Tammy Wynette: The 'Tragic Country Queen'

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hide captionA new biography sees past Tammy Wynette's glittery costumes to examine the singer's deepest struggles.

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Tammy Wynette

A new biography sees past Tammy Wynette's glittery costumes to examine the singer's deepest struggles.

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When Tammy Wynette died in 1998, she was known as the First Lady of Country Music. She was born in 1942, as Virginia Wynette Pugh, in a rural county of Mississippi. By the time she was in her mid-20s, the hairdresser-turned-glittering-country-superstar was on her way to being the first artist in the genre to go platinum. Wynette had more than 20 No. 1 hits, though she's still most widely remembered for signature songs of the late 1960s and early '70s, such as "I Don't Wanna Play House" and "Stand By Your Man."

Drama is what Wynette's music best expressed. And, judging by a new biography by Jimmy McDonough, there was no shortage of it in her own life. The book is called Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen.

"I have a theory that great artists learn how to do one thing great. And that's Tammy," McDonough says. "In terms of a slow, sad song, nobody could rip it up like Tammy. She is just unrelenting."

'A Pretty Little Love Song'

Her biggest hit, "Stand By Your Man," has had an incredible lifespan. Following its release, the song was widely criticized within the feminist movement; in the mid-'90s, it became the subject of discussion again when soon to becoming first lady Hillary Clinton referenced it in a news interview. McDonough says Wynette remained proud of the song.

"When asked about it, she'd say, 'I just thought it was a pretty little love song,' " McDonough says.

Tammy Wynette had five marriages, and she often played the part of the tragic heroine. On that topic, McDonough says that Wynette was in love with love. One of her most intense marriages was to fellow country star George Jones.

"There's an intimacy that comes when those two sing together," McDonough says. "You don't see it, really, with, say, Loretta [Lynn] and Conway [Twitty] or Porter [Wagoner] and Dolly [Parton]. They were in love and they were singing to each other, and you felt it."

Later in her life, Wynette suffered from health problems that contributed to ongoing struggles with addiction.

"There was no levity in the last few decades of Tammy's life," McDonough says.

She was plagued with pain in her stomach and underwent, according to Wynette, more than 30 operations. With the aid of painkillers, she was able to continue playing shows, but not without pain, according to those closest to her.

"Life did her in in the end," McDonough says. "She couldn't make it on her own."

Excerpt: 'Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen'

book cover
Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen
By Jimmy McDonough
Hardcover, 448 pages
Viking
List price: $27.95

Virginia's in the House

I believe you have to live the songs. —Tammy Wynette

October 1968. The Country Music Association Awards. After a peppy introduction by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Tammy Wynette wafts to the mic like she's in a trance. Skinny as a matchstick, wearing a fancy, futuristic housecoat dress, Tammy looks like her ratted-out beehive and big lapels might consume her at any second. "Just a country girl's idea of glamour," explains Dolly Parton. "Tammy didn't have any more fashion sense than I did, really. I always say me and Tammy, we got our clothes from Fifth and Park—that was, the fifth trailer in the park."

Wynette's a striking woman, with an elegant neck, beautiful lips, and a stunning profile, but one with an extreme, elongated face set beneath feline, close-set eyes. Unimaginative types who don't savor esoteric looks might be dim-witted enough to consider her a tad homely. Hell, head-on Wynette looks like a Siamese cat in a wig hat. Not that Tammy was particularly vain. As she told Alanna Nash, "my neck's too long, my nose has a hump in it, my boobs are too saggy and the kids call me 'weenie butt' 'cause I have no rear end."

"Tammy never had the movie star looks of her lesser rivals, but she had a tough beauty, a no-messin' allure," wrote the KLF's Bill Drummond, who would collaborate with Wynette near the end of her life on a wacky and improbable dance hit, "Justified and Ancient." Only twenty-six, Tammy already seems a bit shopworn. The mountain of makeup can't completely hide the worry, the fear, the dark circles lurking below tired eyes. She stands so stiff you'd think the hanger was still in the damn dress.

