Tanya Tucker likely has one of the most striking and distinctive voices in country music history. The fact that she wasn’t yet fourteen when her debut album, 1972’s Delta Dawn, was released speaks volumes to her prodigious talent. In fact, Tanya’s vocal talents display a level of maturity that belie her young age to such a degree it’s often easy to forget that this is a child singing. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would have no problem believing that Tanya was in her twenties when this album was recorded. While the album’s material isn’t as consistently strong as Tanya’s voice, it comes close enough to make this one of the more satisfying debuts in the history of country music.
The album was produced by the legendary Billy Sherrill, and its overall sound is in line with Sherrill’s typical Nashville Sound style that he famously used to great effect with artists like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Paycheck, and David Allan Coe. While this production style is a bit more commercial-friendly than some might like (the steel guitar tends to fade in the background and there isn’t much in the way of fiddles), it would be considered highly traditional by today’s standards, and Tanya’s voice and the song arrangements themselves are unmistakably country.
Unsurprisingly, Tanya didn’t have a hand in writing any of the album’s material, but the song selections are mostly high quality. The album’s best-known and most enduring track is the Southern Gothic title song written by Alexy Harvey and Larry Collins. About a Southern belle who is gradually going insane because of her inability to let go of the memory of a long-ago suitor that stood her up, it’s a classic tune in the popular country music canon with an irresistibly catchy and highly memorable chorus. If you’ve never heard it, Youtube it immediately.
Another favorite of mine is the partly sad and partly humorous “The Jamestown Ferry”, about a woman whose partner leaves her by skipping out on, you guessed it, the Jamestown ferry. The melody of the chorus is very catchy and Tanya’s performance is very charming. I also quite like Linda Hargrove’s “New York City Song” which centers on a narrator who is stuck in New York City and wishes she could back home to their Southern hometown. While this theme has been explored a countless times throughout country music history, this is one of my favorite examples because of some particularly original and perceptive lyrics (e.g. “And when I smile they look as if to say that smiling is wrong”) and a skillful vocal performance by Tanya.
During the 1960s and ’70s, it was a common practice for mainstream artists to record the major hits of other artists on their albums, and Delta Dawn is no exception. Tanya covers Johnny Paycheck (a gender-flipped version of “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got)”), Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), Jerry Reed (“Smell the Flowers”), and Donna Fargo (“The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”). While I’m a fan of some of these songs more than others (I could probably live without the Donna Fargo tune), Tanya does a solid job at covering them, and it’s a treat hearing her distinctive vocals paired up with classic compositions like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” I can’t describe any of these versions as essential as the original or best-known versions, but they’re enjoyable enough in and of themselves, even if they admittedly function as “filler.”
Not every song is extremely memorable. Songs like “Soul Song”, “Loving You Could Never Be Better”, and “Love’s the Answer” are competently written, but aren’t exactly particularly original or noteworthy in terms of lyrical content. However, Tanya’s commanding vocals elevate the average material, making them highly agreeable in the moment, even if you’re not likely to remember them afterwards. Furthermore, the album clocks in at barely twenty-nine minutes and none of the songs reach even three minutes, so the album never comes close to dragging.
While this album was a landmark release in country music history, kicking off the career of a legendary artist, I can’t quite call it a great album. It is, however, a very good one. There are some genuine classics in songs like the title track and “The Jamestown Ferry”, and while the rest of the album isn’t as remarkable, it’s worth hearing simply because of Tanya’s outstanding vocal talents.
Grade: 3 out of 4 flags