8 min read

I May Not Go To Heaven

I May Not Go To Heaven

On Texas, self-acceptance, and the enduring legacy of Tanya Tucker

THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON JULY 13, 2021

Please don't die without witnessing a Texas sunset. I know they look good everywhere, but it hits different in the Lone Star State. The sky turns a brilliant golden hue that bathes the sprawling plains and aging buildings in the perfect soothing tone. It's peaceful to the point that it borders on being suspicious, as though nothing so pure and beautiful can exist without some unspeakable struggle.

I cannot remember how many trips I've made to Texas, but by my count, I've spent no less than two full months existing there. Most of my time was in Austin or Dallas, but I have roamed many cities and towns alongside the highway 35 corridor. Place with names like Kyle, Live Oak, and Driftwood. There is still so much of the state I have yet to explore, but I'm purposefully taking my time. I want to savor every last mile.

Recently, I took a long weekend in the Lone Star state to celebrate the success of a dear friend's new album. The success in question was making it to release day, a feat that many have failed to achieve. We spent the better part of six months working on this record together, and he spent many more on it before that. My contributions are minimal in the grand scheme of things, so the least I could do was be there for him when it all came to light.

I planned to fly into Austin and spend the following day with my artist friend in San Antonio, about an hour south of Austin. I would spend the rest of the time in the city of Austin, which is perhaps best known for how weird people responsible for marketing that place want you to believe it is. In fairness, it is a city unlike any other. Austin has the prestige and history of Texas glory, but with a modern edge that far surpasses other cities in the state. Anyone who's been there will attempt to tell you what makes it so special, myself included, but we won't get it right. Austin is something you experience and then convince others to do as well.

One selfish motivation for the trip was time alone. I've needed to get out of my home and into the world again to sort out some thoughts and emotions within. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic or general familiarity with my surroundings, but being in my apartment for such a prolonged period has hindered my ability to come up with anything new. I felt myself repeating cycles of negative behavior because I couldn’t convince myself other options might exist. Texas offers the promise of long drives and late nights where time seems to stretch, and the world falls away. You can do a lot of thinking there, and when it starts to be too much to handle, there's always music.

My favorite Texas songs are the same staples that your parents and grandparents know by heart. Anything that has ever come out of George Strait's mouth is certified platinum in my heart. That man has never met a cowboy ballad or a love song he couldn't make you enjoy. His stories of people risking everything in pursuit of simple lives and meaningful connections echo off the walls and canyons of the state like spirits in the wind. The same goes for Willie Nelson, Leon Bridges, and all the other Texas artists whose music inspired many lifelong travelers to explore their home state. Storytellers from the state seem to understand things about life that the rest of us don't. They can step back and see the big picture for what it is, and they do their best to help us do the same.

But the song I kept coming back to you on this particular trip was not written by a Texan, but it embodies so much of what makes this state great.

In 1978, native Texan Tanya Tucker released her version of a song written by Ed Bruce, Patsy Bruce, and Bobby Birchers. The song, titled "Texas (When I Die)," came just two years after Ed Bruce wrote another classic country anthem. "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys." It's now considered country stape, and variations are played in honky-tonks and country bars all over the world daily.

Great writing stands the test of time: Even if you've never heard the song, you can sense the appeal of the lyrics.

When I die I may not go to heaven
I don't know if they let cowboys in
If they don't just let me go to Texas, boys
'Cause Texas is as close as I've been

New York couldn't hold my attention
Detroit City couldn't sing my song
If tomorrow finds me busted flat in Dallas
I won't care, 'cause at least I'll know I'm home

When I die I may not go to heaven
I don't know if they let cowboys in
If they don't just let me go to Texas, boys
'Cause Texas is as close as I've been

I'd ride through all of Hell and half of Texas
Just to hear Willie Nelson sing a country song
Beer just ain't as cold in old Milwaukee
My body's here, but my soul's in San Antone

Tanya Tucker is selling us the American dream. She's giving us everything we want and telling us what to do about it. She's telling the story of people who dared to bed on themselves and saw the world. She's gone all over the country performing on every stage that I'll have her, and the only place that's ever felt like home in Texas. She's telling us, to borrow a popular colloquialism, that Texas is "built different."