And then this tiny, troubled wisp of a human being opens her mouth, and out comes an atom-bomb voice. The band's playing too fast, which only accentuates her odd phrasing. "Our little boy turned four years old..."

The particular song she's singing tonight is a cockamamie number called "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," and its content is a bit much—a mother spelling out "the hurtin' words" so Junior can't understand that Mommy's split with Daddy "becomes final today." But Wynette invests the song with such feeling that anybody with half a heart would have to acknowledge the sheer conviction on display, the utter reality of her pain. For when Tammy sings, as her longtime producer Billy Sherrill once said, there is "a tear in every word."

When she gets to the chorus, Wynette belts out the words with the force of an air-raid siren, yet barely bats an eyelash. There's zero body language—the drama's all in the voice. She doesn't act out the song or punch her fist in the air; in fact, she barely moves an inch. Tammy the statue. Until a Tinseltown choreographer teaches her some questionable dance steps in the mid-eighties, Wynette will remain frozen onstage. The anti-style of Tammy's wax-figure performances absolutely mystified Dolly Parton. "I could not believe that all of that voice and all that sound was comin' out of a person standin' totally still. I'd think, 'How is she doin' that?' It seems like you'd have to lean into your body or bow down into it or somethin' 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 greatest voices of all time."

Wynette finishes her devastating performance and meekly walks off the stage. She wins Female Vocalist of the Year tonight, as she would the following year—and the one after that. For all her talent, she is not only a genuinely humble person, but, unfortunately, one with little self-confidence. "She never knew she was Tammy Wynette," said more than one friend.

September 30, 1982. The White House. Performing at a barbecue for President Ronald Reagan, Tammy serenades the commander in chief with her signature song, "Stand by Your Man." The day before, she'd sung it in Alabama for that steely firebrand of the South, George Wallace. A few years previous she'd done it for Jimmy Carter. Indifferent to politics, Tammy likes 'em all. "She didn't know anything about what was goin' 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." For Reagan, Wynette is wearing a "red antebellum gown with a hoopskirt which was just gorgeous," said her hairdresser Jan Smith, who had not only flown in with the coveted dress, but had to "buy it a ticket and sit it next to me."

There they were, the president, the country singer, and her hairdresser, "walking across the White House lawn," Smith recalled. "All of a sudden Tammy pokes 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 transpires during her performance. She parks herself down in the president's lap and sings "Stand by Your Man" right in Ronnie's face. The act isn't unusual for Wynette—during live shows, she'd often go out in the audience, zero in on some hapless husband, and melt him down in a similar fashion. But this is the president. "I didn't know it wasn't proper protocol," claimed Miss Tammy. "He certainly didn't say anything." As far as Wynette's performance went, "I had goose bumps," the Gipper confessed to the New York Times. Months later, on June 20, 1983, Tammy sings for the president at a catfish dinner in Jackson, Mississippi. "He kissed Tammy!" said Jan Smith. A photo of the smooch wound up in the Globe. "Ronald Reagan definitely had a thing for Tammy. After it was over, Tammy said to me, 'Oh, my God, Jan, that was so embarrassing! He swabbed my tonsils!' Well, Nancy Reagan got real out of joint about it."

When Tammy belts out "Stand by Your Man," "the more than 2,000 Republicans responded as if it were a theme song," noted the Times. Which is funny, because so have an untold number of drag queens, gay men, and lesbians. A song with a sublimely fuzzy center, "Stand by Your Man" is open to interpretation, enabling all kinds to claim it either as an anthem or as patriarchal propaganda. Whatever your politics, if you really listen, it can be a hard number to resist. Just about everybody at some point in his or her life has fallen victim to a selfless, perhaps unhealthy, passion for another, and Wynette delivers the lyric 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 nowhere place to talkin' with the president," said cousin Jane Williams. "She did not have anything. She did it herself."

