A Conversation with Author Jimmy McDonough
Can we get a hamburger? No, Jimmy, we have to discuss your new book.
Oh, right, this is where the author toots his own horn for a few pages. Well, I already tooted the horn for close to 400 pages. The horn is tired. The horn is flaccid. Thank you for that lovely image, Jimmy, but let’s get to business: why Tammy Wynette?
Why Tammy? I’ll tell you why. Wynette’s one of the greatest singers this country has ever produced, yet you never hear about her. Tammy’s taken for granted. And if you do her about her, it’s because of her anthem, “Stand By Your Man.” Some people never got past that one. They assume Tammy is just some sort of one-dimensional anti-feminist mouthpiece. She’s much more complex than people give her credit for. Until illness and drug addiction sidelined her, Tammy was very, very independent. She sold millions of records and changed the game for female country singers. Madonna? Lady Gaga? Wynette created that kind of frenzy back in the sixties/seventies, only with a steel guitar. She sang for five presidents, and was known to smooch both Ronald Reagan and George Wallace on lips after belting one out for their benefit. Among her fans you’ll find diverse artists as Loretta Lynn, Elton John, Tanya Tucker, Sting, Faith Hill and James Taylor. “One of the greatest voices of all time,” says Dolly Parton.
This is a woman who overcame many obstacles. Nashville potentates told Tammy she’d never make it; door after door was slammed in her face. Her mother Mildred fought her every step of the way—only to wind up running her daughter’s fan club once Wynette became a star. Tammy came from out of nowhere, a divorcee with three kids, and absolutely conquered Music City. “She went from bein’ a beautician to the queen of country music,” notes Emmylou Harris.
I must admit, I have been a fan of Tammy’s most of my life. I always thought I’d write about her someday. I give all to my books—this isn’t just a gig for me—and I can only write about people I deeply admire. I like Tammy even more now than before I started the book—which isn’t always the case, heh heh. So this book was a labor of love. Give us five words to describe Tammy Wynette.
Regal, single-minded, conflicted, elusive, haunted. What did you come to admire about Wynette the most?
She was definitely a larger-than-life character, just as extreme as any of her male counterparts. As was her music. “I believe you have to live the songs,” insisted Wynette. Tammy took the romantic country ballad and just drove it into the ground. One sad song after another—after another! She was unrelenting. Even at the end of her life when she practically had to crawl onstage to sing, Tammy refused to give up. I love that. Of course, there have been two books on Wynette already.
Yes, there have, but neither offer the complete story. The first was her autobiography, Stand By Your Man
, in which author Joan Dew captures Tammy’s voice brilliantly. That book was one of the reasons I became a writer. But it’s only Tammy’s side of the story, and it ends in the seventies, before her life got truly weird. The other book was written directly after Tammy’s death by her daughter Jackie (with Tom Carter), and is basically an indictment of Wynette’s final husband, George Richey.
So Tammy’s never gotten a proper biography. Many of the people I interviewed—her friends, band members, hairdressers, childhood playmates—have never spoken publicly before. And some of them were so unsettled by her death it took until now for them to talk.
Tammy was much more eccentric than people think. She had a passion for clip-on earrings and a strong dislike for feminine hygiene commercials. She could be extremely generous and very vindictive. She had a wry, observant sense of humor and admitted to smoking the occasional joint. Tammy got to people—I’m talking as a person, not as a singer—on a very deep level, yet she wasn’t one to expose her feelings in any sort of direct way. There is many a riddle to this lady and, despite four years of intense research, still so much I can’t explain. What’s the most surprising thing you learned researching her life?
Well, Tammy liked to embellish. Not maliciously, for the most part—she’d just get excited and add details to spice things up. She was a teller of tall tales. So much so that when her autobiography came out, co-author Joan Dew, to pass the time, would quiz her on the contents while out on the road. “She didn’t know the answers,” admitted Dew. “I don’t think she’d ever read the book.”
The other thing that was surprised me was how reticent Wynette was to spill the beans to friends and family. In interviews and performances Tammy seemed so open and forthcoming, but in private she wasn’t exactly an open book. That’s why this biography is important—you get a much fuller picture from those closest to her than she would ever revealed herself. Read the full interview
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
. (Mar. 4)
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