The early life of Anna Mae Bullock sounds like the story of a potential country music star – she was raised in rural Tennessee, she worked in the fields, she only listened to country and western on the radio, she spent her childhood singing in church, her parents abandoned her and she raised herself the hard way. However instead of taking the path to the Grand Ole Opry she joined Ike Turner’s rhythm and blues band in St Louis, became Tina Turner and the rest is music history.
In the sixties and early seventies everything about her life was under Ike’s megalomaniacal control – it was his name, his songs, his style, his fist, his way. When Tina released her debut solo album, Tina Turns the Country On! in 1974 this signalled the beginning of her attempt to break with Ike both personally and professionally. While ultimately a commercial failure, the album is a fascinating glimpse into the life and times of one of music’s most successful female performers.
Tina’s brush with country music came at a time when her life with Ike was deteriorating fast, especially as he had turned to hard drugs. Their hits were drying up, their audiences dwindling, their credibility waning and so he became increasingly unhinged and abusive. Tina saw how desperate Ike was to be a success and in a bid to make him happy she decided to try and write him a hit. The autobiographical Nutbush City Limits was the result – one that got them back on the charts for a brief spell in 1973. The song told the tale of a small town life:
No whiskey for sale
You get caught, no bail
Salt pork and molasses
Is all you get in jail
They call it Nutbush, oh, Nutbush
They call it Nutbush city limits
A lil old town in Tennessee
It’s called a quiet little old community, a one-horse town
You have to watch what you’re puttin’ down
In Old Nutbush. They call it Nutbush…
Reading those lyrics you feel this could have been a country song. Of course when the song was recorded the sound was all Ike – with an up tempo R’n’B beat and Tina’s voice growling over the bass line. Their music ideology could be summed up by the intro of Proud Mary: ‘we never ever do nothing nice and easy, we always do it nice and rough.‘ It’s the style that made Tina Turner famous but by the early seventies she wanted to break away from this sound. She wanted to sing ballads. She wanted to show her vocal talent and versatility.
It’s not hard to see why a woman in her situation, at that time, would turn to country music. She had enough pain and suffering to channel into a thousand country songs. Tina also recorded unreleased versions of country music hits at that time like Stand By Your Man and You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man) – songs that were a mirror of her own painful reality.
Tina Turns the Country On! begins with Bayou Song, a bluesy ballad which is a nice bridge from her previous work with Ike’s funk and soul revue. She sings What kind of life is this for my baby, it’s bad enough I got to suffer it myself. She may not have written these songs but they feel like deliberately personal choices. Then a version of Help Me Make It Through the Night where she sings in the ballad style she had longed to try. It’s an incredibly powerful version, channeling all her complex emotions about love. Not until the third track, a Dylan cover, Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You does the slide guitar come in and the real country sound emerge. It’s the best song on the album and suggests she could have easily had more success in the genre. If You Love Me Let Me Know pleads ‘take these chains away that keep me loving you’ and it’s eerie to hear her sing this song, knowing what her life was like at that time.
Her second Dylan cover ‘He Belongs To Me’ is stunning, with its girl group backing vocals and mix of soul and country. ‘Long Long Time‘ is a song that acknowledges the complexity of her doomed relationship. ‘I’m Movin’ On’ is the start of her bid for freedom, upbeat and defiant in sound and lyrics. Then her Dolly Parton cover explains that no matter what troubles she’s experienced in her personal life ‘There’ll Always Be Music’. The final song on here is almost spiritual, The Love That Lights Our Way, pleading with God to ‘make me strong and steady when it comes.‘ It might be about death, but it might also be about the end of a relationship. Getting away from Ike would be the fight of her life. But she found the courage and in 1976 filed for divorce.
Tina Turns The Country On! is the story of a woman’s struggle and her attempt to look for a light at the end of the long dark tunnel. After her divorce she had to start again, now in her late thirties, penniless, with children and mounting debts. When Tina left Ike she left her old self behind, as she wrote in her autobiography:
‘Sometimes you’ve got to let everything go – purge yourself. I did that. I had nothing but I had my freedom. Because you’ll find that when you’re free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.’
By the time the 80s came around she was able to take her soul, rock and country influences to pop music with spectacular results. With What’s Love Got to Do With It she became the oldest woman to have a US number one hit. There isn’t another performer in music who earned her late career success as much as Tina. She deserved the chance to play stadiums and do things her way. Happy endings don’t only happen in the movies.
To some Tina Turner’s dalliance with country music may seem like nothing more than a momentary left turn that leads to a musical dead end. After all the album itself is a curio only found on vinyl. You can’t even get the whole thing on streaming services, except YouTube where someone has recorded it from their turntable.
But don’t underestimate this album’s power and potential legacy – when Beyoncé played at the CMAs you can’t help but think Tina’s spirit was present, Valerie June cites Tina as a major influence and Margo Price posted a picture of her vinyl copy of this record too. So maybe this album is just a footnote in Tina’s career but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeking out and savouring.