Summer, 1996. Lincoln City, Oregon. Tammy is performing at the grand opening of the Chinook Winds Casino. She has been in ever-declining health due to wrenching intestinal problems that cause her continual and excruciating pain. She also has a serious and decades-long addiction to painkillers, the powerful synthetic opiate Dilaudid among them. Sometimes a plane would be dispatched to pick up her narcotics; others, the drugs would be FedExed in. Just when Tammy got her hands on the package was a matter of concern for band and crew. If Wynette took too big a taste, she'd be zonked out, and the show would be an uphill battle. The band even had a saying to clue one another 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, it indicated an overmedicated Wynette. As backup singer Karyn Sloas explained, "We'd always say, 'Is Virginia doin' the show, or is Tammy?' And if Virginia was doin' the show, I would be prepared to sing a little bit more. Virginia clearly did the show in Lincoln City."

Yes, Virginia was in the house with a vengeance that night. Yvonne Abdon and Karyn Sloas, her backup singers, were used to covering for Wynette when she was in vocal distress. "She had hand signals that she would give us if she was not able to hit the last note," said Sloas. A fist behind her back meant she wasn't going to hit that high F at the climax of "Stand by Your Man"; an open palm indicated, "Get this song over with as quick as possible."

But a far weirder drama is unfolding onstage tonight. "We noticed Tammy was singing a lot slower," said Tammy's guitar player (and Karyn's husband) David Sloas. "She was doin' a pretty bad show, noddin' off between songs," said Yvonne Abdon, who sometimes had to sidle up to Wynette midsong and nudge her out of a nod. Tammy had a ritual she'd perform every night when back on the bus after the show. "She'd start getting sleepy and start playin' with her rings," said Yvonne. One by one they'd come off and she'd totter back to her bed.

Which is what Tammy begins to do this night in Lincoln City. The only problem is that Wynette is still onstage, in front of an audience and in the middle of "Stand by Your Man" when she plops down on her stool and starts preparing for bed. "It was pitiful," said Abdon. "Karyn and I just looked at each other."

When Tammy fails to deliver a line near the end of the song, Karyn Sloas, said David, "jumped in and started singin'." As Wynette stands there in a daze, fumbling with her baubles, the curtain is abruptly brought down. "They helped Tammy to her dressing room, and she doubled over in phenomenal pain," said Sloas. "The next day was canceled. The Chinook Winds people were very upset. This was their opening weekend." Sloas, who continued working the road post-Wynette, said casino vets were still muttering about the debacle over a decade later.

It was a scenario that reoccurred with depressing frequency in her final years. For Tammy was trapped. Trapped in an addiction she couldn't conquer, trapped by illness that brought on endless pain, and, many insist, trapped in a marriage to manager/husband George Richey that made everything worse.

"She seemed kind of desperate to me," said the bluntly honest Charley Abdon, her drummer since 1985. "I think she knew Richey used her a bit. I mean, we all used her a little bit. I was there to make a livin'. I wish Tammy would've quit. She really should've. It's a sad story."

Few recording artists achieve the kind of success Tammy Wynette did. In total, she had more than twenty number one hits, several of which she'd co-written. Tammy was the first country artist to go platinum, and her total sales now loom somewhere past the thirty-million mark. If there is one person who her musicians and producers compare her to, it is Elvis. Guitarist Chip Young, who recorded with both, felt they were "very similar. Tammy just had that charisma." Her tale is equally mythical. "She went from bein' a beautician to the queen of country music," said Emmylou Harris.

"I have big imagination, and big hopes. I do everything big," said Wynette. With five husbands (one lasting only forty-four days), four kids, thirty-plus operations, Tammy also was harassed, endured financial disaster, and even escaped a strange, unsolved kidnapping attempt many suspected she'd had a hand in herself. One newspaper ran an article consisting solely of headlines from her various mishaps and maladies. To top it all off, husband number three was George Jones, Wynette's idol. During their stormy seven-year marriage, they'd record what many critics consider the greatest country duets of all time. "Every woman wants her very own personal hero," said writer Holly Gleason. "That he also happened to be a legendary vocal pyrotechnist, too, spoke volumes to the perfection of the fairy tales she believed in."

