I am a Tammy Wynette fan. Most people assume this is because of her association with the KLF in the early 1990s; their song “Justified and Ancient” harkened back to her massive 1960s hit about submissiveness to men, “Stand by Your Man.” While I certainly can dig the KLF with Tammy, my obsession with Ms. Wynette started when I saw a fantastic documentary about her on the Ovation channel a while back…I think the documentary was done by the BBC circa 1985 – 1986. At the time she was starring on an awful soap opera called “Capitol,” and she was married to some shady guy who allegedly was just killing her with drugs and abuse.
The documentary charted Wynette’s meager beginnings as an embattled housewife in an abusive relationship with several children; she was encouraged not to sing, but to simply stay on as a dissatisfied housewife. Nashville was no better, and she often faced rejection in the then-masculine world of country music. Her marriage’s end was the music world’s gain: Wynette simply made some of the best country music of all time, and I am not a big country music fan. Her music often discussed destroyed relationships (which she knew plenty about), and had a paradoxical quality; the sorrowful feelings brought forth in her vocals certainly weighed against the “positive” message of her biggest hits (re: “Stand By Your Man,” which, if you know about her relationship histories – she was in an insanely abusive relationship with alcoholic former husband George Jones, who was also her musical idol – made sense).
The best part of this BBC documentary was Tammy’s rendition of a song called “Alive and Well ”. She’s singing along to an unmixed version of the song, straight out of the studio, in her house while casually dressed and sipping a Coke. Her winsome, smiling looks into the camera are priceless – Tammy certainly knew how to work a song – but it also amazes me that someone who was probably in such physical and mental agony could bring forth this spectacular, off-the-cuff performance. By the mid-1980s Tammy had a prodigious addition to painkillers due to severe intestinal problems (which would eventually lead to her death in 1995).
The book Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen by Jimmy McDonough has just been released in the U.S.; I am itching to read it – she seems like one of the most conflicted figures the musical world has ever produced. She was at once queenly but also easily broken down, but despite her personal travails, the music always triumphed. She is talent when the world needs more talent.