With singer-songwriter Craig Dillingham in her life, Tanya Tucker is reconsidering her lifelong resistance to marriage

By Nancy Kruh
January 23, 2020 09:00 AM
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Country icon Tanya Tucker has spent a lifetime making headlines for being unlucky in love. But now she’s determined to put an end to all that, and she has good reason: a ruggedly handsome singer-songwriter named Craig Dillingham whom she’s been dating since last summer.

“If it ain’t him,” she saucily says, “I’m done.”

And if it is him, it’s been a long time coming.

Both native Texans, the two first met 48 years ago at a Fort Worth, Texas, radio station. At the time, they were both 13-year-old prodigies on parallel career paths: With a voice that sounded far older than her years, Tucker was making a splash with “Delta Dawn,” her first single that’s now her signature song. Dillingham already had years of experience singing in a family group, and he was striking out on his own, working as the opening act to future Hall of Famer Ray Price.

Craig Dillingham and Tanya Tucker
| Credit: Derrek Kupish/Dkupish Productions

Tucker, now 61, has forgotten that initial teenage encounter, but Dillingham, also 61, never did.

“Craig’s always loved me, always,” Tucker tells PEOPLE. “I mean, he’s never not loved me.”

Tucker, of course, went on to country stardom, notching a long list of hits over three decades. Dillingham, meanwhile, scored one top 40 hit in 1983, then found his sweet spot writing songs and performing in regional markets.

While Dillingham has a brief marriage in his history, Tucker has remained famously uncommitted through a string of failed, often public relationships, most torridly her 14-month romance with fellow country singer Glen Campbell, to whom she was briefly engaged in 1981. She was engaged two more times, to a rodeo cowboy earlier in her career and to producer Jerry Laseter, the father of her 20-year-old daughter, Layla. (Marriage was never in the cards with actor Ben Reed, the father of her daughter Presley, 30, and son, Grayson, 28.)

“Engaged is not married,” she says, succinctly summarizing her track record.

Tanya Tucker

Over the years, Tucker and Dillingham were in and out of each other’s lives as friends, and twice — in the early 1990s and in 2008 — they tried unsuccessfully to make it something more. Then last July, Tucker’s pal, platinum-selling artist Lee Ann Womack, was determined to end their latest hiatus. The wife of producer Frank Liddell, a lifelong friend of Dillingham’s, Womack invited Dillingham to a show in Michigan where the two women were sharing a bill.

“She talked him into going, so when he got there, I got off the bus, and he walked up and I went, ahhhh!” Tucker says, savoring the memory. “And so we’ve been together ever since.”

This time around, says Tucker, is different from their previous attachments. “I didn’t love him that way,” she says, “and now I do. I love him, and I know it, and I have no doubt about it.” Dillingham, she says, has told her, “I think God’s put us back together for a reason.”

Their emotional connection is obvious. At a recent recording session, where Tucker re-cut “Delta Dawn” and Dillingham provided his smooth baritone as backup, she sidled up afterward for a celebratory smooch. They’re the kind of couple who trade kisses and “I love you’s” when they say goodbye — even when they’ll be together again within hours.

Tucker is enjoying their easy compatibility, and she’s grateful that Dillingham’s career allows him to understand her professional life. “He gets me,” she says.

Tanya Tucker

But is she ready to make this for keeps? Tucker reveals she finds herself toying with the idea of marriage — a brow-raising statement from someone who’s been so stoutly single.

“I have nothing against marriage,” she says. “It’s the opposite. I think it’s very sacred, and I don’t want to do it but one time.”

Friends, she says, have already begun to tease the couple about tying the knot. “Yeah, they’re all about, ‘So when’s the wedding? Blah, blah, blah,” she says with a chuckle. “And I mean, I’m pretty sure if I said, ‘Hey, let’s go get married,’ he’d go.”

That said, she’s also feeling no rush — and if a proposal is in her future, he needs to know she’s a traditionalist.

“I want the whole thing,” she says. “On the knee.”

Craig Dillingham and Tanya Tucker
| Credit: Derrek Kupish/Dkupish Productions

In the meantime, they’re simply enjoying merging their lives. This weekend, Dillingham will be by her side through the whole Grammy experience — the parties, the red carpet, and the show itself — as Tucker waits to see on Sunday if she’ll go home with some award bling. She’s up for four Grammys for her album While I’m Livin’, her first nominations in 26 years.

Tucker is excited to share it all with Dillingham. “I love being around him,” she says. “And we love doing things together. He adores me, but he also don’t let me slide. I really want him in my life.”

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.