Tammy loved country music with near-Pentecostal fervor and was known to chew out friends and family members that belittled her art form. "It's honest music," said Wynette. "It tells a story. It has a beginning, middle, and an end... it's what people live. It's what a lot of rock artists don't write about. They sugarcoat things." Tammy sings of cheating husbands, suffering wives, kids' lives wrecked by divorce. The down and dirty stuff that grinds us all down on a daily basis. If you're a woman, she could be singing your life. If you are a man, she might be compelling for darker reasons. Wynette sings of love in a rather disturbing fashion. Her music ain't for sissies.

Wynette is such an extreme character that she instantly polarizes. Academics quarrel over the content of "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." "In this song," writes Cenate Pruitt, "the male exists only to torment the narrator, with no real explanation offered as to why the divorce is taking place at all, as it seems the narrator is entirely content to remain in the marriage, despite whatever issues it may have." Not exactly, counters Kenneth E. Morris: "The singer's perspective was that of a divorced mother in moral and sentimental alliance with her children against an egotistical and uncaring ex-husband."

"Poor Tammy, she confused people—with her sultry album covers and husky, yearning voice, singing all those songs about family values and keeping your man satisfied, right in the middle of women's lib," 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 this incredible ache in her voice and the ability to deliver her lines with utter conviction, to hit notes with such bull's-eye precision, and to move from in-your-ear intimacy to soaring notes that threaten to cut your head off! This was so thrilling."

The voice, the voice. What can one say? It bewitches you. Tammy just has that "out in the country sound," to steal a line 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 it in the New York Times. As her producer Billy Sherrill pointed out, when you got down to it, Tammy really didn't have the greatest range, but, boy, could she go from loud to soft and back again. Not to mention the fact that Wynette does weird and wondrous things to words simply by singing them. "She could just milk a vowel," said Emmylou Harris. "She could give so much melody to just, like, one syllable. But it never sounded contrived."

It's easy to pick on Tammy, dismiss her as an unsavory cartoon. But it's more interesting to really listen to her, because she is a far more complicated and intriguing figure than the garish, glossy surface might suggest. Stephen Holden, another Times critic, noted that Wynette's "blend of dependency and determination" had "less to do with camp than with her skill at building emotionally truthful songs around everyday catchphrases and socking them out in a voice that embodies the pain and resilience of long-suffering working-class women." Sherrill put it a simpler way: "She speaks for the woman who's been kicked in the ass all her life."

There is a noble quality to 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 full of courage. It was as if just the fact of singing was in itself a triumph and a way of dealing with despair." But Wynette has never gotten the accolades of a Holiday, even though she is just as great a singer. Billie's blend of dependency and determination is somehow more palatable. Patsy, Loretta, Dolly long ago crossed over to the kind of harmless-icon status acceptable enough for even the fatally bland audience of public radio to embrace, approve, and buy at a coffee shop kiosk. Tammy remains a harder sell. "Not many people I know 'get' Tammy Wynette," noted Lisa Miller. Wynette still disturbs, still gets under the skin.

Those who love Tammy, however, do so fiercely. "She had fans—scary fans," said former Sony executive Mike Martinovich, who would undoubtedly admit to being something of a scary Tammy fan himself. Michelle Broussard Honick ran Wynette's fan club in the late seventies and early eighties and experienced the darker side of such an enterprise. "There were some fans who would call her Our Lady. It was almost a religious thing for them."

Wynette has influenced a legion of singers. Her admirers run the gamut from Barbra Streisand to Melissa Etheridge, not to mention that lovable, chainsaw-wielding punk rock terrorist Wendy O. Williams, who dared to record a screechy and unlistenable "Stand by Your Man" duet with Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister. Producer/arranger Jack Nitzsche—famous for his work with the Rolling Stones, Phil Spector, and countless others—was so in awe of Wynette he literally got down and kissed her feet when he first met her. Although only two King of the Hill episodes were completed before Wynette died, director Mike Judge felt Tammy lent authenticity to his animated TV comedy about working-class Texas life by providing the voice of Tilly Hill, Hank's mom. "She's the real deal. It was like getting Marlon Brando."

