While my ultimate goal with World Records is to offer a very loose insight into country music’s history – from an album perspective and a more general one – the reality is that it’s just a way for me to discuss iconic releases within the format; nothing more, nothing less. And yet, it’s a record like this one that reminds me why I might actually achieve that goal. We’re looking at the bigger picture overall, but the records we’ve discussed thus far very much speak to the decade in which they were released, when artists fought hard to craft their own individual expressions. Ironically enough, despite how much criticism and ridicule this next album received during this time period, it’s really the same kind of different as anything else we’ve discussed thus far. So, onward!
Tanya Tucker is an outlaw. That’s not a statement made through hindsight or clearer perspective: it’s just something that’s always been true. The only difference between her and other artists we’ve covered through this feature described in a similar manner boils down to, well, audience perception.
Granted, before we further unpack that thesis statement, I suppose I can see why both the country music industry and the genre’s fans might not have known what to make of Tucker when she debuted. At just 13, she was a major label artist whose first single, “Delta Dawn,” spoke of a woman haunted by memories of an old lover of ill repute, where her tarnished reputation meant nothing compared to her personal emptiness. Heavy stuff for someone barely a teenager, as is what followed for her: “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” a good ol’ murder ballad; and “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone) as well “The Man That Turned My Mama On,” songs where I doubt I have to offer much further insight beyond what their titles imply.
It wasn’t just the material, either. Producer Billy Sherrill, normally known as the king of the countrypolitan in building up his production with huge swells of strings and lush backing vocals, chose to emphasize Tucker’s adult-sounding, full-bodied twang, opting for more spacious tones and letting her take center stage.
Still, because of those early classics, Tucker was a country music veteran by age 20, one who was aware of the complex allure that came from singing mature material at such a young age. Many felt she was being exploited at the time to do so, but if anything, this is the rare story where exploitation stems from the audience and the critics among it – not the industry. You see, Tucker stayed at Columbia and under Sherrill’s influence until her 16th birthday in 1974. She then signed to MCA Records and opted to take more direct control of her recordings and image. She was referred to Los Angeles firm Far Out Management, who at the time had managed a number of pop and rock acts but wanted to help a country act cross over. Hence why today’s album focus showcases a woman in tight leather pants with a microphone cord slithered between her legs.
Hence further why, in circling back to that opening thesis statement, I’ve always loathed the hypocrisy that stems from the reception to this album. And not from a sonic standpoint, mind you – this is a rock album marketed as such that still carried its country crossover success regardless and is, oddly enough, now widely looked at as a country classic – but more from a cultural perspective. Tucker wanted the same thing as her male contemporaries of the time like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: to express her desire to be different, something that for female artists in country music has always went well beyond one movement in time. But while her male counterparts’ illicit forays into taboo material (on and off record) endeared them to fans, Tucker was ridiculed for it. I’ve already written about that subject before, but of all of the albums we’ll discuss for this feature, this is arguably the most provocative statement we’ll witness and discuss – and for mostly all of the right reasons.
Still, like with Pieces of the Sky from last week, this is an album where what it stands for and represents does overshadow the more technical discussion. Because between well-known covers from Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and John Prine, of all people, along with an opening track featuring a writing credit from Phil Everly, this is an album that plays to much more swaggering, rambunctious rockabilly territory for Tucker overall. It’s swampy, lively, and yeah, vivacious too, where it’s never lost on me how free-spirited this project is outside of that either, or how Tucker has deliberately turned those sentiments typically associated with the aforementioned male artists and turned them into her own. Without even digging deeper into a discussion of lyrics and themes, that right there is the connective core and tissue of this project, a grand artistic statement more in spirit than execution.
In essence, outside of the heavier percussive focus and swampier electric axes that define the mix, it’s really not that much of a pivot for Tucker compared to her earlier material, but there is a noticeable difference in her delivery. It’s more urgent and hanging off a wire, where even a simple love song like her own “I’m the Singer, You’re the Song” feels like it carries so many natural, haggard dramatic stakes in its urgency. Ironically, after building a career defined by mature tales of folklore, this feels more youthful and oddly personal, even despite fostering only a sole writing credit. It’s more playful, too, even when playing to comfortable territory like the kiss-off of “Lover Goodbye” and the gleaming, whirring AM-sheen of my personal favorite track here, “If You Feel It,” or asserting herself as the one in control. That shows itself more directly on “Not Fade Away” and more bluntly on the classic “Texas (When I Die),” where she counts herself among the drifting cowboys looking for her own place to settle down – because that free-spirited rambling can strike a chord with anyone, you know.
Indeed, it’s that looseness that defines the project, for better and worse. Outside of certain moments tending to drag and becoming repetitive after some time, this is another album where certain cover choices can either hit or miss, even if I can respect the intent to do something different with them. Maybe it’s just hearing “Angel From Montgomery” recorded more times than I can even remember, but Tucker’s version feels clunky and just seems to set up an odd tonal mismatch that doesn’t flatter the sentiment. On the other hand, even if she is playing almost too closely to Presley’s own delivery on “Heartbreak Hotel,” I can’t deny its propulsive bluster doesn’t work just as well for Tucker’s own wild-eyed tendencies.
The common criticism with this album today is that certain production elements feel dated, and while I can certainly hear it in the oddly quaint “It’s Nice to Be With You” which plays to sleepy coffeehouse folk off the polished strings and piano (ditto for the sleepy “The River and the Wind”), for me this is still a well-produced effort with plenty of heart and kick brimming throughout. It might be missing that one true anchoring point – although “I’m the Singer, You’re the Song” certainly presents a strong case – but the mostly uniform quality leads to a pretty rollicking good time anyway, and one that certainly holds up well as a personal artistic statement today, even despite the odds.
And since we’ve now explored some fiery, explosive records from the outlaw side of things, we’re going to turn to something a bit more settled next time around, with Charlie Rich and Behind Closed Doors.
2 thoughts on “World Records, No. 7: Tanya Tucker – ‘TNT’ (1978)”
There’s a lot to like there, and I totally agree on the double standard. It’s probably more prevalent in country music than other genres I think anyway. Never got round to listening to her a lot but I give her full credit for sticking to her guns.
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