Even for country music royalty, the road goes on forever.
We saw Tanya Tucker play in Hopewell, Virginia, about a 30-minute drive out of Richmond. What was in Hopewell? Not a lot. It’s one of those many small towns in the U.S. that were vibrant a century ago, but whose picturesque storefront shops look sadly empty these days, their main streets quiet of the activity they so richly deserve.
It was a pretty out-of-the way location to play. But there aren’t a lot of stops in big cities for Tanya Tucker in 2017, and Hopewell is more off-the-books than most. The show wasn’t even listed on Tucker’s own schedule of tour dates, nor the usual ticket booking sites. Tucker has just cancelled a few shows earlier in the month due to Bronchitis, but the venue – The Beacon – held firm in the weeks leading up to the event that there would be a T. Tucker show.
The exterior of the venue itself—a 1928 silent movie and vaudeville theater had been rehabilitated in 2014, was breathtaking. But most of the attendees were already inside already. There was surprising very little milling out in the hallways—it was as if we were in church, rather than a live music facility.
After grabbing a $2 bag of homemade popcorn, we chose to sit out in the hallway just outside our balcony seats, on a set of comfortable couches, as the opening act, a solo singer-songwriter, played. An older lady toting a small child joined briefly in the hallway, bouncing him off her hip. She was, as it turned out the mother of this opening act, Faron Hamblin, who grew up in the area, and played a lot of around in the “northern neck” of Virginia, she said.
“He can hold the boy when he’s finished playing,” she said.
The surprising thing, for me, about Tanya Tucker is that she is only 58. She is actually younger than Lucinda Williams (64), who struck me as following Tucker by at least a generation musically (or two). But Tucker was only 13 when she had her first country hit, "Delta Dawn," in 1972. Even today, it is hard to fathom how a voice sounding that seasoned could come from a singer barely a teenager (especially since her record label, Columbia, actually downplayed her young age, initially).
Tucker grew up fast. My fave album of hers, actually, is a bootleg record of a live 1977 club show in Hollywood. It was recorded when she was only 17, yet she sounded like someone who had lived twice her years, possessing complete mastery of her voice, as well as her band of bawdy country-rock musicians. It sounds like little else recorded that year. Too bad it was never formally released.
In many ways, Tanya Tucker expanded the vocabulary of country music in the mid-1970s, giving it a proper introduction to rock n roll, and encouraging people to rethink what women country singers oughta be singing about. Oh, and she did all this before the age of 20.
Tucker was an established country music hit maker for much of the 1970s. After "Delta Dawn," she followed the Nashville single formula with an easy grace.
In 1978, however, she recorded an album, “ TNT,” that beefed up the sonics with some electric guitar and Bo Diddley beats. It was a pretty blatant attempt to gain a rock audience. And while the album didn’t appear to have that much of an impact in what we’d now call the classic rock crowd, it did sell at least 500,000 copies (making it a gold album).
At this time, outlaw country singers – Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe – were mixing rock dynamics into their country, at least in part to build an audience outside of traditional Nashville-based country music industry. But Tucker could arguably be said to be the first bonafide country star to openly record a “rock record,” albeit one with country (and folk) leanings. She did not become a rock star, but she opened up an entirely new audience for country, for what we know may consider pop-country.
And that was only part of what was going on. She also broke a bit of new ground beyond what most popular country music women singers felt comfortable singing at the time.
Many of the songs of reigning country queen Tammy Wynette concerned themselves with how to preserve traditional values in the face of severe marital stressors. You should “Stand By Your Man,” lest your marriage end upon that most unspoken of horrors, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”:
The singles of Loretta Lynn indicated that she also stood by her man, or, rather, fought for her man, when not fighting with him, that is. She instructs him to not “ Come Home a’ Drinking with Loving on Your Mind.” Make no mistake though, any town floozy with an eye on her drunken old man will soon meet “Fist City”:
Husbands, however perfidious and foul they were, were still central to many of the songs from Wynette and Lynn. The menfolk seem more incidental in Tucker’s singles. “Delta Dawn,” waits for a mysterious dark-haired man who never appears. A long-lost father returns to town to ask a child “ What’s Your Momma’s Name?” A girl asks to know more of her father in “The Man That Turned My Mama On.”
Current lovers are courted with a heretofore unheard directness, a forthrightness unseen since Patsy Cline or Rose Maddox: "Would You Lay With Me In a Field of Stone," she asks. If even the thought of Wynette, the Queen of Country Music, covering Tucker's " It's a Cowboy Lovin' Night" feels sacrilegious, then it just shows how far Tucker brought us along since then.
Yet, somehow, Tanya Tucker, junior of Lucinda, hasn’t been able to tap into her revolutionary status, to make sense to the huge alt-country audience out there. Instead, she follows the honorable traditional of playing her hits for diehard fans who love them nostalgically. To judge from this show, her dance moves haven't changed since the 1980s.
She holds the keys though, of giving these young female country singing outlaws – the
Nikki Lanes and