It’s often said that you don’t know what you got until its gone. But in the case of country legend Tanya Tucker, it seems we must take that oft-used morsel a step further to say we didn’t know what we had until she was out of the limelight and thankfully returned.
Whether or not Tucker’s flawless new record, While I’m Livin’, is some sort of “comeback album” or not isn’t the point. The point is that 16 years after her last record of new material, the 60-year old, Seminole, TX born outlaw hero with dozens of Top 10 hit singles to her credit wanted to be heard again. Produced by Shooter Jennings and arguably one of the hottest names in the country and Americana world these days, Brandi Carlile, this 10-song collection is a powerful, expertly crafted statement from a singular country music voice.
Though Tucker herself only had a hand in writing one of the tracks, her instantly recognizable, emotive, dusty rasp claims every song as her own. And, frankly, that applies to the well-known cover choices, including “The House That Built Me,” made famous by Miranda Lambert a decade ago. As aching and quietly powerful as Lambert’s version is, the weight of someone with Tucker’s hard-earned perspective looking back through the halls of her childhood home is impossible to shed easily.
Primarily consisting of acoustic-based instrumentation, While I’m Livin’ fits more easily into a folksy Americana realm than the more straight-forward honky-tonk country of Tucker’s award-collecting, platinum-selling days of the ‘70s, ’80s and ‘90s. Even when the tempos and textures alternate, the record as a whole feels cohesive and confident. Soulful gospel touches accentuate the impressively soft vocals in “Wheels of Laredo,” while “Mustang Ridge” is a jaunty, roots tune featuring an unapologetic Tucker singing “Now a women’s life ain’t just a list of the word things she has done. Sometimes the past is hard to outrun.”
The effervescent, bouncy “I Don’t Owe You Anything” is a Country ’n Western middle-finger to an ex that’s surely going to miss her far more than the other way around. The very next song, the folk-inflected “The Day My Heart Goes Still” seamlessly flips the script, conveying the sweetest feelings she has for her father. If anyone can switch the salty and the sweet better than Tucker does here, we’ve yet to hear it.
In a genius bit of song sequencing, the album’s final song is not only the star of the show, but it’s the kind of song that makes such a long wait for new music so very well worthwhile. The only song with Tucker as a co-writer, “Bring My Flowers Now” is a brave, vulnerable look at mortality and the way we all too often fail to show love and appreciation for those around us until it’s far too late. On top of a mournful, stark piano, Tucker sings “I won’t need your love when I’m gone, don’t spend your time, tears and money on my old breathless body.” The profundity of such a bare-bones directive is given even more urgency when she sings later that “days are long, but the years are lightning.”
There’s no telling when or if we’ll hear another Tanya Tucker record, and that’s fine. While I’m Living is triumphant proof that the best artists speak only when they have something to say and that we should appreciate our living legends while, indeed, they are living.