As a grade-schooler in Arizona, Tanya Tucker and her father, Beau Tucker, would convince touring country singers like Ernest Tubb and Little Jimmy Dickens to give her a moment in the spotlight, too. And by the time she was 13, Tucker was working her own shows in a Las Vegas nightclub, fearlessly performing honky-tonk classics like Faron Young‘s “Wine Me Up.” So it’s no surprise the 50-year-old singer sounds perfectly comfortable on her new album of country classics, My Turn. She says she recorded famous songs by the likes of Lefty Frizzell, Buck Owens, Ray Price and Hank Williams to honor her late father.
“He’s the one that got me started in this business, and he’s the one that got me hooked on country music from the very beginning, so it only makes sense that I dedicate this album to him,” she said. “I wanted to call it The Songs My Dad Wanted Me to Sing … but I finally decided on My Turn, which I think is a good title, too. He’s the one that had these records when I started singing. He was my mentor.”
Tucker possesses one of the most familiar voices in country music, with 40 Top 10 singles and 10 No. 1 hits. These days, she divides her time between Malibu, Calif., where her daughters are pursuing film work, and Franklin, Tenn., a small town about 20 miles south of Nashville. During a phone interview, she discusses the healing power of music, the first demos she was pitched and why she’s keeping her vinyl collection.
CMT: Preparing for this record, did you go back and listen to the original versions?
Tucker: Not really. [Producer] Pete Anderson came over to my house in Malibu one night, and it was the first time I ever met him. We started talking about the songs that we really liked. There was a list about 20 to 30 songs. He was dead set about some things. There was one that I wasn’t really sure of — “Big Big Love.” I was hoping to do something like “It’s Such a Pretty World” by Wynn Stewart. But he was set on “Big Big Love” and even right up until I recorded it, I really didn’t know if I was going to like the song. But after I recorded it, I really loved it. That’s one of my favorites on the record.
When you moved to Malibu, did you keep all your vinyl records, and do you listen to country music on vinyl?
Oh, absolutely. I haven’t lately because I don’t have anything to play it on. All my turntables are in storage. I haven’t gotten to listen to them in a long time. But I love all the white noise.
You can’t bear to part with those.
No, never will. That’s the beginning, you know. That was the core. That’s what got us here.
When you listened to material for your studio records, were most of those demos sung by men?
Yeah, it’s true. I’ve made a career out of singing songs that mostly were men’s songs. I mean, I have definitely cut some songs that had female demos, but I have always been attracted to men’s songs. I always turned them around into stronger kind of songs. I have made a career out of that. Nobody would really know, I guess, but me and my producer.
Did the industry ever tell you that since you’re a female country singer, you’re only going to appeal to women?
Oh, no, no, I was never told that. I think they wanted me to appeal more to men, especially when I got a little older. The facts are that women buy the records. It’s always been that way. Somehow through them wanting me to appeal to men, I ended up appealing to women because of the strong songs. There is just a little more strength in a woman’s song these days. I never have really been attracted to “poor little me” songs — “I’ll do anything if you take me back.” I never have liked that kind of attitude. (laughs) I have had a lot of women come to me and say, “Man, you helped me get through a divorce.” It’s amazing how powerful music is. It never fails to amaze me. I think sometimes artists get so involved in making the music, we forget really how important it is as far as changing lives and helping people through a bad part of their lives. It’s very, very powerful.
In your early career, one of the first songs you were pitched was “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” which later became a Grammy-winning song for Donna Fargo. What was going through your mind the first time you heard it?
I thought it was a good song, but I didn’t think at that time it was for me. Of course [music publisher] Al Gallico brought it in because he had the publishing on it. He knew Billy Sherrill had this new 13-year-old kid he was producing, so he put it together and brought it in and said, “This is a monster.” … So we really could have recorded it if we had wanted to, but I just said it wasn’t my song. Billy told the guys, “Well, you heard her.” And they’re going like, “Oh, God, he’s lost his mind. He’s starting to listen to a 13-year-old kid.” (laughs) Billy was a little left-of-center anyway. It was to be expected, I guess. But when I heard “Delta Dawn,” which is what he played me next, it was an Alex Harvey guitar vocal, and I said, “Now that’s my song.”
So they thought, “He’s lost it.” But, in fact, it was the best thing he could have done. As kids, we’re unafraid. I was unafraid. That’s the way you’ve got to be when you’re starting out in this business — and when you want to stay in this business, that’s for sure. You can’t get scared too much.