CR025/PH11 – Being Together: The George Jones & Tammy Wynette Story

1200 630 Cocaine & Rhinestones

Tammy Wynette and George Jones

 

 

Though they were married to each other for little more than five years, the legacies of George Jones and Tammy Wynette are forever inseparable. This is partly due to their unprecedented success with creating music “based on the true story” of a romance between two artists, to such a degree that decades later there are still millions of fans who believe George and Tammy never stopped being in love with each other. If it’s difficult to say where the line is between art and artist, public and private, fiction and fact, then it’s only because there was a coordinated effort from perhaps a dozen people working to bury that line beneath a mountain of hit records and royalty checks.


Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)


Primary Sources

My main sources for this episode can all be found in The Main Library and the Season 2 Library.

 


Transcript of Episode

 

The Medici Queen

Let’s say we can convince ourselves Catherine de Medici was able to resist curiosity and she never read one page of The Prince, which is still published today with Machiavelli’s dedication to her father, the recipient of the original manuscript. What’s reading a behind-the-scenes political exposé compared to spending two decades under the roof of the Valois dynasty in France? Catherine’s father-in-law, King Francois, could probably have taught ol’ Machiavelli a thing or two about relentless duplicity. None of the treaties Francois signed with Charles V ever meant anything more than “Alright, you win for a second while we take a break but I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Francois then used each of those breaks to go around forming new alliances in order to attack Charles again.

As for politicking with religion, Francois tried everything short of switching sides in the Reformation and declaring France a Protestant kingdom, which he couldn’t well do without severing shadowy ties to the Medici popes. And it’s possible he would’ve considered an official national conversion when Pope Clement died, cutting Francois’ ties to Rome, except the following month someone snuck through the royal palace in the middle of the night, undetected (or at least undeterred) by royal guards, and posted a pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic pamphlet on Francois’ bedroom door while the king was asleep inside. Francois interpreted this as a death threat and ended his previously tolerant acceptance of the Protestant Reformation in France. Thereafter, all Protestants – that’s Lutherans, Calvinists and any others aligned with any non-Roman Catholic denomination of Christianity – risked imprisonment and perhaps execution as heretics for practicing their religion on French soil. Outside of France, however, Francois partnered with whatever Protestant forces would join him in attacking Charles V. In fact, after Pope Clement died, Francois was able to enter a formal alliance he’d pursued for about a decade with the Ottoman Empire. For the first time in history, Christian and Muslim thrones openly combined strengths against a Christian throne. Many Catholic and Protestant noble families were horrified by Francois’ pact but the geographical fact remained: Charles’ Holy Roman Empire was now sandwiched between Valois to the west and Ottoman to the east.

About ten years into this new arrangement of the old conflict, Francois died. The truth is he never fully got rid of the tuberculosis he’d contracted while imprisoned in Spain but, as with many deaths of important people in this era, everyone assumed the king was poisoned. See, he drank an iced beverage just before his health suddenly worsened and, prior to the existence of refrigeration, everyone knew assassins preferred poisoning cold drinks because they’d be consumed quickly, before the scarce ice could melt and before the victim could show symptoms of anything being wrong. So they found the servant who’d brought the drink, tortured that person until they admitted poisoning the king and Francois’ now-oldest son took the throne as Henri II of France. Henri picked up his father’s reins, dug in the spurs, and doubled down on the family agenda. He took Francois’ intolerance of the Protestant Reformation within France to its furthest extreme, issuing formal legislation outlawing any and all Protestant behavior, then mandating a death sentence for all convictions of heresy. Meanwhile, Henri maintained his father’s military relationships with the Ottoman Empire, foreign Protestants and whoever else he could get to help attack Charles V.

 

Henri II and Catherine de Medici

Henri II and Catherine de Medici

 

In 1555, after Charles spent another decade fighting his dead arch-nemesis’ son (plus every other tiresome problem he’d accumulated in 35 years as Holy Roman Emperor and king over half of Western Europe), a new pope was elected who immediately sided with Henri against Charles. So, the next year, Charles just quit. He straight up retired, splitting the Habsburg thrones by ceding the Holy Roman Empire to his brother and leaving Spain to his son, Felipe II. It seems Henri decided he could live with France being bordered by separate branches of the House of Habsburg because he signed peace treaties and, to show he really meant it this time, even offered one of his daughters to marry Felipe. Because Henri’s fatal jousting accident occurred during a tournament held to celebrate his daughter becoming Queen of Spain, there’s no way to know if he truly intended a permanent peace or merely needed another break from external warfare while he tried to prevent a civil war from destroying France.

