Tammy Wynette: The ‘Tragic Country Queen’ – NPR
Virginia is home
I think you have to live the songs. -tammy wynette
October 1968. Country Music Association Awards. after a spirited introduction by roy rogers and dale evans, tammy wynette walks to the microphone as if in a trance. Slim as a matchstick, dressed in a sleek futuristic gown, Ella Tammy looks like the ramshackle beehive of Ella and her big lapels could consume her at any moment. “Just a country girl’s idea of glamour,” explains Dolly Parton. “tammy didn’t have any more fashion sense than me, really. i always say me and tammy, we got our clothes from the quinta y el parque, that is, the quinta trailer in the park.”
Wynette is a striking woman, with a graceful neck, lovely lips, and stunning profile, but with an extreme, long face beneath closely set, feline eyes. unimaginative types that she doesn’t like esoteric looks may be foolish enough to consider her a bit ugly. heck, wynette from the front looks like a siamese cat wearing a wig hat. not that she tammy was particularly vain. as she told alanna nash, “my neck is too long, my nose has a hump, my breasts are too saggy and the kids call me ‘little ass’ ‘because i don’t have a butt.” “
“tammy never had the movie star look of her lesser rivals, but she had a tough beauty, an uncomplicated charm,” wrote bill drummond of klf, who would collaborate with wynette near the end of his life on a crazy and improbable dance hit, “justified and ancient”. At only twenty-six years old, Tammy already looks a little worn out. the mountain of makeup can’t completely hide the worry, the fear, the dark circles lurking under tired eyes. she’s so stiff you’d think the hanger was still on her damn dress.
and then this tiny, tormented human being opens his mouth and an atomic bomb voice comes out. the band is playing too fast, which only accentuates his weird phrasing. “Our little boy turned four…”
the particular song she’s singing tonight is a ridiculous number called “d-i-v-o-r-c-e”, and its content is too much: a mother spelling out “the hurtful words” so junior can’t understand the separation from mom with dad “becomes final today,” but wynette reverses the song with such sentiment that anyone with half a heart would have to acknowledge the sheer conviction on display, the utter reality of her pain. Because when Tammy sings, as her producer Billy Sherrill once said, there’s “a tear in every word.”
when she gets to the chorus, wynette screams the words with the force of a raid siren, but she barely blinks. there is no body language, all the drama is in the voice. she doesn’t act out the song or bang her fist in the air; in fact, she barely moves an inch. tammy the statue Until a Tinseltown choreographer teaches her some questionable dance moves in the mid-’80s, Ella Wynette will remain frozen on stage. The anti-style of Tammy’s wax figure renderings absolutely baffled Dolly Parton. “I couldn’t believe that all that voice and all that sound was coming from a person who was totally still. She was like, ‘How is he doing that?’ you’d have to lean into your body or lean into it or something to get all of that out. I’ve never seen anything like it to this day. I was in awe of her. I thought she had one of the best voices of all time.”
wynette finishes her devastating performance and meekly leaves the stage. she wins female vocalist of the year tonight, as she would the year after, and the year after. Despite all of her talent, not only is she a genuinely humble person, but unfortunately, she has little self-confidence. “She never knew she was Tammy Wynette,” more than one friend said.
September 30, 1982. The White House. Performing at a cookout for President Ronald Reagan, Tammy serenades the Commander-in-Chief with his signature song, “Stand By Your Man.” the day before, she had sung it in alabama for that steely firebrand from the south, george wallace. she a few years before she had done it for jimmy carter. indifferent to politics, tammy likes them all. “She didn’t know anything about what was going on in the world,” said her friend Joan Dew. “She wasn’t interested. It wasn’t that she was stupid, she just didn’t care.” said her hairstylist Jan Smith, who had not only flown in her coveted dress, but had to “buy him a ticket and seat him next to me.”
