Tanya Tucker on life on the road and her new album.
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Evan Smith: You must be so happy to have your new record out.
Tanya Tucker: Well, yeah. I’m just happy people are still interested. I didn’t know that would happen with a record of covers.
ES: I think it’s about you, but I agree—it’s also about your decision to perform these extraordinary songs.
TT: Most of them were songs that I sang as a youngster, ones that my dad had introduced me to or songs that I had heard all my life and had never sung but had always wanted to. It was a real challenge for me to do them to the best of my ability. You know, you have the original staring you in the face. That’s never bothered me too much, but a few times it has. Like if I hear a Delbert McClinton demo. It’s like, “Whoa, how am I going to beat that?”
ES: The originals were sung not by shrinking violets but by big personalities like Ray Price and Buck Owens, people who play leading roles in the history of country music. And yet listening to your versions, you’ve managed to make them your own.
TT: That’s the ultimate compliment, but I could never make them mine. To me, they’ll never be as good. These folks are my heroes. How can you outdo your heroes? The way I look at it, I’m paying tribute to artists who inspire me.
ES: Tell me about your approach to the material.
TT: I had those songs in my head. On some of them, like “Crazy Arms,” I had a little bit of recoil, because after I finished it, I thought, “Man, maybe I should have done that a little bit more like Ray Price.” And someone said, “No, no, you did your own thing. You didn’t lose the magic.” Some people take originals and make them into something I don’t like, but then some people do something else with them and I think, “Wow, what a difference.” Norah Jones did Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” and I loved it, even though it was completely different from the original. I can only hope and pray that people like my versions as much as I liked hers.
ES: How did you settle on the songs on My Turn?
TT: Pete Anderson, my producer, came over to my house—
ES: He’s Dwight Yoakam’s producer, isn’t he?
TT: Yeah, and he played guitar on all of Dwight’s records, and I told him he had to play on mine too [laughs]. So he came over to my house in Malibu, and he had a list of songs. Of course it was wonderful to work with him. He’s got that Bakersfield kind of sound, but at the same time he’s very knowledgeable about old country.
ES: So you didn’t make the selections yourself?
TT: Oh, absolutely not. There were a few of them I was pretty much against. One of them I can recall is “Big, Big Love.” Wynn Stewart wasn’t on this planet long enough, but the song of his that I remember the most is “It’s Such a Pretty World Today.” That was one of his big hits. But Pete said, “Let’s not do the obvious.” Even when I was doing the final vocals, I said, “Pete, I don’t know if I really like this song.” And it’s one of my favorites on the whole record.
ES: You said there were some songs you would like to cover if you ever do another record like this one.
TT: Oh, God, yeah. Some really classic songs. “For the Good Times.” “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” I love “Me and Bobby McGee”—I haven’t done my own version of that one. “Make the World Go Away.” Got to put some Loretta Lynn songs in there too: “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ ” or “Fist City” or “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath.” That’s the problem I had with Merle Haggard and George Jones. Which of their songs should I pick? I could do a whole album of Merle Haggard songs.
ES: It’s almost cruel to have to choose.
TT: It is cruel! I used to go to Printer’s Alley [the legendary Nashville hot spot] back in my wilder days, and I could sing a whole hour of Merle Haggard—just one song after the other. But [for this record] I didn’t do the songs that I sang back then. I chose “Ramblin’ Fever,” which is one of my favorites, but it was probably the most difficult for me because I’m such a Merle Haggard freak. I just think, “Mine sucks compared to his.”
ES: It’s a trip to hear you talk about the old days. Even though you’re only fifty, you’ve been doing this a long time.
TT: Someone once said to me, “You’re a part of the old and a part of the new, but did you ever think that you might be the bridge between the two?” Well, I feel like a bridge. And no longer over troubled water.
ES: Most everyone gets past it.
TT: You’ve got to, and if you don’t, you die. Michael Jackson is a perfect example of that.
ES: Can we return to the topic of your dad for a second? He seems, years after his death, very much on your mind.
TT: All the time, and especially when I was recording these songs. There was no memorial, no tribute, after my dad passed away. I wanted to do something publicly. I realized when I was singing in the studio, he was right there with me. When Pete sent me “Lovesick Blues,” I said, “This is my dad, my early years.” My dad would tell me to “sing it like Hank Williams,” to “put it in there like he would.” He’d say, “You’ve got two strikes against you: You’re a female, and you’re nine years old, so you’re going to have to sing it with twice as much feeling as anybody has ever sung it, because people are not going to believe you singing, ‘I’m the center of attention in this barroom.’ You’re nine years old. They’re not going to believe that.” So when it came time to record that track, I said, “Uh-oh, I can’t do this song this fast. My dad would have a fit.” I hope he would be proud.
ES: He was your manager when you started out, in the early seventies. What do you remember about those days?
TT: The good thing about it was that I was a kid. When you’re a kid you’re not afraid of much, and you’re resilient. There’s more pressure on an adult. I don’t think I could go through today what I went through back then.
ES: What did you go through?
TT: We were on the road making six hundred bucks a night with three number one records out, and I was working with a house band and no manager except my dad. My dad was always my manager as far as I was concerned, even when I had another manager. At times he let me go with someone else who he thought could take me to another level when he couldn’t, and he was right. But they were in it for another reason. He was in it because he wanted to see me succeed no matter what, and he made decisions based on being a dad as opposed to a manager. All my life, people were like, “If we can just get Beau Tucker out of the way, we can really manage her and get her to where we can control her.”
ES: You never regretted his involvement with your career?
