Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen
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.”