio and video entertainment products under the Time Life brand, using it under license from Time Warner Inc. The label focuses on artists that have a uniquely American, roots oriented sound and has recently released albums from Patty Loveless, Joan Osborne, Dion, Edwin McCain and Rebecca Lynn Howard.)
The press release doesn’t indicate who her supporting musicians in the studio are, though it’s a fair bet most of the guitar work is Anderson’s, and it does note Jim Lauderdale’s duet (on “Love’s Gonna Live Here”), the Grascals (on “After The Fire Is Gone”) and Rhonda Vincent’s turn (on “You Don’t Know Me).” But the best of them is Flaco Jimenez’ turn on “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone,” as close as Tucker comes to nailing a song in this mix.
Not unexpectedly, Tucker has a deeper, richer voice than she did on the fine Raven compilation I pulled out of the drawer for comparison (Tanya Tucker: The Upper 48 Hits 1972-1997). Unhappily, she seems to have lost her breath, obliging her to cut phrases into shorter pieces, rendering her yodels on “Lovesick Blues” about half-strength. All of these things can be overcome, but Tucker seems unable or unwilling or uninterested in remaking herself as a stylist, instead of the fireball who sang “Delta Dawn” and all that.
The supporting musicians remind me again how difficult is must be to play honky tonk right. Over the years I’ve had a hard time listening to Buck Owens and his band, partly because they seemed so choppy, so crude in a flashy kind of way. So unable to swing, so repressed. Something. I still can’t put my finger on it. Anderson has doubtless surrounded Tucker with fine musicians, and they clearly love what they’re playing, and know how to play it. But they’re missing something, and I don’t know what it is. “Lovesick Blues,” to come back to that since it’s playing in my ears now, is rushed just a few beats per minute, and doesn’t invite Tucker to stretch out her phrasing, so sit on the sadness of the song, to develop into a more enduring kind of stylist, to work into her own Johnny Cash moments, which she richly deserves.
Inviting Flaco Jimenez in to play Doug Sahm’s “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone” isn’t any kind of reach, and about half of Tucker’s reading is as flat as anything on this album. But the second verse…that one she seems really engaged by, giving it a slow, careful, nuanced reading. It’s delicate, vulnerable, just for that moment, and it’s a tease for what this album could have been. Ah, well.
At least I know how I feel about Tucker’s album. I can’t get the slightest bit of traction on Diana Jones’ second album, Better Times Will Come (Proper American releases this May 19; yes, I know I’m writing about these things before they come out which is, perhaps, bad form, but I don’t care…I’m writing because I want to write this morning, and for no other reason). I was immediately drawn into Jones’ mostly self-released 2006 debut, My Remembrance Of You, and best I remember ND was pretty early writing about her mostly because I urged her virtues upon Peter. About half that record is striking for its power and openness and, yes, vulnerability, though she also comes across as a very tough woman…no, strong is the word I’m looking for, but tough has some brittleness so I won’t change the word here (much like Tucker, hence my linkage in this piece).
Everything about Better Times Will Come is measurably better. The production of her debut was necessarily spartan, and this album has the careful sound one gets with a little bit of success and an extra few days in the studio. Clearly she’s changed microphones, and her approach to singing, because her voice is deeper and rounder than it was three years ago, and yet I like it less, for some of her uniquity seems to have been sacrificed to that end. (Probably this is meant more for the larger folk audience, the stages she probably frequents, than the more Appalachian sounds of her debut, and that may color my response, too.) And her songwriting craft has clearly moved forward. All of which can and should be to the good.
But, mostly, I can’t hear a song on this album which draws me in half as much as the opening track of her debut, “Pretty Girl.” I concede that she can and should move well past that, and understand that it is the nature of artists to move in directions which diverge from the reasons they once interested me. That’s all fair. And I don’t mean to say this is a bad record, because I don’t think it is. I just can’t hear it.
No. That doesn’t get it said. Many debuts have a rawness to them, a desperation, a certainty, and I am drawn to those qualities. I am drawn to hunger, to the compulsion to create. It’s why I’m still here typing, regardless. This is a more comfortable album, no matter what the songs are about. It’s prettier. It’s better in all the ways my punk rock past, such as it was, doesn’t value as much as it might had I stayed a new wave dude or something. Whatever. Diana Jones should be proud of this record, but I just can’t tell you why. And I’m sorry that that, still, doesn’t get said what I mean. Maybe I’ll come back and edit this, but probably not.
Two or three years ago, I guess (maybe more), I made a point of seeing Alecia Nugent during SXSW. She was playing in the tent set up behind Opal Divine, where they have a lovely assortment of well-tended Belgian beer, but I believe Jon Weisberger also said she wasn’t playing with her regular touring band, but the memory, you will understand, may be a wee bit hazy. That’s the only time I’ve seen her, though I’ve enjoyed her first two albums. Rounder is releasing her third album, called Hillbilly Goddess come May 12, and based on that live show I surprised myself when I opened the mail and actually put it in the CD player, for I rarely do that anymore. (And it wasn’t because I’d noticed she’d covered Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Don’t Tell Me,” because it was a surprise the first time the disc spun into that song. A nice surprise.) Live I thought she was flat, that her voice seemed small, that she seemed disengaged. That was one show, and the crowd was sparse, but she left that impression nevertheless.
In the studio, however, she’s hell on wheels. She has a gorgeous, keening voice, more than good enough to be listed among the premiere female bluegrass singers of our time — Rhonda Vincent (she’s got a new one, too, but I’ve not played it yet), Dolly Parton (alas, she’s left the field again), Dale Ann Bradley and, well, who else? (feel free to chip in, doubtless I’m forgetting somebody). I wonder, listening now, if she’s that rare bluegrass artist who’s better in the controlled environment of a studio (produced once again by Carl Jackson, incidentally) than she is live.
(It sort of doesn’t matter. She’s not likely to play in Morehead.)
But the thing…the real thing, the point I’m maybe ambling toward here…the thing is this: She swings. Her band swings. That’s a phrase I used to read a lot in old criticism, but not one I hear any more. But it’s what’s wrong with Tanya Tucker’s album, what’s missing from Diana Jones’ release. Nugent swings with near the giddy glee Elizabeth Cook offers (I wonder how she’d sound in a bluegrass setting? hmm…). This is an album that picks ’em up and puts ’em down and has fun doing it. It rocks, if one can say that accurately about a bluegrass album. The songs are first-rate, the players are first-cabin (J.D. Crowe plays on the title track), and Nugent can flat out sing, at least in the studio. And I’m grateful, at least, to be reminded of what I was missing.
Ah. There’s also another wrenching duet with Bradley Walker, called “The Writing’s All Over The Wall.”
I realize bluegrass isn’t necessarily what everybody here is drawn to, and, much like blues, it’s filled with well-played dross.
This is the good stuff.
Off to the compost pile. Y’all play nice.