As far as female country singers go, forget it. Tanya Tucker, Martina McBride, Rosanne Cash, Shelby Lynne, Wynonna, Lorrie Morgan—it would be harder to find somebody who doesn't namecheck Wynette. Modern-day 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 galvanizing moment she first heard Tammy Wynette sing. "The record shop guy dropped the needle on 'Send Me No Roses.' I felt shivers immediately, the kind you can only get when you hear something really pure, organic, and rare. Her voice evoked classic images of truck-stop jukeboxes and neon signs. Her sound epitomized this romantic country and western world to me." Tammy upped the ante for Lisa. With her own music, Miller vowed "to make records that sounded like they were produced by Billy Sherrill, but above all trying to sound as much like myself as Tammy sounded like herself."

"I listened to her so much," said Emmylou Harris. "She was so distinctive . . . it seemed so effortless. She was the real article . . . she really influenced the way I sing." Harris first met Wynette after standing in line to get her autograph at the Stardust Club in Waldorf, Maryland. When she told Tammy she was aiming at a singing career, Wynette encouraged her, talking to her for over half an hour. "She made me feel like she had known me," said Emmylou. "It was not an act, it was real."

Over and over I heard about Wynette's kindness. The first time artist June Zent, who did many a painting for Tammy, met Wynette at her Florida vacation home, she mentioned her favorite Tammy song was "You and Me." Wynette picked up a guitar and "we sang it together," said Zent. "I had just met her, and she literally gave me a concert there on the bed! Tammy immediately put me at ease." Robert Duvall isn't all that fond of giving interviews, but he was happy to recount how Wynette waived a ten-thousand-dollar fee so he could use a George and Tammy duet as the title song for his 1977 rodeo documentary, We're Not the Jet Set. "Tammy was so gracious," said Duvall.

"She was the kind of woman who could be deathly ill, and still want to cook you biscuits," said writer Holly Gleason, who wasn't alone when she noted how, when Tammy greeted you, there was "always some question about a small detail of your life, a record you were loving, a place she'd had dinner, or how much fun she'd had with the grandbaby by the pool. So many stars lose touch with those small things. Tammy built a life on it."

Phoebe Gloeckner quotes Wynette's 1967 hit "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad" near the end of her classic graphic novel Diary of a Teenage Girl. She met Tammy briefly out on the road at Marriott's Great America in Santa Clara, California. "She was the queen that evening. I had been waiting the whole night to meet Tammy Wynette. Finally, we knocked on the door of her bus. She opened the door and hesitated to let us in—but she did, with reserved kindness. She was all alone and seemed to be trying to recover from her performance.

"Tammy didn't really quite smile, although I couldn't say she wasn't friendly. She stood with regal posture, didn't say much, and her face was not at all expressive—she had a beautiful, very pale face, like a statue. I remember that Tammy seemed to hold herself back, like a queen—graciously, and with some humility and sense of duty, mixing with the rabble, 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 recall the details of Wynette's full-length black halter-neck dress. Tammy had that kind of effect on people. Tough guys—grizzled veterans of the music business—wept while remembering her.

"Tammy was a paradox," says country music historian Robert K. Oermann. "She was 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 stayed married to the same guy her whole life. Tammy embodied the pliant female, and yet was incredibly independent."

Tammy and Loretta were buddies. "To be that close to someone in the business and not be jealous of 'em is a great feeling," said Wynette, who was known to suffer jealousy a time or two in her life. Loretta first met Tammy when she was out on the road with then-husband Don Chapel and his daughter Donna. "She was workin' her little butt off, fixin' hair for everybody. I thought to myself, 'Y'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, admired her style. "Yeah, I'd say Tammy had a presence. Tammy looked different than all the other singers. She had her own look, could fix her hair any way. She was wearin' falls—she did that without anybody knowin'. You didn't forget Tammy. Whatever the fashion was, Tammy was it."

One night in the mid-seventies Wynette surprised Lynn by showing up out on the road uninvited. "Do you know, she checked out of the hospital and come to see me in Atlanta, Georgia? Here Tammy comes. She just showed up, she didn't call. She was in her hospital gown and she had a fur coat over her like she was in mink, y'know. I said, 'You're in the hospital!' Tammy says, 'I was.' She spent the night, got on a plane early the next morning, and flew back to her hospital. I couldn't believe it."

