Every few years at the Grammys, the country community rallies around an older, critically beloved but commercially marginal artist. In 2005, it was Loretta Lynn for “Van Lear Rose,” her collaboration with Jack White. In 2017, it was psychedelic roughneck Sturgill Simpson, whose album of the year nod was no less surprising to him than anyone.
And in 2020, it will be the return of Tanya Tucker.
Tucker, the 61-year-old hard-living, sexually provocative and narratively gifted singer, won four nominations including song of the year and country song for “Bring My Flowers Now,” off her album “While I’m Livin’.” It’s not quite a comeback LP — she released a lovely album of standards in 2009. But her nods affirm the influence she’s had over a generation of spiky, defiant Grammy favorites like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and the Dixie Chicks.
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Tucker, in her early career, was an instant star but often portrayed as redneck jailbait (note the uncomfortably leering undertones of a Rolling Stone cover profile from 1974, “Tanya Tucker: The Teenage Teaser”). She did revel in the attention at the time, according to her memoir, and songs like “Would You Lay with Me” brought a freewheeling rebelliousness that shook up the genre.
But Tucker was a peer of legends like Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Lynn (who dryly joked that the teenage Tucker was the intended audience for her song “The Pill”). Though she waxed and waned on radio — her ’86 triumph “Girls Like Me” had four top-ten country singles — her influence in recent decades was more ideological than commercial.
That could change with “While I’m Livin’,” which will return Tucker to the biggest stage in pop music after 14 nominations but no wins to date.
There’s also some recent Grammy shine beneath the LP. Tucker co-wrote the album with Brandi Carlile, who pulled down three wins and three top-category nominations in 2018 for her song “The Joke” and album “By the Way, I Forgive You.” Carlile (alongside longtime writing collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth) is a clear inheritor of Tucker’s mix of tenderness and tough-as-leather writing. Maybe it’s no surprise that in our current reexamining of how women are condescended to and chewed up in the entertainment industry, there’s something in Tucker’s story that would invite championing.
Alongside producer Shooter Jennings — another outlaw veteran who produced for acts ranging from Wanda Jackson to Marilyn Manson — they found the contemporary resonance in Tucker’s life story and rough-hewn, still mesmerizing vocals. The resurrection of a vintage country act with contemporary writers and producers is a favorite Grammy move, perhaps even a cliché today. But that doesn’t make Tucker’s success any less welcome.