More than Myth
Wynette made music, not vice versa.
By Beverly Keel
APRIL 20, 1998: While much was said in the media last week about the musical legacy of Tammy Wynette, little was noted about the life she led offstage. When her life's accomplishments were addressed, they were often reduced to statistics 30 million records sold, 39 Top 10 hits, 17 major operations, five husbands, two Grammys, and one stint at Betty Ford's clinic. Somehow, people failed to recognize that her day-to-day existence defined her as a woman, and, consequently, as a singer. It wasn't the music that made the woman, but the woman who defined the music.
As the familiar anthem of "Stand By Your Man" resonated on radios and TVs, it became apparent that Wynette--who had been viciously attacked by feminists for portraying women as victims--had herself evolved into a feminist role model. "She was this figure who represented to me all of the things that I admire strength and wisdom and character and just a sort of fearlessness about things," singer Mary Chapin Carpenter says.
While Hillary Clinton sacrificed her promising legal career to support a philandering, ambitious husband, Wynette left several disastrous marriages to find an adoring husband who devoted his life to furthering her career. Clinton gained her title of first lady through marriage; Wynette earned hers on her own terms, even if she didn't always take the most politically correct route. "She was always too eager to please, too eager to cajole, too eager to be the peacemaker," says Mike Martinovich, who worked with Wynette at Sony. "She probably suffered a lot on the inside because of it."
Wynette made no apologies for who she was or for how she lived. She relished being one of the town's most famous "girl" singers. Able to enjoy the financial rewards of her success, she was always perfumed, powdered, coifed, and accessorized to the hilt. Her expansive closet was filled with size 2, 30-pound, beaded gowns and an impressive selection from designer Richard Tyler. When not shopping at Jamie, Wynette was on the phone, placing catalog orders to Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue.
"She was one of those artists that dressed the part of Tammy Wynette 24 hours a day," says MCA Nashville President Tony Brown, who produced Wynette's last duet album with George Jones. When she came in to work on the record, he remembers, "She had on a beautiful coat and dress, and this is for a recording session where most people [came] in in sweats.
"I went outside to see her, and she had already gotten in the powder-blue Rolls Royce, a late-1960s Silver Cloud that they had just bought," Brown says. "As I was waving goodbye, I thought, 'This is the way it should be.' She and George were the epitome of being in show business and loving every minute of it."
Wynette was also a fabulous cook, known as much for her biscuits and collard greens as for the elaborate parties she threw for stars such as Milton Berle and Faith Hill. "She was comfortable in her beautiful surroundings, and she was comfortable in a cabin," says singer Crystal Gayle. "She loved to kick her shoes off, and she loved cornbread dressing. I remember she was giving a fancy party, and I found her in the kitchen eating leftovers."
During CMA Week, Wynette would entertain a hundred music executives who came to town, cooking and scrubbing the dishes with her bare hands. "One day I got up to help her wash dishes, and she said, 'No, you have more important things to do. Go talk to so-and-so,' " Martinovich recalls. "Many times on Thanksgiving, [husband] George Richey would go down to the mission...and find a few people on the street and Tammy would prepare Thanksgiving dinner for them. That's who she was."
She was also a stunning woman who was proud of her figure, especially her legs. In the last few years, though, she had become unhappy with her appearance: Her illnesses had aged her a decade beyond her 55 years, and her thin legs had lost much of their shape. "She really didn't like to see herself on television in recent years," says Evelyn Shriver, Wynette's publicist. "But in the last few months, she had started looking so much better, getting more strength and turning the corner on it all. She was really beginning to feel better about how she looked. It was difficult in those few years when maybe it was shocking to some people to see her on TV, but to us, it was a miracle that she was there [at all]."
Wynette has been remembered as the heroine of heartbreak, the woman who lived the songs she sung. "She was a very emotional person," says producer Billy Sherrill, who discovered Wynette. "She picked a few losers that didn't last. I think her emotions wore on her health, and one thing just led to another. I don't think it was a horrible life; it was more of a roller coaster life, from one extreme to another. Somebody saying, 'I'm going to love you forever' and then next Thursday wanting a divorce."
But for every down time, Wynette had the sort of life-changing experience that few people will ever know. Adored by millions, she traveled the world, mingled with dignitaries, and romanced actors and athletes. Even in those bad marriages, she had some good days. "There were some wonderful moments," says Michael Tomlin, the handsome real estate mogul who was briefly married to the singer. "Two days after we married, she sang at the White House rose garden with President and Mrs. Ford. She dedicated her last song to the President and Mrs. Ford and her husband Michael, and it was obviously, 'Stand By Your Man.' That was a special time."
Perhaps Wynette is to be lauded for recognizing her mistakes--she said she always took more than 50 percent of the blame for her divorces. More important, she moved on with her life, remaining optimistic and never giving up on love or marriage. "I think Richey was really good for Tammy," Sherrill says of Wynette's fifth and last husband. "He loved her a long, long time before they got married. One day they came in and said, 'Guess what?' And I said, 'You're getting married.' They said, 'How did you know?' I said, 'You've been looking at each other for months.' "
In her 20-year marriage to Richey, Wynette finally found the relationship that will elude most of us. The couple will forever be remembered as two of this country's most doting spouses, along with Conway Twitty and wife Dee Henry Jenkins, and Nancy and George Jones. In the last few years, they never spent more than 30 minutes apart from each other. "George Richey was her world and she was his," says Norro Wilson, who produced Wynette. Adds Shriver, "She was his reason for living. In many ways, his whole existence was about taking care of Tammy."
Some on Music Row believed that Richey contributed to his wife's ill health by working her so hard, a criticism that both Shriver and Sherrill dispute. "I know that his loving care enabled her to maybe live a much longer life than you would have thought," Shriver says. "I know there were many people who thought she should have been home resting--and there was a time I felt that way--but what kept her alive were the shows, having something to do and not disappointing her fans."
It has been observed that Wynette's painless death was in a sense a blessing--a peaceful end after a long period of suffering. Sherrill disagrees. "I'm saddened by this whole thing, and I am just about as mad because she went too quick," he says. "She hurt too long, too many years. It just doesn't seem fair. She just died too young."
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