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Tammy Wynette

Cover of Tammy Wynette

Tammy Wynette

Tragic Country Queen
The first full-scale biography of the enduring first lady of country music
The twentieth century had three great female singers who plumbed the darkest corners of their hearts and transformed private grief into public dramas. In opera, there was the unsurpassed Maria Callas. In jazz, the tormented Billie Holiday. And in country music, there was Tammy Wynette.
"Stand by Your Man," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," "Take Me to Your World" are but a few highlights of Tammy's staggering musical legacy, all sung with a voice that became the touchtone for women's vulnerability, disillusionment, strength, and endurance.
In Tammy Wynette, bestselling biographer Jimmy McDonough tells the story of the small-town girl who grew up to be the woman behind the microphone, whose meteoric rise led to a decades-long career full of tragedy and triumph. Through a high-profile marriage and divorce, her dreadful battle with addiction and illness, and the struggle to compete in a rapidly evolving Nashville, Tammy turned a brave smile toward the world and churned out masterful hit songs though her life resembled the most heartbreaking among them.
Tammy Wynette is an intimate portrait of a music icon, the Queen of Heartbreak, whose powerful voice simultaneously evoked universal pain and longing even as it belied her own.
The first full-scale biography of the enduring first lady of country music
The twentieth century had three great female singers who plumbed the darkest corners of their hearts and transformed private grief into public dramas. In opera, there was the unsurpassed Maria Callas. In jazz, the tormented Billie Holiday. And in country music, there was Tammy Wynette.
"Stand by Your Man," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," "Take Me to Your World" are but a few highlights of Tammy's staggering musical legacy, all sung with a voice that became the touchtone for women's vulnerability, disillusionment, strength, and endurance.
In Tammy Wynette, bestselling biographer Jimmy McDonough tells the story of the small-town girl who grew up to be the woman behind the microphone, whose meteoric rise led to a decades-long career full of tragedy and triumph. Through a high-profile marriage and divorce, her dreadful battle with addiction and illness, and the struggle to compete in a rapidly evolving Nashville, Tammy turned a brave smile toward the world and churned out masterful hit songs though her life resembled the most heartbreaking among them.
Tammy Wynette is an intimate portrait of a music icon, the Queen of Heartbreak, whose powerful voice simultaneously evoked universal pain and longing even as it belied her own.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book 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...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 14, 2009
    There’s no mistaking McDonough’s take on Tammy Wynette’s artistry: of her first single, “Apartment No. 9,” he writes, “I don’t know if there has ever been a more perfect debut.” But his adulation is not uncritical—he concedes that the first country musician to go platinum also released plenty of clunkers; more importantly, he gives voice to both Wynette’s closest friends and the families of those like her first husband, Euple Byrd, who were cast aside in the formation of her legend. McDonough (Shakey
    ) brings a passionate flair to his language, describing Wynette and her third husband (and frequent collaborator) George Jones as a pair of “walking haunted houses,” but occasionally slips into sentimental excess, particularly in imaginary letters to his subject. “Did anyone ever just let you be Wynette?” ends a typical missive. Long detours covering the lives of Jones and Nashville producer Billy Sherrill provide valuable context, but the emphasis is squarely on Wynette and her personal tragedies, including a long slide into drug addiction and a mysterious death some still suspect may have been foul play. Combining pop musicology and tabloid gossip, McDonough has crafted a fitting tribute to a country music icon. Black-and-white photo insert not seen by PW
    .

  • Kirkus

    December 1, 2009
    The gory details of the country vocalist's life.

    McDonough (Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film, 2005, etc.), who wrote the bestselling Neil Young biography Shakey (2002), takes on the big-voiced, troubled thrush who logged 20 No. 1 country hits between 1967 and 1976. Born Virginia Wynette Pugh (1942–1998) and raised humbly in rural Red Bay, Ala., she was a headstrong, willful girl who broke out of the honky-tonks and regional radio to notch her first big singles, including the controversial, politically divisive anthem"Stand By Your Man," under the tutelage of Nashville producer Billy Sherrill. (Music City's studio milieu and Sherrill's key role in it are chronicled in a richly detailed early chapter.) Wynette lived through five harrowing marriages, tormented relationships with four children, a multitude of health problems, two debilitating decades of addiction to painkillers and a bizarre, unsolved (and possibly trumped-up) kidnapping. McDonough is clearly smitten with his talented subject—he rhapsodizes over her recordings and pens several cringe-inducing"Dear Tammy" letters—but Wynette remains something of a cipher; one never senses that much existed below the surface besides an abiding neediness. Two of her husbands emerge as the book's most compelling figures. George Jones, the alcoholic, unpredictable singer who was Wynette's musical role model and third spouse, is depicted as a deeply flawed yet loving professional and romantic partner. Producer-songwriter George Richey, her fifth husband and Wynette's manager for 20 years, is painted as a greedy, controlling hillbilly Machiavelli who hastened Wynette's premature demise in 1998 through a combination of overwork and (illegal) overmedication. McDonough interviewed all but a few of the principals in the story—including the normally reticent Jones—and he gets some wonderful material from peers like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. However, readers may remain uncertain about what animated Wynette's powerfully performed music.

    Wynette's tortured history is forcefully told, but her essence remains a mystery.

    (COPYRIGHT (2009) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Library Journal

    January 15, 2010
    McDonough, author of the best-selling "Shakey: Neil Young's Biography", writes as a fan of Tammy Wynette (194298) but also details the highs and lows of her tragic life. Although primarily a biography, the book includes discussions of Wynette's recordings and live performances. McDonough interviewed figures associated with Wynette, including her third husband, George Jones, and consulted numerous interviews, articles, and other books about Wynette. He presents the many conflicting views he found, which might leave the reader wondering about the real story; however, Wynette's life was one of contradictions. McDonough places her among jazz singer Billie Holiday and opera diva Maria Callas as 20th-century female singers who put their private grief into their musical performances, and he draws stark contrasts between Wynette and her contemporaries Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. VERDICT Some readers might wish for more information on the music, as McDonough focuses on the extreme pain and heartache in Wynette's life. Still, this engaging and potentially controversial study of one of the most significant singers in the history of country music is essential for fans of Wynette and the genre.James E. Perone, Mount Union Coll., Alliance, OH

    Copyright 2010 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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