I'm not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette."
Hillary Clinton quickly regretted those words. Rather than asserting her independence as a would-be first lady on 60 Minutes during the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, she managed instead to insult country music, its fans and its own first lady, Stand By Your Man singer and co-writer Tammy Wynette. Votes were at stake. Clinton offered a hasty apology. Wynette refused it. Wynette ex-boyfriend, movie star Burt Reynolds, intervened. Peace was declared. Wynette sang at a Clinton fundraiser at Barbra Streisand's home in California. "You're my idol," gushed Wynette on meeting the host. "You're my idol," said Streisand, meaning it. Hillary was distinctly frosty.
Such are the tales within Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, a welcome new biography from U.S. journalist Jimmy McDonough, chronicler of the lives of titillation movie master Russ Meyer and rock legend Neil Young. McDonough, a fine writer, faithfully follows the path of the pitch-perfect singer with the sob in her voice from her childhood in Itawamba County, Miss., through her rapid ascent to stardom in the late 1960s to her sad, drug-addicted decline. Wynette died in April, 1998, at the age of 55.
McDonough spent four years on this biography, adding a host of first-person interviews to make this the definitive account of the life of the country star. Wynette often embellished her own life story, and McDonough identifies a number of untruths in the singer's autobiography, Stand By Your Man, written with Joan Dew. Jackie Daly, one of Wynette's daughters, built on that autobiography for the only other major work on the singer, Tammy Wynette: A Daughter Recalls Her Mother's Tragic Life and Death.
The recollections from classmates, friends and country stars present a picture of a complex, troubled but much-admired star. She was, said an interviewer, "tragic, beautiful … glamorous." The author himself, who writes short letters to Wynette in the first person, is an utter fan, transfixed by her clear, powerful voice and the emotion of her famous hurtin' songs. She was, McDonough maintains, one of the greatest vocalists in the history of recorded music, as distinctive in her world as Billie Holliday was in hers.
Born Virginia Wynette Pugh in May, 1942, she was a farm girl with natural musical talent, a doted-on only child who lived with her grandparents, fought with her mother and longed for her lost father, Hollis, who died when she was nine months old. Early on, she started falling for men. Wynette had five marriages, numerous affairs and, in legendary singer George Jones, one very troubled soulmate. "I'll just keep on fallin' in love," she sang, "until I get it right."
Stand by your man? At 17, she married husband No. 1, ex-serviceman Euple Byrd, to defy her mother. Seven years later, Wynette drove away from the loveless marriage with their three young daughters, determined to make it as a country music star. "Dream on, baby," Byrd said.
In Nashville, seen-it-all studio veterans tell McDonough they had chills the first time the petite single mother, on a studio tryout, began to sing. Over the next decade, from that first session in 1966, Wynette sold millions of records, won awards by the bushel and scored 20 No. 1 country hits. Stand By Your Man became country music's all-time biggest seller. There were plenty of songs about lonely nights and love gone wrong. Something in her voice told fans she knew all about heartbreak.
Her greatest love was husband No. 3, the hard-drinking Jones, still called the greatest male singer in country. Together, Jones and Wynette, masters of tone and phrasing, set the standard for country duets. Their love was real, their marriage a disaster. After seven years, a daughter named Georgette and a huge hit called We're Holdin' On, they called it quits. "He nipped and I nagged," she told an interviewer.
In reality, it was a heart-rending breakup. "I'll need time/ to get you off my mind," Wynette sang. She also broke her long-term ties with the brilliant, eccentric Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, who co-wrote Stand By Your Man and produced such songs as Apartment #9 and D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Wynette never had another No. 1 hit.
Jones went off the deep end, moving from booze to cocaine, ending up in a straitjacket. Wynette, an insomniac whose intestinal troubles meant several major surgeries, became heavily addicted to painkillers. In the 1980s, country moved on. By the 1990s, her sad last years, she was drug-needy, emaciated, in ill health, without a record contract and apparently in thrall to husband-manager George Richey, whom McDonough believes enabled her addiction and cut her off from her daughters and friends.
Though the detail on Wynette's recording sessions and touring might tax the patience of non-country fans, by any measure hers was a fascinating life. McDonough also calls out clearly for respect for a near-forgotten yet classic musical era. When Nashville was young, producers went for "feel," not perfection, and all-star session musicians backed unique vocalists like Wynette and Jones, down-to-earth stars who sang their hearts out in those hurtin' songs. Then, McDonough says, came "the ascendancy of Music City, U.S.A., into a second-rate factory for third-rate soft rock." No "new country" for him.
"What happened to our music?" Wynette would ask her friends in her last years. "You could ride down the road, hear a country song play, and you'd have to stop your car, it'd touch you so much." Stand By Your Man is that kind of song. It's with weary resignation that Wynette sings, "after all, he's just a man," then, in the soaring chorus, declares a determination to make the best of it that is just this side of convincing.
It's more complicated than Hillary Clinton thought. So is the Country Queen with the sob in her voice whom Jimmy McDonough's biography treats with such care.
Peter Feniak, a Toronto-based writer, broadcaster and consultant, has written about Hank Williams and other music stars for The Globe and Mail.