The remarkable thing about Tanya Tucker isn’t that she had her first hit at 13 – it’s that she kept earning new ones for decades after, successfully growing into that warm, rich voice as she deftly navigated one country trend after another.
Yet she was, undeniably, a prodigy. The Texas native rocketed to stardom thanks to her precocious ability to turn dark, intense songs into what contemporary listeners might call bangers; the Greatest Hits album released shortly after her 16th birthday included tracks about murder, estranged parents, and a South cured of racism, seemingly feeding the nation’s hunger for Southern Gothic inspired a few years earlier by Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 megahit “Ode To Billie Joe.”
As that lush 70s sound receded in popularity, Tucker adapted, experimenting with rock and pop but ultimately never straying too far from her country roots. Tucker was rewarded with two more decades of country hits, and Grammy-winning “comeback” album While I’m Livin’, which she made alongside one of her creative descendants, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile.
Given the nearly half-century in the biz under her rhinestone belt, Tucker’s catalog can be daunting to explore. Nonetheless, below are 20 of Tanya Tucker’s best tracks, ranging from the songs most associated with her to lesser-known gems.
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The Story Songs
(“Blood Red And Goin’ Down,” “Lizzie And The Rainman,” “Bidding America Goodbye (The Auction)”)
Tanya Tucker’s 70s breakthrough was fueled by memorable, idiosyncratic songs that drew out the rough edges and emotional contour of her already distinctive voice. “Blood Red And Goin’ Down” (1973), her second country no.1, is a vividly told tale about a child witnessing her mother’s murder by her father that splits the difference between unthinkably tragic and inappropriately cheery thanks to its midtempo Western feel and Tucker’s eerily precise vibrato. A year later, a 16-year-old Tanya movingly sang about a woman whose first sexual experience is a brutal rape on “No Man’s Land,” continuing to make her signature the kind of brutal honesty that would soon become associated with country’s outlaw movement.
“Lizzie And The Rainman,” yet another country no. 1, was stylistically much closer to the gaudy excesses of 70s pop – and fittingly, marked the most successful crossover of Tucker’s career, ultimately reaching no.37 on the Hot 100 in 1975 (it remains her sole Top 40 hit). But the song stuck with the narrative structure that had already served Tucker so well, this time cribbing its slightly lighter storyline from the 1956 film The Rainmaker.
Though she sang fewer and fewer of the Southern Gothic-tinged tales that had jumpstarted her career as she became more established, Tucker didn’t abandon the non-love-songs completely: “Bidding America Goodbye (The Auction),” from her platinum 1991 album What Do I Do With Me (the most successful of her post-’70s releases), tells the simple, familiar and nevertheless potent story of a farmer losing his land to the bank because of falling crop prices.
The Soundtrack Smashes
(“Pecos Promenade,” “Texas (When I Die),” “Somebody Must Have Loved You Right Last Night,” “Rodeo Girl”)
Tanya Tucker had some on-screen aspirations, mostly exercised in various ‘80s TV movies – but her songs also helped soundtrack some of the many country and western-oriented films that were so in vogue during that period. First, she was featured on the star-studded Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) soundtrack with the dancehall-ready “Pecos Promenade,” which reached the top 10 of the country charts – likely thanks in large part to that movie’s massive box-office draw.
In 1981’s Hard Country, Tucker actually had a cameo role playing (surprise) a country singer named Caroline returning to perform at her hometown honkytonk. There, she performs the anthemic, irresistible “Texas (When I Die)” – which had already been a real-life hit for Tucker in 1978, and was also prominently featured in the 1982 Kenny Rogers vehicle Six Pack – as the crowd sings along, as well as the perfectly melancholy ballad “Somebody Must Have Loved You Right Last Night,” an album cut from 1979’s Tear Me Apart.
Tucker was also responsible for the title track on The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia – then known best as Vicki Lawrence’s 1972 hit – with some edits to make the song and movie plots line up. Her sole original contribution was the lovely Western waltz “Rodeo Girl,” first released on her album Should I Do It.
