Tanya Tucker: Delta Dawn/What’s Your Mama Name/Would You Lay With Me/You Are So Beautiful  (Morello)

Tanya Tucker has been one of the queens of country for nearly fifty years, but it was her arrival that made quite an impression. When she appeared, she was just in her early teens, although upon first listening you would not think so, as she was an old soul singing powerful songs with an equally powerful singing voice that sounded three times her age. This double-disc collection gathers her output for Columbia Records, compiling her first three albums and a fourth album of outtakes and unreleased material released several years later.

Her first two albums, 1972s Delta Dawn and 1973’s What’s Your Mama’s Name are very much of a piece; considering the wont of the Country music industry at the time, it’s quite likely both albums were recorded at the same group of sessions, much more likely considering the albums appeared within mere months of each other. “Delta Dawn” was her debut single, the dark and foreboding song about heartbreak that certainly did not sound like a 13-year-old child. It’s a fantastic number, and a hell of a way to launch a career. The album itself is quite tentative; there are certainly some excellent numbers, but it’s hard not to get the feeling she is still searching out an identity. Her take on Donna Fargo’s “The Happiest Girl In The Whole USA” was the original idea for her debut single, a song about the innocence of love that might have been more appropriate for a 13-year-old, and while it is a good performance, it’s also somewhat winsome, and perhaps she was absolutely right to insist on not using it as her introduction, it’s not unrealistic to imagine this song painting her unfairly as a one hit wonder. Her takes on then contemporary hit “He’s All I Got” and the Hank Williams classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are good, but feel somewhat perfunctory.

The material on her follow-up, 1973’s What’s Your Mama’s Name, is a bit stronger. The title track follows in the dark nature of her first hit, and is a tale of a mysterious stranger trying to find his daughter that he has never seen before.  Aside from the Southern Gothic quality of the song, is also an edgy tune for the era, dealing starkly with the issue of illegitimacy. Unsurprisingly, it was controversial coming from a 14-year-old, but the controversy helped to sell the record and cemented Tucker as a musician not afraid to go into the dark places others wouldn’t dare go. Other cuts such as ”Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)” and “Blood Red and Going Down” are extremely mature in nature and that Tucker sings that in a matter of fact nature only adds to both the appeal and the darkness.

But that darkness only intensified for her third album, 1974’s Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone), where she took on everything from sexual devotion in the title track, wanting to know more about the father she never knew because he died at a young age (“The Man That Turned My Mama On”), a sympathetic tale of the town prostitute falling in love with the town’s outcast (“Bed Of Rose’s”),  to a pro –Southern, pro–Confederacy rallying cry (“I Believe the South Is Going To Rise Again”). All in all it is an extremely fine record, full of lushly produced and beautifully executed songs from a young singer clearly on the ascent.

Thus, it wasn’t surprising that she signed to a bigger and better record deal for her next album, and looking back it was clearly the right decision. Of course, Columbia wasn’t above cashing in on the success, and in 1977 You Are So Beautiful appeared. Unlike the previous Records for the label, much of the material here consists of contemporary covers of pop hits, a not unheard of practice in the Country music world of time.  There were one or two songs on each album that fit that criteria, but this collection shows that wiser heads prevailed and didn’t overload those records with pop hits. Even though the songs found here are perfectly enjoyable—her takes on ”You Are So Beautiful,” “Almost Persuaded,” and “The Best Of My Love” are quite nice––it’s also clear that this is second-rate material.  Listening public thought so too; at a time when she was riding high on the chart, this was her worst selling album of the decade.

Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact these two discs offer two hours of prime Tanya Tucker, a young woman establishing herself with mostly superb material and a powerful singing voice that hasn’t lost its edge nearly a half-century later. Essential.

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