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TANYA TUCKER // BEYOND HER YEARS

The voice that purrs through the telephone is what you'd expect from a country-music legend working as many as 250 shows a year: a little weathered and whisky hoarse, with a sultry air and just a touch of Texas twang.

So it's a small surprise when singer Tanya Tucker reveals that most folks think she's older than her 37 years. After all, this is a woman who has been a country-music star for 24 years; she has racked up 29 albums, a four CD box set retrospective (the youngest female pop or country artist so honored) and a host of industry awards.

She even has a brand of salsa named in her honor. Talk about a hot artist.

"Yeah, people think I'm 37 going on 80," she says, her husky laugh punctuating the joke. "There's no two ways about it. You've got to be young at heart to stay in this business."

A look at the charts proves her point. Glance through the Top 20 selling country albums in America, for instance, and you'll see precious few names anyone would have recognized five years ago, let alone 20.

All this adds up to increasing pressure for long-term artists like Tucker to keep reinventing themselves. Accordingly, she's severed ties with longtime producer Jerry Crutchfield _ ending a 13-year association _ and found another producer for her 30th album, Complicated (due in stores next month).

At first, Tucker offers the standard Nashville explanation: "It was a joint agreement that I'd try to use a new producer," she says diplomatically. "The record company felt I was getting a little stagnant."

But dig a little deeper, and the singer's fiery spirit emerges. "(Last year's album) Fire To Fire _ there were a lot of problems in recording it. Everything was uncomfortable. We thought about it for a while and decided to get off the road and find a producer who knew what the hell I was talking about."

Press her for details on her new sound, however, and even Tucker has problems describing it. But she knows it's been a bit of a gamble; forcing her to cut a usually hectic touring schedule from 250 dates to about 80 this year _ passing up sure money for the chance to make a record worth listening to more than once.

"I've been doing that for years _ coming off the road and going right into the studio _ but it wasn't working," she says. "Now, I'm much more involved (with making records) than I used to be. I've decided to really concentrate on it more, now."

Of course, Tucker's no stranger to the hard work needed to stay on top of the country-music game.

A singer since age 6, she scored her first hit as a 13-year-old veteran with Delta Dawn, a tale about a small-town woman's descent into madness.

Bursting onto the '70s-era country-music scene, Tucker made a name as a prepubescent girl singing adult-oriented honky tonk tunes like Blood Red and Goin' Down, The Man That Turned My Mama On, and _ of course _ a cover of Elvis' Burning Love.

Considering the problems some child stars have had coping with life, you'd expect the blond beauty to have her own harrowing tales of time spent growing up in the public eye _ and maybe a few words of wisdom for today's young stars, such as 14-year-old phenom LeAnn Rimes.

Not Tucker. Turns out, if she'd had her way, she would have started even earlier.

"I wanted to start at age 9," she says, loosing that laugh again. "I always sang more mature songs. I did a kids show once _ singing all these kiddie songs _ and I was dying. I wanted to do You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man. But it wasn't believable, coming from a 9-year-old."

In fact, when Tucker started belting out honky tonk-flavored country hits, she says, her producer wanted to keep her age a secret. "It took a while for people to find out," the singer says now. "Those songs were pretty heavy coming from a 14-year-old. They didn't want to confuse people."

Like most child stars, however, Tucker found growing up a problem.

Continuing efforts to add rock sounds on her late '70s records nearly wrecked her career, while problems with cocaine and a disastrous relationship with fellow star Glen Campbell (then in his 40s) earned the singer plenty of print as the tabloids' "wild child."

Musically, Tucker's low point came with 1978's rock-oriented album, TNT _ featuring a cover shot with the singer displayed in hot pink leotards and enough makeup to choke a Mary Kay saleswoman.

"My problem wasn't being so adult when I was a kid . . . it was trying to become an adult when you are one," she says. "(TNT) was probably one of the worst albums I ever recorded. My dad and I just dreamt of singing country music for everybody . . . the way Garth (Brooks) has done. I dreamed of a rockin' country record when he (Brooks) was pullin' weeds in a field somewhere."

The early '80s proved a tough time for Tucker, who bounced from MCA to Arista (according to Tucker, everyone there loved the one record she did except the man who counted: Arista president Clive Davis) to Capitol.

And in her personal life, she closed out the decade by giving birth to a daughter, Presley Tanita Tucker (now age 7) and later a son, Beau Grayson (now 4), both out of wedlock. At the time, the singer wouldn't even reveal the father, who eventually surfaced _ in one of Tucker's videos, no less _ as aspiring actor Ben Reed.

It's all the stuff of which trashy, tell-all autobiographies are made. That probably explains why Tucker is writing her own, Nickel Dreams, for a reported $700,000.

Of course, Tucker has her own explanation for the book: "Money. But my publisher (according to Entertainment Weekly magazine, Hyperion picked up the book when Bantam dropped out of a $1-million deal) tells me I should say I want people to know the real Tanya Tucker."

Warming to her topic, Tucker reveals other motivations. "I've heard I'm hard to get along with, that I'm very cocky, that I'm hard to work for. A few bad seeds get those things started. This is my life story as I remember it _ what I can remember."

Such projects are the fuel that runs Tanya Tucker, Inc., the management and publicity firm run by her father Beau _ guiding offshoot products such as Tanya Tucker's Salsa, the Tanya Tucker Country Workout video, the American Country Collection doll series and a race car co-sponsored by QVC.

For the thirtysomething veteran, it's all part of preparing for that inevitable day when the roadwork slows down for good.

"It's like my father once said, "Someday, they'll come see you because they love what you sang, not what you're singing now,' " Tucker says. "You have to plan and prepare for that . . . so you don't step off the stage with any remorse or insecurity."

AT A GLANCE

Tanya Tucker comes Thursday to Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. Tickets are $32.75 and $28.75. Showtime: 8 p.m. WQYK-FM 99.5 offers a pre-show barbecue dinner and entertainment at 6 p.m for $5 to $7 per plate. 791-7400.

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