there they were, the president, the country singer and her hairdresser, “walking across the white house lawn,” smith recalled. “Suddenly tammy touches me, I look down and she sticks her foot out and wiggles it! She was barefoot under that dress.”
barefoot on the white house lawn. classic tammy. as is what happens during his performance. she parks herself on the president’s lap and sings “stand by your man” right in ronnie’s face. The act is not unusual for Wynette: During live shows, she would often step out into the audience, zeroing in on some hapless husband and melting him down in a similar fashion. but this is the president. “I didn’t know it wasn’t the proper protocol,” said Miss Tammy. “He certainly didn’t say anything.” As for Wynette’s performance, “I got goosebumps,” the Gipper confessed to the New York Times. Months later, on June 20, 1983, Tammy sings for President at a catfish dinner in Jackson, Mississippi. “he kissed tammy!” said jan smith. a photo of the kiss ended up in the balloon. “ronald reagan definitely had a thing for tammy. after she was done, tammy said to me, ‘oh my god, jan, that was so embarrassing! he swabbed my tonsils!’ about it.”
when tammy yells “stand for your man,” “the 2,000+ republicans responded like it was a theme song,” the times noted. Which is funny, because untold numbers of drag queens, gays, and lesbians have done it, too. A song with a sublimely diffused center, “Stand By Your Man” is open to interpretation, allowing all sorts to claim it as an anthem or patriarchal propaganda. whatever your politics, if you really listen, you can be a hard number to resist. Just about everyone at some point in their life has been the victim of a selfless, perhaps unhealthy passion for another, and Wynette delivers the lyrics as a matter of life and death.
tammy would live to sing “stand by your man” to five presidents and countless lesser luminaries. Not bad for a country girl from Itawamba County, Mississippi. “She went from a little place out of nowhere to talking to the president,” cousin Jane Williams said. “She had nothing. She made it herself.”
summer, 1996. lincoln city, oregon. tammy performs at the grand opening of the chinook winds casino. His health has steadily declined due to gut-wrenching intestinal problems that cause him continuous excruciating pain. he also has a serious, decades-long addiction to painkillers, including the powerful synthetic opioid dilaudid. he would sometimes send a plane to pick up the narcotics from him; others, the drugs would be shipped by fedex. Right when Tammy got her hands on the package it was a cause for concern for the band and crew. if wynette tasted it too much, he’d go numb and the show would be an uphill battle. The band even had a saying to clue each other in that Tammy was seriously under the influence: “Virginia’s in the house.” Virginia Pugh was Tammy’s real name, and when Virginia’s name was invoked, he indicated an overmedicated Wynette. as showgirl karyn sloas explained, “we always said, ‘is virginia doing the show, or is it tammy?’ and if virginia was doing the show, she’d be prepared to sing a little bit more. virginia clearly did the show in lincoln city.”
yes, virginia was in the house with a bang that night. Yvonne Abdon and Karyn Sloas, her backing vocalists, were used to covering for Wynette when she had vocal problems. “She had hand signals that she would give us if she couldn’t play the last note,” Sloas said. a fist behind her back meant she wasn’t going to punch as high at the climax of “stand by your man”; an open palm indicated, “she’s done with this song as quickly as possible.”
but a much stranger drama is unfolding onstage tonight. “We noticed that Tammy was singing a lot slower,” said Tammy’s guitarist (and Karyn’s husband), David Sloas. “She was putting on a pretty bad show, nodding off between songs,” said Yvonne Abdon, who sometimes had to sneak up on Wynette in the middle of a song and push her away so she wouldn’t nod. tammy had a ritual that she performed every night when she got back on the bus after the show. “She was starting to get sleepy and starting to play with her rings,” Yvonne said. one by one they came off and she staggered back to her bed.
which is what tammy starts doing tonight in lincoln city. The only problem is that Wynette is still on stage, in front of an audience and in the middle of “stand by your man” when she plops down on her stool and begins to get ready for bed. “It was unfortunate,” Abdon said. “karyn and I just looked at each other.”
