By David Hutchings
Updated November 14, 1988 12:00 PM

The huge bus pulls into the Lexington, Ky., fairgrounds where a sale of standardbred racehorses, complete with live musical entertainment, is about to begin. Inside, Tanya Tucker touches up her makeup, then nudges the door open and starts down the bus steps. “Miss Tucker!” calls the sale’s chairman, spotting his star. “I’ve got a lot of rich horsemen out there who can’t wait to hear you sing.” Tanya doesn’t miss a step. “Ooh, send me over one of them millionaires,” she yells back, tossing her blond hair. “I want one with a bad cough!”

Tart-tongued Tanya, long the wildest filly in country and western music, is back in form at age 30. She was just 13 when her throat-catching, whiskey-voiced classic “Delta Dawn” leapt from country to the pop charts, but, somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, her career fizzled, extinguished in part by her reputation for raising hell. Tanya—”pronounced ‘tan ya hide,’ ” she says proudly—has had more boyfriends than some people have had hot meals. By the time she was 24, she had been involved with Merle Haggard, Don Johnson, Andy Gibb and, most notoriously, Glen Campbell, and she didn’t slow down until booze and cocaine drove her into the Betty Ford clinic earlier this year. Now, less than a year later, her new album, Strong Enough to Bend, has critics cheering again, and the title single has been high on the C&W charts for 18 weeks. As though giving the comeback an official imprimatur, the Country Music Association last month nominated Tucker for Best Female Vocalist of the year, her first nomination from the group since she was 15.

Tanya has also made a few adjustments in her personal act. She has cut out the all-night barhopping that helped send her to Betty Ford. She lives alone on a 2,000-acre ranch outside Nashville with her pet poodle, Lucy, and a sign over the bedroom door that says, “No one gets in to see the wizard. Not no one. Not no how.”

Time, though, has only partly tamed Tanya. She is still a night owl. When not on the road doing some 200 shows a year, she zips around in a Mercedes with a personalized license plate reading Ms. Bad Ass. Her momma is still worried about her. “I just wish Tanya would get married and have her a little girl,” Juanita Tucker says. “That’s all she needs to be complete.” Even her big sister, LaCosta, 38, worries. “I just want Tanya to be happy,” LaCosta says. “For some reason, that has always been harder for her.”

Tanya’s troubles first appeared when she moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to try to make it as a rock and roll star. “I came from country, but I wanted the rest of those sons of bucks out there to love me too,” she says. Repackaged as a spandex siren for her 1978 TNT album, she canceled nearly a million dollars in country concert dates trying to change her image. But at age 20, shackled with incompatible advisers and with little business sense of her own (a real estate agent ran off with the $1,800 deposit she paid for her first apartment), she was an easy mark. “When someone tells me the hog he’s selling weighs 5 lbs., I say, ‘Sack him up and I’ll take him home,’ ” she says of her experience with West Coast money men. “I believed what those jerks said. I should have listened to my daddy. He told me to watch out for them blackbirds, ’cause they’ll eat you up.”

Living on her own for the first time, she readily admits she started lapping up the L.A. nightlife. “I’d walk in a place and hear them say, ‘Uh-oh, she’s here!,’ ” says Tanya, who spent many of her evenings swigging scotch straight from the bottle. “I was the wildest thing out there. I could stay up longer, drink more and kick the biggest ass in town. I was on the ragged edge.”

She also launched her well-publicized series of romances, the most turbulent being with Glen Campbell. They met in 1980, and though they had their positive moments—including crooning the national anthem together at the 1980 Republican Convention—their two-year affair more often sounded like a battle hymn. Campbell called her “a raunchy young broad.” She told just about everybody, “He’s the horniest man I’ve ever known.” Once, when she felt Glen wasn’t giving her enough attention, she set off a firecracker in his house. Another time, after staying up all night fighting, the lovebirds appeared at friend Evonne Goolagong’s Las Vegas wedding dressed in bathing trunks and bikini. Looking back, she blames their troubles on the age difference: “I was 22 and happening, and he was 44 and not rational at times. I thought someone that old should know what he was doin’. ”

It ended in a blowout. “I don’t hang with guys when they get physical,” says Tanya, who still has the diamond engagement ring he gave her. “It was just bad timing. There’s more good than bad about him, but his bad was really bad. If I was older, I could have handled it.”

Soon enough, she had other problems to handle. By 1982 she was broke (she spent her last money, $7,500 in Love Boat residuals, on a friend’s cancer treatment). Bo, her father and former manager, flew out to L.A., paid off the bills and moved her back to Nashville. Not quite ready to settle down, Tanya went to New York for a weekend and stayed a month. There she started dating Andy Gibb, who had just been dumped by Victoria Principal. “He was just like me, the problem kid, the black sheep, the one you always think will self-destruct,” is how she remembers the onetime teen idol, who died of viral inflammation of the heart earlier this year. “I felt so sorry for him. It was like Andy had everything and nothin’ at all.”

When Tanya returned to Nashville to stay, the city was not exactly eager to welcome her home. “It was like I was the devil walking into town,” she says. “I had this reputation of, ‘Oh, she won’t do this and she won’t do that.’ All I wanted was to make good music.” Desperate to get her career back on track, Tanya became a semi recluse, rebuilding her self-esteem at home on her ranch. But she was also downing a lot of booze and sniffing cocaine. “I’m addicted to anything that makes me feel good,” admits Tanya, whose alcohol abuse started in her late teens. “You send your ass out on the road doing two gigs a night and after all that adoration go back to empty hotel rooms. Loneliness got me into it.”

On Feb. 2 of this year, her family and friends confronted her. Hours later she was on a plane to the Betty Ford clinic. Predictably feisty, she fought her six-week treatment all the way, clamming up in group therapy and venting her anger only in her journals. “I never thought I was self-destructive,” she says. “I’m sure my parents thought I was on heroin or something, but I never even thought I had a problem. I just felt I needed time to be what I wanted to be, whether it was a drunk, a bitch or a great singer. I felt it was my time to let loose.”

Her attitude finally changed when a counselor gave her private sessions. “Yeah, I got help,” she says. “I learned about the addictions. But mainly I saw a lot of people were worse off than I am, which made me feel lucky.” She felt even luckier, and sadder, when she learned that two months before his death, her old beau Andy Gibb had tried to reach her: “It was like God was sayin’, ‘Get the picture?’ ”

A picture of Tanya today is hard to draw, but it would include a close family forming a phalanx of protection. Her brother, Don, 42, works as her road manager, and Bo again is overseeing his daughter’s career. Though Tanya admits she still has times when she wants to “cut loose,” these days she’s more likely to go fishing than barhopping. “I had a great time, but L.A. ’bout killed me,” she says, summing up. “I was 21, free, single, with more friends than you could count. I ain’t got a damn one of ’em now.”

One thing in her life has not changed: She is not yet ready to dream about domestic bliss. “I like to look and I like to check ’em out,” she says cheerily. “Obviously I haven’t found anybody I’ve loved more than Glen or I’d have married him by now.” She just broke up with an aspiring actor and is looking for a replacement. “I need a guy who is happy to sit back while I shine, knowing I’ll be back when it’s loving time,” she says. That might not be as easy as she makes it sound. Her best friend, hairdresser Shirley Porter, points out the perils of asking Tanya to tuck you in. “This cute guy she started seeing asked what it was like to date her,” says Porter. “I told him, ‘Honey, you’ll have a good time, but you won’t have a long time.’ ”