Past, present collide with Tanya Tucker, Phil Vassar at Birchmere

May 29, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

Tanya Tucker’s Monday show has been rescheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 17 due to the weather.

WASHINGTON — From the epic spiritual wails of “Delta Dawn” to the daily-grind cadence of “Just Another Day in Paradise,” the arc of country music weaves beautifully from one era to the next.

That signature sound is on full display this week at The Birchmere with Phil Vassar on Thursday, Feb. 11, Tanya Tucker on Wednesday, Feb. 17 and The Marshall Tucker Band on Thursday, Feb. 18.

“It’s going to be a trip down memory lane. About 45 years. We’ve got a lot of songs, so we can only do a certain amount of them … This is an acoustic show … unplugged versions of my songs, so I kind of wanted to strip it down a little bit — actually a lot. It’s the music in me,” Tanya Tucker tells WTOP.

Tucker began singing around age six, and at age nine, she was brought up on stage in Willcox, Arizona with country legend Ernest Tubb at the request of Tucker’s brother. When Tubb asked what she wanted to sing, young Tanya suggested “Sweet Thang,” Tubb’s famous duet with Loretta Lynn.

“He said, ‘Do you do it in the same key Loretta does it in?’ I wasn’t about to say no. I said, ‘Yeah!’ Boy, when I hit that note — Loretta sings higher than me — I had to reach up and pull something down.”

Years later, when Tucker landed her breakthrough hit “Delta Dawn” (1972), she was invited to the Grand Ole Opry. Wouldn’t you know it? She was scheduled to sing on Tubb’s segment of the show.

“How wild is that? I walked up to him backstage … and I tugged on his coat and I said, ‘Mr. Tubb, I’m Tanya Tucker. I have that song ‘Delta Dawn.’ He said, ‘1967, Wilcoxx, Arizona.’ He remembered me.”

Unlike some artists who burn bright and fade away, Tucker managed to stay relevant for decades. She had six No. 1 country hits in the 1970s, including “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and “Here’s Some Love,” and four No. 1 hits in the 1980s, including “Just Another Love” and “Strong Enough to Bend.”

As country music gained more crossover appeal in the 1990s, Tucker delivered a string of gems: “Down to My Last Tear Drop,” “(Without You) What Do I Do With Me,” “Some Kind of Trouble,”  “If Your Heart Ain’t Busy Tonight,”  “It’s a Little Too Late” and “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane.”

As someone who spans generations, Tucker wishes the radio would play a variety of eras and styles.

“I like the radio stations that play it all. My dream radio station would be Sinatra then Hank Williams Sr. then go to Eric Clapton then come back to Merle Haggard. … I like some variety. Play Beyonce and then play god-dang Patsy Cline. As long as it’s good, who cares?” Tucker says.

In that cross-generational spirit, WTOP also interviewed modern country star Phil Vassar, who knows The Birchmere well, having grown up in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“Anybody that’s ever been to The Bichmere, it’s probably one of the coolest places to play. … There’s not a bad seat. … It’s very intimate and you can do anything you want. … If you like seeing singer/songwriters, that’s probably the best place to go in the whole country,” Vassar tells WTOP.

May 29, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

Vassar says he was always intrigued by the art of writing a memorable song.

“I always looked at the songwriter credits. Lennon and McCartney … and people like Jimmy Webb … who wrote all these songs for Glen Campbell. … I grew up with The Eagles, Henley & Frey … I was a big Petty fan and Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Billy Joel and Jackson Browne. I love singer/songwriters: Bog Seger, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard was my first concert in Richmond.”

As his musical skills matured, he formed a band at James Madison University.

“We had a little band in college … We used to play in D.C. at The Bayou and College Park, all the way up to Boston and Maine and all the way down to Florida for Spring Break. … Then I moved to Nashville. I said, ‘I’m either gonna do this whole deal or (not).’ What do they say? ‘Go big or go home.'”

Upon arriving in Nashville, he found success writing hits for country’s biggest artists: Tim McGraw (“For a Little While”, “My Next Thirty Years”), Kenny Chesney (“For the First Time”), Jo Dee Messina (“Bye, Bye”, “I’m Alright”), Collin Raye (“Little Red Rodeo”) and Alan Jackson (“Right on the Money”).

Often, his songwriting inspiration came from the unlikeliest of places. With “Little Red Rodeo,” it came by simply glancing out the window to see a fiery argument between two neighbors.

“There was this girl, she just stormed out of one of the little houses next to us. You could obviously tell she was pretty pissed off. … She jumped in this red Isuzu Rodeo and she peeled out. Then right behind her was this guy walking into the front yard. He just stood there and watched her drive off.”

With “My Next Thirty Years,” Vassar simply woke up and noticed the day on the calendar.

“I wrote it on my birthday. I woke up that morning and I was like, ‘Holy crap. Am I 30 today? Wow!’ I literally went to a piano and I wrote that song down as fast as I could write. I wrote it probably in literally 10 minutes. I didn’t think much of it, I just wrote it. Then I used to play this little piano bar in Nashville and I went over there that night and I played it and everybody went crazy about it.”

After years of writing other people’s hits, Vassar finally broke through in 2000 with his self-titled debut album, which produced four Top 10 country hits in “Carlene,” “Six-Pack Summer,” “That’s When I Love You” and the biggest hit of his career, the No. 1 smash “Just Another Day in Paradise.”

“It was just a nutty morning, somebody was at my door … and there was two inches of water. … The washing machine had flooded my kitchen. … I’m standing there with wet feet getting my Fed-Ex package. … I ran down to the office to write that morning and I was all frazzled, and Craig my co-writer. … He said, ‘Man, I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just another day in paradise.'”

Like his broken washing machine, the floodgates opened for more hits, including “American Child,” “In a Real Love,” “I’ll Take That As a Yes,” “Love is a Beautiful Thing” and “Last Day of My Life.”

Now, after a few years of touring, Vassar has finally put the finishing touches on a new album.

“I know a lot of our folks have been waiting for that the last four or five years. … We’ve been touring so much incessantly over the last several years, but I always write and I always come home and record. … Over the last several years, I just mixed like 52 new songs. So you’re going, ‘Holy smokes, I got all this new material,’ and you just kind of weed through it and see what you like.”

Whether its Vassar’s new album or Tucker’s classic hits, The Birchmere can handle it all.

“It’s like a rebirth,” Vassar says. “I don’t even know how to explain how fun it is to play right now.”

May 29, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley previews country at The Birchmere (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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