TT: Hell, no! If you put all those managers in a big, big pile, I would take him over them any day. What was hard was being a kid trying to tell my house band how to play, then going down the road in a Chrysler station wagon, and later on a bus, with the whole family aboard and my brother driving. It wasn’t like Gretchen Wilson, who had one record, Redneck Woman, and she’s got four semis and a hair and makeup person and she’s making a hundred grand a night. I still don’t have a hair and makeup person. So it was very difficult. We played a lot of bars. I would play the Flamingo hotel three shows a night, come back home at three in the morning, and go to school the next morning at eight.
ES: How hard that must have been.
TT: It was horrible. And we had no money. At that point, when things first start happening, you don’t get money right away. Money doesn’t come until much later. So you start building your reputation and looking for pennies to keep things together. One guy offered my dad $50,000 [to quit as my manager] when my dad didn’t have $20 in his pocket, but he looked at the guy, tore the check up right in front of him, and said, “No, thank you.”
ES: Did you feel treated unfairly or cheated in some way when “Delta Dawn” became such a hit for Helen Reddy? Your version came out in the spring of 1972 and went to only number six on the country charts, but then a year later her recording went to number one on the pop charts. It’s her version that people remember.
TT: At that time I wasn’t upset, but [venerated producer] Billy Sherrill was really angry. He had told those guys at Columbia Records that he had a girl who was a big killer and cut this great song. Basically he made the record on his own, because they didn’t have much faith in me. And they didn’t listen. They didn’t come through with their end of the deal, which was to promote it. There was no promotion, no nothing. When Helen Reddy came out with her version, which was a carbon copy, Billy just went ballistic.
ES: At least you didn’t go away. You went on to have your first number one hit, “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” in the spring of 1973, and two other number ones quickly followed. As the seventies went on, you became a big star.
TT: We kept going by the seat of our pants. We were hoofing it. My dad didn’t know anything about managing, you know? He did a great job, but we had no outside support.
ES: And here I thought that as soon as you have a number one hit, there are angels and cherubs hovering around you.
TT: That’s how it is now, but it wasn’t like that then. Then it was just another day at the office. We were still playing small clubs and two or three shows a night, and we were still traveling in a bus with the band and my family. We were selling albums off the bandstand.
ES: Was it possible to have a normal life?
TT: It wouldn’t have been normal for anyone else, but it was normal for me. We’d go through Lake Tahoe and I’d learn how to ski real quick. If I wanted to have fun, I’d have fun and then we went on. But I had my family there, and that was the best support I could have had. Throughout my whole career, it’s been the best. I was taught from an early age that nobody cares for you like your family does.
ES: Tell me about your decision to leave Columbia Records for MCA.
TT: When my dad went to New York to renegotiate my contract with Columbia, he had a lot of number one records under his belt. They told him that the amount he was asking for was way out in left field, that they weren’t going to give me that kind of money to re-sign.
ES: How much was he asking for?
TT: A million and a half.
ES: Seemed like a lot of money back then.
TT: It was. But then when they turned him down, he just went up a million and he crossed the street. He said he was gonna go talk to those people with the little dog; he was talking about RCA, but he meant MCA. And MCA immediately said, “Yes, we’ll take it.”
ES: Do you remember what you eventually got in that deal?
TT: I think it was $2.6 million, but I left all that up to my dad. They handed me a check for $400,000 that day, October 10, 1975, which was the day I turned seventeen.
ES: Not long after that, people perceived you as moving away from country and into rock. What happened?
TT: In 1978 we got with some people in California—this is probably my biggest regret. They were rock and roll. I told them, “Listen, I’m eighteen. I feel like country music needs to go to another level. We’re in the dark ages here. The performances could be better, and the production could be better. I think there are kids out there who would love country music, but no one’s really given them a shot at it. I’d really like to put a little more pizzazz in my music.” These guys acted like they knew what I was talking about, but in reality, they didn’t. They were just in it for the money and the hype. We started working on the album, and it cost me about $500,000 to make. That was ridiculous at the time—even at this time it’s ridiculous. They got me a big airplane, and they put a lot of effort into promotion. Unfortunately the promotion was better than the record, and it all backfired on me.
ES: How did you make it all right?
TT: We had a contract that said if the record didn’t go gold by January 1, 1979, I had the option of leaving them. The last show of my tour was in Dallas, and after I got done with my last song, they called me back onstage and said, “We have a big surprise for you.” And they presented me with a gold record. My dad got to looking at it after the show, and it was an Elton John album spray-painted gold. They tried to trick me into staying another four years with them.
ES: What a bunch of creeps.
TT: Oh, you can’t even imagine. They sued me, of course. I won the lawsuit, but I lost because I had to fight them. But I went back to Nashville and started my run with [producer] Jerry Crutchfield, and we did thirteen albums together. And I think my best years were with Jerry. I think we should maybe work together again. He really knows my voice and what I can do and how much he can push it.
ES: Let me ask you, finally, about the way country music has changed. I think about you coming along when you did, and I think about, say, LeAnn Rimes coming along when she did. It’s a very different experience now.
TT: Totally different. It’s a new day. People now are hungry for young acts—they go around looking for them, and they know what to do with them. They didn’t know what the hell to do with me.
ES: Do you like the country you hear today?
TT: Oh, yeah. I think there’s a lot of great stuff out there, a lot of talent. Someone like Carrie Underwood—they have the polisher on, and they have people around her making sure she’s doing the right things and being seen at the right places and meeting with the right people. There’s a lot more grooming of artists than when I was starting out.
ES: You seem to be having a pretty good go of it yourself.
TT: I know more about what I want, and I don’t let people run over me. From the very beginning, I’ve never changed my ideas about what music should be.