“I believe, for the most part, I done good,” sings Tanya Tucker toward the end of While I’m Livin’, her first album of original material in more than a decade. It’s a straightforward self-appraisal that caps off an album of knowing retrospection; this isn’t quite a deathbed album, a la Johnny Cash’s final American Recordings, but it does find the singer settling into her twilight years, taking stock of her journey thus far even as she prepares for its last legs. The material is so autobiographical in feel, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that Tucker’s only credited on one track, with the lion’s share of these songs coming from Brandi Carlile and her long-time collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Carlile also produced the album with Shooter Jennings, and at every turn While I’m Livin’ exhibits real affection for Tucker’s legacy, while resisting the impulse to simply coast: This isn’t a rote recitation of her strengths so much as an album that builds on all the things Tucker has always been good at, from rustic twang to supple folk flourishes.
Tucker is clear-eyed in her assessment of the past, cursing her own “Hard Luck” in one song while acknowledging that she’s always been “Rich” in the next. In “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” an uproarious soft-shoe number, a long-suffering wife and mother asks what more we could possibly want from her, a sentiment that could just as easily summarize the tension between Tucker’s impressive legacy and her more recent silence. A sensitive take on “The House That Built Me,” previously a big hit for Miranda Lambert, fits well with the record’s posture of introspection, and its sentimentality creates a welcome contrast with some of Carlile’s more hardscrabble, shit-talking cowgirl anthems. Speaking of which, Tucker offers her own reading of “Wheels of Laredo,” an Old West set piece that also appears on the new Highwomen anthem; an appropriate reminder that Tucker has been a godmother to many, the trails she blazed still providing a way forward.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 6