Last Friday (Aug. 23), Tanya Tucker released her first album of new music in 17 years with the reflective While I’m Livin’. Produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, the 10-track project is a deeply personal one for Tucker, as it tells stories of her life, her father and where she grew up.
Tucker herself was hesitant to record the project. She tells Billboard she was in Texas for Christmas in 2018, and her bus was scheduled to travel to Los Angeles in early January so she could meet Carlile and Jennings in the studio.
“It was all up in the air because I really didn’t know if I was going to do it at first,” she tells Billboard, settling into a couch at her publicist’s office on Music Row in Nashville. “Shooter talked me into it and I’m glad he did, and I was in the studio January 7.”
Tucker, 60, grew up in the spotlight thanks to the success of first major hit, "Delta Dawn." Released in 1972 when she was just 13, the song peaked at No. 6 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. She'd go on to garner 10 No. 1 hits on the chart, including “If It Don’t Come Easy” and “Strong Enough To Bend,” among others, and release 23 top 40 albums, as well as receive two CMA Awards, two ACM Awards and 10 Grammy nominations. Past relationships with artists like Merle Haggard, Andy Gibb, and Glen Campbell kept her in the tabloids, and influenced her music. In fact, on the back cover of her new album, Tucker is wearing Campbell's old white jumpsuit that she found in her warehouse.
Her first set of new material since 2002’s Tanya, the songs on While I’m Livin’ were tailor-made for Tucker. As she explains, Carlile and twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth studied the country legend's life and catalog, and penned six of the songs on the project based off of her journey — much to Tucker's surprise.
“They all are custom-written for me — every song is about something in my life," Tucker says. "A couple of them are about my dad. ‘Rich’ is about my dad and ‘The Day My Heart Goes Still,’ that’s another one about my dad. ‘Seminole Wind Calling’ is about my hometown of Seminole, Texas… Brandi, she's infatuated with my dad and I think it's very cool. She wished she'd met him, and I do, too.”
A month after they recorded the album, Tucker asked Carlile how she and the twins put so much of her life in the songs on the project without having previously met. “They said, ‘We just listened to you when we were in our cars, we listened to every song we could get our hands on, fell in love with you, fell in love with your music and Googled the hell out of you,’” Tucker recalls. “Every song] has something, a connection very close to me.”
One of the standout tracks on the project is album closer “Bring My Flowers Now,” a striking piano ballad that has Tucker singing, “Bring my flowers now while I’m livin'/ I won’t need your love when I’m gone.” She had the idea for the song 40 years ago and mentioned the title and chorus in passing to Carlile. On the last day in the studio together, Carlile brought up the idea to write the song together.
“She walked in and she said, ‘The band’s on break, let's write that song of yours.’ I went in there and then she said the line, sings] ‘All the miles…’ We just fell into it and wrote it and then we recorded it. The band went out and made a chart and I sang it and that's what you hear,” she says. “I had the chorus already, but I didn't have the meat to go in between the two pieces of bread. Of course the best line is, ‘We all think we got the time until we don't,’ and I wish I could say that was my line. It takes some unexpected process or people, or catalyst or muse, to come in and finish that for me.”
Another memorable moment is Tucker’s cover of Miranda Lambert’s 2010 Country Songs chart-topper “The House That Built Me.” Hesitant to record the song, this one also took a little coaxing from Carlile in the studio. Tucker says she initially refused to cover “The House That Built Me,” confessing to Carlile, “I don’t want to be caught loitering around that song because Miranda’s version], I can’t top it. She said, ‘I think you should just do this and trust me on it.’”
Carlile changed a few of the words to make the song more about Tucker’s life. The singer says while growing up, her dad put her handprints and footprints on the sidewalk in Wilcox, Arizona, so she related personally to the song. While she admits she was “so negative” about recording it, she was pleasantly surprised by her version once she heard it.
“I just didn’t think I could bring anything to it, but I was wrong,” she says. “I love being wrong about things like this, because if I had been right, we wouldn’t be sitting here … I’m very grateful for Brandi and the twins. It was really great working with them. I know that we have a friendship that will be everlasting, she’s very special.”
Working with Jennings was also enjoyable for Tucker, as his father, Waylon Jennings, was "one of my favorite people in the world… One of the songs I brought to the table was ‘High Ridin’ Heroes,’ that Waylon did with David Lynn Jones," she says. "Then here’s Shooter, playing the piano and producing it. It was just like, ‘Wow, it's full circle, and what a great circle."
While I’m Livin’ is Tucker’s first album release since social media took over the album promotion landscape. While Tucker is still navigating the new territory, she is taken aback by the response she has received for the project.
“This is my first album in 17 years, so social media wasn't around to share music] — just bad promotion men. Everything is flip-flopped, and I'm just trying to keep up with the Joneses, the Brookses or the Underwoods,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be heard by the world. The music's been a gift from the good Lord, and I'm honored and so appreciative of the incredible response of this record. I think it's a brand new start for some really bigger, better, greater things.”