In 2019, when Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings began working with country music veteran Tanya Tucker on While I’m Livin’, Tucker’s first album of new music in nearly two decades, they aimed to create the kind of critical and commercial career resurgence that Rick Rubin’s American Recordings series had for Johnny Cash’s career. Carlile also heeded key advice from Rubin, who told her to bring in a camera crew to film her studio sessions with Tucker.
Of course, Tucker — who once led her own reality television show, Tuckerville — had no qualms about filming the process.
“I love it — I think everything should be documented,” Tucker tells Billboard. “I’ve thought about, ‘How much would it cost to have a cinematographer video everything, from the time I get up to the time I go to sleep?’ I mean, you can throw away what you don’t want, but at least we got it.”
The result of that filming — the nearly two-hour documentary The Return of Tanya Tucker (Featuring Brandi Carlile) — appears in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles beginning today (Oct. 21) and nationwide Nov. 4. Helmed by Kathlyn Horan, the film chronicles the three musicians’ time spent at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, crafting the album that would ultimately garner Tucker her first Grammy wins.
In 2020, nearly 50 years after earning the first of her 14 Grammy nominations (for “Delta Dawn” in 1973, when Tucker was only 14), Tucker celebrated winning her first two Grammy awards: best country song (“Bring My Flowers Now”) and best country album (While I’m Livin’). Poignantly, she took the stage with Jennings and Carlile, as Carlile noted that after the death of Tucker’s parents (her father and longtime manager Beau Tucker died in 2006, and her mother Juanita died in 2012), Tucker didn’t want to record music and that she felt her life had “more love behind her than in front of her.”
Interspersed between modern footage from the studio are home videos and archived video interviews from throughout Tucker’s career, piecing together the story of a spunky, self-determined teen who became one of country music’s brightest — and at times, most controversial — stars.
Tucker was ushered into the spotlight in 1972 as a 13-year-old teen phenom singing “Delta Dawn” and “Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone),” and later appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone at age 15 (With the confident headline: “Hi, I’m Tanya Tucker, I’m 15, You’re Gonna Hear From Me”). And the world did: In the 1970s and 1980s, she notched 10 leaders on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, and over the course of three decades, earned 40 top 10 country hits. In 1994, she became one of the few country artists to perform during the Super Bowl halftime show, appearing alongside The Judds, Clint Black and Travis Tritt.
But even as Tucker notched No. 1 country hits in the 1970s and 1980s, she also took criticism for releasing the rock-oriented 1978 album TNT — as well as its suggestive album cover, which featured a leather-clad Tucker straddling a microphone cord. She also contended with the sexism and double standards of an industry that often penalized Tucker for partaking in many of the same vices (smoking, drug use, alcohol, and tumultuous romances) that helped make icons of her male counterparts.
At one key point in the documentary, Tucker is asked about her female musical heroes and influences. Tellingly, she is unable to point to a particular female artist she looked up to, instead namechecking Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard (“Haggard was everything to me,” she says in the documentary). Early on in her career, Tucker traded the long, modest dresses that were the norm for female artists, opting for flashy jumpsuits a la Presley, costumes that allowed her to move freely onstage and fit her hard-charging style. It was Haggard who would later offer Tucker a pep-talk when she was contemplating quitting music (“He jumped all over my a—about that. You know, what are you gonna do?” she tells Billboard).
The documentary also spotlights the sweet chemistry between Tucker, Jennings and especially Carlile, who serves as producer, co-writer, supporter and astute interviewer of Tucker, often gently pulling out the star’s childhood memories. Tucker recalls turning down “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” — which would become a huge crossover smash for Donna Fargo — in order to record her own breakthrough hit, “Delta Dawn.” Elsewhere, viewers are reminded that after she signed her first recording contract while barely a teen. The documentary also shows a diary entry from Tucker on her 16th birthday — the same day she signed a $1.6 million record deal.
“Brandi’s always waiting for me to get something out, and she unscrambles it,” Tucker says. “She’s so smart, she hears things that other people don’t hear in conversations, and she acts on it.”
The documentary captures one such conversation, as Tucker recounts singing to Loretta Lynn — who died Oct. 4 at 90 — a chorus she had written, and the two artists promising to get together to co-write.
“Me and Loretta talked about it for years: ‘We’ve got to write a song together, we gotta write a song together,’” Tucker says. “But we never did. Me, at my core, is a singer, and an entertainer. But Loretta’s real core was writing songs — though she happened to be a really great singer, too, one of the greatest.”
However, Tucker did finish the song with Carlile, creating what would become “Bring My Flowers Now,” which would help propel the project to Grammy success. For Tucker, it has been her intense devotion to finding top-shelf songs that pair with her wisdom-cracked voice.
“When I was a kid, I thought, ‘Why do people put two great songs on every album and the rest of it is s–t?’ Publishers loved it, because they could get a free ride. Put 10 songs on the album, and they should all be capable of being singles. Then [Tucker’s former Capitol Records labelmate] Garth Brooks came along and did that. We were real close there on Capitol. I think he made a lot of great decisions based on the mistakes I made.”
As much as she loves the idea of chronicling her every move, Tucker has yet to watch the documentary in full.
“The first time I tried to watch it was in Austin, and I didn’t see all of it because I had a hard time sitting through it. Really, what got me and the reason I was hesitant to watch it in a group of people is all the old home movies — my mom and dad, reliving those. That gets me emotional, and I got this reputation,” she says with a chuckle. “I’m tough. Brandi thinks I’m real tough, so I can’t be there crying with her — I’ll just go to the bathroom.”
Working with Carlile and Jennings has energized Tucker, who says she has three albums “in the can,” including a follow-up project with the pair.
“It’ll be out around June, I think,” she says, proudly discussing some of the songs set for the project, including the Tucker/Jennings co-write “Dearest Linda,” inspired by Linda Ronstadt, and several Carlile co-writes, including “The List” — as well as another song, “Ready As I’ll Never Be” which will be released Friday (Oct. 21).
“I adore her,” Tucker says of Carlile. “After that last album, I didn’t know we were going to make another one, but one day she sent me a message and said, ‘We got to work together again.’ One of my first thoughts was, ‘Oh god, now we gotta make this even better than the last time,’” she says, laughing. “It’s a lot of pressure to win those Grammys and stuff. You know, I was comfortable with losing, but I like winning a bit better. It’s gotten in my blood now.”
Even as a two-time Grammy champion with numerous No. 1s to her credit, one honor still eludes Tucker: induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“You know, it was never like I just had to be in the Hall of Fame, so maybe that’s why I ain’t done it — so now, maybe I shouldn’t want it and then I’ll get it,” she says. “Of course, [2020 inductee] Marty Stuart, I congratulated him and he said, ‘It’s ridiculous that I’m in there before you. Hell, I was campaigning for you to get in there.’ But I would much rather that people want me to be there, rather than have people going, ‘What is she in there for?’ And there are a few people that are in there that people wonder about—How did they get in there when they were [babies] while I was doin’ my stuff? But I don’t have the anger that some people have, and I’m just not a political person.”
Ultimately, Tanya Tucker Returns (Featuring Brandi Carlile) showcases Tucker’s decades-long fight for respect and creative freedom in a male-dominated industry, and introduces her story and music to a new generation of fans.
“People ask me, ‘How do you think you lasted so long?’” she says. “I won’t go away, so you’ll just have to put up with me.”