She was barely a teenager when she first appeared on the country music scene, but her voice had a tortured wisdom far beyond her years. Her early singles were dark and brooding slices of Southern Gothic, but over time she would mellow into one of the most consistently successful female country artists of all-time, with a span of hits stretching over three decades.
As a young child, Tucker was surrounded by music. Her older sister LaCosta was an aspiring country singer, and by the time Tanya turned eight, she had embraced the same dream. Her father Bo drove her across the West and Southwest, looking for opportunities for his youngest child and taking construction jobs wherever he could find them. She auditioned for a film in Utah, earning a small part, and sang at the Arizona State fair. In 1969, she was discovered by Mel Tillis, who put her on a show with him. This encouraged the family to move to Las Vegas, where Tucker was soon performing regularly.
While still shy of her thirteenth birthday, she recorded a demo tape that caught the attention of Billy Sherrill, head of A&R at Columbia. He was so impressed that he invited her to record for the label. On the first day that he presented her material, he played her what he thought would be the perfect song for a young teen artist: “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” Tucker hated it, and passed on the song. Sherrill was taken aback, but the next day he returned with another song, “Delta Dawn.” It was a dark and mysterious tale of a 41 year old woman who wandered around town, looking for the deceased lover who was supposed to make her his bride.
The song was a smash, and set the tone for a stunning series of Southern Gothic singles from the throaty young vocalist. Her first #1 single, 1973’s “What’s Your Mama’s Name”, was about an old man desperately searching for the love child he’d learned about in a letter years ago. “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone”) was a love song seeking a promise to share a grave. Her darkest hit was the #1 smash “Blood Red and Goin’ Down”, where Tucker is a young girl following her father from bar to bar until he finds his cheating wife and her lover. “He sent me out to wait, but scared I looked back through the door. And Daddy left them both soaking up the sawdust on the floor.”
The buzz around Tucker was soon deafening, as she racked up CMA and Grammy nominations and was named the ACM Most Promising Female Vocalist. She scored two gold albums with Columbia, and her hits collection for the label went platinum. Tucker boldly jumped labels in 1975, starting a long relationship with MCA Records. During her run with the label, she would become somewhat notorious for a burgeoning wild side. Her Lolita-esque cover of Rolling Stone turned heads, and when she reached adulthood, she aggressively targeted the rock market with her 1978 album T.N.T.. Despite scoring only one big country hit from the project, the set went gold, and its risque cover, complete with Tucker in skin-tight leather pants and a microphone cord between her legs, became an instant classic.
Tucker was soon in a stormy relationship with fellow star Glen Campbell, and her chart fortunes declined as the eighties began. She left MCA in 1982, and recorded one album with Arista, which produced her sixteenth top ten hit. Despite all of her success up to this point, it looked like her career was essentially over while she was only in her mid-twenties. Still, even if she never had a hit again from that point on, her legacy would’ve been secure, with high record sales, classic singles, six #1’s and sixteen top tens to her credit.
Tucker wasn’t done. She got her act together and signed with Capitol Records in 1985. Expectations were low, but when she released her comeback album Girls Like Me, she entered the most consistent and commercially successful period of her entire career. Her run with Capitol was extraordinary, with that first album producing four top ten hits, including her first #1 in ten years, “Just Another Love.” Her next set, Love Me Like You Used To, had three more smashes, including two #1 singles, and became her first gold-selling studio album since T.N.T. nine years earlier.
Tucker’s comeback was fully embraced by Nashville, and she became a regular nominee at both the CMAs and the ACMs. Her 1988 album Strong Enough to Bend produced her tenth #1 hit with the title track and was certified gold. She also sold gold with a hits collection in 1989 and the hit-rich Tennessee Woman in 1990.
But it was her 1991 album What Do I Do With Me that brought her to the highest point in her career. The album became her first platinum studio album, produced four huge hits, and in the fall of that year she was finally named Female Vocalist at the CMA awards after several nominations. Her award-winning evening brought an even bigger blessing, as Tucker saw the show from her hospital bed where she delivered her baby son the very same day.
Tucker’s Can’t Run From Yourself in 1992 was another platinum album, powered by one of her signature songs, “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane.” The tender ballad earned her a slew of award nominations, and its music video won an ACM award. After only three years, she’d racked up so many hits that Capitol issued another hits collection, and this one went platinum. In 1993, Tucker’s Soon produced a big hit in the title track, and it became another gold album.
Her career began to slow down after that, as her 1995 album Fire to Fire struggled at radio. Two years later, she resurfaced with Complicated, her final album for Capitol. Though it included her fortieth top ten hit, “Little Things,” and was cross-promoted with her autobiography Nickel Dreams, the album didn’t meet expectations. A frustrated Tucker sued the label for $300,000 in 1998, citing the cause of her album’s poor sales as a lack of promotion due to the label paying too much attention to one act. Many assumed she was referring to Garth Brooks in the suit, who had engineered a takeover at the label the previous year.
Tucker stayed out of the limelight for a while, but resurfaced in 2002 on her own label, Tuckertime. This decade has seen her collaborating with Billy Joe Shaver and George Jones, starring in her own reality show, and dedicating large amounts of her time to benefits for the military. Her influence as one of country music’s few rebellious women was duly noted in Gretchen Wilson’s smash “Redneck Woman,” where Tucker is the only woman mentioned in the company of Charlie Daniels, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Jr. and Kid Rock. Tucker appeared in the video, cheering on Wilson as she performed the shout-out on stage.
- “Delta Dawn,” 1972
- “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” 1973
- “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” 1973
- “Texas (When I Die),”1978
- “If It Don’t Come Easy,” 1988
- “Strong Enough to Bend,” 1988
- “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane,” 1992
- “Soon,” 1993
- What’s Your Mama’s Name, 1973
- Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone), 1974
- T.N.T., 1978
- Girls Like Me, 1986
- Love Me Like You Used To, 1987
- What Do I Do With Me, 1991
- ACM Most Promising Female Vocalist, 1973
- ACM Video (“Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”), 1993
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1991
- CMA Album (Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles), 1994