Tammy Wynette, one of the eminences of the old-school
Nashville scene, died on Monday. Although the cause of death was reported to be a blood clot in her lungs, the result of an unspecified illness, in truth her health was bad for years (she underwent more than 35 operations in recent years).
But Wynette rode a steep roller coaster in health as well as
in illness. Her marriage to George Jones, in 1969, was everything you'd
expect from a marriage to someone even Johnny Cash was counseled to avoid. Her other
four marriages, while less spectacularly bellicose and liquor-fueled, were by
reports similar in character. In 1978, Wynette was abducted and beaten by
a masked assailant -- the identity of whom was never determined, but who
Wynette mysteriously claimed "later served jail time for something else."
In 1988, she filed for bankruptcy, citing bad investments. Four years
after that, she had the biggest hit of her career, potboiling in a
dignified, but somewhat bewildered, fashion on British rave-rock outfit KLF's dance smash,
"Justified and Ancient."
These things alone -- and I say this without a trace of irony, and
even with a touch of awe -- would guarantee her a throne of honor in the
country pantheon. Tammy was Old Nashville to the sinews: as much prey to
its horrors as heir to its treasures, and great for her achievements in
both regards. Her records, fine as they are for a blue, lonely Friday
evening or as a chaser to a round of Patsy Cline, are a wilted bouquet
next to what she represents as an artist, and as a woman of her
Wynette rose to stardom through determination and talent
alone, beginning her career with nothing but a great voice and a
self-made Jackie-O bouffant, and leaving it upon a pyre of squander,
grandeur and the wreck of her dynasty. She was the first woman in
country music to sell a million copies of an album -- and she did it as part
of the last generation of country stars to rise through the force of
rural, not urban, principles.
She was lofted not as a shiny Nashville trinket -- not as, for
instance, a harassed stage-bantam like LeAnn Rimes -- for there was no
such thing in 1966. It was as a real woman of the 4-H belt that she
rose, as a doyenne of the sour-beer circuit. If she sang about the
heart's wandering, she had a heart with which to wander, and a
small-town husband to flick off the porch light when the early sky glowed
blue without her. If pain rent the timbre of her voice, it was pain
reflected from a human soul into the fun-house mirrors of fame -- and of
desire gilded, but unslaked -- not pain crayoned inside the lines, like
your Garth Brookses, or whoever plugs the podunk jukeboxes these days.
Wynette held a cosmetology degree from some swampwater
hair-curling institute; Garth Brooks holds a marketing degree from
Oklahoma State. Wynette had the rural aspect, the features of a
field-woman's daughter (she was one) and the impulses of a woman born
to scarcity and bewildered by money and plenitude; Clint Black was grown
in a vat someplace in urban Texas and rationalizes himself as a
"regular guy" by the fact that his Hollywood-starlet wife still walks
the dog without a valet. Dolly Parton, Wynette's '70s-generation
successor, is an appalling train wreck of trashy impulses and down-home trappings who started a theme park and called it "Dollywood"; Tammy called her bright-light Disneyland "Nashville" -- and stormed its gates, conquered and died there.
If there's another Tammy Wynette left in America, she's performing tonight -- curling somebody's hair in a whistle-stop gossip salon, while the LeAnn Rimeses trail tinsel stars through
the stratosphere above her.