When I spoke to Tanya Tucker about While I’m Livin’, her first album of new material since 2002, we talked about the term “comeback” and I was thoroughly unsurprised to hear that she hates that word: she, the woman Rolling Stone introduced to its readers back in 1974 with a cover bearing the message “Hi, I’m Tanya Tucker. I’m 15. You’re gonna hear from me.” “Comeback” implies a lack of agency; that others coerced you into silence, rather than your own choice. For someone like Tucker, who has been in the public eye since she was 13 years old and, over her 47-year career, has grappled with everything from Hashimoto’s disease, to major depression, to a freak accident during a facial peel that left her with second- and third-degree burns and permanently altered her voice, the decision to take several long hiatuses from recording and performing feels entirely understandable. And when you hear this album, you’ll be so, so glad she’s back.
For artists in their 60s, inspiration often comes from looking back rather than looking forward—a natural inclination bolstered by a fanbase eagerly awaiting a new fix of the same drug, and an industry eager to capitalize on that desire. Retreading old ground can be satisfying, but it doesn’t always produce the most exciting work. While I’m Livin’ is the rare late-career album that manages to strike a satisfying balance between old and new: its brand of self-reflection is firmly rooted in the past, but represents a significant step forward artistically, thanks to co-producers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings and Tucker’s charmed songwriting partnership with Carlile and her bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth. The songs they wrote together are haunted in all the best ways: they dig deep, but rather than letting the weight of experience and memory drag them down, they chronicle healthy, uplifting ways to honor and process the past, from the defiant “Mustang Ridge” (“A woman’s life ain’t just a list/ Of the worst things she has done”) to the sunny self-elegy “While I’m Livin’” (“Bring my flowers now while I’m livin’/ I won’t need your love when I’m gone”). To put a finer point on it, Tucker covers “The House That Built Me,” a song made famous by Miranda Lambert. In it, the protagonist returns to her old home, hoping that physically revisiting it will bring her peace but discovering that merely showing up isn’t enough. The place isn’t going to do the work of healing you; you have to put in the work. While I’m Livin’ shows us Tucker’s ready, willing, and able to put in the work, too.
“I probably should have gone back long before now! It’s been about 18 years since I’ve had a record. Back in September, Shooter Jennings asked me to do a Country Music Hall of Fame show called Outlaws & Armadillos with a lot of other Texas artists. I love Shooter; I’ve known him since he was little—and I call him little Waylon because I loved his daddy. His daddy was one of my best friends. Anyway, I’d do anything for Shooter, and he knows it. After the [Outlaws & Armadillos] show, he came to see me in Vegas and he said, “you said you’d do anything in the world for me,” and I said, “yes,” and he said, “well, get out here; let’s work on a record together.” I didn’t know what to think about that and didn’t talk to him for a while and I guess what happened was he told Brandi Carlile—they’re very good friends—and Brandi said, “Oh my God, I’ve got to help you. I’ve got to do this with you and Tanya.” So that transpired and he talked me into it. I really wasn’t aware of Brandi and her music at the time; I didn’t really know who she was until after I recorded the album, actually. I finally heard her sing for the first time on the Grammys. And, wow—that bitch can SANG.
I didn’t use to enjoy going into the studio; it was boring to me when I was a kid. I’d rather be out riding horses or something. But now, it’s my favorite part of it all—even more so than performing live…except for those few-and-far-between really magical ones where everything comes together. It’s just something I’ve grown to love.
It’d take me a couple weeks to tell you the full story behind all of this. But in a nutshell, I’m happy and grateful and thankful that I did make the decision to do this project. All in all, it was a great experience, and I hope people like it as much as Brandi and Shooter and everybody else keeps saying they like the album. I’ve spent my life trying to please as many people at one time as possible, so I’m not one to just go around saying how great my stuff is. That’s not my kind of deal. I would rather the public like it than me! If they like it, I’m happy. I’d like to do it all over again, actually. Don’t tell anyone I said that.”
“We went in the studio for three weeks back in January, and most of the songs were written by Brandi and the twins—she works with Phil and Tim Hanseroth—and they’re just great people. They custom-wrote these songs for me! I think about how much talent they have to have to be able to go get in a room, not even knowing me, and go, “Ok, she’s from Seminole, Texas—so let’s write a song about Seminole.” I don’t know how they did it! I know I couldn’t do it for someone I didn’t know.
I have to say: I didn’t really warm up to the songs at first. I remember changing some of the words, saying things like, “You know, I wouldn’t say that right there, now. ‘I’ll take you for everything you’ve got’—I would never say that to a man.” But other times—like there’s a line in “Rich” that goes, “My daddy used to sing and play,” and I was like, “Well, no—my dad had a voice, but he couldn’t sing and play! But let’s just go with it; everything don’t have to be exactly right.” Brandi was very inquisitive about my dad. She didn’t really have the dad that I had. She has maybe a little something missing inside her. Maybe that’s why we’re together. What’s missing in her, I have. And what’s missing in me, she’s got.”
