Written by Alex Harvey and Larry Collins
It’s fair to say one could divide Tanya Tucker’s career arc into various stages.
A teen idol, Tucker attempted to navigate a blur of conflicting messages and anxieties around her own budding desires, at a time when the country at large was contending with women’s increasing embrace of sexual freedom. She garnered initial attention for her husky vocals and body-baring outfits, but sought validation for her working-class roots and commitment to the country music genre’s sense of tradition, and would eventually attain it.
But while male outlaws like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson garnered praise from conservative and progressive country fans for their illicit affairs with drugs and alcohol, Tucker paid for her transgressions as tabloid fodder. Many critics point to T.N.T. as the point in time where Tucker took greater control of her career, but there was always a tortured, misunderstood wisdom to her vocal timbre and demeanor that reflected a wisdom far beyond its years.
Born in Seminole, Texas, Tucker’s father, Beau, moved his family around the Southwest, working a variety of jobs. At age six, Tanya shocked her father by demonstrating her vocal prowess around the house. With her father’s approval, she started talking her way onto local shows headlined by visiting country artists.
Initial success beyond that was hard to attain, though. Beau tried to see who in Nashville would be interested in his talented daughter, but no record label was interested. Logic stated that beer-drinking men and bible-toting women weren’t interested in watching a teenager perform, and songwriters weren’t interested in writing kid material. Ernest Tubb and Mel Tillis were impressed, but couldn’t do much more than offer a guest slot for her in their road shows.
After moving to Henderson, Nevada, he and Tanya gave a studio demo tape to actress Dolores Fuller; Fuller, impressed, brought her to the attention of then-A&R chief of Epic/Columbia Record Billy Sherrill, meaning the Tuckers were Nashville bound.
What, though, does one present to a teen artist for appropriate material to record? Sherrill played her “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” but Tucker hated it. Instead, she gravitated toward a Southern Gothic tale called “Delta Dawn,” about a 41-year-old woman who wanders around town in search of the deceased lover who was supposed to be her bride. The smash hit began a string of similar dark-sounding tunes that would shape the earliest stages of Tucker’s career, including “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” but it was also a song that carried a backstory as dark as its content.
Co-writer Alex Harvey found inspiration for the eventual tune at the age of 15, where, after winning a contest with his band, was set to play on a television show in Jackson, Tennessee. Harvey’s mother wanted to come, but he refused to let her, knowing she was an alcoholic and would likely ruin the event. After taping the show, Harvey made his way back home, where he was told his mother had died. She had gotten drunk and ran into a tree at a high rate of speed; it looked like a suicide. The tragic event consumed Harvey with guilt and pushed him to start pursuing creative fields as a form of therapy.
Ten years later, Harvey, then an established songwriter living in Los Angeles, was hanging out with fellow songwriters at former child rockabilly star Larry Collins’ house, where they began swapping songs with one another. At one point, after everyone else had fallen asleep, Harvey picked up his guitar and started strumming it. He then felt his mother’s presence in the room, further sharing that he saw a vision of her sitting in a rocking chair and laughing. She was, according to Harvey, a free-spirit in a small town, and people don’t always understand people like that. Harvey got to work on the song right then; Collins woke up and helped him finish it in about 20 minutes. Harvey viewed the final tune as an apology to his mother, and his vision as her way of saying, “It’s OK.”