I first encountered the legend known as Tammy Wynette on my car radio one afternoon in 1966. I had just come from my steady gig at Ireland’s Pub in Nashville, across the street from Vanderbilt University. As I started my yellow Corvair, unsafe at any speed but fun to drive if you didn’t know that, I heard the opening lines of “Apartment Number 9,” her first released recording.
I recognized the voice at once. I’d have known it anywhere. It was my old friend, Wynette Byrd, born Virginia Wynette Pugh, with whom I had worked and played and recorded in Birmingham for the past few years. She had not long ago kissed me goodbye outside the Pussycat-a-Go-Go club down under the viaduct, where we had gone to hear some blues. I turned the radio up in my Monza as loud as it could go. Damn, she sounded good! And the material was right for her.
When the song ended, I was surprised to hear the singer identified not as Wynette Byrd but as a “new” artist named Tammy Wynette. I can still remember how strange that felt.
God knows, playing piano at Ireland’s was already weird enough. Half the audience were musicians, many of them well-known artists unwinding after sessions on Music Row a few blocks away. As I discovered during my standing gig, an unknown musician performing for a famous audience is usually way too innocent for his own good.
Joan Baez was there one night. She walked out after complaining to the management that I was playing too loud when she was trying to have a conversation (thanks, Joan). On another day I looked up to see three of The Byrds staring across the piano at me as I played “Hickory Wind.” I pretended not to recognize them.
Charlie McCoy sat at the bar and told me of a Bob Dylan session he’d been called in to play bass on. It was for the album John Wesley Harding.
“I can’t figure it out. So far it’s just drums, bass and Bob’s acoustic guitar. I reckon they’ll overdub the rest of the stuff later.” he said, “unless it’s just a demo.”
A couple of the Foggy Mountain Boys told wonderful Lester Flatt stories and talked about playing for college audiences. “Man, them hippies loved Earl Scruggs,” they said.
So I was used to strange. Learning that yet another favorite cowboy singer was gay (“Why do you think he likes all them sparkly suits and everything?”) would no longer have shocked me.
But hearing this familiar voice on my radio attributed to a “Tammy” was something else. “I can’t feature that,” we’d have said in the musician’s parlance of the day.
So I sat in my car and speculated to myself about what “they” had done to her. I imagined her sitting on a sofa with her hands folded above her knees while “they” paced around an office.
“What’s your name again? Wynette? What kind of a name is that? Is that even a name, Bob? What do you think? Am I right? It’s more like a last name. You need a first name.” And then somebody who had probably seen a Debbie Reynolds movie would have suggested Tammy. “But you don’t look like a Tammy. No problem, we can fix that. We’ll have to do something with your hair.”
In truth, there has never been a reason to suggest she was less than a willing accomplice. Self-creation is the great American dream. We long to shed the ordinary like a husk. Remember when you could “drink milk for a new you”?
Perhaps to her it was an attempt at self-transformation, not a corporate make-over. It had elements of both. Shedding the last name of an ex-husband cannot have been entirely unattractive. Maybe by renaming herself, or allowing herself to be renamed, she was declaring herself her own woman, willing to carry no man’s name from this point onward.
Anyway, what choice did she have, unless she wanted to go back and work in a beauty shop the rest of her life?
For the Wynette I had known in Birmingham, country music was about telling the truth, not keeping facts straight. I had been in the car with her when she had furiously changed the radio dial to avoid hearing “crap” on country stations. Around her, conversation stopped cold when Charlie Louvin or Melba Montgomery were on the juke box. To watch her listen to great music was an intense experience.
I had played with her maybe a hundred times, and I had never seen her do anything to “sell” a song. She stood there, she went into it, and she sang it from deep inside. Sometimes a line from a song got past her inner defenses and she broke down, unable to continue. Usually, she fought it off and went on, singing in a harder tone. She did nothing out of the ordinary to call attention to herself, but if you didn’t drop whatever you were doing when she sang, if time didn’t stand still in your world as well as hers, you weren’t human. She was that powerful.
But then, I knew her when all she ever sang were the greatest songs in the country and western repertoire, songs like “She’s Got You,” “Let’s Go All the Way” and “Don’t Touch Me.” Her taste was infallible. With rare exceptions, and never by choice, she sang nothing she didn’t believe in. She knew exactly where the center of the great tradition lay. She lived in it.
If it felt strange to hear her voice associated with a new name, that was nothing compared to the strange power of “Stand By Your Man,” one of the greatest vocal performances (and still the best-selling single) in the history of country music.