When Tammy fails to get a line near the end of the song, Karyn Sloas, David said, “jumped up and started singing.” is shot down abruptly. “They helped Tammy to her dressing room and she doubled over in phenomenal pain,” Sloas said. “The next day was cancelled. The Chinook Winds people were very upset. This was her first weekend.”
It was a scenario that played out with depressing frequency in his later years. because tammy was trapped. She’s trapped in an addiction she couldn’t overcome, trapped by a disease that brought her endless pain, and, many insist, trapped in a marriage to manager/husband George Richey that made everything worse.
“It seemed a little desperate to me,” said Charley Abdon, their drummer since 1985, bluntly and honestly. “i think i knew richey used her a little bit. i mean we all used her a little bit. i was there for a living. i wish tammy would have quit. she really should have. it’s a sad story.”
few recording artists achieve the kind of success that tammy wynette did. in all, he scored more than twenty number one hits, several of which he co-wrote. Tammy was the first country artist to go platinum, and her total sales now exceed the thirty million mark. If there is one person with whom her musicians and producers compare her, it is Elvis. guitarist chip young, who recorded with both, felt they were “so similar. tammy just had that charisma.” his story is equally mythical. “She went from being a beautician to the queen of country music,” Emmylou Harris said.
“I have big imaginations and big hopes. I do everything big,” said Wynette. With five husbands (one who lasted just forty-four days), four children, over thirty operations, Tammy too was harassed, endured financial disaster, and even escaped a bizarre unsolved kidnapping attempt that many suspected she had messed with. . . a newspaper published an article consisting solely of headlines of her various mishaps and illnesses. To top it off, husband number three was George Jones, Wynette’s idol. during their stormy marriage of seven years, they would record what many critics consider the best country duets of all time. “Every woman wants her own personal hero,” said writer Holly Gleason. “who also happened to be a legendary vocal pyrotechnician, spoke volumes for the perfection of the fairy tales she believed in.”
tammy loved country music with an almost pentecostal fervor and was known for criticizing friends and family who belittled her art form. “It’s honest music,” Wynette said. “tells a story. has a beginning, middle and end… it’s what people live for. it’s what a lot of rock artists don’t write about. they sugarcoat things. tammy sings about cheating husbands, hurting wives , children’s lives shattered by divorce the low and dirty things that crush us all on a daily basis if you’re a woman she might be singing your life if you’re a man she might be compelling for darker reasons wynette sings about love in a rather haunting way.his music is not for sissies.
wynette is such an extreme character that it’s instantly polarizing. academics argue about the content of “d-i-v-o-r-c-e”. “in this song,” writes cenate pruitt, “the man exists only to torment the narrator, with no real explanation being offered as to why the divorce is taking place at all, as the narrator seems to be completely content to stay in the marriage, despite the problems it may have. Not exactly, replies Kenneth E. Morris: “The singer’s perspective was that of a divorced mother in a moral and sentimental alliance with her children against a selfish and indifferent ex-husband.”
“poor tammy, she confused people, with her sexy album covers and her raspy, wistful voice, singing all those songs about family values and keeping your man satisfied, right in the middle of women’s liberation “, said. Lisa Miller, an acclaimed Australian singer-songwriter. “But when I listened to Tammy I didn’t hear a downtrodden woman. I heard a vulnerable one with enormous inner strength. She seemed to draw from a deeper well. She had incredible pain in her voice and the ability to deliver her lines with utter conviction, hitting the notes so precisely and going from intimacy in your ear to soaring notes that threaten to chop your head off, this was so exciting.”
