“That record, to me, is my perfect record, that very first record,” the 61-year-old Tucker tells PEOPLE. “There’s no more perfect record than that one.”
And yet Tucker tempts fate on a recent weekday afternoon in a Nashville studio, gathering a band, including two of the original musicians from her 1972 session, to re-record the classic. She’s also brought along her Grammy-winning friend Brandi Carlile to lend direction and backup vocals.
Again and again, Tucker works to reinterpret her ending, each time bringing more gospel fervor to the classic chorus, until Carlile finally calls it after one particularly breathtaking turn: “Absolutely perfect.”
How can that be? How do you improve on perfection?
What Tucker showed off in the studio — and what fans have been discovering — is the voice that was so startlingly mature at age 13 now has a soul and grit that could only come from the accumulated years. And Tucker has often lived them to the extreme, earning a “wild child” reputation that often overshadowed her vocal skills.
“I hear that all the time: ‘Man, you sound better than you ever did,’” Tucker says. “To me, it only makes sense to get better at what you do. Not only that, but I think they probably believe I know what I’m singing about, as opposed to back when I was a kid.”
Among the believers are the members of the Recording Academy, who’ve given Tucker four Grammy nominations — her first in 26 years — for her latest album, While I'm Livin‘. Previously nominated 10 times but never a winner, she’ll find out on Sunday night if she’ll finally be going home with some gold.
Tucker also is set to join Carlile on stage to sing the album cut they co-wrote, “Bring My Flowers Now,” which is up for best country song, best country performance, and most prestigiously, song of the year, which puts them in songwriting company with Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish, among others.
Pondering the prospect of winning, Tucker reflects on all of the people who’ve helped get her to this moment. A victory, she says, “would be for them. I’ve never been a big award winner, but I would like to win it for them.”
Of course, Carlile, Americana’s reigning diva, is chief among those people. Having idolized Tucker since childhood, she jumped at the chance to co-produce the new project with Shooter Jennings, son of Tucker’s fellow outlaw Waylon Jennings.
At the time, Tucker was keeping an active touring schedule, but she hadn’t released an album of original music in 17 years, and new music she’d been peddling to record labels was getting cold-shouldered. Taking matters into her own hands, Carlile enlisted bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth to help her co-write most of the album, tailoring the folk-tinged songs to Tucker’s rich voice and drama-filled biography.
Tucker indeed provided a treasure trove for inspiration. Since bursting onto the scene with “Delta Dawn,” she often was better known for her scandalous behavior than her string of hits, which reached into the 1990s. Her outlaw image was well-earned from years of tabloid headlines that told of celebrity affairs (most notably with Glen Campbell), substance abuse (and treatment) and three children she chose to have outside of marriage.
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“Bring My Flowers Now” is both the album’s anchor and its heart, an autobiographical ballad that encapsulates Tucker’s vulnerability and defiance. “That whole song,” she says, “is just a piece of me.”
Tucker admits she didn’t like the rough-edged sound of the album the first time she heard it played back, but Carlile and Jennings stoutly defended it. Tucker recalls Carlile telling her: “This album is Tanya Tucker, the singer, flaws and all. It’s not Tanya Tucker the entertainer, because the entertainer wants everything precise.”
“And when she put it to me that way,” Tucker says, “I looked at it completely different. I thought, how cool is that? We cut a record, and whatever came out of my mouth is what you got to hear, win, lose or ‘flaw.’ And I’m pretty proud of that. Really very proud of that, actually.”
The album’s public reception and critical acclaim have since put Tucker’s career into high orbit. The Grammy nominations are just one indication. Last week, she celebrated another career benchmark, headlining at the Mother Church, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, for the first time. For more than two hours before a sell-out crowd, she brought out a succession of famous friends to duet with — Margo Price, Jamey Johnson, Johnny Rodriguez, Billy Ray Cyrus, Billy Joe Shaver, Lee Ann Womack, even her pal Dennis Quaid — but clearly Tucker held full title to the stage as she cycled through her vast library of hits and new material.
“I think it’s number one of all the shows I’ve ever done in my life,” says Tucker, who first performed at the Ryman as a child when it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry. “I’ve been on that stage many times, but that night, it was my night. I think it was the most special show I’ve ever done.”
The rapturous response had to be one of the reasons: Throughout the evening, Tucker was greeted with thunderous standing ovations, something that’s now a frequent occurrence at her concerts. “I’ve never felt such an outpouring of love,” she says of her shows in recent months. “It overwhelms me. It really does.”
Beginning next month, Tucker will headline CMT’s “Next Women of Country: Bring My Flowers Now” tour, and after that, she’s eager for more opportunities for the singular voice that, she says, “has always been my best friend.”
“Someone asked me, ‘What are your feelings about this new album?’” she says. “I said, ‘Well, I guess it’s a good start, you know.’ I feel like I’m sitting in front of Mount Everest and my hiking boots are sitting there, and I’m gonna put them on and then I’m gonna climb that mountain.”
Tucker heads to the Grammys grateful for this new chapter in a life that, as the lyrics in “Bring My Flowers” say, “for the most part, I done good.”
“I would do my whole life all over again,” she says. “Not even knowing what I know now, I would go back and do it again. Hopefully, I would be a little smarter, but I’ve had a good life, a great life. I wouldn’t trade it for anybody’s.”
The Grammy Awards will be broadcast at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT Sunday on CBS. For more on Tanya Tucker, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.