September 14, 1994 12:00 PM

In her 22 years as a country singer, Tanya Tucker has gone through a lot of labels—the problem is that more of them have been stuck on her than on her recordings. In 1972, when she scored a No. 1 country hit at age 13 with the weepy “Delta Dawn,” the Seminole, Texas, native was dubbed the Texas Tornado. Performing tunes like “[Hunka Hunka] Burning Love” at 14 helped keep the moniker current. At 21 her tempestuous, cocaine-fueled romance with Glen Campbell, 44, made her the tabloids’ “Wild Child.” Then there are raunchier epithets resulting from her numerous romances. “I’m supposed to have had more men than most people change underwear,” she once said.

At 36, however, Tucker has finally found a name she’s comfortable with: Mama. “What gives me the most happiness is my kids,” says the singer, looking over at daughter Presley Tanita Tucker, 5, and son Beau Grayson Tucker, 3—her children with aspiring actor Ben Reed, 29. “They are the center of my life.”

Which is not to say that the woman who once hung a MS BAD ASS license plate on her Mercedes has turned into June Cleaver. Both Presley and Grayson (as Tanya calls her son) were born out of wedlock—ruffling conservative Nashville. “I didn’t set out to be an example. I just wanted children,” she says.

Tucker is typically unrepentant. “They are no mistake. They were planned,” she says proudly. “And they have more love than 80 percent of the children in the world. I wish all children had love like they have.”

Tucker’s fans seem to understand. Her latest album (the 27th of her career), 1993’s Soon, was recently certified gold. (The title track and “Hangin’ In” became Top 5 hits.) With more than 250 concert dates this year—higher than any other major performer, country or pop—Tucker is working hard to earn that fan support. “It mentally exhausts me to think I’ve got to do it again and again,” she admits. “When I have a hard time, all I keep thinking of are the kids, and that seems to get me through it. My basic goal is to do all I can, while I can, so me and my kids in the future can have some quality times together.”

But the price she pays is steep. Although she tries to take at least one of the children with her on the bus when she goes out for short trips (“I’ve taken both of them at one time, but it’s really too hard,” she admits), Tucker frequently finds herself separated from Presley and Grayson for as much as two weeks at a time at peak touring season. “You just ache all over,” she says. “Boy, when you’re aching for your children, that little smell, that little touch at night, mmmmm, it makes Mama so lonely.”

When she’s gone, the children stay with their nanny at Tucker’s Brentwood, Tenn., mansion (she’s moving to a new home on 500 acres near Franklin this fall) or they camp out at the nearby home of her parents, Juanita and Beau Tucker. Beau, 67, who in 1971 sank $1,100 he had won in Las Vegas into demo tapes for his daughter, continues to manage her career. Juanita, 66, is the ever reliable granny. “I have a lot of help a lot of single mothers don’t,” Tucker says. “I feel pretty blessed.”

One big question mark lingers. Although they had split for several months after Tucker became pregnant with Presley, Tanya and Ben Reed reconciled about nine months after Presley’s birth in 1989. Today, Reed, who lives in California, visits the family regularly, and Tucker sometimes takes the children out to visit him. But she admits that the disparity in their careers—Reed’s biggest roles have been in her music videos—creates tension. “He’s adamant about having his own career,” she says. “Sometimes I think he finds himself competing with me, and it confuses us.”

Additionally, the Texas Tornado hasn’t totally petered out. “This house has heard very loud screams,” she admits. “I don’t have as bad a temper as I used to, but sometimes…” Still, she has to give herself credit. “Usually with a relationship, three years has been my limit. But Ben and I have surpassed that, so we’ll see.” They’re at seven years and counting. “We’re learning together. If we had been married, we’d be divorced by now, but the love is growing. For a while, I didn’t think I could be married; now I don’t know. If he asks me, I probably would.”

In the meantime, Tucker struggles to balance responsibilities and her love of fun. Pal Sheila Slaughter, a television producer, often joins her for parasailing or Rollerblading. But she’s no match for Tucker at a more strenuous activity. “Tanya’s the biggest shopper you ever met in your life,” she says. “She’ll drop ten to twenty thousand bucks in an afternoon and never look back. And every bit of closet space in her house is taken. It’s unbelievable how many clothes this woman has, but she has to change three times a day when she’s on the road. Shopping is part of her therapy.”

So is performing, grind or no. “I could not just quit,” Tucker says. “The applause keeps me going. You really don’t know how much you enjoy it until people start going crazy, and you say, ‘Wow. This is my redemption. This is my reward.’ ”

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