Outlaws. Movie stars. Washed out rodeo cowboys. Songwriters. Fashion designers. Guitar pickers. Real people. Late-night denizens. Superbowl Half-Time shows. Studio 54. Honky Tonks. Sedona. The Opry. Austin. Music City. New York City. Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall. Awards in the ‘70s, ‘90s, and ‘20s, #1 records in every decade but the 2010s. Tanya Tucker has seen, done and been places most people can’t imagine and she’s now resurgent again after her Grammy award winning album, ‘While I’m Livin’ and now this new record, ‘Sweet Western Sound’.
A child thrust into stardom with a series of precocious hits, the iconic “Delta Dawn,” “Would You Lay With Me,” and “Blood Red & Goin’ Down,” among them, Tanya Tucker is now Country music’s elder stateswoman, ruminating on the passing of time, reflecting on what she did and what might have been. Every inch of her 64 years on this earth is etched into her vocals but whereas some singers’ voices get thinner and reedy as they age, Tucker’s transmit a wisdom and a gravitas that demands attention and paints vivid and cinematic landscapes that tell wonderful stories of what was and what might have been.
That approach to storytelling is what makes Tucker’s new album, ‘Sweet Western Sound’ such a tour du force and an obvious contender for a follow up Grammy to ‘While I’m Livin’. Building on her collaboration with Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings (who co-produced ‘Livin’), they dug deeper into the caverns and canyons of Tanya’s life. This time the music is bigger and more immediate, the reckonings more profound; but as always, the heart is strong, honest and willing to tell the truth about it all. The album opens with a 50 second voicemail from legendary writer Billy Joe Shaver that he left on her phone one day: a brief noodle, what songwriters do when they riff and doodle, that is now recorded for all time as the opening to this powerful and reflective album.
Across the whole of ‘Sweet Western Sound’ there is a raw openness on Tucker’s part in her acceptance of age and there are some terrific tales being told. Perhaps the best tale is the wonderful ‘Breakfast in Birmingham’, featuring Brandi Carlile and the co-writing talents of Elton John’s powerhouse writer, Bernie Taupin. ‘…..Birmingham is an Eagles-esque story of life on the road, of a troubadour heading for ‘breakfast with brown eyes in Birmingham.’ There’s a world-weary, ‘seen it all’ kind of message behind the song that is carved deep into the whole of ‘Sweet Western Sound’ and a feeling that this type of writer, traveller and storyteller belongs to a world long gone now. Alongside ‘Dear Insecurity’, from Brandy Clark’s latest album, a track also featuring Brandi Carlile, ‘Breakfast in Birmingham’ has to be a contender for ‘Song of the Year’ at next year’s Grammy awards for sure.
Elsewhere, we get ‘Kindness’ with its lush instrumentation and sweeping production, bringing the gravel throated vocals of Tanya Tucker to life in stark and impactful ways. ‘I’ve been everything there is to be,’ she states, ‘C’mon baby, show a little kindness to me.’ This sparse song is brought to life delightfully in Brandi Carlile’s hands and becomes an incredibly vivid treatise on Tucker’s own life experience. Similarly, ‘Ready as I’ll Never Be’ builds on top of that storytelling and lush instrumentation but adds in a level of Gospel spiritualism as Tucker ruminates on her final chapter in life. Spiritual and uplifting rather than mawkish or cliched, ‘Ready as I’ll Never Be’ sees Tucker asserting, ‘gather round now, it’s time to sing. It’s bittersweet but it’s a hell of a silver lining.’ The circle remains unbroken in the song’s final third as she cuts loose vocally before bringing things back down to a tender and quieter ending.
The personal touches that Tanya Tucker brings to ‘Sweet Western Sound’ are what makes the album feel very intimate. On ‘The List’, a (sweet) Western sounding song replete with plaintive 70s steel, Tucker sings, ‘The years ain’t always been kind….but that list of things you don’t like about me is gonna be shorter than mine.’ ‘Letter to Linda’ started out life as an actual letter to Tucker’s hero, Linda Ronstadt when Tucker found out she was struggling with her health. It’s a gentle, 70s sounding ballad that could have been written at any time in the last 50 years. ‘Letter to Linda’ is a lovely, personal look at a woman that Tucker only met once: the song has a delightful cadence that embeds itself into your consciousness on the first listen and refuses to let go. The trio of personal songs are completed by ‘That Wasn’t Me’, a piano driven song in which Tucker reflects on her interactions with people which then widens the narrative into what makes a good person and how we can all strive to be better. Tucker takes us to church in the final third and you can hear her age and wisdom in every word and line that she sings.
Age is a common theme across the songs on ‘Sweet Western Sound’. ‘Waltz Across a Moment’ is a California sounding piano ballad that sits somewhere between Billy Joel and the Eagles with a hint of Gospel thrown in for good measure that sees Tucker urging us to seize the day while we can whilst album closer, ‘When the Rodeo is Over (Where Does the Cowboy Go)’ is about endings and closures as it tells another cinematic story about a man desperate for one more 8 second ride. We are all the guy in this song, clinging to the conventions of life and wonderfully deluded about the endings heading our way. Lush guitar work and sweeping pianos combine to provide the landscape that Tucker paints her vocals on top of here as another album of hers closes down and the cowboy walks away.
“Sweet Western Sound is another revelation and I’m excited to see what folks think of our new endeavor,” says Tucker. “It’s always a trip working with Brandi and Shooter. I didn’t know if we’d be working together again on a new album after ‘While I’m Livin’ but we did it! Lots of new things we did this time and I even co-wrote some of the songs, which means a lot to me. Brandi says we’re MAGIC together, and I’m starting to believe her!” Magic is one good word to describe what Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile are achieving together but so are thoughtful, impactful, powerful and raw. At the sunset of her career Tanya Tucker is making tremendous Country music with real heart and soul. It’s what the genre exists for. Sure, some artists can sing about beer and girls and fripperies like that but it’s right here, on ‘Sweet Western Sound’ that the beating heart of Country music resides with an artist who is telling tales of a life well lived, of opportunites taken and chances missed and of connections made and dislocation too. There are no wasted words or rhymes for the sake of ease. Every word and phrase is a deliberate choice designed to tell the stories of Tucker’s life that brought her to where she is right now: that there, painted in vivid strokes and cinematic details, is Country music, folks. Drink it in while you can.
Tracklist: 1. Tanya 2. Kindness 3. Breakfast in Birmingham 4. Waltz Across a Moment 5. Ready As I’ll Never Be 6. The List 7. Letter to Linda 8. City of Gold 9. That Wasn’t Me 10. When the Rodeo is Over (Where Does the Cowboy Go)’ Record Label: Fantasy Records Release Date: Friday June 2nd Buy ‘Sweet Western Sound’ now