Tragic Song of Life
A new biography traces the career of a country music queen.
By Jimmy McDonough
Viking, 432 pages, $27.95Few things are more entertaining than Nashville’s colorful cavalcade of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s country music icons, especially if any of those icons happened to have discovered drugs. Among the most hedonistic, in that context, were Tammy Wynette and George Jones, whose lifestyles are laid open by author Jimmy McDonough in Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen. Even those who loathe country music will be fascinated by this jaw-dropping tale.
Wynette’s dramatic, haunted existence (which lent itself to tabloid sensationalism) has always been realized in her music, thanks to producer Billy Sherrill, who frequently chose songs for Wynette that mirrored what the singer was experiencing in her life at the time, just as he did when producing records by her husband George Jones.
Thoroughly researched, the book reads as if written by an obsessed fan, yet McDonough (author of the Neil Young biography Shakey and Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film) pulls no punches. He portrays Wynette as being perpetually out of control, on a downhill slide plagued by illnesses (real and imagined) that resulted in more than 30 surgeries during her 55 years. Her drug abuse is shocking. Fans are aware of Tammy’s battle with pills, but most may be stunned to learn of used hypodermic needles discovered beneath her mattress on her tour bus. She regularly injected herself with Dilaudid, Valium, or Demerol (or any combination thereof).
In the Beginning
Born in Tremont, Mississippi, Virginia Wynette Pugh married her first husband, Euple Byrd, shortly before graduating high school. When that marriage dissolved, she fled to Birmingham, where she worked as a beautician at the Midfield Beauty Salon. (Wynette kept her beautician’s license updated for 20 years after achieving success with “Stand By Your Man,” just in case her singing career faltered.) She supplemented her income by singing on “The Country Boy Eddie Show” in 1965. (McDonough devotes an entire chapter to “Country Boy” Eddie Burns, the retired Birmingham TV personality whose country music show aired from 5 to 7 a.m. for 37 years, mostly on WBRC Channel 6.) By year’s end, Wynette ventured to Nashville to record her first hit, “Apartment #9,” with producer Sherrill, who signed her to Epic Records and suggested that she change her name to Tammy Wynette.
Tragic Country Queen includes numerous anecdotes from Wynette’s fellow performers. Dolly Parton’s charms are recounted when the author describes Wynette at the 1968 Country Music Association Awards: “Skinny as a matchstick, wearing a fancy, futuristic housecoat dress, Tammy looks as though her ratted-out beehive and big lapels might consume her at any second. ‘Just a country girl’s idea of glamour,’ explains Parton. ‘Tammy didn’t have any more fashion sense than I did, really. I always say me and Tammy got our clothes from Fifth and Park—that is, the fifth trailer in the park.’”
Her life with third husband and singing partner George Jones was bizarre and unpredictable. In February of 1969, the couple was booked as a duo for the first time at the Playroom in Atlanta. A highly intoxicated Jones bolted mid-show on opening night. He hopped a ride to Las Vegas in a Lear jet with the club’s owner, forcing Wynette to finish the show alone. A few days later, Jones returned to tell Tammy he would never marry her. However, in classic Jones’ style he changed his mind and married her the next day.
Life is Hell
Wynette’s fourth marriage lasted only 44 days. After the divorce, painkillers played a larger role in the singer’s life due to her many physical ailments. Band members were instructed by her doctor on how to give Tammy her shots. Doctors in Nashville eventually caught on to her addictions and refused to prescribe any more narcotics, forcing her to search nationwide for doctors willing to write her prescriptions. In an attempt to score drugs, trips to emergency rooms after shows became routine.
McDonough writes of these indulgences as though Wynette had picked up a few tips from Keith Richards; she often had her supply of painkillers flown to her Nashville hometown. When she had taken too much, a concert performance became a struggle. If she couldn’t hit a particular note, she’d give her backup singers hand signals so that they could cover for her. A fist behind the back indicated she couldn’t sing the high F during the climactic final chorus in “Stand By Your Man,” while an open palm meant “Get this song over with as quick as possible.” During her final years, she sometimes nodded off between tunes. Her longtime drummer, Charley Abdern, bluntly observed: “She seemed kind of desperate to me. . . . I wish she would’ve quit. She really should’ve. It’s a sad story.”
In 1978, Wynette went missing for a few days, later claiming to have been kidnapped. Many doubted her story. She did not press for an investigation, and her daughter said the subject was taboo in the house. Two days after the alleged kidnapping, she performed in Columbia, South Carolina, her face still bruised. Tammy appeared nervous, whispering to the audience, “He could possibly be here, I just don’t know.” A mysterious, crumpled note was found backstage that read: “I’m still around, I’ll get you.”
Some ventured that it was George Jones trying to scare her, although Jones himself was skeptical that the kidnapping was real. “The whole affair was bullshit,” he surmised. “Somebody beat the hell out of Tammy, that’s for sure. But I don’t think it was a kidnapper.” Eight years after the incident, Wynette felt compelled to bring it up again, informing the press that she had received a letter from a prison inmate who told her that his cellmate had confessed to kidnapping her. Her daughter later wrote that Wynette told her the crime never occurred, and that fifth husband Richey, with whom Wynette reportedly had a rocky relationship, was the one who inflicted the bruises. Tammy’s hairdresser later confirmed that the singer shared the same story.
Hillary Clinton made headlines when she and husband Bill appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 1992. When asked about her husband’s alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, Hillary responded, “I’m not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Wynette was watching that evening and exclaimed, “How dare that bitch say that about me!” She wrote Hillary a seething letter. Clinton attempted to call but Tammy refused to talk to her until Wynette’s sometime-boyfriend Burt Reynolds persuaded her to do so. Amid the controversy, Sony Records promptly re-released “Stand By Your Man.” Barbra Streisand later invited Tammy to her Malibu home to perform at a fundraiser for Bill Clinton. According to Tammy, a shocked Hillary refused to speak to her.
Wynette continued to record and tour in the 1990s, though her last five years were spent connected to a portable IV unit, which she removed only to appear on stage. UK dance music outfit KLF had Wynette sing on their track “Justified and Ancient,” which went to number one in 18 countries and introduced Wynette to a new audience. Wynette recorded Honky Tonk Angels with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in 1993 and recorded a final duet album with George Jones. She was also the voice for Tillie Mae Hill (Hank Hill’s mother) on the animated TV series “King Of The Hill.”
Tragic Country Queen is a thoroughly entertaining read that tells a sad story loaded with enough sordid details for several albums’ worth of country songs. McDonough sums up Wynette’s tragic life: “Tammy Wynette never found what she was looking for. A white knight, a Prince Charming. . . . She wanted life to whisk her off her high-heeled feet, to be as passionate as the feverish cover of some romance novel. Instead 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.” &
Author Jimmy McDonough will sign copies of Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen on March 8, 7 p.m., at the Colonial Brookwood Village location of Books-a-Million.