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Tammy Wynette: The 'Tragic Country Queen'

A new biography sees past Tammy Wynette's glittery costumes to examine the singer's deepest struggles. (Getty Images)

When Tammy Wynette died in 1998, she was known as the First Lady of Country Music. She was born in 1942, as Virginia Wynette Pugh, in a rural county of Mississippi. By the time she was in her mid-20s, the hairdresser-turned-glittering-country-superstar was on her way to being the first artist in the genre to go platinum. Wynette had more than 20 No. 1 hits, though she's still most widely remembered for signature songs of the late 1960s and early '70s, such as "I Don't Wanna Play House" and "Stand By Your Man."

Drama is what Wynette's music best expressed. And, judging by a new biography by Jimmy McDonough, there was no shortage of it in her own life. The book is called Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen.

"I have a theory that great artists learn how to do one thing great. And that's Tammy," McDonough says. "In terms of a slow, sad song, nobody could rip it up like Tammy. She is just unrelenting."

'A Pretty Little Love Song'

Her biggest hit, "Stand By Your Man," has had an incredible lifespan. Following its release, the song was widely criticized within the feminist movement; in the mid-'90s, it became the subject of discussion again when soon to becoming first lady Hillary Clinton referenced it in a news interview. McDonough says Wynette remained proud of the song.

"When asked about it, she'd say, 'I just thought it was a pretty little love song,' " McDonough says.

Tammy Wynette had five marriages, and she often played the part of the tragic heroine. On that topic, McDonough says that Wynette was in love with love. One of her most intense marriages was to fellow country star George Jones.

"There's an intimacy that comes when those two sing together," McDonough says. "You don't see it, really, with, say, Loretta [Lynn] and Conway [Twitty] or Porter [Wagoner] and Dolly [Parton]. They were in love and they were singing to each other, and you felt it."

Later in her life, Wynette suffered from health problems that contributed to ongoing struggles with addiction.

"There was no levity in the last few decades of Tammy's life," McDonough says.

She was plagued with pain in her stomach and underwent, according to Wynette, more than 30 operations. With the aid of painkillers, she was able to continue playing shows, but not without pain, according to those closest to her.

"Life did her in in the end," McDonough says. "She couldn't make it on her own."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

When she died more than a decade ago, Tammy Wynette was known as the first lady of country music. She was born in 1942, as Virginia Wynette Pugh, in a rural county of Mississippi. By the time she was in her mid-20s, the hairdresser-turned-glittering-country-superstar was on her way to being the first artist in the genre to go platinum. Wynette had more than 20 number one hits, though she is still best remembered for signature songs of the late '60s and early '70s, such as "I Don't Wanna Play House" and "Stand By Your Man."

(Soundbite of song, "Stand By Your Man")

Ms. TAMMY WYNETTE (Singer): (Singing) Stand by your man. Give him two arms to cling to, and something warm to come to when nights are cold and lonely. Stand by your man.

CORNISH: Drama is what Wynette's music best expressed and, judging by a new biography, there was no shortage of it in her own life. Author Jimmy McDonough has written "Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen," and he joins us now from WKNO in Memphis.

Jimmy McDonough, welcome to the program.

Mr. JIMMY MCDONOUGH (Author, "Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen"): Oh, I am so glad to be here. Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, we just heard a little snippet of "Stand By Your Man," but tell us, how did Wynette's stage and vocal style stand out from some of the other country music icons that we know from the period - people that she was even friends with like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Well, I'll tell you. I have a theory - a lot of people have this theory - great artists, they learn how to do one thing great and that's it. And that is Tammy. She, in terms of a sad song, a slow, sad song, nobody but nobody could rip it up like Tammy. I mean you have to be there and into it and be willing to go right off the cliff with her, because she just is unrelenting.

CORNISH: Well, something else she did well, though, I have to say: the hair, the costumes, the huge eyelashes and, of course, the rhinestones. So, that really great imagery from that...

Mr. MCDONOUGH: All of it. Yes. Yes.

CORNISH: ...that, actually, we all take for granted now maybe or even sometimes parody when we talk about the history of that music.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Tammy did it all and she did it to the nines. And not only did she do it to the nines, but as daughter Georgette said, you know, she could buy a Bob Mackie gown that was worth, you know, a bazillion dollars and then go out and find some shoes at Kmart for 5.99 to match them. I mean that...

CORNISH: So the original high/low shopper it sounds like.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Exact. Exact. And she loved - she never got her ears pierced so they were always clip-on earrings. The bigger the better. She had these big, garish red peace sign earrings that everyone remembers. I mean, you know, its all part of the deal with Tammy and you got to love it. I mean, a lot of style.

CORNISH: All right, well, we got to take on the big song, which we played at the start, "Stand By Your Man," was one of her biggest hits. And at the time it was criticized by members of the Women's Liberation Movement, and then in the mid '90s, it became the subject of discussion again when Hillary Clinton referenced it during a news interview, when she was saying that shes not like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. And it's just so interesting the life span of this song. How did Wynette come to view that song?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Well, you know, I mean, Tammy was very proud of the song. When asked about it she'd just say, you know, very demurely, you know, I just thought it was a pretty little love song, you know. And...

