Classic Country Singles: Tanya Tucker, “Delta Dawn”

Tanya Tucker Delta Dawn

“Delta Dawn”

Tanya Tucker

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.”

4 Comments

  1. It makes absolutely no sense to me for a young teen to be singing the lyrics to “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA,” a song written in a first-person point of view that just as easily could have been titled “The Happiest Wife in the Whole USA.” That Billy Sherrill would suggest the song for a 13-year-old Tucker has me seriously questioning his judgment.

    On the other hand, Tucker’s earliest hit songs –“Delta Dawn,” “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” “Lizzie and The Rainman,” among others — could not have been better selected to showcase the precocious teen’s exceptional singing talent. These are such interesting, agelessly-told, adult-oriented, story songs that have stood the test of time to become country classics. If it was Sherrill that had his guiding hand in these, I’ll take back my doubts about his judgment.

    “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)” may warrant a separate discussion.

  2. When this song was released in the spring of 1972, reaction was immediate – WHOO in Orlando added it immediately. By the time it made its national chart debut in late May, I was on summer break with my parents in Chesapeake, VA and all of the local stations, be they pop-rock, easy listening or country had added the song to their playlists. 50,000 watt country giant WCMS had it at number 1 for multiple weeks as did other local country stations

    It was an electrifying performance that kicked off a string of six straight gothic flavored hits, four of which reached #1 on Record World (three reached #1 on Cashbox, but “Delta Dawn” didn’t)

    While she did record some clunkers, I have always felt that Tanya’s best numbers left singers like Reba McEntire, Barbara Mandrell and Carrie Underwood in the dust

  3. It was a fairly dark song for any teenager, country or otherwise, to be doing back then; and Tanya got away with it quite successfully (I suppose maybe Miranda Lambert could do it today, but it probably isn’t homicidal enough in tone for her [IMHO]).

    And then, fifteen months after Tanya’s #1 country version, in September 1973, the late Helen Reddy’s version soared to #1 on the Hot 100. It’s kind of noteworthy to have one song hit #1 on two different charts less than two years apart.

  4. Love Tanya’s music “Delta Dawn” is a favourite. I can’t imagine Tanya singing “Happiest Girl In The Whole USA” with as much grit. I get disappointed that Tanya Tucker gets passed over for awards by the country awards shows and is yet to be inducted into the hall of fame.

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