Then there was the awards show in Los Angeles when Tammy hid out in Loretta's dressing room. She was secretly dating Burt Reynolds at the time and didn't want to run into his other paramour. "She says, 'Now, you make sure I don't run into Dinah Shore.' I said, 'How come, Tammy?' She says, 'Well, I've been goin' with Burt.' I said, 'Oh, my God! A good friend you are to Dinah!' It was really funny. We didn't have no trouble that night, but Tammy left her hat. I've got it in the museum."

On one occasion the ladies spent some time together in Hawaii. The house had no air-conditioning, and they sprawled on couches "like two trained seals," said Wynette. "We were awful," remembered Lynn. "Tammy'd get off the couch, I'd say, 'Tammy, make me a bologna sandwich.' Then she'd say, 'Loretty, would you make me a bologna sandwich?' We were waitin' on each other like that. We spent days there just doin' nothin'. It was good." They started to write a song together, "We Ain't Done Too Bad for a Couple of Good Ol' Girls," but never finished it. "It was very hard for me and Tammy to get away from everybody else," said Loretta.

"We knew each other like a book. I could tell when she wasn't feelin' good. Her eyes. That would be a dead giveaway. I could always look at her and tell what she was goin' through. And she'd have to come out with it. But when her and I got together we didn't want to talk about the hard times. Tammy wasn't in for a lot of sadness—she wanted to hear good stuff. When we got together we lived it up. Yes, we did."

I think it's safe to say that Wynette's death was something Lynn has never really recovered from. "That was somethin' that really hit me hard. I don't know if I'll ever get as close to another girl singer. I've tried not to. Let me tell you, I really loved Tammy."

A few little details to give some flavor to this most fascinating creature: Tammy loved to shop. "Before the show the first thing Tammy wanted to do was hit the mall," said her friend and biographer Joan Dew. "She could scout out and go through a mall like a vacuum cleaner. It was unbelievable." And she loved a bargain. "She was notorious for getting a five-thousand-dollar Bob Mackie dress and then buying some Kmart shoes to go with it," noted daughter Georgette.

Along with a pair of garish clip-on earrings (Wynette never got her ears pierced)—the bigger, the better. Everybody remembers the gigantic red plastic peace sign earrings. "No matter what kind of dress I'd do," said her slightly exasperated costume designer Jef Billings, "she'd go out and find big earrings."

Wynette was a hellacious Southern cook. Her friends still grow weak at the memory of her peanut butter and banana pudding, chocolate pie, and especially her ham and dumplings. "It was the best thing you ever put in your mouth," sighed hairdresser and friend Nan Crafton. "She'd call up and say, 'Makin' ham 'n' dumplings,' and we'd all go." But what did Wynette like to ingest best out on the road? "Junk food," said Crafton. "The worst fair food. Mexican food. She liked all that fried lard and chicken." (Wynette confessed to one interviewer, "A hot dog is still my favorite food.")

Tammy hated TV spots for feminine hygiene. "If a commercial about tampons came on, she'd get up, turn it off and start rantin' and ravin'," said her friend Kelli Haggard-Patterson. "Tammy was so pissed off, she wanted to go to Congress—'They need to have these commercials taken off!'"

Tammy loved sleeping on her bus—even when she got off the road, she'd stay on the bus a night before moving into the house. And God forbid you should shut that bus down while she was catching forty winks. "One time in Washington, D.C., we parked in an underground garage and they made us turn the bus off," said Nan. "I'll never forget it. Tammy had a blue peignoir nightgown on and she came flyin' through that cabin like she was floatin'—'WHO TURNED THE BUS OFF?! I don't care what they say!' Number one rule, you never turned the bus off."

Wynette required white noise in the form of a blaring TV when she slept. "She had to have it on full bore," recalled hairdresser Barbara Hutchison, who'd try to turn it down a hair and get some sleep of her own. "She'd have sleepin' pills underneath her and everything else and still wake up—'What's the TV doin' off? I can't hear it! Turn it back up a little bit.'" Wynette kept up her beautician's license twenty years after hitting the big time just in case "the music thing doesn't work out."