For all the reasons the Protestant Reformation was instantly politicized throughout the rest of Europe, Henri spent the final years of his life learning why it may not have been a great idea to draw an immutable line in the dirt of his nation and proclaim all who stood on the other side his enemies. As the citizens and noble families of France took their (private and public) positions, Henri realized about half his kingdom was at risk of flipping Protestant, either from religious true believers or power-hungry ambitious houses. Calling them heretics wouldn’t stop it and neither would dying. Henri tried both, leaving the stage perfectly set for an enormous fight. And soon after the fight broke out, everyone began to realize what Catherine de Medici had been doing for the past 25 years…

Given the tragic circumstances of her birth and what they’d heard about her nine months of terror during the siege of Florence, most nobles at the Valois court assumed Catherine so meekly tolerated criticisms of her failures to produce a dowry or a child because she was just that grateful to be safe, grateful for her way of life and grateful to be married to a prince, even if Henri was too in love with his weird teacher lady to pay Catherine any attention more than that required by occasional attempts to make a baby, even if he never knew or cared about the fact Catherine really was in love with him. But the real reason she kept her silence was to watch, learn and wait for the day she’d need to fight for her way of life.

 

Catherine de Medici with her children

Catherine de Medici with her children

 

Catherine could not have been surprised when the House of Guise were first to move for the throne of France. Because when Catherine’s dowry had disappeared and nobles of the court loudly tried to get her replaced as Henri’s bride? That was instigated by the House of Guise, likely hoping to replace Catherine with one of their own. And when Catherine seemed unable to get pregnant for a period of ten years and nobles of the court continued loudly trying to have her replaced? That was instigated by the House of Guise. And when King Francois fell ill, knew he was dying and warned Henri which ambitious noble family to never trust and never grant too much power? That was the House of Guise. Then Henri died, leaving his oldest son to take the throne as Francois II. Since this new King of France, at the age of 15, was married to their teenage niece (Mary, Queen of Scots), the House of Guise swooped in and closed ranks around the boy. The two Guise brothers at the head of their house figured they’d kindly capture young Francois and “influence” his reign to secure a win for their chosen side in the Reformation, Team Catholic. Likewise, Team Protestant came up with a plan to storm the castle and kidnap the young king but they botched the entire job, lost over a thousand lives on their side and ultimately accomplished nothing but allowing the Guise a demonstration of power. In response, the House of Guise confidently arrested the most immediately threatening member of Team Protestant, a prince from the House of Bourbon in the neighboring kingdom of Navarre. Up to this point, Catherine stayed out of it all. As long as everybody could see the Guise brothers were behind these moves, nobody blamed Catherine or her children, which was her primary concern. Same thing if the House of Guise and House of Bourbon want to engage in a power struggle against each other. It’s really no skin off Medic- er, Valois backs. However, after arresting the Bourbon prince, the Guise brothers set about trying to orchestrate his execution on trumped up charges in the name of the young king, who, by the way, had become fatally ill. Something to do with his inner ear, maybe. Doctors aren’t really sure but they do know Francois II will soon be dead. Since the House of Guise lose any claim on the French throne as soon as Francois dies without an heir, they’d just as soon start a civil war to see if destabilizing the entire country provides an opportunity for their house to come out on top in the chaos. But the other thing about Francois dying without an heir is the throne passes to his younger brother, Charles, who’s only ten years old and will therefore need a regent to rule in his stead until he’s of age to become king – you know, thirteen. So before the Guise brothers can start this war and ahead of her now-oldest son’s impending death, Catherine makes several secret alliances, most importantly with the House of Bourbon, gathering enough support to name herself regent when Francois dies, which… Yep, he’s dead.

