By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 7, 2010; B08
Tragic Country Queen
By Jimmy McDonough
Viking. 432 pp. $27.95
T he story of Tammy Wynette isn't exactly tragic, at least not in the classic Greek sense, but it certainly is sad. Born Virginia Wynette Pugh in 1942 at her grandfather's house in rural Mississippi, she died 56 years later in Nashville. She had been one of the three reigning queens of country music for years -- the others being Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton -- and though her star had faded considerably by the spring of 1998, she was still one of the most famous.
For all that, it's the same old story: Neither fame nor money brought her happiness or love. She was married five times, in the course of which she had four daughters, but her marriages were variously disastrous, and she was basically an absentee mother. Her big, powerful, evocative voice was housed in a small, vulnerable body that fell victim to various aches, pains and ailments, which she attempted to ameliorate with drugs and other substances that did her far more harm than good. She could be generous and kind, but there was an essential loneliness about her that friendships and affairs, no matter how intense, never could wholly relieve. She died a deeply and irremediably unhappy person.
Her father died before her first birthday, of complications from a brain tumor. She had no memories of him, but according to Jimmy McDonough, "in ferreting through hours and hours of interviews with her, you notice one subject invariably chokes her up: the father she never knew. Many of Wynette's closest female friends throughout her life expressed a similar opinion when it came to the lasting effect [Hollis Pugh's] early death had: in her many relationships and marriages with older men, Wynette was searching for the father figure she never had."
This, of course, is boilerplate pop psychology, but there's probably a good deal of truth to it. Wynette seems to have been endlessly needy, probably more for love itself than for its physical manifestations. "I was raised to believe in marriage as a woman's greatest fulfillment," she said, "and I guess deep down that's what I still believe." So she got married at the age of 17 to a man five years older with the improbable (but certifiably country) name of Euple Byrd, with whom she had her first three daughters, the third of whom was born shortly before Wynette divorced Euple and steered herself toward marriage No. 2.
Between marriages one and two, important things happened. She was discovered by a television host in Birmingham named Country Boy Eddie, appeared on his show as often as he let her, then moved to Nashville with absolutely no prospects but high hopes and determination. It was there that she met Don Chapel, a marginal figure on the country-music scene but one who had "a recording contract and songwriting credits," and who not merely recognized her talent but helped her develop it. In August 1966 she found her way to Billy Sherrill, a producer at Epic Records who was on his way to becoming a Nashville legend. He thought that she needed a catchier name and came up with Tammy, from the character played by Debbie Reynolds in "Tammy and the Bachelor." He said, "You look like a Tammy to me," and that was that.
Sherrill got this waif-like woman into the recording studio, and the results were spectacular: "Apartment #9," "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," "I Don't Wanna Play House" -- right out of the gate she scored hit after hit. "Tammy Wynette had gone from nobody to somebody in a flash," McDonough writes. "In 1967 alone, four of her singles would go top ten, three of them to number one, and her debut album would make it to number 7. She was also voted Most Promising Female Artist by Country Song Roundup, Music City News, and Record World. Plus she'd win a Grammy for 'I Don't Wanna Play House.' "
In April 1967 she married Chapel, and their union lasted about a year, its end coinciding with the release of "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." One person who liked the song (and the singer) was George Jones, one of the greatest country singers of that or any other day, a decade her senior but very much on the loose after the end of his own marriage. They married in August 1968 and divorced 6 1/2 years later, closing the books on one of the most turbulent and creatively productive marriages in American musical history. He was a drunk, and she was popping pills, but they found time to have one daughter and to record a series of spectacular duets, from the classic weepers "Take Me" and "Golden Ring" to the hilarious "(We're Not) The Jet Set." But Jones and Wynette were too hard-headed and stubborn to last, and their divorce seemed preordained.
Shortly after their marriage Wynette recorded the track that will be her signature for as long as she's remembered: "Stand by Your Man." Its immortality was secured a quarter-century later when Hillary Clinton, asked about her husband's extramarital activities, said, "I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." It was an astute political move, but a serious misreading of both the song and Wynette's interpretation of it. Though it expresses a fairly traditional view of male-female relationships, it also has an undercurrent suggesting that in fact the woman is stronger than the man, and one of the ways she shows this is to stand by him when he is weak -- which, you might say, is exactly what Clinton was doing.
The next man Wynette stood by was a Florida real-estate developer named J. Michael Tomlin, whom she married in July 1976 on the rebound from an affair with Burt Reynolds. Marriage No. 4 lasted 44 days and "deeply embarrassed Tammy," but it didn't prevent her from making a fifth mistake with George Richey, "the oddest" of the men in her life, whom she married in July 1978. They stayed married to the end of her life, though it's hard to say why. After she married Richey, "Tammy was no longer in charge of her finances, her friends, or her life. Now came years of illness, drug addiction, and isolation." She continued to record, but as her health declined her voice began to lose its power and tone. Little of the work she did in her last two decades has the staying power of what she did when she was young, tenacious and in command of the emotions that she brought to almost every track.
Reading about these last years is painful enough; reading about them in McDonough's prose is excruciating. In nearly half a century of reviewing books I've slogged my way through some bad ones, but "Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen" ranks up there among the very worst. McDonough insists on injecting himself into Wynette's story -- "I liked Don," "This is one of the absolute looniest Tammy numbers, which is why I love it," "There is one Tammy/Richey story that I just can't shake" -- and he just loves to show how down-home country he can be: "One thing about Billy: he did it his way. He just didn't give a damn, and if you didn't like it, well, let the door hit ya where the dog bit ya."
Et cetera. This is a truly empty, cliche-littered, bubble-headed book. I read it on a long plane trip, and there were times when I wished the plane would crash, just to put me out of my misery.