There's something about hearing that song or a long stretch of open highway with the gold and our son bathing you in its light that will awaken something in you. It's like a direct connection to a deeper understanding of what it's all about. You can do anything and go anywhere in pursuit of something you cannot explain, but the thing you're looking for is inside of you all along. There may be a God above that you can spend eternity with, or there may only be the here and now. You can squeeze someone else as tightly as you want, but you will always be inside of yourself. Even if you press your forehead into that of another person until your skin splits and your skulls crack, a gap remains between the thing that is you and the something that is them. You are in your human body alone, and You inevitably have to confront who it is you are, and then, you have to make peace with it.

Of course, it sounds a lot more fun when Tanya Tucker sings it. Sounds even better when you're singing along. But the point remains the same. Tanya is a Texas girl. She's gone everywhere there is to go, living many lives along the way, and at the end of the day, she feels the most that piece back where it all began. She knows who she is, and she's accepted that fate.

To reference Ram Dass, as I seem to do almost every day, he tells us:

"The game is to be where you are. Be it honestly and as consciously as you know how."

All the great songwriters accomplish what Bruce, Bruce, and Birchers did with "Texas (When I Die"). The best songs take the big ideas of what it means to be alive and distill them into something we find entertaining. These songs recognize the desire to understand and belong and explore what exists within us all. It's about how you can run until your lungs give out and you'll never manage to escape yourself. Songs like that remind us that life is full of lessons about who we are, and each is another piece of a puzzle that we spend our lives attempting to complete.

When I saw Tanya on tour back in 2018, her recent Brandi Carlile-led comeback had yet to formally begin. She was still playing theaters in midsize markets, but the crowds were hit and miss. She took the stage at the Kalamazoo Theater to a half-filled room, but she owned it as if it were me the first of a three-night run of sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden. She was a consummate professional. Every song was on point, every story ended with a punchline, and every memory from the road brought a greater understanding of who she is as a person. Much like the stories in her songs, which other people often wrote, Tanya's journey in life proved to be one of many missteps and hard lessons. She wears every stitch of it with pride, and the band played every song in perfect time.

I remember sitting in the crowd with my family, wondering if I have the determination of Tanya Tucker. She built a life in an impossible industry and is still going out regularly to entertain audiences of any size with everything she has within her. She has fully committed to being who she is, and she has weathered everything that came with that commitment. She would probably tell you that there were more lows than highs, but that's her sense of humor. She's tough because she's lived a life that's demanded it, and she's sweet because that's who she truly is deep down. Tanya Tucker didn't let the industry break her, so you know the world at large never stood a chance.

Tanya Tucker was also a legitimate start fifteen years before I was even conceived. At least for generations of my family are not only aware of her debut hit single, "Delta Dawn," but they can recite every line for you as if it were gospel. Anyone raised on country music knows that song. It is the marrow that makes up our bones.

Delta Dawn, what's that flower you have on
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
And did I hear you say he was a-meeting you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky?

"Delta Dawn" turns 50 in 2022. You can pay to see Tanya perform it in a city near you. She closes with it every night. If you get the chance to go, do it. You will be witnessing one of the greatest entertainers ever to grace the stage. Seeing her live is an opportunity to see what happens when someone fully commits to their path in life. You don't have to ask questions to understand her sacrifices to be on stage in front of you. By merely being in the same room as Tanya, I believe anyone can find inspiration. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that she is herself 100% of the time, and seeing someone live life that freely will make you drop bad behaviors and people in an instant. The show itself is also great.

So, there I was, basking in this perfect Texas moment when I found the work I needed to begin. If I told you why I needed to go to Texas at length, it wouldn't make any sense, but I returned home having found what I sought. Whether or not I can tell you how I did that is unclear. I will tell you that the biggest lesson I've learned over the past year is that sometimes the obvious answer is the right one. You may be able to convince yourself otherwise for an undetermined period of time, but eventually, it will all come to a head. Time does more damage than good. You're not saving anyone anything by continuing to live a life that doesn't set your soul on fire.

Even if you never make it to Texas, do yourself a favor and find a long stretch of highway to travel just as the sun begins to set. Find a few songs to play on a loop and allow yourself to let the worries of the day slip away. When you finally let go of all the immediate concerns and thoughts, something inside you will awaken. Whatever it is you've been avoiding by overthinking or overworking will come to you, and when that happens, don't flinch. Sit in the discomfort and work through it. Ask yourself the hard questions, and commit to following through with your responses. Make that drive the last time you second guess the things you know to be true. The path ahead might not be easy, but it is the only way to become familiar with yourself. Embrace the struggle, do your work, and share your exploits with the world because living any life other than the one meant for you will never feel right.

In short, be more like Tanya Tucker. It won't make life any easier, but you'll sure as hell learn to enjoy the ride.