As a rule, Tanya Tucker doesn’t do encores. But that changed one recent night when the sell-out crowd at New York’s Bowery Ballroom refused to stop whooping and hollering.

“I kept standing there thinking, they’ll quit here in a minute, and then we can all go,” Tucker recalls to PEOPLE. “And they didn’t.”

What else could the 61-year-old country icon do? She stepped back out on stage and rewarded her audience with one more song.

These days, Tucker is having to get used to these over-the-top reactions, whether they’re coming from old fans newly smitten, new fans jumping on her old hits or music critics busily writing glowing reviews.

What’s made all the difference is While I'm Livin', Tucker’s new album — her first in 17 years containing original material — that’s been hailed as perhaps the best in her 48-year career. And Tucker is the first to say what’s made all the difference on the album: Brandi Carlile, Americana music’s reigning diva, three-time 2019 Grammy recipient, and Tanya Tucker super-fan.
“I give her all the credit,” Tucker says. “I think she fell off a cloud somewhere. God pushed her off a cloud right into my lap. That’s the only thing way I can explain it.”

Tanya Tucker

Carlile entered the picture last year when she learned that Shooter Jennings, Waylon Jennings’ son and the producer of her own Grammy-winning album, was working to get a Tucker project off the ground. Carlile immediately wanted in, and she enlisted bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth to help her co-write six songs tailored to Tucker’s voice and style, not to mention her colorful life.

It wasn’t hard for Carlile to channel the artist who’d been her idol since childhood. “I’m obsessed with Tanya Tucker — ob-sessed,” Carlile says, separating the syllables for effect. “I started singing Tanya when I was 8 because she sounded tough. She had the yelp and the growl and all those things that I love.”

Tanya Tucker

A Texas native, Tucker burst onto the country scene in 1972 at age 13, taking over radio with an oversized voice and expressive lyrics that belied her age. “Delta Dawn” was the first in a long line of hits through the decade, but soon she became better known for her string of romantic liaisons, most notably with Glen Campbell, and excesses with drugs and alcohol. In the mid-1980s, though, she came charging back with more chart-toppers and earned 1991 CMA honors as female vocalist of the year. The same day she gave birth to her son, the second of the three children she chose to have outside of marriage.

Tucker’s outlaw image has proven double-edged. It often has kept her name from being mentioned in the same breath as Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and other country queens, though she’s had comparable chart success. At the same time, the image also has helped captivate fans.

As Tucker says, “My bad reputation’s made me a damn good living.”

Tanya Tucker

By the time Carlile showed up, Tucker was weary of resting on her laurels and looking for a way back into country relevance. At first, she didn’t think Carlile offered it. In fact, Tucker didn’t even know who Carlile was. (Tucker’s daughters Presley, 30, and Layla, 20, and son, Grayson, 29, had to educate their mom.)

Once Tucker listened to the new music, her hesitation only grew. “I did not like these songs,” she reveals, “and I’ve never done a song I don’t like.” But trusted friends who heard the demos didn’t share her assessment. Songwriting legend Paul Overstreet, Tucker recalls, told her, “What have you got to lose? Why don’t you go out there and just do it and see how it comes out?”

So, for three weeks in January, Tucker camped at a Los Angeles studio with Carlile and Jennings, who co-produced the album, and laid down her tracks. The first meeting between Carlile and Tucker was epic. “It was instant connection,” Tucker recalls. “I would have believed anything she said.”

Tanya Tucker's While I'm Livin'

When Tucker started singing, Carlile says she dropped to her knees. “I was like, oh my God, she still has that voice,” she says. “In fact, it’s better. It’s richer, more believable. She’s a preacher now. She’s not a singer.”

Still, Carlile had to coax every song out of Tucker, taking a place beside her in the recording booth. “The whole way,” Carlile says, “I was just like, ‘I believe in you more than you believe in yourself. We’re doing this.’”

The crowning touch on the album was the inclusion of a song that had been haunting Tucker for decades to finish. Carlile finally sat Tucker down, helped her add verses to her chorus, and within the hour, Tucker was recording “Bring My Flowers Now,” a tough-tender anthem that summarizes a life of both defiance and regrets. The song, Tucker says, is her “sweet spot” on the album.

Since its release, the 10-song album has been inspiring a new review of Tucker’s entire body of work, and she’s soaking in the praise. Most of all, she’s grateful for the lesson that’s come from taking a leap of faith with a champion she didn’t even know she had. “I’ve learned that I can be very wrong,” she says, “and I’ve never been so proud to be wrong in my life.”

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