Tanya Tucker wasn’t the first person to record “Delta Dawn,” the hit single that launched her career at the tender age of 13, but she was definitely the youngest. The song, a Southern Gothic romance in the condensed form of verse-chorus-verse, might not have been an obvious choice for a teenager, but she already had that voice, with its assured phrasing and timeless sense of experience beyond her years. Tucker’s stardom soared in the ’70s. She hit career and personal stumbling blocks in the ’80s. For a brief period in the mid-aughts her main output was a reality show, Tuckerville. As she tells Brandi Carlile in a stirring new documentary, the idea of a comeback has been “beaten to death with me.” She prefers the word “relaunch.” Director Kathlyn Horan opts for “return.”
The Return of Tanya Tucker is a fittingly unconventional portrait of a nonconformist. Contacted by Carlile’s wife, Catherine, Horan had 24 hours’ notice that something worth documenting was happening at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, and jumped into action. She captures Tucker entering the recording studio in January 2019 at the behest of Carlile, who with Shooter Jennings will produce While I’m Livin’, Tucker’s first album of original material in 17 years — and one of the most triumphant returns in modern popular music.
The Return of Tanya Tucker — Featuring Brandi Carlile
One from the heart.
With compelling intimacy (the camerawork is by Jessica Young), Horan devotes the first half of her documentary to those studio sessions. In almost dreamlike fashion, she weaves in pieces of Tucker’s backstory, excerpting an extraordinary trove of childhood home movies that etch a portrait of a loving family, and clips, stills and interviews from the less-loving early years of fame (one of the most discomforting of these is with Tom Snyder). Glen Campbell, with whom Tucker had a much-scrutinized romance, doesn’t come off well in an interview clip, boasting that he enjoys his girlfriend “because she’s crazy about me.”
But the main focus of the film is the here and now. Horan doesn’t so much explain who Tucker is as she immerses us in her music and her personality — the self-deprecating humor, the uncertainties, the depth of feeling. As well as being a story of artistry, The Return of Tanya Tucker is a tale of fandom. Everyone in that recording studio is thrilled to be working with Tucker, above all Carlile, who reveres her. She sees her as a major influence on countless country and Americana singers, herself included, and as an unsung hero of the outlaw country genre, denied the bona fides slathered on the likes of Willie, Waylon and others of their male ilk. With the new album, Carlile aims to stake a claim for Tucker in the country pantheon, drawing inspiration from Rick Rubin’s American Recordings with Johnny Cash.
As to her absence from the official conversation, late in the film, when While I’m Livin’ has moved on from the studio to the world of sales, touring and promotion, Tucker tells an interviewer, “If I were to pay attention to every time my name wasn’t mentioned, I’d be upset all the time” — philosophical words to live by. Tucker’s resilience over the years notwithstanding, her self-doubts accompany her into the studio, and Carlile is a font of encouragement, urging her on at the mic and engaging her in conversations that morph into lyrics. A song idea that Tucker shares grabs Carlile’s attention — and ours — and the doc follows its development from a few heart-stopping lines into the exquisite “Bring My Flowers Now,” with songwriting input from Carlile and her band members Tim and Phil Hanseroth.
A never-married mother of three who’s never played by the country-music rules, even daring to venture into the realm of rock, Tucker counts Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard high among her heroes. (And yet, for all her unorthodoxy, Loretta Lynn, a grand dame of Nashville, is one of her closest friends and admirers, a fact that’s revealed during the film in amusing fashion.) Tucker had never heard of singer-songwriter Carlile before embarking on a collaboration with her, but they’re soon sharing childhood memories and harmonizing on an impromptu rendition of Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.”
Carlile says she was drawn to the toughness in Tucker’s voice — a voice now deepened by cigarettes and time, its emotional precision as intoxicating as ever — and also to a certain outsider status that she related to as someone who didn’t conform to accepted notions of femininity. Even during her years of teen superstardom, Tucker didn’t sound or dress like a female country singer was supposed to, often opting for skintight pants outfits rather than flowy frocks. “I can’t do songs like ‘Burning Love’ in a dress,” she reasons in an old interview.
Much like the songs she favors, Tucker cuts to the heart of the matter in conversation. She offers trenchant anecdotes about her parents’ unwavering support and the way they gambled what little they had on her dream of being a professional country singer. Her father, a struggling working-class man who took the family to Las Vegas and then to Nashville to pursue a music career for Tanya, was her manager until his death in 2006. She found it hard to go on with her work after he was gone.
Then Carlile and Jennings came knocking. And, luckily for us, along came Horan. Whether you call it a relaunch, comeback, return or rebirth, it’s captured in a fittingly down-to-earth, memory-infused documentary that’s a gift to fans — moving, thoroughly engaging, and a chance to see a remarkable sexagenarian at a turning point, doing what she does best.