Wynette could be self-centered. More than one friend pointed to the section in her autobiography dealing with her aunt Carolyn's disfiguring car crash. Wynette adored Carolyn, who was like a big sister to her. On the way to the hospital with her mother, stepfather, and grandparents, little Tammy caught sight of a purple dress in a store window. Wynette desperately wanted the dress. Her grandfather, whom she called "Daddy," told her they couldn't stop, they had to get to the hospital. Tammy voiced her love for the outfit once more, and Daddy had them turn the car around so he could get it for her, hospital or no hospital. Wynette would have a similar effect on many of the men that entered her life.

Tammy was always taking in stray dogs—or stray people. On holidays, she'd go to the local shelter and invite some of the less fortunate back to her house and feed them. "Wynette was always for the underdog," said her childhood pal Linda Cayson. "You didn't pick on a little kid or mistreat a dog when she was around."

Wynette's favorite perfume was Private Collection by Estée Lauder. Martha Dettwiller once went to visit Wynette in a Vegas hotel and, suddenly realizing she didn't have her room number, went around sniffing the suites. Sure enough, she detected the scent of Wynette. "Private Collection," Dettwiller recalled, was floating around the air "like a haze." Once Tammy saw you, added Martha, "She had a way of sayin' your name so that you knew you were special. You knew that your name was safe in her mouth. That's a gift that very few people have."

Although Wynette didn't advertise it, she was a spiritual person. "When it come to God, Tammy knew who he was," said Loretta Lynn. Wynette, who never failed to include gospel numbers in her show, said, "When I die I'm going to either one of two places, and I'm going to do my best to get to the good one. I don't expect any jewels in my crown, but I do hope I'll have a crown."

There have been two books written about Tammy Wynette, 1979's Stand by Your Man, an autobiography as told by Tammy to Joan Dew, and the posthumous Tammy Wynette: A Daughter Recalls Her Mother's Tragic Life and Death (2000), by her daughter Jackie Daly and Tom Carter. The latter is basically a grim indictment of Wynette's last husband, George Richey; the former ends with Tammy's marriage to Richey in 1978.

A classic country autobiography, down to the sultry, sad Norman Seeff cover photo, Stand by Your Man cemented Wynette's version of the first half of her life. Not that she'd ever know it. "To tell you the honest-to-God truth, I don't think Tammy ever read the book," admitted Dew, who teamed up with Wynette's hairdresser 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 funny. Tammy didn't care."

The press loved Wynette, and they believed her—so much so that her version of the events of her life pretty much went unchallenged, at least until 1978, the year of her alleged kidnapping. Rosemary Bowen-Jones, producer of an excellent 1986 BBC documentary on Wynette, Stand by Your Dream, recognized the inescapable shortcomings encountered when such a project is created in collusion with its subject. "When you're someone like that, you've kind of rehearsed your life," said Bowen-Jones of Tammy. "It's a story that's been told. She's written the songs, she'd done so many interviews." It left Rosemary wondering, "Is it true, is it made up, how much is real?"

Another quandary was Wynette's propensity for telling tall tales. "She would exaggerate a story," said Charlene Montgomery, who was around Tammy frequently during the Jones years. "It would start out small. We'd leave Nashville, I'd hear Tammy tell a story about somethin' that happened. Well, we'd run into somebody like Jan Howard, I'd hear Tammy tell the story again and she'd add about four lines. Then we'd run into another group of people, she'd add another three or four lines. It would just get bigger 'n' bigger 'n' bigger. By the time we got through with the tour, the story was just completely out of control. Huge!"

