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Music

At 13, she had her first hit. 48 years later, could country outlaw Tanya Tucker win her first Grammy?

Tanya Tucker
Country singer Tanya Tucker has received four Grammy nominations for her first album in more than a decade, “While I’m Livin’.”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

A TV news crew showed up on Tanya Tucker’s doorstep in Nashville on the morning Grammy Award nominations were announced, aiming to get her reaction in case her much-lauded comeback album, “While I’m Livin’,” scored any nods for the veteran country singer.

Ever the hardened realist, Tucker, 61, told the crew not to get their hopes up.

“It’s not in my constitution to put much faith in awards,” she said. “I never have.”

When word quickly came down that she’d landed not one but four nominations, including overall song of the year recognition for “Bring My Flowers Now,” which she co-wrote, Tucker was floored.

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“I just about...,” she said, catching herself before finishing the thought. “Well, I won’t say what I ‘just about,’ but it was shocking to me.”

“Bring My Flowers Now,” co-written by Grammy favorite Brandi Carlile, earned two nominations, including one for song of the year.

Along with the best song nomination, “Bring My Flowers Now” also is up for country song and country solo performance, and “While I’m Livin’” is in the running for the country album Grammy.

Tucker’s been down this road before. Since she surfaced nationally in 1972 with her monster hit “Delta Dawn,” which she delivered with preternatural maturity at age 13, Tucker has been nominated for 14 Grammy Awards, including this year’s bundle. She has yet to take one home.

“There’s not a better loser anywhere than me,” said Tucker, who has three adult children and a boyfriend with whom she shares her Nashville home. By just being nominated, “I’ve already won.”

The Recording Industry Assn. of America-bestowed award nominations are the latest acclaim to greet the first album in 10 years from a woman whose roller-coaster career and tumultuous personal life got her pegged early on as a country music maverick. Her reputation as a hard-living, hard-loving and hard-touring singer made her a role model for successive generations of country outliers.

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The new album, though, has sold modestly, appearing for just one week on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart before dropping off. Mainstream country radio, skewing heavily in recent decades to younger performers, has largely ignored it. Grammy voters, however, often have a soft spot for veterans who revive their careers, especially when they are championed by musical descendants they’ve influenced, like Tucker’s album producers Shooter Jennings and Brandi Carlile.

Jennings has known Tucker pretty much since he was born, as she was friends with his parents, fellow country music outlaws Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter.

Carlile’s role in Tucker’s career rejuvenation, meanwhile, started with a random comment Jennings made while coproducing (with Dave Cobb) the younger singer’s Grammy-winning album from last year, “By the Way, I Forgive You.”

“During one of the sessions, Shooter said, ‘I think I just heard some Tanya Tucker in your voice,’” Carlile recalled recently in a separate interview with The Times. “I said, ‘You don’t even know how much Tanya Tucker you’ve heard in my voice.’ I started singing Tanya Tucker [songs] at 7. She was my favorite because she sounded so tough, and I wanted tough singers.”

Carlile admitted to having absorbed many dire rumors about Tucker’s health and career status from tabloid news outlets.

“I was like, ‘It’s so sad she’s not singing anymore. I’ve heard that she’s a drug addict; I’ve heard she’s got late-stage cancer. Is she going to die?’ And Shooter’s like, ‘No, no, no, what are you talking about? She’s in recovery [from addiction] and she’s singing really well. Actually, she’s asked me to make an album with her.’

“He asked me to produce the album with him and I was all in,” Carlile said. “We wrote all the songs so it’s like a musical biography of Tanya’s life.”

Glen Campbell and Tanya Tucker
Glen Campbell and Tanya Tucker at the Grammy Awards in 1979.
(Associated Press)

Needless to say, Tucker came away mightily impressed with those songs Carlile wrote with her frequent Nashville songwriting partners Tim and Phil Hanseroth.

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“What the hell!” she marvels. “I’d never met Brandi until she walked into that studio. How does somebody write songs custom-fit to somebody they’d never met?”

For “Bring My Flowers Now,” which closes the album, Tucker said Carlile and the Hanseroths got a song across the finish line that she’d been carrying “for 30 or 40 years maybe.”

The music world’s response to “Bring My Flowers Now” also strikes Tucker as the fulfillment of something her father told her when her career was just getting started. “When I was a kid, maybe 14 or 15, my dad told me, ‘One of the biggest records you’re ever going to have is one you’re going to write yourself.’ That’s coming to fruition with this song.”

Tanya Tucker
Tanya Tucker performs at the Stagecoach festival in Indio, Calif., on April 27, 2018.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Tucker’s voice has always projected real grit, but over time it has gotten deeper, both with age and from “a few hiccups along the way. I had throat surgery that went bad and caused me to lose my falsetto — things like that. But God gave me enough voice to still have some left over.”

She’s got a couple of other recording projects on the back burner that may provide the follow-up to “While I’m Livin’.” “I haven’t been twiddling my thumbs,” she said of the decade that’s elapsed since her previous release, “My Turn,” in 2009. “If somebody said, ‘You have to have something in two weeks,’ I’d have them ready.”

She also wants fans to make no mistake about the cover photo for “While I’m Livin’,” which shows her on the back of a rearing steed. No Photoshop was involved.

“Hell no!” she said proudly. “It was actually done for my tequila bottle,” referring to her product endorsement for Cosa Salvaje tequila. “When Brandi saw that picture, she said it had to be on the album cover.”


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