Back when Tanya Tucker was 14 or so, country-music fans has some trouble getting used to the commercial juxtaposition of her big-eyed country girl looks and her torrid True Romance songs. Songs like "Would You Lay With Me in a Field of Stone," "The Man Who Turned My Mama On," "Blood Red and Goin' Down," stories of adultery and passion and the kinds of revenge-murders country juries traditionally consider justified.
But as surely as the image baffled them, it attracted them. They bought hundreds of thousands of records by this leather-clad Lolita of the country fair circuit who displayed the speed and sensuality of her own quarter horses. She hit the country top-10 time after time, her unpolished husky voice framed by the elaborate Midas-touch production of CBS' Billy Sherill.
On her 16th birthday, nearly three years after bursting on the scene with "Delta Dawn," Tucker signed with MCA for a reported $1 million, a move which caught most observers by suprise. She moved her base of operations from Nashville to Los Angeles. She released albums regularly, although none sold so well as the CBS recordings; she had no other top-10 single. A year and a half ago she dropped temporarily out of sight.
Two months ago, with a new album ready to ship and a new single in the works, Tanya Tucker returned to
Nashville for the annual country-music disc-jockey convention. The deejays took one look at the now-20 rock'n' roll model Tanya and her TNT band and the country hit the fan; they booed.
Now, in the dressing room of the Cellar Door, Tucker draws up her legs and wraps her arms around them. She is sitting on a high stool with her feet on the cofee table beside her. She is wearing hot-pink stretch pants, white cha-cha heels and a sweatshirt, and red stagy lipstick which does not compliment the pants. She is perfectly at ease in front of a photographer, a sexy/innocent Marilyn-Monroe calendar gilr who looks natural in the most artifical poses. She enjoys the sensation of being looked at. She likes the photographs on the inside of her new "TNT" album, which show her tarted up in a stretch-tight red jumpsuit and heels, licking her lips. The picture is billboarded 10-times lifesize on Hollywood Boulevard; she likes that, too.
"That's been my image for the last couple of years," she says, checking her nail polish. "We just never put it on the record. It's just people's chaning perceptions.
"It's a raw-type image.If I had to compare it, I'd have to say Presley. I like to mave a certain way, dress ia certain way. . . Rock 'n' country's what it is."
There is something disturbing about this nonchalant theatrically, something exploitive, a taste of wanting to have it both ways, to by young and indulged and grown-up and respected simultaneously. After all, as she puts it, she has "grown up in the business," a headstrong child who went after a recording career "like a dong after a bone" and got just what she wanted. She has seen her face on the cover of hundreds of magazines - People may join the list early next year - and her name and face in public places. She is a strutting singing mass of adolescent contradiction, the old Judy Garland bit, with her feet four inches off the ground.
Some of the contradictions she can see in herself, and joke about. Now widely active in the movement to end the killing of baby seals for fur, she still wears the red fox coat she bought in a frist flourish of prosperity five years ago.
Most of the paradoxes just tumble out. She says she left Columbia ("They had their chance - we gave them frist option") because she wanted "more artistic control over my career, what my albums looked like, how much money was put into promoting my albums. . ." but claims her father/manager and her agent handle the business end. "They keep me informed, I'm involved in the discussions, but I always want to have someone to guide my career."
She obviously has a voice in the workings of Tanya, Inc., and says "We're working on getting my sister's career back in motion" (her sister is the country pop singer "La Costa"); at the same time she can sound like a child on an allowance. "When my daddy bought my Turbo, he used to say, 'Do good on this show and we'll get you the Porsche,' show after show and finally I said, 'Hey when are we gonna get it?"
She seems far more at her ease on stage than off. She is warm spontaneous and spellbinding as an entertainer, stiff and self-conscious with questions. She finds it difficult to volunteer in private what pours out of her in public.
In the dim light, her head is bowed. The turned-up collar of her black vinyl jacket accentuates the pushed-down shoulders; a long fringed black scarf dangles to her waist. With her feet apart and her knees bent, she swings sideways and her arm sweeps straight out before her. The drums crash. "I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be. . ." bum, bum bum, bum bum, "You're gonna give your love to me. . ."
There is no need for Tucker to admit her adulation of Elvi Presley; it is written into her performance like a vocal arrangement. Her hooded eyes, snapping head and provocative movements and far more persuasive than the flaccid imitation of professional Presleys; it is a natural to her as it was to Elvis.
"'He was teaching me tricks no 16 year-old should know,'" she quotes from an old Movie Mirror magazine. The "trucks," of course, were her stage mannerisms. It is hard to understand how the disc jockeys oculd have resisted "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Big Hunk of Love," but the audiences are buying it. In its third week of release. "TNT" was No. 8 on the country charts and beginning to move on the rock charts as well.
This club series, and the tour of medium-sized concert, halls she is planning for the spring, is a long way from the one-nighters Tucker used to play in her early teens. In those days, the family traveled in a recycled tour bus with her name painted on the side. Her father managed her, her brother was her road manager, her mother handled costumes and makeup (La Costa was already settled in with her own recording contract).
Now she has a four-engine plane and a professional makeup woman and road manager. One of her parents usually travels along-her mother Juanita was on hand at the Cellar Door-but as companion, not compaly representative.
It remains an extraordinarily close-knit clan. The Tuckers own a house in Beverly Hills, and although Tanya now has an apartment in West Hollywood, she sayys "I don't consider myself moved out." While she was recording "TNT", there was usually some member of the family in the studio with her. They all travel back and forth to the house in Brentwood, Tenn., just outside Nashville; Tanya also owns 2,500 acres of "mostly raw land" farther out in Dickson where her quarter horses are pastured.
Pets are a passion; Tucker has dogs, birds, rabbits, goldfish as well as the horses. She skis (on water and snow), scuba-dives, fishes and shoots pictures. She has many friends on the professional rodeo circuit. Next year she wants to learn to fly.
In the meantime, she is making another move, this one into motion pictures. She is one of the 26 characters in the forthcoming "Amateur Night," a "Nashville" esque film about the participants in an amateur contest. The roster includes Henry Gibson, Candy Clark, Joan Goodfellow, Jamie Farr and Victor French; Tucker plays "the only talented one there, and the only same one."
Money is definitely calculated into Tucker's plans. She likes it; she likes possessions ("I'll buy anything") and she likes buying presents. She is not apologetic about it, either.
"A lot of people put Elvis down for buying all those cars and stuff. I figure, the guy was in show business for 20 years; he made a lot of people happy, and he made a lot of money, and if he wants to spend it all, so what? He could have anything he wanted. . . You never run out of things to buy. You have one Porsche, get another one, what the heck?"
She clears the hoarseness from her throat; her manager scolds her paternally about saving her voice for the next show. She takes a sip from "a Crown Royal, pretty strong, with honey and lemon" for her throat. She looks around the small room, made no less barren by the dozen red roses from MCA, which has bought out the last show. "I think this is the lowest flower count we've had since we've been on tour," she shrugs.
The Cellar Door is not her kind of club; the stage is small and cramps her movements. There is only room for partial backdrop-a picture of wooden crates marked "dangerous" and "explosive"-and a flashing TNT logo.
"I like a few eccects with the lights and a couple of flashpots, maybe-nothing like the new-age rock, just enough to make it tasty. And a backdrop, some film clips to go with the songs. . ." she stretches unconsciously checking her polish again. "It all goes into being an entertainer."