the voice, the voice. What can you say enchants you. Tammy just has that “out in the country” sound, to steal a phrase David “honeyboy” Edwards used to describe fellow bluesman Elmore James. “A conversational mezzo-soprano with just enough grain to sound vulnerable” is the accurate, if bloodless, description Jon Pareles gave her in the New York Times. As her producer Billy Sherrill pointed out, in the end, Tammy didn’t really have the widest range, but boy, could she go from loud to soft and back again? not to mention the fact that wynette does weird and wonderful things with words just by singing them. “She could just milk a vowel,” said Emmylou Harris. “she could put so much melody out of a single syllable, but it never sounded artificial. ”
it’s easy to pick on tammy, dismiss her as a nasty caricature. but it’s more interesting to actually listen to her, because she’s a much more complicated and intriguing figure than the garish, shiny surface might suggest. Stephen Holden, in another critical moment, noted that Wynette’s “mixture of dependency and determination” had “less to do with camp than with her ability to construct emotionally truthful songs out of everyday catchphrases and sing them with a voice that embodies the The grief and resilience of long-suffering working-class women.” Sherrill put it more simply: “Speak for the woman who’s been kicked in the ass all her life.”
There is a noble quality in the lady. When I think of Tammy’s music, something Julia Blackburn once wrote about Billie Holiday often comes to mind. “Even the saddest songs were filled with courage. It was as if just singing was itself a triumph and a way to deal with despair.” but wynette has never received the accolades of a vacation, despite the fact that she is such a great singer. Billie’s combination of dependency and determination is somehow more acceptable. Patsy, Loretta, Dolly long ago transitioned to the kind of harmless icon status acceptable enough for even the fatally bland audience of public radio to accept, approve, and buy at a coffee shop kiosk. Tammy continues to be a harder sell. “Not a lot of people I know ‘get’ Tammy Wynette,” Lisa Miller noted. wynette still bothers, still gets under her skin.
Those who love Tammy, however, do so fiercely. “She had fans, scary fans,” said former Sony executive Mike Martinovich, who would no doubt admit to being something of a scary Tammy fan. Michelle Broussard Honick ran the Wynette Fan Club in the late 1970s and early 1980s and experienced the darker side of such an undertaking. “There were some fans who called her our lady. She was almost a religious thing to them.”
wynette has influenced a legion of singers. Her fans run the gamut, from Barbra Streisand to Melissa Etheridge, not to mention the loveable Wendy O, chainsaw-wielding punk rock terrorist. Williams, who dared to record a shrill, inaudible “stand by your man” duet with Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. Producer and arranger Jack Nitzsche—famous for her work with the Rolling Stones, Phil Spector, and many others—was so impressed with Wynette that he literally bent down and kissed her feet when he first met her. Although only two episodes of King of the Hill were completed before Wynette died, director Mike Judge felt that Tammy brought authenticity to his animated television sitcom about working-class life in Texas by providing the voice of Tilly Hill, the Hank’s mom. “She’s real. It was like getting Marlon Brando.”
As for female country singers, forget it. tanya tucker, martina mcbride, rosanne cash, shelby lynne, wynonna, lorrie morgan – you’d be hardest to find someone who doesn’t name wynette. Modern country diva Faith Hill confessed, “It’s hard for me to listen to her records without crying.”
far away in australia, lisa miller recalled the thrilling moment she heard tammy wynette sing for the first time. “The guy at the record store dropped the needle on ‘Send Me No Roses.’ truck- stop the jukeboxes and neon signs. Its sound epitomized this romantic country and western world for me.” tammy upped the ante for lisa. Featuring her own music, Miller vowed to “make records that sounded like they were produced by Billy Sherrill, but mostly trying to sound as much like me as Tammy sounded like herself.”
