Lost Innocence and Tanya Tucker
Tanya Tucker hasn’t put out a country album in 17 years. While she’s been… wherever she’s been… country music has changed and now resembles rock ‘n roll. There’s a heavy, percussive roar behind virtually every song and the lyrics have got flattened too.
The old distinction that country drew, between love and lust, is gone. The best they can promise now is lust-that-will-last, and how credible is that? Even the gorgeous models in tonight’s CMT videos won’t be preserved in amber. (Caution: the scene might not be as bad as I say. I don’t click in long enough to draw the finer distinctions, if there are any to draw.)
I once heard Leo Bronstein, the philosopher of art, say,
“For young people,
never sex without an idea
and never an idea without sex!”
If that’s so, today’s country hits aimed at the youth market have no ideas and (as a result) no sex either!
What’s gone wrong? The new Ken Burns epic film, Country Music, opens a window on America as she goes down the bumpy road of real life. It’s no longer confined to rural people or even Americans. All the world listens to country now. I’ve watched talent shows in Asian settings where the male singers pitch the old favorites like cowboy heroes. The girls swoon. The circle of influence is wide and getting wider.
Which brings us back to the question, what’s happening at the source? Aside from Willie, whose latest album bears the title, The Last Man Standing, and aside from country gospel, is the old well drying up? Where are the singers and songwriters who still have a tale to tell?
Now for some good news: Tanya Tucker has her tale to tell. I’ll quote a few lines from her lead song on Side A, “Mustang Ridge,” in the new album, While I’m Livin’:
Now a woman’s life
ain’t just a list
of the worst things she has done
I leave you now with a heart of stone,
sometimes the past is hard to outrun.
Just citing these lines doesn’t give you the force of it; the gravelly voice, the guitar strummed and piano keys hit, and the pacing — which works its own sad lifetime of experience into the present tense.
There were other distinctions that old-time country music drew. There was the distinction between virtue and vice, goodness and badness, integrity and wickedness. They put you inside a landscape where such distinctions mattered. It was also a landscape where there was such a thing as innocence … and it could be lost.
Seventeen years after we heard her last, Tanya Tucker sings today from the other side of innocence. I find her voice and her lyrics absolutely riveting.
It might be chic to stop there, but in fact I have a little more to say. There is a look to the innocence of young girls. We know it when we see it. We can tell when it’s gone. The whole culture conspires to deny the reality of what we’ve seen. We know that too.
Heck, I’ve read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, the bearded philosopher/psychologists who have labored, since the late nineteenth century, to persuade the whole cultivated world that there was no there, there. No sparkling, pristine, expectant reality behind the word “innocence.”
Can you picture any of these bearded geniuses
as a lover?
It doesn’t bear thinkin’ about!
What I can think about — with great interest in how they have managed it — are those women who have survived the loss of their innocence. They haven’t “outlived” or “outgrown” their innocence, as if it had been a youthful illusion. It was real and it was taken from them. And they know it.
Recently I saw some footage on the net of a young Iraqi woman confronting the captured ISIS fighter who had raped her when she was a prisoner of ISIS. He was now slated for some kind of punishment, perhaps death, but was standing, head bowed, before his victim. She was telling him at great length, in Arabic I did not understand, what he had done to her and what she would always think of him. Her condemnation must have included a lot of detail, since it went on for quite a while. She did not shy away from any of it although, at the end of her speech, she fainted.
What most struck me, in this extraordinary scene, was that she was unreservedly wrathful — as outraged as a human being can be — and yet stood before her despoiler beautiful as only a Middle Eastern girl can be, lips freshly outlined in a color precise and elegant, eyes expertly emphasized, head high, face emphatically near her former attacker, figure rounded in still-youthful bloom. She conveyed to the whole world that she had not given up on the womanly beauty that this man had tried to tarnish forever. Of course she fainted at the end. What do we imagine a woman is made of? Steel?
Tanya Tucker’s method is different. I assume they do it differently in Texas, but it’s clear enough that it’s far from her first rodeo and she has lost more rounds than she’s won. Indignation is a luxury in her world and she must have set it down a long while back. What’s she got then — aside from talent to burn?
She still loves the life she’s had, the chances she’s taken, the gift she’s shared, and loves herself all the more when she won’t lie about it.
Now look at my life and all the trouble I’ve had
Shows what you get when you’ve got to be bad.