- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010

TAMMY WYNETTE: TRAGIC COUNTRY QUEEN

By Jimmy McDonough

Viking, $27.95

432 pages

REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY

The late Tammy Wynette could bring a sad country song to life better than Jimmy McDonough has brought this sad woman’s story to life in his long, slow-moving, uneven and sometimes depressing biography.

Wynette, who died too young in 1998 at 55 after more illnesses and surgeries than most entire families have to endure, was indeed a tragic country queen. She and the main man in her life, country singer George Jones, led lives together that the word dysfunctional doesn’t begin to touch. So Mr. McDonough can’t be faulted for the depressing stuff in “Tragic Country Queen.” He doesn’t dwell on the depressing for its own sake. There just was so much of it in Wynette’s life. The Queen of Sad’s life was sadder than her songs, which says a lot to those who know her songs.

The reviewer’s main job is to help readers decide if they should read the book being considered. It’s a tough call in this case. “Tragic Country Queen” is not for everyone. Those who liked Wynette’s music (count me in) may well want to make this trip, keeping in mind the depression warning. Likewise those who liked country music of the mid-‘60s into the ‘80s, the period Wynette dominated.

This was the high point for country, just after the formerly “hillbilly” music came to town to tell the stories of mostly working-class Southerners trying to make it in a less-flush-than-now postwar America. It was white soul music. It told hard stories of love and its failures, loss and yearning. Wynette took those themes to the 10th power with a voice and a sound that were authentic and compelling.

Wynette, who came up poor in Itawamba County, Miss. (though not as abjectly poor as her country contemporaries, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and not as poor as she sometimes claimed) would live to sell more than 30 million records and CDs, tour the United States and Europe countless times and sing before five presidents, all before leaving 40 in the rearview mirror. “I had goose bumps,” said President Reagan, a recipient of one of Wynette’s White House recitals.

A strength of Mr. McDonough’s book is that he’s convincing in explicating the many ways Tammy Wynette was a singer of rare emotional power. If there’s such a thing as quiet charisma, Wynette had it. She was far more than her theme song, “Stand by Your Man” (a right peculiar anthem for a woman who was married five times and always did the leaving - but there it is) and gimmicky stuff like “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”

But even with this last hokey tune, Mr. McDonough says, “Wynette invests this song with such feeling that anybody with half a heart would have to acknowledge the sheer conviction on display, the utter reality of her pain.” In the hands of lesser artists, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” would produce more groans than goose bumps.

“Tragic Country Queen” is best enjoyed accompanied by YouTube or other Internet sites where readers can watch and hear Wynette perform her songs as Mr. McDonough tells the stories of their production. His comments and observations on Wynette’s work range from acute to quirky, but the available performances make for a richer journey than just reading the book.

For examples of Wynette’s work that show more of her talent and range than “Stand By” or “D-I-V,” try “Till I Can Make It on My Own” or her fine job on the old gospel song “Precious Memories.”

“Tragic Country Queen” is well-researched and based largely on interviews with people who knew Wynette, were related to her or worked and traveled with her. This wealth of material is colorful, but much of it is also contradictory, giving the book a he-said, she-said quality, leaving many of the central questions about Wynette’s life unanswered and probably unanswerable.

What’s clear is that a divorced Tammy Wynette with three children left poverty at age 24 for a remarkably quick rise to stardom that, though it made her wealthy and popular beyond her wildest dreams, was never enough to balance out a pathological private life caused by her bad choices in men and her own personal quirks and self-indulgences. Her pain wasn’t all emotional. Mr. McDonough catalogs the almost continual illnesses that beset Wynette from an early age and left her often in pain, addicted to pain medicine, and eventually led to her premature death.

The final chapters that tell of Wynette’s marriage to producer George Richey and the decline of her career and her health are almost too painful to read. Mr. Richey was, depending on which of McDonough’s sources readers choose to believe, either Wynette’s protector and the best thing that ever happened to her or a controlling ogre in it only for her money who helped her along to her soap-opera ending. The preponderance of the he-said, she-said is not favorable to Mr. Richey.

Readers tough enough to make it through “Tragic Country Queen” will have learned a good deal about Music City in its heyday and will have a greater appreciation for an outstanding vocal artist and complex personality who left behind some very fine and moving songs but led a short life you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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