“I heard her a lot,” said Emmylou Harris. “She was so distinctive…it seemed so easy. She was the real deal…she really influenced my singing.” , md. When she told Tammy that she was aiming for a singing career, Wynette encouraged her and talked to her for over half an hour. “She made me feel like she knew me,” Emmylou said. “It wasn’t an act, it was real.”
over and over again i heard about wynette’s kindness. The first time artist June Zent, who painted many paintings for Tammy, met Wynette at her vacation home in Florida, she mentioned that Tammy’s favorite song of hers was “You and Me”. wynette picked up a guitar and “we sang it together,” zent said. “I had just met her, and she literally gave me a concert right there in bed! Tammy immediately put me at ease.” Robert Duvall isn’t much of a fan of giving interviews, but he was happy to recount how Wynette waived a $10,000 fee to Being able to use a George and Tammy duet as the title song for their 1977 rodeo documentary, we’re not the jet setter. “Tammy was very nice,” Duvall said.
“She was the kind of woman who could be deathly ill and still want to cook you cookies,” said writer Holly Gleason, who wasn’t alone when she noticed how, when Tammy greeted you, there were “always a question about a little detail in your life, a record you loved, a place she had dinner at, or how much fun she had with her grandson by the pool. so many stars lose touch with those little things. tammy built a life out of it. ”
Phoebe Gloeckner quotes Wynette’s 1967 hit “Your Good Girl’s Going Bad” near the end of her classic Diary of a Teenage Girl graphic novel. she met tammy briefly on the road at marriott’s great america in santa clara, california. “She was the queen that night. She had been waiting all night to meet Tammy Wynette. Finally, we knocked on her bus door. She opened the door and hesitated to let us in, but did, with reserved kindness. She was all alone.” and seemed to be trying to recover from her performance.
“tammy didn’t really smile at all, although i couldn’t say it wasn’t friendly. she stood up with a regal posture, she didn’t say much and her face wasn’t expressive at all- she had a beautiful face, very pale, like a statue. i remember tammy seemed to hold herself back, like a queen, with grace, and with a certain humility and sense of duty, blending in with the mob, hiding her own pain in deference to the needs of the crowd. she signed a little piece of paper for me… she seemed lonely.”
Three decades later, Gloeckner could still remember the details of Wynette’s long, halter-neck black gown. tammy had that kind of effect on people. tough guys, grizzled veterans of the music business, wept at the memory of her.
“tammy was a paradox,” says country music historian robert k. oermann. “She was both weak and strong. It’s interesting to contrast her life with, say, Loretta Lynn’s. Loretta often sang about being rebellious against men, and yet she stayed married to the same man her entire life. Tammy embodied the docile woman, and yet she was incredibly independent.”
tammy and loretta were friends. “To be so close to someone in the business and not be jealous of them is a great feeling,” said Wynette, who has been known to experience jealousy once or twice in her life. loretta met tammy while she was on tour with her then-husband don chapel and her daughter donna. “She was working hard, doing everyone’s hair. I thought to myself, you know, I’m glad I’m not a beautician or I’d be right.” in the same boat.'”
lynn immediately recognized wynette as a great singer and admired her style. “yeah, i would say tammy had presence. tammy looked different from all the other singers. she had her own look, she could do her hair any way. she wore falls, she did it without anyone knowing.’ you didn’t forget about tammy. whatever the fashion, tammy was the same.”
one night in the mid-seventies, wynette surprised lynn by turning up uninvited on the street. “you know? she got out of the hospital and came to see me in atlanta, georgia. here comes tammy. she just showed up, she didn’t call. she was wearing her hospital gown and had a fur coat. on her like she was in mink, you know .i said “you’re in the hospital!” tammy says “i was”. tomorrow, and i flew back to her hospital. i couldn’t believe it.”
then there was the awards show in los angeles when tammy hid in loretta’s dressing room. she was secretly dating burt reynolds at the time and did not want to meet his other lover. “she says, ‘now, make sure i don’t run into dinah shore.’ i said, ‘how come, tammy?’ she says, ‘well, i’ve been going’ with burt’ .i said ‘oh my gosh you are a good friend to dinah!’ It was a lot of fun. We didn’t have any problems that night, but Tammy left her hat. I have it at the museum.”
