- Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen
- Viking Adult, 448 pp.
Her most astute producer said that Tammy Wynette “speaks for the woman who’s been kicked in the ass all her life.” Apparently there is a multitude of such women. Wynette sold over thirty million records in a career that spanned a little over thirty years before she died under mysterious circumstances at the age of fifty-six in 1998. In 1992, when Hillary Clinton, beside her husband on 60 Minutes, said that despite his at-the-time alleged infidelities, “I’m not sitting here, some little woman ‘standing by my man’ like Tammy Wynette” – evoking not only the singer but her most famous song, the biggest selling single in the history of country music – the backlash was awesome. The remark was perhaps the grossest miscalculation of Clinton’s life; after making it, some of those thirty million music fans stood in line to help derail her political career for close to a decade.
The singer was born Wynette Pugh in Itawamba County, population 800, on the Alabama side of the border with Mississippi. Her father, a musician, died when she was an infant, and his last wish was for his daughter to learn play the piano. Some of her neighbors told Jimmy McDonough, author of the outstanding biography Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, that she did not grow up as poor as some of the county’s other citizens. This is a relative qualification; Wynette lived without electricity until she was in the second grade and would not have a telephone until she left home. She helped her grandfather pick cotton, and hated it so much that she and a childhood friend vowed they would never marry farmers to avoid the chore as adults. She saved a handful of the last cotton she picked and after becoming a star would display it in a crystal Lalique bowl.
Ambitious, shrewd, courageous, willful, but most importantly possessed of a voice that, according to musician and colleague David Vest, “had you by the heart” the minute you heard it, Wynette’s story is alternately inspirational, funny, wretched, catastrophic and heartbreaking. She was married five times. Among her husbands were Euple Byrd, a penniless hillbilly; George Jones, a singer as legendary for his alcohol and cocaine abuse as much as his honeyed voice; and George Richey, who would become her manager and be described as “Mr. Tammy Wynette” by some of his more generous observers and “a nightmare in Technicolor” by one of the least. She had four daughters, although she often had little time for direct participation in their upbringing, and by the end of her life was so drug-addicted – variously to Valium, Demerol, Dilaudid, Preludin and Milltown – that, despite earning millions, she neglected to file a will that would provide for them.
After graduating from beauty school in her early twenties, and short stints both as a waitress and a hairdresser, Wynette’s success in the mid-1960s was meteoric and happened at a time when the world of country music was primarily a boys’ club. She rarely sang upbeat or happy numbers – nearly all of her famous songs are about heartbreak, or at least, like “Stand by Your Man,” have an undertone of gloomy resignation. (The adept McDonough uses both fan magazines and essays by feminist critical theorists for his analysis of the song.)
McDonough is as engaging a writer as he is an idiosyncratic one. Clearly smitten and obsessed with his subject, to his credit, he does nothing to disguise his infatuation. The book is interspersed with a half-dozen letters he’s written to Wynette, the tone of which winningly border between charming and creepy. Despite his fascination with the singer, like the best novelists, McDonough is equally compassionate and merciless toward her. His descriptions and assessments of her songs are astute and often made me want to go to YouTube to listen to them alongside his remarks.
His characterization of Wynette as a “Nashville Nefertiti” strikes me as a bull’s eye. She had striking, enigmatic good looks that tended to be offset by the wilder stylings of wigmakers, or beehive hairdos that appeared to require half a can of spray to stay in place. Her personal style was, to say the least, distinctive. Wynette would accessorize a $5,000 gown with shoes from K Mart and huge peace-sign earrings.
The author shines most brightly when describing the milieu in which Wynette became a star. “Nashville, a strange place,” he writes. “Whenever I’m there I detect no vibe whatsoever other than ‘bland.’ Imagine that you’re at the dry cleaners, they’ve lost your pants, and you’re expecting them to be found. Then imagine you’ve been standing there waiting for forty-seven years.”
In the Nashville of the 1960s, songs were typically recorded in an hour or less and mistakes were kept in because they made the sound more “human.” Fussing over them any longer than that was considered “burning the beans.” After concerts, fees were paid in cash in shopping bags. In the course of recounting Wynette’s life, McDonough describes a cast of characters that no novelist could have invented without being accused of stretching the borders of believability. For instance, there is Bobby Sherrill, the star’s most formidable producer, who considers himself “to the right of Attila the Hun” and, in strategy meetings, would wonder out loud what Hitler might have done. There is “Country Boy Eddie,” the host of a Birmingham television program on which Wynette got one of her first breaks – a one-hour show with fifty-six minutes of commercials.
George Jones, known as the Possum – “notorious,” according to one of his sidemen, “for havin’ parties and shootin’ buses and whatever” – receives a harrowing, hilarious portrait at the hands of McDonough. The singer, a man with a seventh grade education, would flush money down the toilet when drunk, and while snorting coke adopt two alter egos (“DeDoodle the Duck,” in whose voice he would sometimes sing at concerts and wanted to record an album, and “the Old Man,” a Walter Brennan type of geezer figure). After one bender, Jones was carted away in a straitjacket. Even minor characters – such as a personal assistant called Mongo, who ate coffee out of a can – help establish the milieu.
The last sections of the book are the most painful to read. Wynette suffered throughout life from what might politely be called nervous disorders; as a young woman she had a battery of shock treatments (which she believed had helped her). Chronic problems with her gastrointestinal system sent her to the hospital numerous times for emergency surgeries (including one in which a quarter of her stomach was removed) and left her in constant pain. The agony led to increased drug abuse, all of which ultimately led to her death (which, McDonough alleges, may have been caused by foul play from her husband George Richey).
Before meeting Wynette, Richey had only survived on the fringes of the music business. A control freak, after marrying her he commandeered all aspects of her life – personal (Wynette’s friends had to go through his secretary if they wanted to see her), professional (he even produced some of her records, disastrously) and financial (he would give her an allowance). He lived lavishly from her earnings (they had his-and-hers floor-length minks). After her death, he was never found guilty of any crime but was secretive about his wife’s estate (and seems to have assured that her daughters were denied any inheritance). While Wynette’s corpse was still warm, he was already with another woman.
This is the part of the review where a reader might expect a speculation on how important a book this is for fans of country music. I cannot even address that issue; I have never had more than a passing interest in the form, and before reading Tammy Wynette, my only knowledge of her work was four of her songs that appear on the soundtrack of the film Five Easy Pieces.
I asked to review this book because I had admired other writing by McDonough, who has also published biographies of Neil Young and Russ Meyer. Tammy Wynette is an important piece of work for anyone interested in pop culture. Read this book and you will be astonished by how much things have changed in such a short period of time. The subtext of McDonough’s book is how bland the entertainment world has become since Wynette’s heyday. Today there are no mistakes on country-and-western songs; the audio equivalent of airbrushing takes care of that. Midway through the book, one of Wynette’s colleagues laments that “there aren’t any characters left,” and toward the end, McDonough repeats Tina Brown’s avowal that “now everybody’s famous and nobody’s interesting.” Tammy Wynette is a reminder that, a short time ago, it wasn’t so.
David Lida is the author of several books, including First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century. As a mitigation specialist, he conducts investigations for defense attorneys on death-penalty cases. His website can be found at www.davidlida.com.