Today we know it was the voice of a battered woman, a wife who stood by men who came home too drunk to stand up by themselves, a little girl whose father died and left her. It was the voice of courage and longing, not submissiveness, that we were hearing.
If the song’s lyrics seemed to be lifted from an official document of the patriarchy, she managed somehow to get a message past the words, speaking to us like a political hostage blinking out the truth in code while reading a statement written by her captors. She connected on a fundamental level as only a few have done. Thousands, even millions of women identified with her, wanted to be her, felt she spoke to and for them.
It had nothing to do with playing a supporting role or being true to anyone other than oneself. For one thing, the song ignored men altogether and spoke directly to women. Significantly, women also identified with “You and Me,” in which she sang about lying in bed with her husband, who has just made love to her, and fantasizing about being with another man.
I have read that she started singing, early on, as a way to support her children. That’s not entirely true. I’m sure she did use the money she earned to support them, because she lived (and dressed) very simply in those days. But the reason she sang was because she was a singer. She always knew what she wanted. The only doubt in her mind was about how to get there.
She also knew exactly how good she was, that her voice entitled her to a place among the best in her field, that her peers were people like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and George Jones.
I know that she was offered and refused gigs for good money, turning them down because they had nothing to do with getting her where she wanted to go. Indeed, she left steady work behind in Birmingham to stage her assault on Nashville.
When she arrived there, she was a hard-core country singer trying to break into an industry that believed hard-core country was over. A town that was attracting Dylan, Baez and The Byrds because of its roots connection was moving to the suburbs as quickly as possible. Dylan might be stripping the music to its bare essentials and trying to sing like young Eddie Arnold, but old Eddie Arnold was trying to sound like Perry Como with fifty Italian strings. Flatt and Scruggs were covering Lovin’ Spoonful songs. Willie Nelson was singing “Norwegian Wood.”
But Nashville had also discovered women and their issues. Loretta Lynn was singing about “the pill.” Women were also becoming more openly assertive about their sexuality, as in Lynn’s amazing “Somebody, Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight).”
“Apartment Number 9” and “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” were early attempts to work this vein, before Wynette and producer Billy Sherrill found the motherlode with “Stand By Your Man.”
She had an incredible run. Her vocals on “You and Me” and “Till I Can Make It On My Own,” songs worthy of her talent, were as good as anything ever recorded by a country artist.
By the end of it all, the industry that had taken everything she had to offer for as long as she could give it wouldn’t play her music on the radio anymore, and she was never really invited to the video revolution.
Along with all the number one hits had come drug addiction and the usual attendant insanity. (The music biz corporate bio-flicks about country music entertainers with drug problems usually have a sentence beginning something like this: “To cope with the increasing pressure of his career and the loneliness of life of the road, Cowboy B needed help, so he turned to ” In other words, you’d take dope, too, if you had all the problems of a superstar entertainer in a luxury custom bus.)
Tammy Wynette, we are told, was addicted to pain relief medication. That she suffered real pain seems not to be in doubt. There were thirty-five surgeries, some of them rumored to have been badly botched. I have written elsewhere that she once told me she had often fantasized about having her fears surgically removed.
There was also at least one attempt at detox at the Betty Ford Clinic (by one published account she left there in an ambulance to go someplace where they’d give her pain medication). After selling millions and millions of records she was forced to file for personal bankruptcy.
Stories too incredible to be believed but too bizarre not to have some basis in fact kept coming out. She had been kidnapped, beaten, and abandoned eighty miles from Nashville. No, wait, she had kidnapped herself for “publicity.” In yet another version, she had been battered by one of her husbands and was so terrified of him that she faked the kidnapping to cover for him.
The last time I saw her on television, she appeared nervous and desperately uncomfortable, afraid to answer even the simplest questions.
After her death there were public disagreements between her fifth husband and her children, who demanded an autopsy. Her corpse was exhumed. Dueling memoirs were published.
You can’t argue with success, but you can damn sure argue with death.
Tammy Wynette had a full measure of both success and misery. Will her music outlast everything it was supposed to “symbolize”? I hope that it will, but it’s way too soon to know. Country music has forsworn memory, and music store bins now typically carry just her greatest hits. Most of her recordings don’t sound “rootsy” enough to be retro, yet. And it’s been a while since I heard a young female country singer do any of Tammy Wynette’s material.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be her.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com