Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Little girl, big voice

I can't stop listening to this Tanya Tucker CD, which has the tracks from What's Your Mama's Name and Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone), her 1973 and 1974 releases. Tucker was just fifteen in 1973, but her singing here is sophisticated and emotional, and producer Billy Sherrill chose racy, complicated material that is at moments wildly, delightfully inappropriate for a singer not yet old enough to drive. A good example is "Horseshoe Bend":
Horseshoe Bend, old friend, it's been so long since we saw him
When he laid me down upon your banks and made this girl a woman
As your virgin waters sang us a song
The effect is almost like some creepy parlor trick--hear the young girl sing about sexuality!--except that once the novelty wears off, what is left is Tucker's amazing performances and the high quality of the songwriting. (Kris Kristofferson and Harlan Howard, among others, contributed songs.)

Many tracks are, unnervingly, about children in desperate situations. One of my favorites is "Blood Red and Goin' Down," in which a little girl sings of how her father murdered her mother and her mother's lover. The girl concludes, "At times like these, a child of ten never knows exactly what to say." It's eerie and devastating.

Other songs touch on crushing poverty, alcoholism, faithlessness and disappointment. In one tune, "Teddy Bear Song," Tucker sings prettily that she would rather be an inanimate object than feel the pain of rejection.

Yet the albums are not unrelentingly grim. "Song Man" is, joyfully, about the redemptive force of music, and "What if We Were Running Out of Love" maps, improbably enough, the power of love onto the OPEC shocks of the early 1970s. It shouldn't work, but it does.

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