CORNISH: But in the book it doesnt sound like she shied away from taking on the politics of it, in a way, did she?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Oh, no, no, no, no. She grew up in a time where - and a place where, you know, the men folk came first and that was it. You stood by your man. Literally, yes, she believed in the song. But if you study the song, it ain't all that clear. There's this line in that song: After all, he's just a man.

(Soundbite of song, "Stand By Your Man")

Ms. WYNETTE: (Singing) And if you love him, oh, be proud of him, 'cause after all he's just a man...

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Now dig that. What exactly does that mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Boil the fat down off it. You still can't really tell me what that means. Some people take it as a critique. Like, after all, he's just a big dummy. Unfortunately, though, I think the most obvious literal translation of that record, you know, sort of imprisoned her.

CORNISH: We're talking with author Jimmy McDonough about his new biography "Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen." Now, Tammy Wynette had five marriages...

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Sure did.

CORNISH: ...and she seemed to court the image of the tragic heroine, or like the patron saint of bad marriages. Was that not just part of the image or part of who she was?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Well, yeah. You know, Tammy was a romantic. I mean, you know, Don Chapel, her second husband, talks about how they had a blood oath, you know, where they pricked their fingers and comingled their blood, and I'm certain Tammy meant it with all of her heart. Tammy was in love with love. If you...

CORNISH: Well, I actually want to talk about George Jones...

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Yeah. Yes, certainly.

CORNISH: ...one of, you know, one of the great country music stars and when they got together it was like homecoming king and queen for country music. I want to play a duet that they did called "It Sure Was Good."

(Soundbite of song, "It Sure Was Good")

Ms. WYNETTE and Mr. GEORGE JONES: (Singing) We don't know what it was but we had it. We don't where it went but we lost it.

Ms. WYNETTE: (Singing) It may never come back again. I sure wish it would.

Ms. WYNETTE and Mr. JONES: (Singing) We don't know what it was but it sure was good.

CORNISH: You'll notice, if you see them sing together, they sing really close together. There's an intimacy that comes when those two sing together. You don't see it, really, with, say, Loretta and Conway or Porter and Dolly. They were in love and they were singing to each other, and you felt it.

(Soundbite of song, "It Sure Was Good")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Well, it may never come back again but dont you wish it would?

Ms. WYNETTE and Mr. JONES: (Singing) We don't know what it was but it sure was good. No, we don't know what it was but it sure was good.

CORNISH: Did you find you had days when you didnt like her very much? I mean, the alleged kidnap attempt, the drug use, the five marriages, how she treated her rivals.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: No, I can't say that. I got to tell you, towards the end, there was no levity in the last few decades of Tammy's life. But, yeah...

CORNISH: Well, let's get it into it a little more then.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Oh, sure. Certainly, yeah.

CORNISH: Because you talk a lot in the book about her health problems.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Yeah.

CORNISH: And how those health problems fed into a cycle of drug abuse.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Yeah, Tammy had terrible problems with her stomach and her digestive tract. And had, you know, according to her count, 30-some operations. So what happened? She was fed painkillers to get her through these shows. I mean, some of the people who worked for her told me how she'd pull a mic cord in just the right way to alleviate some of the intense pain on her stomach.

And I mean, I have watched a lot of footage of this dame, okay. I could never tell when she was feeling bad. And if you listen to the people who are close to her, she was feeling bad a lot of the time.

(Soundbite of song, "Till I Can Make It On My Own")

Ms. WYNETTE: (Singing) I'll get by. But no matter how I try, there will be times you know I'll call. Chances are my tears will fall. And I'll have no pride at all from time to time.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Tammy was her own woman. She was very independent. But for whatever reason, life kind of, you know, did her in, in the end and she couldnt make it on her own.

(Soundbite of song, "Till I Can Make It On My Own")

Ms. WYNETTE: (Singing) But till then Ill lean on you, that's all I mean to do, till I can make it on my own.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Even the happy songs of Tammy's, they ain't that happy, you know. And why that is - is there a sled on it that says rosebud? I got to tell you, I looked. I looked under the false eyelashes. I checked the heels on the high-heeled shoes. I looked under the polka dots. And there's something very elusive about her and I think that's what's so alluring about her as an artist. She is a bit of a mystery.

CORNISH: Jimmy McDonough is a magazine writer and biographer. His latest book is "Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen."

Jimmy McDonough, thank you for talking with us.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Always a pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Till I Can Make It On My Own")

Ms. WYNETTE: (Singing) Then I'll know I'm over you and all my crying's done. No more hurting memories can find me.

CORNISH: You can read an excerpt from Jimmy McDonough's biography of Tammy Wynette and hear the singer's music at NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Audie Cornish.

(Soundbite of song, "Till I Can Make It On My Own")

Ms. WYNETTE: (Singing) ...till I get used to losing you, let me keep on using you. till I can make it on my own. till I can make it on my own. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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