Tanya Tucker Strolls Through Strong Enough to Bend

New Exhibit at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Captures a Fascinating Career

Nobody makes an entrance like Tanya Tucker. Fresh out of the makeup chair, she wheels around the corner into the staging area where exhibits are assembled for installation in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and makes a beeline for a studded, leather pants-and-jacket combo displayed on a mannequin.

“One night, I split these pants right down the seat!” she exclaims, inspecting them for the rip, which was apparently repaired at some point after the onstage wardrobe malfunction.

The country star’s attention flits around the room as she surveys the mementos from her complex, often chaotic and utterly captivating four-decade career that are being enshrined in a new spotlight exhibit, Strong Enough to Bend.

There’s a lot of tough, splashy, form-fitting western style to take in: buckskin fringe, fur trim, evening gowns and miniskirts, denim of stone-washed, lace appliquéd and bedazzled varieties, midriff-bearing purple spandex, sequins, spangles and tailor-made suits by Nudie and Manuel.

Jason Davis/Getty Images

And that’s just the clothes.

There are also photos, posters, a portable record player, her 1975 issue of Rolling Stone magazine with Tucker on the cover, a miniature model of her tour bus circa 1993, a pink Harley-Davidson motorcycle bearing her cowgirl logo and an unopened can of Tanya Tucker’s Salsa, among other items.

Jason Davis/Getty Images

Still, what’s in this room doesn’t even scratch the surface of the collection she’s accumulated while evolving from gutsy teen singer into country-rock siren, undomesticated country hitmaker and latter-day traditionalist.

“This is just this much,” says Tucker, signaling roughly an inch with her thumb and index finger. “I have 10,000 square feet of stuff. You’ve gotta come over. It’d blow your mind.”

CMT.com: Was there anybody you looked to as a source of inspiration who’d done a tough, sexy update on country and western stage wear?

Tucker: Not a girl. I love what they’re doing for themselves, but as far as a style, I always copped Elvis on everything as far as stage wear. Because I felt more comfortable. I don’t feel comfortable rockin’ out onstage in something loose. I gotta move around a little bit, you know.

Before you go any further, I want to point out, for example, these pants, they’re stretchy now. But [Manuel] originally made ‘em for me out of this kind of fabric where it don’t stretch. And I’m like, “Mmm, wait a minute. I can’t even sit down.” So I had him remake ‘em out of this stretchy fabric, ‘cause it gives. It’s still not the fabric I like the best, but I’ll take that up with Manuel. But he does beautiful work. It’s like having a piece of art in your house.

His father-in-law, Nudie, made this pink suit here and the red, white and blue suit which I wore at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo in 1973.

Did you get to pick out the patterns?

No, I didn’t. See this little dress right here? The first time I was on the Grand Ole Opry, [I wore] that little miniskirt and those boots that I bought off the rack somewhere in Vegas at a little mall.

I just went back and reread that Rolling Stone cover story Chet Flippo wrote about you. You were 15 when you did that interview, and you talked about wanting outfits you could wear onstage and be able to move like Elvis. Since you entered the spotlight so young, how did you learn what it took to present yourself as an entertainer?

Well, I think it’s just a process. I’m not that talented to be able to just go to my closet. Now my little girl does it for me. I like to say, “Go pick me something out to wear and bring it to me.” So I have my friends and my assistant and whoever wants to dress me. And then if I don’t look good, it’s their fault. (laughs)

How did you figure out that having a look, an image, was part of it? That it wasn’t just about singing?

Really, the singing is the easy part. You know, when you’re growing up, you change. You change what you want. Now I wouldn’t wear one of those short miniskirts because it’s not me anymore. I just want to be me. …When they did the TNT album [cover], that’s when they really …

People point to that as the moment when you were first styled in a way that was really provocative.

Provocative — that’s what they were working on. The people that managed me, they were just doofusses and they were selling the sex part. Me, I wanted to go to dinner. … But, yes, onstage, there’s a certain amount of sexiness that I just have in me. I’m not gonna do “coochie coo” because it’s not me. I don’t know what me is. And you know what? It’s gonna change.

I actually think you have a pretty strong identity as a performer.

You do? I hope so.

That motorcycle right there …

That’s my boy.

When did you ride it out onstage?

Chicago Harley delivered it to me in Chicago when Travis Tritt and me and Marty Stuart and Charlie Daniels were playing. [The guys] were all kidding me about it that day when they delivered it. I was riding it around the racetrack where we were. I asked Travis to go with me. I asked Marty. They would not ride my pink motorcycle.

But here comes Charlie Daniels, and he says, “Is that your motorcycle? … Well, that’s the prettiest motorcycle I’ve ever seen. Could I ride it?” I went, “Well, sure. Would you make sure you ride it around Travis and Marty’s bus?”

So he gets on it, and here he is with his [cowboy] hat riding around the racetrack. And I said, “I hope they saw that because only a real man can ride a pink Harley.” Then that night I rode it out onstage. It was quite a deal.

Was that your original intention in getting it — so you could make a grand entrance onstage?

The original intention was to ride the hell out of it. I’ve ridden motorcycles all my life, and I’d like to stay that way. … But this bike, it’s just a great little thing. Harley made it for women because it’s a little smaller. But I’ve outgrown it now. I’m on a hog now. Just kidding. (laughs)

You have a relationship with the biker community. You’ve played the motorcycle rally at Sturgis before.

Oh, yeah, I’ve played many times. That’s a wild bunch, and I like to sing to a wild bunch.

Speaking of, I’ve often seen you associated with the Outlaw movement over the years. Through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, did you identify what you were doing with what Willie, Waylon, Jessi and the rest of the Outlaws were doing?

I was in it. I was all up in it. When the first album [Wanted: The Outlaws] came out, I thought, “Damn, I should’ve been on that thing.” … I was all up into it because I was about 17 then when that album came out.

So it hit you at the right age?

Absolutely. “Outlaw” just sounded very alluring to me. It seemed like a better fit for me than an in-law. (laughs) I’ve never had an in-law, you know. I’ve had some kids … but never been married.

I imagine you were several years younger than 17 when you wore that little denim suit with the name of your first hit “Delta Dawn” bedazzled on the back of it.

I did that myself. With my little fingers, each one. That’s a pretty hot little [number]. I didn’t do too bad, did I?

Jewly Hight is the author of Right by Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs, and a contributing writer for CMT.com, CMT Edge, NPR, The Nashville Scene and a number of other outlets. She once got lost in the woods on Loretta Lynn’s Ranch while running a 20-mile trail race.