On one occasion, the ladies spent some time together in Hawaii. The house had no air conditioning and they were sprawled out on sofas “like two trained seals,” Wynette said. “We were horrible,” Lynn recalled. “tammy, she’d get up off the couch and I’d say, ‘tammy, make me a bologna sandwich.’ Then she’d say, ‘loretty, would you make me a bologna sandwich?’ we waited for each other that way. we spent days there just doing nothing. it was good. “they started writing a song together. “Good old days,” but I never finished it. “It was really hard for me and Tammy to get away from the others,” Loretta said.
“we knew each other like a book. i could tell when she wasn’t feeling well. her eyes. that would be a dead giveaway. i could always look at her and know what was going on ‘and she would have to say it. but when she and i got together we didn’t want to talk about the hard times tammy wasn’t too sad i wanted to hear good things when we got together we lived it big yes we did.”
I think it’s safe to say that wynette’s death was something lynn never really recovered from. “that was something that really hit me hard. i don’t know if i’ll ever get that close to another female singer. i’ve tried not to. let me tell you, i really loved tammy..”
A few little details to spice up this fascinating creature: Tammy loved to shop. “Before the show, the first thing Tammy wanted to do was go to the mall,” said her friend and biographer Joan Dew. “She could explore and go through a mall like a vacuum cleaner. It was amazing.” and she loved bargains. “She was famous for buying a $5,000 Bob Mackie dress and then buying some kmart shoes to go with it,” her daughter Georgette said.
along with a pair of statement clip-on earrings (wynette never got her ears pierced), the bigger the better. everyone remembers the gigantic red plastic peace sign earrings. “No matter what kind of dress she would make,” she told her costume designer Jeff Billings, a little exasperated, “she would go out and find big earrings.”
wynette was one hell of a southern cook. Her friends still wilt at the memory of her peanut butter and banana pudding, her chocolate cake, and especially her ham and her meatballs. “It was the best thing you ever put in your mouth,” sighed hairdresser and friend Nan Crafton. “she’d call and say, ‘making ‘ham’n’ meatballs, ‘and we’d all go. ” but what did wynette like to eat best on the road? “Junk food,” Crafton said. “worst fair food. mexican food. she liked all that fried butter and chicken. ” (wynette confessed to an interviewer, “a hot dog is still my favorite food “)
tammy hated feminine hygiene commercials on tv. “If there was a commercial about tampons, she’d get up, turn it off, and start ranting and raving,” said friend Kelli Haggard-Patterson. “she tammy was so mad that she wanted to go to congress- ‘they have to take these commercials down! ‘ ”
tammy loved to sleep on her bus, even when she went off-road, she would stay on the bus one night before moving into the house. and god forbid you shut down that bus while she was catching forty winks. “One time in Washington, D.C., we parked in an underground garage and they made us turn off the bus,” Nan said. “I’ll never forget it. Tammy had on a blue nightgown and she came flying through that booth like she was floating-“Who turned off the bus?! I don’t care what they say!’ Number one rule, never turn off the bus.”
wynette required white noise in the form of a blaring TV when she slept. “She had to have it on full blast,” recalled hairstylist Barbara Hutchison, who was trying to turn it down a bit and get some sleep on her own. “she had sleeping pills under her and everything and she still woke up-‘what’s the tv doing? i can’t hear it! turn it up a little.'” wynette kept her beautician license for twenty years after achieving success just in case “music doesn’t work”.
wynette could be self-centered. More than one friend pointed to the section of her autobiography that deals with the car accident that disfigured her aunt Carolyn. Wynette adored Carolyn, who was like a big sister to her. on the way to the hospital with her mother, her stepfather and her grandparents, little tammy saw a purple dress in a store window. wynette desperately wanted the dress. Her grandfather, whom she called “daddy”, told her that they couldn’t stop, that they had to get to the hospital. Tammy expressed her love for the outfit once more, and Dad asked them to turn the car around so he could buy it for her, hospital or no hospital. wynette would have a similar effect on many of the men who came into her life.