The Raunchy Romps
(“Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone),” “The Man That Turned My Mama On,” “Love Me Like You Used To,” “My Arms Stay Open All Night”)
While still in her teens, Tanya Tucker started getting billed as a sex symbol in spite of her age. A massive Rolling Stone cover story that called her “The Teenage Teaser” centered on drooling male fans and how the success of songs like “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)” fueled their lust. The song, another no. 1 in Tucker’s breakout run, is actually not quite as salacious as the title might suggest – instead, it’s a series of metaphors about commitment that author David Allan Coe first wrote for his brother’s wedding vows.
The single that followed, though, was considerably less ambiguous: “The Man That Turned My Mama On” is about exactly what it sounds like it’s about, with Tucker giving its story – exploring the “why” of an unmarried woman who gets pregnant – a catchy, bluesy twist.
During what was billed as her “comeback” more than a decade later, seduction had become a bigger part of mainstream country thanks to the success of artists like Conway Twitty, and Tucker fit right in: “Love Me Like You Used To,” a grown and sexy song about love gone stale, spent 25 weeks on the country charts. The uptempo, honkytonk-ready “My Arms Stay Open All Night” – about what happens after hours – had a similar run, spending two weeks at no. 2. Those songs are just a small sampling of the many times Tucker pushed notoriously conservative country music’s envelope just a hair – a task that’s almost always much more challenging for women than men.
The Number Ones
(“What’s Your Mama’s Name,” “Just Another Love,” “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love,” “If It Don’t Come Easy”)
Tanya Tucker’s first country no. 1 came from the well that had already become her trademark: sad story songs with sing-a-long-inciting choruses. “What’s Your Mama’s Name” put an almost gospel spin on the tale of one man’s search for his long-lost progeny, and cemented Tucker’s status as a real contender in country – not just a novelty.
By the early ‘80s, though, chart success was increasingly hard to come by for Tucker. The slump, as well as her fair share of offstage drama, prompted a break and then a comeback album in 1986, Girls Like Me. The bouncy, two-step-friendly “Just Another Love” was its first single, and that Tucker was once again at the top of her game by reaching the top of the country chart.
Her late ’80s run continued the following year with back-to-back chart toppers. “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love,” an uncharacteristically mellow single full of vintage country charm, featured one of its songwriters, Paul Overstreet (who penned the song with Don Schlitz), as well as Paul Davis. Its follow-up single, the lightly rock n’ roll “If It Don’t Come Easy,” shows Tucker at her raspy, “Female Elvis” best.
The Signature Hits
(“Delta Dawn,” “Strong Enough To Bend,” “Two Sparrows In A Hurricane,” “Bring My Flowers Now”)
Tanya Tucker’s first single remains her best-known. There’s simply no answer to Tucker’s chills-inducing performance on 1972’s “Delta Dawn,” which at the time, was a bigger hit for Helen Reddy. But Tucker’s is the version that’s endured – aging as gracefully as the voice driving it, which shocked the pop world with its depth and power.
Her final country no. 1, 1988’s “Strong Enough To Bend,” could hardly be more different, with its gentle bluegrass lilt – yet it’s proven to be something of a mission statement for Tucker both aesthetically and with its easily didactic sentiment. A similar idea, of holding fast to a loved one through life’s ups and downs, is expressed in one of Tucker’s enduring early ‘90s hits, “Two Sparrows In A Hurricane.” The 1992 track also marked a welcome return to the kind of story songs that made Tucker famous – although this time, with a happy ending.
Tucker’s been in the business long enough to have earned two comebacks, so more than two decades after she’d last hit the upper echelon of the country chart she released While I’m Livin (2019); it became her first ever Grammy win, for Best Country Album. Tucker also took home Best Country Song for one of its singles, the unapologetically weepy “Bring My Flowers Now” – which, fittingly, takes the idea of proper recognition (one rationale for a comeback, it would seem) as its subject. “I believe,” Tucker sings on “Flowers,” the rare track that she’s co-written, “for the most part, I done good.”