In 1972, 13-year-old Tanya Tucker burst onto the country music scene with her hit single, “Delta Dawn.” In the five decades since, she’s amassed scores of Top 40 albums and singles. The rebellious Tucker has also faced challenges, including the ebb and wane of her stardom — as her style shifted from traditional country to include elements of rock — and a well-publicized battle with substance abuse. In 2020, following 10 prior nominations, she won her first Grammy awards: one for the single “Bring My Flowers Now,” and another for her album While I’m Livin.’ A new documentary titled The Return of Tanya Tucker — Featuring Brandi Carlile, chronicles the production of that album and shines a spotlight on the singer’s extraordinary life. Here’s why it’s essential viewing for fans both old and new.
Bridging the Generation Gap
Tucker’s return to the recording studio was facilitated by Brandi Carlile, the 41-year-old Grammy-award-winning musician who produced 2020’s While I’m Livin’ and contributed to a much of its songwriting. (It had been more than 10 years since Tucker had released new music, and she’d gradually slipped away from pop culture consciousness.) Carlile felt there was a gap in the current country music scene that only Tucker, with her unique style and artistry, could fill. It’s clear Carlile admires Tucker: In one of the documentary’s most charming scenes, she introduces Tucker to her young daughter, explaining that Tucker has been her favorite musician since she was a little girl. The dynamic between the Tucker and Carlile illustrates the role legacy plays in country music, most notably through the passing of musical traditions from one generation to the next. The documentary’s director, Kathy Horan, says she hopes her film “inspires people to see the pathways to build community, particularly among women.”
The Return of Tanya Tucker also offers a glimpse of Tucker’s relationships with the women who preceded her in carving a path in country music, including Dolly Parton (who enthusiastically says of Tucker, “That girl can sing!”) and the late Loretta Lynn (who in one funny scene, calls Tucker and asks if she needs money — a playful gesture, but also a nod to the instability Tucker faced at various points in her life). While Tucker cites male musicians like Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard as her primary influences, the women of the country scene have obviously empowered her, as well.
A Country Legacy
At 64, Tucker is still a nonconformist, as evidenced by her pink hair, bold outfits, and wicked sense of humor. “The beauty of Tanya is that she is and has always been 100 percent herself,” Horan says. “She hasn’t let an industry change her or break her spirit. Rather, she dusts off her boots, pours a tequila, and cracks a joke. Like Brandi, I’m drawn to Tanya Tucker because she’s been to Hell and to Heaven, and every square inch of Texas.”
Tucker is proud of how her comeback record, While I’m Livin,’ turned out, nothing that the doubts she’d had while recording made its success even sweeter. “It just really built my confidence, as far as being a singer,” she said.
While Tucker’s tough persona will be familiar to her fans — she was no stranger to hard drinking and scandalous romantic affairs (most famously with fellow musician Glen Campbell) — the documentary shines a light on her more vulnerable side, showing, for example, how she has to psych herself up to take the stage again.
The Return of Tanya Tucker is a testament to Tucker’s resilient spirit, and while the film digs into her past — using rare archival footage of Tucker and her family in Texas, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, as well as interviews from the ’70s and ’80s and vintage performance clips of her singing her greatest hits — it also looks hopefully to the future, showing that several decades into her career, Tucker is still a vital musical presence. She’s slayed her demons, and country music is the better for it.
The Return of Tanya Tucker — Featuring Brandi Carlile is now playing in theaters.