tammy was always taking in stray dogs, or strays. On vacations, she would go to the local shelter and invite some of the less fortunate to his house and feed them. “Wynette was always for the underdog,” said her childhood friend Linda Cayson. “You did not tease a small child or mistreat a dog when she was around her.”
wynette’s favorite perfume was a private collection of estée lauder. martha dettwiller once went to visit wynette at a hotel in las vegas and suddenly realizing that she didn’t have her room number, she started sniffing the suites. she sure enough, she detected wynette’s scent. “Private collection,” Dettwiller recalled, hung in the air “like a mist.” once she tammy saw you, martha added, “she had a way of saying your name so you knew you were special. you knew your name was safe in her mouth. that’s a gift very few people have. ”
although wynette didn’t publicize it, she was a spiritual person. “When it came to God, Tammy knew who he was,” said Loretta Lynn. Wynette, who never failed to include gospel songs on his show, said, “When I die, I’ll go to one of two places and do everything I can to get to the good one.” don’t expect no jewels in my crown, but I hope I have a crown.”
Two books have been written about tammy wynette, 1979’s stand by your man, an autobiography told by tammy to joan dew, and the posthumous tammy wynette: a daughter remembers the tragic life and death of her mother (2000) , of his daughter jackie daly and tom carter. the latter is basically a grim indictment of wynette’s late husband, george richey; The first ends with Tammy’s marriage to Richey in 1978.
A classic country autobiography, right down to Norman Seeff’s sultry, sad cover photo, stand by your man, Wynette’s cemented version of the first half of her life. not that she ever knew. “To tell you the honest truth, I don’t think Tammy ever read the book,” admitted Dew, who teamed up with Wynette’s hairstylist, Nanette Crafton, to playfully quiz her on the contents. “we decided we’d ask her some pertinent questions about the book. she didn’t know the answers. it was fun. she didn’t care tammy. ”
The press loved and believed Wynette, so much so that her version of the events of her life went largely unchallenged, at least until 1978, the year of her alleged kidnapping. Rosemary Bowen-Jones, producer of an excellent 1986 BBC documentary on Wynette, Stand Up For Your Dream, recognized the inescapable shortcomings found when such a project is created in collusion with her subject matter. “When you’re someone like that, you’ve rehearsed your life,” Bowen-Jones said of Tammy. “It’s a story that she’s told herself. She’s written the songs, she’s done so many interviews.” She left Rosemary wondering: “Is it true, is it made up, how much is it real?”
Another dilemma was Wynette’s propensity for telling tall tales. “She was exaggerating a story,” said Charlene Montgomery, who was frequently close to Tammy during the Jones years. “it would start small. we would leave nashville, i would listen to tammy tell a story about something that happened. well, we would meet someone like jan howard, i would listen to tammy retell the story and she would add about four lines. then we would meet with another group of people, she would add another three or four lines. it just got bigger ‘n’ bigger ‘n’ bigger. by the time we finished the tour, the story was completely out of control. huge !”
wynette was so inspired by hearing your life, she’d slip in a detail or two of her own. One day on the road, Montgomery told her about the last beating she received from his father. “He spanked me with his belt buckle,” Charlene told Tammy, who was shocked. as did charlene when the story ended as an autobiographical anecdote in wynette’s book, where she says her mother hit her with the end of a belt buckle “hard enough to draw blood from her.” she had to improve reality. As Patsy Sledd, backup singer during George and Tammy’s original tours, recalled, “I’d tell Tammy a story, she’d say, ‘George, you’ve got to hear this!’ she never did say the right thing. she would never tell the truth! she would turn around to make it come out the way she wanted it to.” to forge her own mythology. After Wynette read how Zsa Zsa Gabor was robbed of her diamonds in an elevator robbery, she exclaimed to Don, “What a great way to get publicity!” Later, the Hood read an identical story, only this time the victim was Tammy.
