Tanya Tucker has always held a curious position in country music. She made her reputation in the 1970s as the chubby-cheeked teenager with the nerve and maturity to sing moody, hotsy tunes like ''Delta Dawn'' and ''Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone).'' In the 1990s, by contrast, Tucker finds herself perceived as an old pro who's actually younger than a lot of the newer stars who have come up in her wake, including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vince Gill, and Patty Loveless.
Tucker is also a performer whose promise so far exceeds her achievement. To listen to her expressively throaty vocals-certainly one of the most distinctive voices in the history of country music-you just know she's capable of recording a great album. But she hasn't done it yet-fire to fire isn't it either. What Tucker's 28th record does offer is good, solid product, with a couple of high points and a batch of probable hit singles-those two things not necessarily being one and the same.
After a commercial drought and a failed attempt to cross over as a rock singer in the late '70s/early '80s, Tucker revitalized her career by teaming up with producer Jerry Crutchfield. Together, they created a series of hits that showcased her as a wise, experienced woman who could give as good as she got in the wars of romance, including ''Tell Me About It,'' ''Walking Shoes,'' ''My Arms Stay Open All Night,'' and ''Strong Enough to Bend.'' Toughness and Tucker go hand in hand, and she elaborates on this quality with Fire's ''I'll Take the Memories,'' a stately ballad about the pride of a woman who won't accept anything in a divorce settlement, and ''Love Will,'' a slice of jagged country- blues that features a delightfully wicked drawl. The latter song is tacked on to the end of the album as if it were an amusing afterthought, recorded in the final stages to blow off some steam. But it's here that Tucker's talents are revealed most lucidly. The melody of this bit of loping manic-depression doesn't fit the slicker formula she and Crutchfield have so successfully contrived, but the loose openness of Tucker's phrasing makes you realize that one of her most crucial exemplars is Elvis Presley. Like the King, she lets the lyric lines go slack to communicate exhausted longing, and she echoes his trick of alternating between a murmur and a growl to convey sensuousness. In this way, and in others, Tucker is pleasingly old-fashioned. Even though she lifted her voice to dignify the Eagles' song ''Already Gone'' on 1993's mushy tribute album Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles, she hasn't let the influence of self-absorbed '70s singer-songwriters permeate the music the way so many young country stars have. (The one time she veers in that direction-on ''Nobody Dies From a Broken Heart''-she comes up with the most flaccid performance on the album.)
Her experience pays off again in the title track, a duet with Willie Nelson that is pure pleasure. One reason Tucker could never cut it as a rock & roll singer was that she lacked a feeling for rock's impatience and angst; these are emotions born in adolescence, and by the time she was a teenager, Tucker was already approaching her material as an adult would. ''Fire to Fire'' isn't much more than a wisp of a song. But hearing her match Nelson's croon with effortless relaxation, you're likely to forget they're singing a tune of soggy piffle, and get caught up in the rich atmosphere of melancholy and regret.
Tucker has had a good decade-long run with the artfully crafted schlock that dominates Fire to Fire. Let's hope that even before the hits of this style stop coming, she finds it within herself to record the sort of passionate, headstrong collection that has seemed inevitable since a young girl from Seminole, Tex., picked up a guitar.