Even in country songcraft, where beers are consistently diluted with tears, the late Tammy Wynette, above, had a penchant for melancholy–like a rural Mary J. Blige–that was both supreme and legendary.
As was her voice. Describing a stage performance of her hit recording, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” biographer Jimmy McDonough notes,
When she gets to the chorus, Wynette [right] 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.”
Virginia Wynette Pugh (1942-1998) did have one of the the most sonorous instruments in the history of popular music. Her classic, “Stand By Your Man,” below, may be the best known example of her gift. Yet she lived a life of drama that exceeded even her most poignant records. She was married five times, including a tempestuous relationship with country superstar George Jones, right; suffered almost continuous, acute discomfort from nearly thirty surgeries; was addicted to painkillers; and died at the age of 55, reportedly looking years older.
In his book on her life, Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, writer Jimmy McDonough, right, who has also profiled rock legend Neil Young and filmmaker Russ Meyer, plumbs the depths of her artistry, her sadness, and her demons.
Few recording artists achieve the kind of success Tammy Wynette did. In total, she had more than twenty number one hits, several of which she’d co-written. Tammy was the first country artist to go platinum, and her total sales now loom somewhere past the thirty-million mark. If there is one person who her musicians and producers compare her to, it is Elvis. … Tammy sings of cheating husbands, suffering wives, kids’ lives wrecked by divorce. The down and dirty stuff that grinds us all down on a daily basis. If you’re a woman, she could be singing your life. If you are a man, she might be compelling for darker reasons. Wynette sings of love in a rather disturbing fashion. Her music ain’t for sissies.
Jimmy McDonough is the guest today on my WBAI-NY / 99.5 FM radio show, NONFICTION, this afternoon, Friday, March 19, at 2 pm ET.
You can hear his ideas by tuning in at 2 pm. If you’re outside of the New York tri-state, check out our live stream on the web. If you miss the live show, dig into our archives for up to 90 days after broadcast.