Finley: Make country music great again

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Tanya Tucker is out with her first album of new music in 17 years. It’s good. And it’s genuine country. And that gives me hope that America, or at least country music, truly can be great again.

Tucker stormed on to the Nashville stage in 1972 at age 13 with Delta Dawn, an instant classic that perfectly exploited a voice wrapped in the roots of the genre.

Tanya Tucker

She was adored as a child star and then, following a familiar script, fell apart as an adult. She became country’s bad girl, took to drugs, alcohol and questionable men and eventually lost the magic. But not her voice. 

Meanwhile, country music was going to hell all around her. Cowboy crooners gave way to shaggy, fedora wearing hipsters. In Nashville, southern accents became as rare as sequined suits. Redneck Madonna wanna-bes  backed by teams of dancers and fireworks shimmied up the charts.

A down-home industry went corporate, churning out formulaic songs aimed at maximizing downloads with target audiences.

And then came Taylor Swift, billed as the new Tanya Tucker. As if.

Taylor Swift

So now you can hear Keith Urban every time you turn on a country music station, but you have to hunt for Ray Wylie Hubbard.

There are distinctive voices still around in country music — Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, Sturgill Simpson and others.

But it’s the interchangeable sounds of the Blakes, Tylers, Jasons, Mirandas and Lukes that dominate country music today.

Perhaps it’s because country has gone international and needs the more generic appeal achieved by infusing the music with influences ranging from rock to rap.

When it was mostly a regional art form, the music evoked the mountains, dirt roads, farms and ranches from where both its stars and fans hailed — you can be a country music singer today without having any personal ties to either the west or the country.

Singers like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard seduced listeners by conjuring their shared heritage and experiences.

Merle Haggard

I can listen to George Jones’ Gospel Collection and in an instant return to my boyhood, squirming in a church pew next to my mother as she sings along. That was the power of country music when it had a soul.

I know every generation mourns the passing of its cultural touchstones. And I’m certain today’s young country fans connect to the music just fine.

But it’s hard for me to imagine that decades from now when they’re sitting in the dark playing those shallow records, it will touch the same raw nerve, reach the same mournful places, spark the same joy that it does when I dust off my collection.

So a welcome back to Tanya Tucker. I hope "While I’m Livin’" sells a whole bunch of records and convinces Nashville to ramp up the twang, bring back some boots and cowboy hats and make a little room for  traditional country music.   

Tucker, the former teen sensation, is 60 now. She’s dyed her gray hair pink and sounds crazy as hell in interviews.

But on this new album, she is what she always was. Pure, honest country. 

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN