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American Routes Shortcuts: Tanya Tucker

Tanya Tucker
Danny Clinch/Courtesy of the artist
Tanya Tucker

When Tanya Tucker was just thirteen, she had something most teenagers couldn’t even imagine: a recording contract with Columbia Records and the studio guidance of Country’s leading producer: Billy Sherrill. In 2019, over 45 years later, Tanya returned to the studio with the help of singer Brandi Carlile to record While I’m Livin’, an album filled with songs that speak to her personal history. Tanya Tucker’s road to Nashville started in Wilcox, Arizona, where she lived with her parents. Her dad worked as a welder, following jobs across the Desert West but he always dreamed Tanya would become a country singer, encouraged her talent, and sought opportunities to share his young daughter’s tremendous voice. I asked Tanya about those early days singing on stage.

Tanya Tucker: One of the first times was with Mel Tillis, and it was at the Douglas County Fair, which is not far, about 70 miles from Wilcox. I saw him out in his station wagon out there, and I knew it was him because he had a Nudie suit on. He was sitting with a guy in the front seat, and I walked up and said, “Which one of you is Mel Tillis?” And they both pointed to each other. I said, “I’m Tanya Tucker, and I’m a singer, and I’d like to know if I could sing for you today.” And he said, “Well, can you sing?” Nick Spitzer: Is this the Mel Tillis imitation moment?

TT: Yeah. And I said, “Well my dad says I can.” He said, “Well come back, backstage, and we’ll listen to you.”

TT: So we did. I went back and picked out a couple songs, and I did the show, and Mel looked at me and said, “You wanna do a second show?” And I said, “Well I can’t because my mother brought me, and my dad’s working, and we’re in a truck that don’t have a spare tire, and she’s afraid we’ll get a flat on the way home. That wouldn’t be good.” I was so angry I couldn’t stay. I thought, oh my career is over, you know.

TT: And my dad had won $1500 at Keno one night, and he got enough money to make some demos on me. So we came to Las Vegas from Utah and made a demo tape of six songs, and I’m sure every trashcan in Nashville has seen one at one time or another. It was about, I don’t know, probably November maybe of ’71. My daddy got in touch with a girl that wrote a lot of songs for Elvis in his movies, and we were watching this Elvis movie one night, and my dad saw the lady’s name, and he said, “I think she lives here in Las Vegas.” And I said, “Well call her up.” And he said, “Well she’s probably not listed.” I said, “Well, we moved into this trailer house, it has a phone book, so let’s see.” And sure enough, she was listed. Her name was Dolores Fuller, and my dad contacted her and played her my tapes of course. She kept saying, “You need to meet Billy Sherrill, Billy Sherrill is your guy.”

NS: The great producer.

TT: Yeah, we didn’t know who Billy Sherrill was, but he produced everybody that was anybody at that time making records, making hit records.

NS: Classic, classic sound.

TT: Yeah. One night she called and said, “He’s here.” He was a gambler in more than one way, and he listened to the tapes and wanted to meet me, so the next morning I met him at the coffee shop, me and my dad and my mother, at the Riviera. He said, “So when do you want to cut a hit record?” And I said, “Yesterday!” He scraped up the money to fly me, and we stayed in Nashville two weeks. That’s where Billy played me Alex Harvey’s “Delta Dawn.” And I said, “That’s my song.”

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