As queen-regent, Catherine releases the Bourbon prince, invites their house back to the Valois court and calls for peace talks between Catholic and Protestant leaders. When these summits fail to achieve anything meaningful, Catherine just starts passing laws to relax the sanctioned intolerance of Protestants within France. In 1562, a couple years into her regency, she makes it legal for Protestants to practice their religion within the privacy of their homes and/or outside city limits. Pretty soon, the Duke of Guise hears about a mostly Protestant town where the residents have converted a barn outside the city walls into a church in order to hold public services while adhering to the queen-regent’s law. So Guise goes over there with a crew of his men and slaughters everyone, which is typically regarded as the beginning of the French Wars of Religion, a 35-year period of episodic violence between Catholics and Protestants, which Catherine de Medici repeatedly tries to bring to an end during the reign of her sons, King Charles IX and King Henri III. Even though Charles does technically assume the throne about a year into this, Catherine remains in power. The first thing she does when Charles becomes king is take him and a massive entourage on a two year “grand tour” of France, ostensibly to show her young son his kingdom, rather than to keep him away from the various dangers at court in Paris. Long after Charles believes he’s merely consulting his mother as he consults the rest of his advisors, she uses various tactics – including a famous network of beautiful women who gather information by seducing men – to secretly manipulate Charles’ council and court into doing Catherine’s bidding. She does, at least, seem to always have her family’s best interests in mind. But the same could be said for the House of Guise, who quickly realize they can keep doing whatever they want and both sides will eventually blame it on Catherine because her attempts to use her position of power to coordinate peace look a lot like she’s refusing to pick a side, like the daughter of a Medici playing Machiavellian politics by allowing everyone to remain in a perpetual struggle against each other instead of her. All the Guise have to do is casually murder some Protestants every few years, preferably soon after Catherine has promised some additional measure of tolerance or protection. When Protestants inevitably retaliate with violence against Catholics or destruction of church property, it gives the Guise brothers an excuse to bring in a whole army and “crush the rebellion,” forcing Catherine back to the fold and weakening her credibility in future attempts to negotiate peace.

 

King Charles IX

King Charles IX

 

Eventually, the Bourbon prince Catherine once rescued tires of this cycle and tries the Kidnap a King plan again, which fails again, leading to yet another run through the cycle and, a couple years later, the death of that Bourbon prince. Losing the leader of their movement, the Protestants are forced to return to peace talks while they regroup, even though they know any truce will be ignored by the House of Guise, who will undoubtedly continue to murder “heretics” as they please. This time, though, Catherine has a new plan. Because all the most sincere treaties are sealed with marriage whenever possible, Catherine decides to marry one of her daughters to the next Bourbon prince, raised Protestant by the Queen of Navarre, who had outlawed Roman Catholicism in her country over a decade earlier. This Queen of Navarre does not trust or even like Catherine de Medici but this deal is gonna make it legal for Protestants to hold public office in France, thereby legitimizing the Protestant movement and dissolving Catholicism’s monopoly over the State. So the Queen of Navarre moves to Paris in spring of 1572 to help prepare a royal wedding and, by the end of the summer, she’s dead. Like so many others in this story who traveled a significant distance to another country where they may not have had immunities to local varieties of various illness, she probably just got sick and died but rumors instantly spread that the Queen of Navarre was poisoned by Catherine de Medici, whose daughter’s fiancee just became the King of Navarre.

Now, it’s damn near impossible to estimate the percentage of bullshit in any story featuring Catherine de Medici, whether it’s in a podcast or a news article or a novel or even a history book. As you’ve heard, she was famous her whole life, her vilification amonst the masses began at the age of 10 and every single person in this story had a reason to lie plus a manual for how to do it plus use of Gutenberg’s new printing press to help it stick. Thanks to political pamphlets, many people during Catherine’s lifetime truly believed she was a Satan worshipper who murdered and ate children. At the other end of the spectrum, we find the opposite character: a peace-seeking widow and mother, thrust into power by circumstances beyond her control, forced to rule out of obligation to family rather than her own political ambition. Probably because she’s been a celebrity for hundreds of years and how many interesting developments of early modern history do connect to her life story, today Catherine is also falsely credited with introducing a huge number of Italian inventions and customs to France, most of them having to do with food. If your friend ever starts saying, “Hey, did you know Catherine de Medici is the reaso-,” you’re probably about to hear a lie, unless the sentence ends with big merry-go-rounds or ballet. The word “ballad” does come from a Latin word, meaning “to dance,” and ballet probably does come from Catherine de Medici.

One of the reasons nobody ever stopped thinking of her as a Medici even after marrying into the Valois dynasty is because Catherine never stopped acting like a Medici. As soon as she became regent, the arts and entertainment budget in France went through the roof and it stayed there, even after the money was gone and she had to borrow it. The Medici always believed in spending big on public (and political) opinion of the dynasty – extravagant architecture, especially buildings for the Church; patronage of important artists and inventors whose work would similarly stand the test of time, like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci; plus huge, huge parties. All noble families did these things to the degree they were able but the Medici came to power by having more money than most of those losers, so the Medici did these things much bigger. Where other houses may hold a big party over several days with tournaments and plays and dancing, Catherine turned it into an art form. It all began with the ban on jousting after her husband Henri’s death. When everyone accepted tilting at rings as a replacement for the deadly joust, the already blurry line between chivalry and pageantry disappeared forever. In Catherine’s France, tournaments soon evolved from being “little wars,” heavy on the chivalry and bloodshed, into little pageants, retaining some element of contest but heavy on bloodlessly parading around in magnificent costumes. Catherine’s safer alternative to tournaments was referred to as a “carrousel,” the French take on the Italian word for “little war,” later given to merry-go-rounds with fake horses on them, so commoners could pay to feel like they were riding in one of these royal parades, etc. Eventually, Catherine had the idea to combine all the typical chivalric entertainments into days-long pageants, which included a prototype of modern ballet: massive productions with set design, music, dance and stories centered on chivalric themes of love and war, complete with epic fake battles. As an idea of scale, one time Catherine put the ballet on an island so the audience of nobles had to be transported by boat and the “ballet” began with actors in one boat fighting off an attack from stagehands operating a fake whale.

