She walked slowly on stage at downtown Nashville’s historic War Memorial Auditorium, briefly home to the early Grand Ole Opry before its longtime Ryman residency, about a half-hour late Friday afternoon, sporting pink hair, black eyepatch and matching bandelero hat and fringed cowgirl jacket boots, trailed by a bulldog puppy on a leash.
“I look like Johnny Depp,” cracked certified legend Tanya Tucker, taking a seat on a stool.
Hollywood bad boy Depp could only wish to have the street cred of Tucker, Texas-born and bred country music outlaw and running mate with David Allen Coe, Waylon Jennings and other Nashville renegades since her early teens, tabloid sensation long before social media, and husky-voiced singer of monster Billy Sherrill-produced hits such as “Delta Dawn” — at age 13, no less — and “Would You Lay with Me (in a Field of Stone).”
And so first we dispense with the question of the pink hair.
It wasn’t her choice, she told the crowd. “My dear friend Shirley is going through chemo for a third time,” Tucker explained, and she died her hair pink as a show of support for her and others battling cancer.
An “accidental chemical burn” prompted the eyepatch.
“I’m in a little pain, but hell, that’s OK,” Tucker said. “I’m used to it.”
Interviewed on stage by Jessie Scott, WMOT-FM program director, DJ and talent booking phenom — herself resplendent with a head of curly purple locks — Tucker’s appearance and mini-concert capped Day Two of the AMERICANAFEST® Day Stage presented by NPR Music, WMOT Roots Radio, World Cafe/WXPN in Philadelphia, and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
No oldies act here: The 60-year-old Tucker’s in the midst of a career resurgence.
Tucker’s first album of new material since 2002, “While I’m Livin,’” produced by younger admirers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings — “I’ve known Shooter since before he was Shooter,” the singer pointed out of Waylon’s son — has been receiving critical praise since its release last month. It features songs mainly composed by Carlile and longtime collaborators and bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth, with some adept songwriting help from the singer herself on the album-closing “Bring My Flowers Now.”
This week’s 20th annual AMERICANAFEST® conference and festival early has seen Tucker twice earlier, as a presenter at its annual awards show at the Ryman Auditorium, as well as a set at 3rd and Lindsley nightclub.
And her Tanya Tucker & Friends “While I’m Livin’ Tour has a date set for Jan. 2 at the Ryman, with tickets now on sale.
Friday’s War Memorial appearance with full band included just three songs — “The Wheels of Laredo,” “Bring My Flowers Now” and “Hard Luck” — each from the new album. Tucker relied on a TelePrompter for the lyrics but displayed her usual soulful voice and assured stage presence.
This is a pro’s pro, after all.
The album “ wasn’t my vision — it was Brandi Carlisle’s,” Tucker said of this year’s Americana Artist of the Year winner, as she and her band eased their way through the songs. “I’m amazed and little overwhelmed by the reaction to this record.”
Despite being “custom-fit for me … it took me awhile to like these songs,” she allowed later. “But I’m starting to.”
Despite selling millions of albums, suffering and surviving through personal trials and tribulations and a career drought, Tucker seems to realize her place in the musical world.
“I’m a hired singer,” she said, later ruminating that “what I strive for is to be a great entertainer, even more so than to be a great singer.
“As Johnny Cash once told me,” Tucker continued, lowering her voice to imitate the Man in Black’s rumble. “I can’t sing … but I can sell.”
And so she’s back on the road, supporting a new album.
“There ain’t no getting rid of me,” Tanya Tucker said, without a hint of weariness. “You’ve already seen that.
“The way I look at it, I’m just getting started.”
The Day Stage continues this afternoon at War Memorial, with simulcast on WMOT-FM 89.5 with scheduled performances by The Wood Brothers, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, Allison Moorer, The Get Ahead, Jade Jackson, and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’.
From September 10-15, at nightclubs, music halls and venues throughout Nashville, the 20th Annual AMERICANAFEST® offers hundreds of some of the best roots music going.