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Remembering Tammy Wynette

by David Vest

You don’t think of Tammy Wynette as a battered woman. You think of her as a star, the object of adulation and perhaps desire. She was the object, too, of envy, even of scorn.

Hillary Clinton let it be known that she wasn’t going to stay home and bake cookies like some little woman who’d “stand by her man like Tammy Wynette.” Yet, after taking such a public hit, Tammy Wynette went out and raised money for Hillary’s man, Bill, which spoke volumes about her character. Hillary apologized, which says something about her, too. Good thing, because if Hillary isn’t acting out the role of a Tammy Wynette today, what would you call what she’s doing?

There is so much attention to what Tammy Wynette symbolized that we tend to forget her magnificent voice. Yes, she sometimes had pitch problems and sang off-key, and time was not kind to her vocal range. But in the beginning, she was unforgettable. The minute you heard her, she had you by the heart. There was no way to defend yourself against that depth of emotional power unless you resorted to sarcasm, as some did. Any voice so instantly recognizable is easily parodied. And there would come days when she seemed a parody of herself, days when she, too, tried to sound like Tammy Wynette and fell short.

I remember the way her music was used in Five Easy Pieces, a movie in which a battered, abused and abandoned woman wanted desperately to be like Tammy Wynette. The woman in the movie could not have known how close she was to her goal.

I know, because Tammy Wynette was my friend.

Virginia Wynette Pugh was a great singer long before the corporate creation known as “Tammy” was invented on Music Row. Wynette, as she called herself, appeared one day in the early 1960s at WBRC studios in Birmingham, wearing a black dress and no make up, standing in the doorway like an apparition. From where I sat at the piano, she looked like Kim Novak or Jean Seberg.

She told Country Boy Eddie she wanted to sing with the band. We played and sang all over Alabama. Sometimes Wynette and I worked as a duo. The bone-chilling sound of her voice would have knocked me to my knees if I hadn’t already been sitting down. A truer country heart I’ve never known.

One night, in a Homewood piano bar, she perched on a stool and led the drunks in singing, “We all live in a yellow submarine.” She was openly terrified. “I can’t stand them being so close to me,” she said.

We were doing a gig the day Jim Reeves died in a place crash. Later that same week she found the courage to go with me to a small studio in Birmingham and cut the demo tracks she would use to try to launch her career in Nashville. I still have the tapes. They’ve never been released, but I dig them out sometimes and listen again to that astonishing voic e. She sang her own songs in those days, along with a couple of tunes I had written for her. One of her numbers was called “Matrimony.” The refrain goes, “If you’re headed for that place called matrimony, then I hope you have much better luck than me.” When she got to Nashville, they said her songs weren’t strong enough. Could it be they were too strong? She made marriage sound like Devil’s Island or Botany Bay. I didn’t learn why until later.

One night, long before the fame and the money and the painkiller pills, Wynette and I were driving home from a gig. We had probably made forty bucks between us, and we stopped to unwind at a drive-in cafe out on the Bessemer Superhighway, the sort of place where you order through a speakerphone and a teenager brings it out to your car. We sat in the front seat and drank vanilla milkshakes and talked. I was half in love with her, but I had no idea how close I was about to get.

“Can I talk to you?” she began. She talked about stage fright and how hard it was to get up in front of strangers. I asked her if she knew what the fear was about. “It’s always there,” she told me, “and it always hurts.” She went on to say that the fear went back a long way, that every waking moment was spent fighting it back. That she had thoughts of asking doctors to try to remove it surgically. She looked at me to see if I thought she was crazy. Then she talked about the men who were chasing her and how they made it worse. “I can talk to you because you’re not like them,” she said. I wished I had someplace to hide when she said that. She told me she could not remember a night when she didn’t lie down afraid to go to sleep, afraid of what might happen, what she might dream, what she might remember. Afraid to let go and rest because the pain and the fear might overwhelm her.

“How do you do it?” I asked her. “How do you go on, feeling that way? How do you stand up in front of people and sing when you’re so scared?”

“I don’t know, David,” she said. She was biting back tears by now, without much success. We talked until long after the milk shakes were gone.

I won’t reveal her secrets, but they wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows the later public record — the stormy marriages, the abusive alcoholics in her life, shock treatments for depression, the widely-reported kidnapping and beating in 1978 by a man who has never been held accountable because his identity to this day remains a mystery. I recall reading that someone actually accused her of staging her own beating for “publicity.”

Remembering that night at the drive-in, I can only imagine what it felt like when she realized that even fame and fortune couldn’t keep her safe, that even the great Tammy Wynette couldn’t look in the mirror without seeing a battered woman.

The last time I saw her, we were standing in a parking lot outside a night club in Birmingham. The sixties were winding down. Our work together was done. She was bound for Nashville and glory, I was headed down another trail. We didn’t talk that night. She stood looking in my eyes. Then, without warning, she kissed me. Before I could react she was walking away.

You could say she walked on into history, but she had to walk through hell to get there. I would like to think she reached the end of the fear. In later years, although we didn’t keep in touch, I knew she was still my friend because she left me out of her tell-all autobiography. I bless her for that, as I bless anyone who ever kept her safe or gave her shelter, even for an hour or a day.

After a life of converting agony into art, the woman we called Wynette — and the world called Tammy — is dead. The voice that moved the world is silent now. As people recall what she meant to them, what better way to respond to her great gift than by doing something today for battered women in our own communities? These women may not have Tammy Wynette ‘s great voice and wonderful talent, but they count, too. And we can let them know that someone will stand by them till, like her, they can make it on their own.

David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.

He can be reached at:

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DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

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