“There’s a lot of differences with this album, but the main thing is that back when I first started out recording with Billy Sherrill—“Delta Dawn” and all those early hits—I did them just like Patsy Cline did them, where if someone messes up, you’ve got to record the entire song over again. I moved away from that over the years, but that’s the way we did this album, too. What you hear isn’t punched or overdubbed; it’s raw, and it’s real.
The music was very loose. I didn’t know any of these songs until I got to the studio to record them. I learned them as I sang them. I’m still learning them! I think it’d be impossible for some artists to do that kind of process. But I’m pretty off the cuff. I don’t like to stay in the studio and burn the beans. I feel like usually when I do a song, the first three takes are the best I’m ever going to do it and my ability to shoot from the hip came in handy. Everything was super loose. There were a couple lines where I was like, “Brandi, I don’t like the way I sang that line,” and she’d be, “Well, that’s the way you sang it! Tanya, this album is not ‘Tanya the Entertainer’ who wants to get everything perfect. This album is a singer’s album, mistakes and all.””
“Brandi said, “I want you to record “The House That Built Me” and I was like, no, no, no, no, no. I don’t want to be caught loitering around that song; it’s been done! I just didn’t feel like there was anything I could add to it. I fought Brandi for a little while, but she has her way. Brandi knows how to ask me. She was like, “Tanya: Miranda [Lambert] sang it great. She did. But we think you’re going to bring a whole new meaning to the song.” I didn’t want to learn it. I didn’t want to sing it. I was kind of acting like a six-year-old. But now, I listen to it, and I watch people’s faces, and they say…I mean, it’s different. Now my managers have Brandi call me anytime they want me to do something.”
“I feel like Brandi just fell off some cloud somewhere. I don’t know where the hell she came from, but she dropped into my life and here’s a girl whose career is blowing wide open, and then she’s over here working on me. I have a hard time not getting overwhelmed with just doing my own shit! I can’t imagine how she does it. I don’t think she’s human. I’m not the only one; she’s got other artists, too, and it seems like everybody knows her. When I walked in the studio the first day, Stephen Stills is standing there, and I was like, “what?!” Or she’ll be like, “Oh, I’m going out to Ellen DeGeneres’ tonight, and then I’m gonna stop by Joni Mitchell’s; we’re having tacos.”
The second I met her, it was instant. Friends forever. I look back and think how wild it is that I hadn’t even met her until I walked in the studio. I mean, how do you just do this for someone you don’t even know? You never met me. What if I was a real asshole? You don’t know. She did say to me, “Man, T, I love the way you work in the studio. I want you to produce a couple tracks on my next album.” I was flabbergasted that she said that; that would be a wonderful challenge for me.
At any rate, she’s a great leader. And I’m not used to following. But with her, I just say, hey, lead on—I’m right behind you. And that’s a first for me. I mean, I trust her. There are very few people I really do trust. But I trust her. I’d do anything for her. If she wanted me to mow her lawns or fix her toilets, I’d do my best.”
“One moment that really stands out in my memory would be recording the title track “While I’m Livin’.” It’s funny: before I recorded the album, Loretta Lynn had called me, and I sang what would become the chorus of that song to her. We’re all the time talking about getting together and writing—and after she heard that chorus, she goes, “Honey, when you come back, stop by my house; we’re gonna write that song together.”
So then I go to LA and we’re recording the album, at some point, I sang that chorus to Brandi and she goes, “Slow down—we need to turn that into a song!” And then on the last day in the studio she came up to me and said, “Hey, listen, T: the band’s on break right now. Let’s see if we can finish that song.” I probably looked like a deer in the headlights. ’Cause I had no…I couldn’t think of the meat of the song. I had the bread but no meat.
But there she was at the piano in the studio, and she goes, “This is kind of how I was thinking it should go” and started playing it. It blew me away. I’d had this chorus in my head for 30 or 40 years. So it took 40 years and 15 minutes to write this song! And as soon as we wrote it, we walked right into the vocal booth and recorded it. That’s the take you hear on the record. And to have it be the title track…Brandi goes, “You know, it’s perfect for this. I want people to know how great you are and how much you meant to music before you’re gone.” I said, I’m all in—whatever you think.
I mean, Brandi is truly a gift from God. That may sound kind of fanatical or whatever, but I ain’t holding the Bible up and preaching to nobody; I just believe that with all my heart. Brandi saved me. I’m not so sure how much longer I’d have done this if she hadn’t come along. She was a gift.”
“I really don’t like the word “comeback.” I’ve really never gone away! But doing this album does give me the opportunity to be heard by young people who may know my name, but not my music. Brandi has a whole different set of fans, and she wants to turn me onto them. I think that’s just so generous. This is the kind of thing that turned Tony Bennett’s career around. It took someone to come out and have enough vision to say, “hey, these young kids would like your music, too.” Great music is great any year. You make great music and people of all ages who like all different types of music love it; no one has to worry about what chart it’s going into—country, pop, whatever. And I’ve never been one to really care about that. You just let me know if it goes number one, and what I’ve got to do to get it there. Music is a game and I’m still playing it after all these years.”
Susannah Young is a communications consultant for nonprofit organizations by day and a music critic in her free time. She lives in Chicago with her boyfriend — who, like her, is a Tennessee native — and their bossy rabbit. All three of them love collard greens.