By James Calemine
“How can anybody really believe what I sing about, knowin’ what a mess I’ve made of my life?”
Published in 2010, Jimmy McDonough’s book Tragic Country Queen sheds bright light on Tammy Wynette’s life and career. McDonough’s style provides no quarter for his subjects. He tells the truth–warts and all. His other books include The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan (2001), Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (2002), Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film (2005), Fortunate Son: My Life In Music, co-written with John Fogerty (2012) and Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green (2017).
McDonough also wrote an article about Link Wray that ranks as my favorite about the North Carolina guitarist. McDonough’s reverence for his subjects still emerge through his close-to-the-bone style. Of course, Tammy Wynette is a country music legend with hits such as “Apartment #9”, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, “I Don’t Wanna Play House”, “Your Good Girl Is Gonna Go Bad”, “Til’ I Can Make It On My Own”, “Stand By Your Man” and “You and Me” to name just a few.
McDonough takes the reader back to Itawamba County, Mississippi, on the Alabama line, where Virginia Wynette Pugh was born on May 5,1942. Wynette earned her ‘beautician’s license’ and kept it through the years “in case the music thing doesn’t work out”. Wynette was kind of a wild girl, and soon her musical talent became evident.
She already had 3 children by the time she moved to Nashville in 1966. McDonough takes us through Wynette’s self-image of a tortured housewife through her five marriages, countless hits, addiction to painkillers and even a bizarre kidnapping incident some say Wynette orchestrated to avoid an abusive husband.
In a rare interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books, the reclusive McDonough said this about Tragic Country Queen: “Tammy Wynette. I’ll tell you this: Whenever I goofed off and didn’t work on the Tammy book, strange things happened. Her picture would fall off the wall. She’d suddenly appear on the TV. I’d go to the store, her music would be playing.
“Tammy was a very complex individual. I don’t think there’s any “clear understanding” at the end of that book. More like a fog of hairspray, rhinestones and sad steel guitars. All I want is for readers to feel the presence of the people I’m writing about. Feel them. That’s it. You want to tick me off, call me a “music journalist.” That’s one of those air guitar occupations. And, contrary to what some people think, I’ve never read any of the “gonzo” authors. The Biography Police are always spanking me for “inserting” myself into the story. Don’t do this, don’t that – they drain the fun out of everything, the killjoys. Of course, it would be worse if they liked it. Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. I want the reader to walk a mile in my shoes, smelly as they may be.”
Tragic Country Queen contains letters McDonough wrote to Wynette. The writer did not spend a lot of time around Wynette, like he did say–Neil Young. Of course, McDonough and Young went through a contentious legal battle over the Young biography. Some felt McDonough was “A Mark David Chapman with a typewriter.” But, his letters reveal his true affection for Wynette. He interviewed many people for the book including two of Wynette’s closest friends Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.
The story tells the infamous marriage to George Jones, which took place in Ringgold, Georgia, on February 16, 1969. They remained married 6 years, but as Jones once said: “We were never friends when we were married.” Jones also reminded Wynette “I had 50 hits before I met you.” After the divorce they still collaborated and enjoyed success, but neither seemed the same after they parted ways.
As Wynette’s success increased, so did her health problems. Her band used to say among themselves: “Who is showing up tonight–Virginia or Tammy?” If Wynette was intoxicated the band referred to her with her real first name, but if she was lucid–her stage name. If “Virginia” showed up, the band had to play songs quicker and assist more with vocals.
McDonough impresses the real loneliness Wynette experienced through her career–even at the top of her game. He tells the dark truths including all the men (even Burt Reynolds in the mid-70s), her generosity and her tragic aura that seemed to haunt her. He also proves her talent stands as undeniable. And the reader’s heart goes with Wynette when she died unexpectedly on April 6, 1998.
McDonough’s last letter to Tammy graces the book’s final page. It is written after her death:
“Dear Tammy, I hope you got your heavenly crown. One with plenty of jewels. Your friends all miss you. I look in their eyes and see a wreck on the highway. They never got to say goodbye, and they still feel guilty…guilty they didn’t save you. I know you’d give ‘em a big hug if you could. And feed ‘em some of that chocolate pie of yours. Boy, do they still talk about that.
“You know what your buddy Linda told me? She still has a little bottle of your perfume, Private Collection. And sometimes when she misses you, she opens it up, takes a whiff, and for a moment her old pal Wynette fills the room. And then, like a distant train whistle, a firefly in the night, a song on a faraway jukebox, you’re gone…”
Tragic Country Queen counts as a brutal, but heart-rending book worth reading.