Another challenge in documenting Wynette: As open and honest as she seemed to be in her music, as a person, Tammy was “very cautious,” said showgirl Karyn Sloas. “she’d relax, she’d tell you too much, and then the next day she’d shut down completely; I let you in, you saw too much, this never happened. ‘”
“I write about stuff I can’t talk about,” said Tammy, and there were plenty of topics that fit that description. she was not someone to trust or reveal. Cathye Leshay, governess to Wynette’s children, was closer to Wynette than most. even she felt the wall. at one point, cathye was cleaning tammy’s house in jupiter, florida, when she found a note in her bedroom. it was addressed to leshay. in it tammy thanks cathye for taking care of her children. “This is something I’ll have for the rest of my life. A little piece of paper. And she didn’t sign it or anything,” Leshay said, a lump in her throat. “tammy didn’t give it to me. she just made sure she found it. this wouldn’t have been anything she would have come to tell me.” Echoing something she had heard from many others, Leshay concluded, “Tammy wasn’t very personal with people. I don’t know what the problem was.”
This is a book about singers living songs, and therein lies a certain darkness.
“Sad songs are what move people,” Lorrie Morgan told me. “We want to know that other people are in pain, because that’s what we relate to. Unfortunately, we all have pain.
“Years ago I sang a song about a divorce, I was nineteen, not even married yet. I looked at the producer and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I haven’t lived it. I can’t sing this song, I can’t relate to her. You don’t have to relate to her to sing it. Shit, you have to relate to something. You have to. You have to be heartbroken.
“You know what my brother told me a long time ago? I was having a hard time. I mean, it was like I was chasing disaster, chasing it. He said, “Lorrie, just because you sing country songs doesn’t mean that you have to live them.” And I thought, “You’re wrong. you have to live what you sing. you have to live”. en.'”
“My life is not a fairy tale,” Wynette insisted. “I’m not white as snow”. Once you’re immersed in Tammy’s world, it’s a hard notion to shake. the last few years of hers in particular were agonizing to document. I kept going back to the logs. the more she discovered, the more haunting her music became.
writer alanna nash, who interviewed wynette, felt the intense intimacy of tammy’s voice, “how it enters your bloodstream and takes control. this is a woman who lived through an enormous amount of pain, both physically as well as emotionally. The fact that she was able to channel it really speaks to her art.”
tammy wynette never found what she was looking for. a white knight, a prince charming, that heart of gold. “I still believe in fairy tales”. “take me to your world”. “so it could have been”. “you and I”. .”She listens to songs from hers over fifty albums of hers one after the other and it becomes strangely oppressive, this singular search for love. Tammy never gives in.
She wanted life to throw off her high heels, to be as passionate as the feverish cover of a romance novel. Instead, Tammy Wynette ended up dying in public inch by inch, her gaunt, addicted, haunted face graced the front page of every grocery store tabloid. “Unfortunately, the drama of her life dwarfs her position as a performer,” Alanna Nash said. “Her death of hers is so painful to me that I can hardly bear to think about it. It’s almost like talking about some kind of gruesome murder. Couldn’t be more sensational, actually.”
so who was tammy wynette? Did the sadness of the songs determine the sadness of her life or vice versa? Was he simply cursed with a taste for self-destruction that rivaled that of any rock star? Tammy herself was betrayed by those who claimed to love her? Did she jump herself or was she pushed? I’m not sure there’s a clear answer to any of that.
One thing I do know. she was a great artist and it’s time to document her life with the intensity and honesty that she tammy deserves. I want you to feel the presence of this woman as deeply as I feel her songs. i want you to support tammy wynette.
excerpted from tammy wynette: jimmy mcdonough’s tragic country queen. copyright 2010 by jimmy mcdonough. Extracted with permission from Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this extract may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.