Published Aug 27, 2019It has been quite the year for Brandi Carlile. Of course, there was that show-stopping performance of "The Joke" at the Grammy Awards back in February and, more recently, star-studded sets at the Newport Folk Festival to mark the debut of the Highwomen, whose own album will be released next month. And yet, her most significant achievement of 2019 may lie in helping spur the return to the spotlight of one of country music's greatest voices.
Initially contacted by Shooter Jennings to help write songs for Tanya Tucker's first studio album since 2009 — and first of mostly original material in 17 years — Carlile ended up sharing the producer's chair with Jennings and penning most of the album (save for a trio of supremely well-chosen covers) with longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth. The result of those sessions, While I'm Livin', is perhaps the finest full-length in Tucker's storied five-decade career.
While I'm Livin' is part travelogue and part musical biography of the 60-year-old singer. In fact, there's a tangible sense of place throughout While I'm Livin', an album peppered with references to Tucker's native Texas: Mustang Ridge and San Antonio's Hays Street Bridge ("Mustang Ridge"), Guadalupe Market Square ("The Wheels of Laredo") and the singer's birthplace ("Seminole Wind") are all name-checked along the way.
Tucker's hardscrabble upbringing ("When people said we were poor / Hell, we were rich in another way"), tumultuous life and resilience in the face of both self-inflicted and structural challenges ("I got tossed and turned around / But I always stood my ground") make for rich lyrical fodder, and Carlile and Jennings wrap those words in a striking Southern blend of choir-like backing vocals, keys and mostly acoustic instruments that falls somewhere between Muscle Shoals, early Lynyrd Skynyrd and relaxed back porch jams.
At the centre of it all is Tucker, who remains a superlative interpreter and one of the most distinctive singers of the last half-century. Her voice is slightly raspier, a little weathered by years of hard living, but it remains as expressive as ever, sounding alternately tough on the classic country kiss-off of "I Don't Owe You Anything" ("Darling I ain't growing old with you") or tender on the heartbreaking closer "Bring Me My Flowers," the album's high point and Tucker's lone writing credit.
"High Flyin' Heroes," a gorgeous 1987 ballad by David Lynn Jones, sounds like something Kris Kristofferson might have penned and inadvertently cast aside back in 1969 — and suits the singer to a T. On lead single "Hard Luck," Tucker and her band successfully turn a goofy 1979 single by Texas proto-metal band Josefus into an outlaw anthem of survival. But the sharpest choice on While I'm Livin' lies in the slight but significant adaptation of Miranda Lambert's 2010 hit "The House That Built Me," shifting the perspective from the daughter to the mother. In Tucker's hands, the song becomes a deeply moving account of a parent who is searching for meaning in their life after the children have left behind a house whose emptiness became too much to bear. It's arguably even more affecting than Lambert's already exceptional version.
Once the youngest woman to make the cover of Rolling Stone ("Hi, I'm Tanya Tucker, I'm 15, you're gonna hear from me" went the headline), few veteran country artists are more deserving of a 21st-century "re-launch" than Tucker, whose exclusion from the Country Music Hall of Fame despite two dozen charting albums and more than fifty charting singles grows more inexplicable with each passing year. If any recording warrants such renewed attention, it is the remarkable, inspiring and inspired While I'm Livin'.
"I still got a long long way to go," sings Tucker on "The Day My Heart Goes Still," a tribute to late father-manager Beau. With music this good, we can only hope so. (Fantasy)