Wynette got so inspired listening to your life, she'd swipe a detail or two for her own. One day on the road Montgomery told her about the last whipping she got from her father. "Whipped me with a belt buckle," Charlene told Tammy, who was shocked. As was Charlene when the tale wound up as an autobiographical anecdote in Wynette's book, where she says her mother hit her with the buckle end of a belt "hard enough to draw blood." There were times when Wynette felt she had to improve on reality. As Patsy Sledd, backup singer during the original George and Tammy tours, recalled, "I'd tell Tammy a story, she'd go, 'George, you got to hear this!' She didn't ever tell it straight. She'd never tell the truth! She'd turn it around to make it the way she wanted it to come out." Second husband Don Chapel recalled Tammy utilizing details gleaned from the tabloid tales of others to forge her own mythology. After Wynette read how Zsa Zsa Gabor was stripped of her diamonds in an elevator burglary, she exclaimed to Don, "What a good way to get publicity!" Later Chapel read an identical story, only this time the victim was Tammy.

Another challenge to documenting Wynette: as open and honest as she appeared to be in her music, as a person Tammy was "very guarded," said backup singer Karyn Sloas. "She would relax, tell you too much, then the next day totally shut down—'I've let you in, you saw too much, this never happened.'"

"I write about things I can't talk about," said Tammy, and there were plenty of subjects that fit that description. She was not one to confide 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 the bedroom. It was addressed to Leshay. In it Tammy thanks Cathye for taking care of her children. "This is somethin' I'll have the rest of my life. A little piece of notepaper. And she didn't sign it or nothin'," said Leshay, choking up. "Tammy didn't give it to me. She just made sure that I found it. This would not have been anything that she would've ever come and said to me." Echoing something I'd heard from many others, Leshay concluded, "Tammy didn't get real personal with people. I don't know what the deal was."

This is a book about the singers that live the songs, and therein lies a certain darkness.

"Sad songs are what move people," Lorrie Morgan told me. "We want to know other people are in pain, because that's what we relate to. Unfortunately we're all in pain.

"Years ago I sang a song about a divorce—I was nineteen years old, not even married yet. I looked at the producer and I said, 'I'm sorry, but I don't feel it, I haven't lived it. I can't sing this song, I can't relate to it.' 'You don't have to relate to it to sing it.' I said bullshit, you have to relate to somethin'. You have to. You have to be brokenhearted.

"Y'know what my brother told me a long time ago? I was goin' through a really bad time. I mean, it was like I was chasin' disaster, chasin' it. He said, 'Lorrie, just because you sing country songs doesn't mean you have to live 'em.' And I thought, 'You're wrong. You have to live what you sing. You have to live it.'"

"My life's not a fairy tale," insisted Wynette. "I'm not Snow White." Once you immerse yourself in Tammy's world, it's a hard notion to shake. Her later years in particular were agonizing to document. I kept returning to the records. The more I unearthed, the more haunting her music became.

Writer Alanna Nash, who interviewed Wynette, felt the intense intimacy of Tammy's voice, "how it just gets into your bloodstream and takes over. This is a woman who lived with a tremendous amount of pain, physically and emotionally. The fact she was able to channel it really speaks to her artistry."

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." "That's the Way It Could Have Been." "You and Me." "Stand by Your Man." Listen to the songs on her fifty-plus albums one after the other and it becomes strangely oppressive, this singular pursuit of l-o-v-e. Tammy never relents.

She wanted life to whisk her off her high-heeled feet, to be as passionate as the feverish cover of some romance novel. Instead Tammy Wynette wound up dying in public an inch at a time, her emaciated, addicted, tormented face plastered across the cover of every grocery store tabloid. "Unfortunately the drama of her life overshadows her position as a performer," said Alanna Nash. "Her death is so painful to me I can hardly stand to think about it. It's almost like speaking about some kind of horrible murder. It couldn't get any more tabloid, really."

So who was Tammy Wynette? Did the sadness in the songs determine the sadness in her life, or vice versa? Was she simply a being cursed with a taste for self-destruction to rival that of any rock star? Was Tammy betrayed by those who claimed to love her? Did she jump, or was she pushed? I'm not certain there's a clear-cut answer to any of it.

One thing I do know. She was a great artist, and it is time to document her life with the intensity and honesty Tammy deserves. I want you to feel this woman's presence as deeply as I feel her songs. I want you to stand by Tammy Wynette.

Excerpted from Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen by Jimmy McDonough. Copyright 2010 by Jimmy McDonough. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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