The short version: ‘While I’m Livin’ ’ is a solid return to form for a country music veteran.
- Favorite tracks: “Bring My Flowers Now,” “Mustang Ridge,” “The Wheels Of Laredo,” “Seminole Wind Calling”
- Least favorite track: “Hard Luck”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: As much as we don’t want to admit it, there comes a point where we don’t expect too much from our favorite artists.
That’s not to say artists can’t release something brilliant late into their careers, but more often than not, the fire they had when they were younger is what fueled their best work. Anything close to solid after a certain point is still very respectable.
Of course, that does speak to a certain amount of ageism at play, but unless artists do something dramatically different in their post-radio careers, they tend to become forgotten in the public eye – especially in a genre that respects tradition, yet forces its legends out.
We haven’t heard from Tanya Tucker in ten years since she released My Turn, an album even she admits isn’t that great. Her legacy, however, is firmly planted in the country music history books – a child prodigy who rose to prominence in the male-dominated outlaw era of country music, and honestly could rock harder than most artists. By all accounts, too, her newest album, While I’m Livin’ might not have even happened if not for some hard persistence from both Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, her eventual producers for this project. Tucker had never even heard of Carlile, and while she and Jennings had discussed making an album together before, it just didn’t fluctuate.
And when the news broke that this album was finally happening, comparisons were made to other famous cross-genre collaborations by, say, Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin or Loretta Lynn and Jack White. This collaboration, however, was a little more close to home. Jennings’s involvement only made too much sense given the sound and time period associated with Tucker’s most iconic work, and Carlile has only been making further inroads with country music over the past year. Still, those comparisons weren’t unjustified; they were, after all, albums that put both Cash and Lynn back into the public spotlight, and for good reason.
Though While I’m Livin’ doesn’t feel as adventurous as it could, sonically, that’s also largely the point. At its core, While I’m Livin’ has the weathered feel of a veteran artist still making music with the same vibrancy she had in her prime, but with a more mature outlook and perspective. The production is sparse, but also fitting most of the time. And while the writing isn’t quite as strong as it could be in places, this is still a solid listen that shows a true return to form for Tucker, even if it truthfully doesn’t reach the heights of those aforementioned collaborations.
Tucker herself may not sound as technically impressive as she has on previous works, but to say she’s lost an ounce of her stage presence and charisma would be doing her a big disservice. Truthfully, quite a few of the lyrical concepts on this album are fairly conventional, which is its weakest point. But Tucker sells them anyway with the highest amount of conviction she can, ironically making her the best part of the album. No, she doesn’t sound as glitzy or glamorous as before like on, say, TNT, but her voice has a stronger lived-in tone than ever before that lends a certain amount of gravitas to plenty tracks here. She’s equally grateful for her father’s sacrifices on “Rich” while also selling the song with a slight undercurrent of melancholic wistfulness knowing now what those sacrifices meant. On the other hand, a fiery track like “I Don’t Owe You Anything” really does show how Carlile and the Hanseroth twins tailor-made these tracks for Tucker, and that’s not a bad thing here.
And then there’s “Bring My Flowers Now,” where Tucker certainly has the authority to sing a song about living hard and knowing it was worth it, despite the regrets. Again, it’s not uncommon to hear older artists approach this topic, but unlike other tracks in this vein that try to masquerade the hardships as part of the learning process, Tucker leans into her regrets and acknowledges the pain she might have caused. She tells her listeners not to make those same mistakes, even if she’s come to accept them, lending the track more depth and meaning than expected, especially when there’s also some fantastic metaphors interlaced here.
As far as the instrumentation and production is concerned, I had more worries about Jennings than I did for Carlile. Shooter from last year was as flat as could be, and for Carlile, while she’s an exceptional performer in her own right, the thought of softening Tucker’s edges for more of an Americana sound did raise some concerns. For the most part, though, those concerns are unjustified, as while this album sounds sparse, it’s effective. I’m not one to usually complain about something like this, but there are certain moments, however, that could use a bit more low-end support or even some pedal steel to fill in the mixes like on “The Wheels Of Laredo” or the cover of “High Ridin’ Heroes.”
But the mixes are also mostly meant to stay back and let Tucker be at the front of the mix, which, again, is an effective choice. Plus, the instrumentation is very technically sound, with plenty of plucky acoustics and banjos driving the melodies with hints of piano and mandolin accents in other places. And for an album mostly centered around personal reflections, it’s a fitting sound. The tones are earthy and upbeat as Tucker reclaims her freedom in the prison song, “Mustang Ridge.” Meanwhile, the brighter mandolin carrying “The Day My Heart Goes Still” helps to sell an effectively simple love song.
Even if “Bring My Flowers Now” does go for the obvious choice to be a sparse piano ballad given the subject matter, it’s not exactly the wrong choice. Admittedly, the serious overtones and heavier usage of slower tempos can start to make the album drag on toward the middle, and certain tracks like “I Don’t Owe You Anything” and “Hard Luck” are the few tracks actually begging for more bite to them. However, it’s an overall effective example of the “less is more” approach.
Lyrically, While I’m Livin’ is described by Carlile as a musical biography of Tucker, with seven of the ten tracks here written specifically with Tucker in mind (and Tucker has her own writing credit on “Bring My Flowers Now”). For the most part, the original tracks stick the landing well, with the two opening tracks, “Mustang Ridge” and “The Wheels Of Laredo,” featuring the strongest usages of lyrical imagery. Still, I wouldn’t say it’s an exact replica of Tucker’s life story, but it’s an example of finding songs suited for her style. She may have never actually completed the same hard time as she does on “Mustang Ridge,” for example, but the rougher perspective certainly fits her demeanor. And the dustier handclap percussion driving “Seminole Wind Calling” certainly brings her back to her roots in west Texas.
The weakest tracks here are the covers, not as songs themselves, but for their various interpretations here. “Hard Luck” isn’t a bad rock song in general, but the vague lyrical sentiment certainly doesn’t do Tucker justice, especially when that sentiment is told much better through other tracks here. And while “The House That Built Me” will forever be associated with Miranda Lambert as it is, the choice to frame it from the mother’s perspective, while intriguing, is still a bit odd. The appeal of the song is the childhood wonder and nostalgia that comes from watching an adult literally relive their past, especially when most kids often eventually leave their childhood home for college or their own journeys in general. Here, it just raises more questions than answers as to why the mother of that child (again, in this new scenario) gave up that home to begin with.
Still, even while the concepts of “Rich” and “Bring My Flowers Now” are fairly familiar, there’s enough specific lyrical details or one-liners to give them new meanings or place them in a new context, which is the underlying strength of the album in general.
Overall, though, While I’m Livin, while a tad underdeveloped in certain areas, mostly shows a veteran in her prime once again. The vocals, instrumentation, and production are effectively simple and intimate, the lyrical content has an air of familiarity to it without being outright cliché, and Tucker hasn’t lost an ounce of her charm. If this really is the first of three albums from Tucker and her collaborators (coupled with a documentary, apparently), this is a solid start.