Saving the Queen

The Legacy of Tammy Wynette



TWO RECURRING THEMES stand out in Jimmy McDonough's revelatory biography Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen. The first is that Wynette, the influential singer of such country standards as "Stand by Your Man" and "Apartment No. 9," projected heartbreak so effectively because she drew unflinchingly from her own haunted life. The second is that, despite a career built on embodying the shrinking and resigned country heroine, Wynette was fiercely independent, blazing a trail for female singers around Nashville's "casting couch culture."

Which is not to say that Wynette didn't bed more than her share of men (she married five times!). And it's not to say that Wynette advocated for women's lib; she believed strongly in the message of "Stand by Your Man," even though she recorded it while leaving her second husband for her third. The magic of McDonough's book is that it embraces the fascinating contradictions that make Wynette so human, rather than trying to iron them out.

Tragic Country Queen is exhaustingly researched without ever being exhausting to read. As in his masterful Neil Young biography Shakey, McDonough seemingly interviewed everyone Wynette ever shared air with, and he infuses the narrative with so much love for his subjects that every footnote seems essential. It is McDonough's boundless respect for Wynette that elevates Queen above cultural rubbernecking. When "country's first lady" shoots up in the bathroom immediately after lobbying congress about drug abuse, the scene is presented with gallows humor, regret, and deep understanding.

That Tragic Country Queen is never tawdry is laudable, but what truly impresses is the book's scope, covering three tumultuous decades in country music with Wynette as a through line. Whole chapters are devoted to equally fascinating characters like superstar husband #3, George Jones—so wacked out on drugs that he held three-way conversations with his two alter egos, "Dedoodle the Duck" and "The Old Man"—and Nazi-obsessed producer Billy Sherrill, country's answer to Phil Spector in both influence and eccentricity. By the time Wynette is in the grips of drug supplier and fifth husband, the Machiavellian George Richey, it is clear that Queen is the rare music bio that deserves its own place in the same legacy it celebrates.


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