Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen

Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen is some kind of crazy cross between biography and author memoir. I call it crazy because, in theory, it should not work - but the craziest thing about it is how well it does work once the reader clicks to the book’s obvious slant. Author Jimmy McDonough idolizes Tammy Wynette and he is none too thrilled with those who so often made her life a living hell. While he recounts Wynette’s life in detail, McDonough is quick to offer his personal opinion about those details. He never hesitates to ridicule individual songs, hair styles, clothing, or album covers, for instance. McDonough wisely does not even attempt to portray himself as the impersonal biographer. Otherwise, the four or five personal “letters” to Wynette he places throughout the book would be even stranger than they already are.

Virginia Wynette Pugh was born in Mississippi in 1942 but grew up in nearby Red Bay, Alabama. Hardcore country music fans know most of the basic facts of her life, although some of what passes for common knowledge is largely exaggerated, often by Wynette herself (such as her supposedly poverty stricken girlhood or the kidnapping that never was). Tragic Country Queen aims to set the record straight. It covers all five of Wynette’s marriages, including the most famous one to George Jones and the final and most tragic of them all, to George Richey. It explores Wynette’s volatile relationship with her daughters, the serious health issues she suffered, the resulting addiction to painkillers, her musical success and failures, and everything between.

McDonough also devotes a significant number of pages to the country music producer Billy Sherrill, the man with whose help Wynette found early success and blossomed into “The First Lady of Country Music.” The chapters on Sherrill are an informative mini-biography that will be of great interest to music fans curious about the Nashville music scene of the 1960s and 1970s. The author does the same for Wynette husband number three, George Jones, providing a short Jones biography before getting into the details of their toxic marriage – and what seems to be a permanent love affair both found it difficult to get over.

The marriage to Jones was bad enough, but the real tragedy of Tammy Wynette’s life would come later. Husband number four would last only 44 days before Wynette would pay him to go away, clearing the way for her marriage to the villain of the Tammy Wynette story, George Richey. As McDonough sees the relationship, Richey was in it for the money and fame, certainly not because of his great love for Wynette. Wynette suffered debilitating intestinal problems by this point in her career, having already had much of her stomach removed, and Richey made sure that she had the painkillers she needed to keep herself on the road – and the money flowing. That George Richey controlled all the money coming in and going out, seems certain. That he made sure that Wynette’s daughters would get nothing when she died (and that the Richey family would do quite well, thank you) seems almost as certain.

It is unlikely that anyone will ever know the exact circumstances of Tammy Wynette’s death but McDonough offers an interesting theory or two as to what might have happened in her home the night she died there. Most bizarre of all, is what happened during the several hours her body was allowed to remain on the couch upon which she died while a house full of Richey’s guests drank and smoked around it.

Tammy Wynette wanted to be a country music legend and she got her wish. Sadly, this is most certainly not what she had in mind.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. I just finished reading a biography of Hank Williams and I noticed that the author (who was in no way acquainted with Hank) had trouble keeping his authorial distance. I've also noticed that in general with country music fans...they seem to have that proprietary (sp?) air. The scene in Walk The Line in which June Carter gets chided by a fan in a store for her divorce from Carl Smith may have been invented, but it seemed real.

    I read Tammy Wynette's autobiography/memoir many years ago and was impressed...although I'm sure she had a ghostwriter. I want to read this one as well.

  2. Country music artists, old school ones, anyway, invite that kind of intimacy. That's one of the charms of the music and the people. It is especially true in the world of bluegrass even today, although this new breed of country beauties and guys with tight butts, has become as boring and predictable as anything in pop music.