With her first album of new songs in 17 years, "While I'm Livin'," out on Friday, Tucker is in the spotlight again. And while being rebellious is part of her DNA, this time she's ready to make nice. "I'm not 20 anymore. It's obvious. But I'm just trying to do what's expected of me, and that's never usually my case," Tucker said.
From the beginning of her career, Tucker has challenged the standards of how women in country music were supposed to look, sing and act in their personal lives. While she had 10 No. 1 country hits and 40 songs in the top 10, and won CMA female vocalist of the year in 1991, what has come to define her most is the tabloid image earned by her brashness, bawdiness, love affairs with other singers, athletes and actors, and rehab.
"She is well known for having a complicated life, a complicated relationship with drugs," said Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who helped co-produce and co-write the new album. Country music "goes so far as to make heroes out of the men that have lives like that," she added.
But even as some of Tucker's contemporaries like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn were lauded as icons, Tucker's contributions weren't as well remembered in the ensuing decades. She's never been asked to join the Country Music Hall of Fame, for instance, despite a long career.
Tucker was barely a teenager when she made her first splash on the music scene. "When Billy Sherrill and I cut 'Delta Dawn,' I remember him telling everybody, 'I don't want it known that she's only 13. I want to keep that a secret a little while, as long as we can,'" said Tucker.
Sherrill, her producer, wanted people to hear the husky-voiced Texas singer first and not see her as just an oddity. The song become her first hit, in 1972, and her most recognizable song. It earned her the cover of "Rolling Stone."
By the late '70s, her image had turned from innocent to scandalous, with her rock album "TNT" and its photo of Tucker wearing a skin-tight, red body stocking. "I just wish I knew where that little red suit was. I'd like to see if I can still put this in it," Tucker now jokes. She later noted that it was probably one of her worst records.
Then there was the tumultuous love affair with Glen Campbell, who was 20 years older than she was. They both had their addictions and "it snowballed," Tucker said succinctly. She rebounded with a string of hits on country radio in the early '90s, like "Down To My Last Teardrop" and "Two Sparrows in a Hurricane."
But the deaths of her father and mother in 2006 and 2012 weighed on her, and she stopped recording for a long time. Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon Jennings and a producer as well, had been trying to persuade Tucker to return to the studio, and he found an ally in Carlile. Tucker didn't know who Carlile was, but soon learned that Carlile was just as headstrong as Tucker could be.
Jennings introduced them via text, messaging them both in a group chat. Tucker, apparently unaware that Carlile was included in the chat, wrote back, "Who is this Brandi b----?" "She wasn't that into talking to me or even having me work on writing songs for her," Carlile said. "I took that as a challenge."
But once Jennings and Carlile brought Tucker into Sunset Sound studio, she felt more at home. It reminded her of recording her first album with Sherrill, when they recorded live without overdubbing. Carlile and her longtime co-writers and vocal partners Tim and Phil Hanseroth wrote songs just for Tucker, full of details and references to her childhood, her love of horses and her family. On the first song, "Mustang Ridge," she sings, "A woman's life ain't just a list of the worst things she has done/I leave you now with a heart of stone/Sometimes the past is hard to outrun."
Tucker also covers Miranda Lambert's hit "The House That Built Me," to the glee of Lambert, who considers her a musical hero. The album's title and final song was inspired by an idea from Tucker. They were talking about sending flowers to a funeral, but Tucker remarked she'd rather have flowers while she was still alive to enjoy them. The song, "Bring My Flowers Now," features a simple piano track, and has Tucker reflecting on the long shadow of the miles she's traveled, and the regrets and joys of a life well lived.
For a woman whose life has been reinvented over and over, Tucker has even surprised herself with this album, thanks to her champions in Carlile, the Hanseroth twins and Jennings. "This album, and it really sounds kind of funny to me to say that, but to me it's a start," Tucker said. "Even after all I've done, this is the start."
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This story corrects the years that Tucker's parents died.