Tammy Wynette: Tragic Coun­try Queen

Pasatiempo - - In other Words - by Jimmy McDonough, Vik­ing, 432 pages — Casey Sanchez

It was Au­gust of 1966. Vir­gini­aWynette Pugh was a sin­gle mother of three, armed only with a $9.95 blond wig, white go-go boots, and a voice, sweet as honey, sad as well liquor, when she be­came Tammy Wynette, the an­guished match­stick-skinny singer of “Apart­ment # 9” for Epic Records. “I don’t know if there has ever been a more per­fect de­but,” writes Jimmy McDonough in Tammy Wynette: Tragic

Coun­try Queen. McDonough makes no se­cret of his fan­boy love forWynette, even break­ing the bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive with mash notes ad­dressed posthu­mously toWynette. But his de­vo­tion to his idol doesn’t stop him from tak­ing in­ven­tory of the skele­tons in­Wynette’s rhine­stone-stud­ded closet. McDonough spent years re­search­ing this op­er­atic saga, in­ter­view­ing reclu­sive pro­duc­ers, fid­gety ex­hus­bands, gos­sipy hair­dressers, be­wil­dered rel­a­tives, de­voted bass play­ers, and pill-pre­scrib­ing doc­tors to piece to­gether the beau­ti­ful, sor­did life of a woman who once said, “I be­lieve you have to live the songs.”

For coun­try-mu­sic fans, it’s bit­ter­sweet that Wynette had the same taste in men that sushi dare­dev­ils have in blow­fish, skirt­ing dis­as­ter with ev­ery step. Much of the bi­og­ra­phy fo­cuses on Wynette’s five doomed mar­riages, and with good rea­son— her heartache fu­eled her singing about tor­tured re­la­tions be­tween men and women. The knife-wield­ing, whiskey-bot­tle-smash­ing fights (and the equally dra­matic make-ups) with her third hus­band, coun­try su­per­star Ge­orge Jones, be­came al­bum fod­der; Nashville song­writ­ers eaves­dropped on their an­guished phone calls to crib lines that showed up in No. 1 hits such asWynette’s “I’ll Share MyWorldWith You” and the Jones-Wynette duet “We’re Gonna Hold On.”

De­spite pos­sess­ing one of the great voices of coun­try mu­sic, Wynette was ridiculed by her first hus­band and dis­owned by her own fam­ily over her as­pi­ra­tions to sing what was then un­char­i­ta­bly called “hill­billy mu­sic.” So without a dime to her name, a preg­nan­tWynette left her fam­ily and first hus­band, packed her beat-up ’ 55 Ford with her two kids, and headed for Nashville.

In Mu­sic City, she faced the un­zipped pants of pro­mot­ers and pro­duc­ers who ex­pected to her com­ply with the era’s role of a “girl singer.” While Wynette re­sisted, in McDonough’s telling, she had her own way of leapfrog­ging from man to man as suited her ca­reer. Not long af­ter land­ing in Nashville in 1966, she mar­ried Don Chapel, a seem­ingly de­voted coun­try singer and pro­moter who none­the­less swapped nude pho­tos ofWynette at truck stops be­fore get­ting his blush­ing bride a gig tour­ing with her hero, coun­try leg­end Ge­orge Jones. Within a year, a drunken Jones would barge into the Chapel-Wynette house­hold, pro­claim his love for her, and walk out with Wynette, kids in tow. Wynette was served di­vorce pa­pers while record­ing her sig­na­ture an­them of do-any­thing fi­delity, “Stand By Your Man” in 1968.

Through­out the 1970s, the five-alarm fire of a mar­riage (and its smol­der­ing wreck of a di­vorce; the sep­a­rated pair con­tin­ued to tour) would con­sume the tabloids and pro­duce a string of duets that many crit­ics con­sider the finest coun­try duets ever recorded.

Wynette lived in her own pri­vate world of ex­quis­ite grief. On­stage, she stood frozen, lead­ing friend Dolly Par­ton to re­mark “I could not be­lieve that all of that voice and all that sound was comin’ out a of a per­son standin’ to­tally still.” Of­ten, Wynette seemed to be script­ing her own soap opera. Af­ter a de­cline in record sales in the late 1970s, she was fol­lowed by a stalker and was even the vic­tim of a kid­nap­ping. Yet as McDonough re­veals through in­ter­views with friends and po­lice, th­ese may have been hoaxes or­ches­trated by the singer seek­ing at­ten­tion and a ruse to cover up abuse by her hus­band.

The last years ofWynette’s were strange coun­try. Mul­ti­ple surg­eries failed to di­min­ish the pain from a se­ries of bowel ob­struc­tions, andWynette slurred her way through per­for­mances on dosages of De­merol that would have anes­thetized “a 200pound man.” In 1991, the Bri­tish elec­tron­ica out­fit KLF re­cruited her to sing vo­cals and per­form in a mu­sic video wear­ing a skintight mer­maid bustier on “Jus­ti­fied and An­cient,” an im­prob­a­ble dance track that went to No. 1 in 18 coun­tries. De­spite the re­newed in­ter­est in her leg­end, Wynette be­came in­creas­ingly iso­lated from her friends and chil­dren un­der the in­flu­ence of her fifth hus­band, Ge­orge Richey, who cut off her ac­cess to her bank ac­count while march­ing her surgery-scarred body through gru­el­ing tour sched­ules.

Com­pared to main­stream icons Pasty Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Par­ton, “Tammy re­mains a harder sell.” McDonough’s book, com­plete with a 12-page discog­ra­phy that tracks her rare and un­re­leased early record­ings, may go a long way in giv­ing Wynette a new au­di­ence ea­ger to hear a darker, more earnest Amer­i­cana. “Most of us want to be good; most of us fail sooner or later. That’s what so pow­er­ful about Tammy. She val­i­dates those feel­ings, lets you know it’s no crime to shed a tear over the fre­quently tawdry and dis­ap­point­ing mis­ad­ven­ture that is life.”

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