Even though there were rumors Catherine had poisoned their queen, thousands of Protestants from Navarre who were all promised safe passage for their king’s wedding came to Paris for the celebration, which included a ballet from Catherine with a plot based on the violent conflict between the individual Catholic and Protestant leaders in attendance, with some of those leaders (like her son, King Charles IX) playing themselves in the production. A few days later, after nearly all of the thousands of Protestants in Paris for this wedding were dragged into the streets and murdered, everyone began wondering what they’ve wondered since: whether Catherine’s ballet was meant to inspire resolution or aggravation. It doesn’t seem likely she’d want her son Charles to be consumed by guilt over the massacre, fall ill and die. Nor that she’d welcome the distrust of her next and final son to rule. Catherine surely wouldn’t have been happy about Henri III only making worse and worse decisions until he was finally assassinated. And it doesn’t seem possible the House of Guise would be very happy about Catherine’s sons all dying without heirs, thus ending nearly 300 years of Valois rule in France and leaving the French throne to none other than the Protestant King of Navarre from the French House of Bourbon. Of course, none of these people could have predicted these events. And none of these people could have known a hundred years later the last Habsburg to rule Spain would also die childless, leaving the Spanish throne to the great-great-grandson of that Bourbon king of Navarre and France. But all of that is what happened and it is only part of the very long story about a teenager from the French house of Bourbon becoming king of Spain.

 

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre by Francois Dubois

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by Francois Dubois (Catherine is shown near the back, standing over a pile of bodies)

 

 

The Dream

In the early 1980s, George Jones shared a recent dream with a reporter. In the dream, George was driving a car with Tammy Wynette behind the wheel of another car on the road ahead of him. George was chasing her. But then the road ahead of George’s car began to flood while Tammy’s car was fast enough to stay in front of the water, so she slowly pulled away from him. Even though George kept his gas pedal smashed to the floor, Tammy got further and further away, until she was entirely out of sight and George woke up from the dream.

A decade earlier, near the beginning of the year 1970, Tammy discovered she was pregnant and George responded by trying to straighten up his act and build a perfect world for his family ahead of the baby’s arrival. First, he convinced Tammy to let him spend $100,000 on a run-down, sixteen room house on five acres of land in Florida. This near-mansion, which they took to calling Old Plantation after its early 20th century Colonial Revival style, would become their new home once George fixed it up. He carried out renovations with a particular sense of urgency, hoping to have the house finished by the time the baby was born, so his child’s earliest memories would be set in a miniature palace rather than a construction project. While working on the house, George also bought over 35 acres of surrounding property and, once more, set about landscaping the outdoor country music concert venue of his dreams. He climbed up onto bulldozers and backhoes to level the camping and picnic areas himself, dig out fish ponds and scoop holes for rows of trees and shrubbery. With all this manual labor (and the additional workload of convincing neighbors and the local government to let him essentially put Permanent Country Music Bonnaroo in their backyards), Jones found he had very little time or energy for binge drinking. But he also took a page from his father’s book and kept bottles of liquor stashed in certain trees and bushes on the property just in case he felt like he really needed to sneak a drink.

Though their concert schedule remained light compared to the way George previously toured, he and Tammy did have to work in order to fund this grand project and she stayed on the road with him through her seventh month of pregnancy. Due to the crossover success of “Stand by Your Man,” their concerts were attended by larger audiences than ever before and crowds bore witness to evidence of fertility in the couple they called the King and Queen of Country Music. This being the child of two country music superstars, there were great expectations for the baby. Billy Sherrill said he knew the bloodlines were so good he’d have a recording contract ready to sign in the delivery room. Two months away from her due date, Tammy’s doctor ordered her to stay home and rest, which meant no more performing but, more importantly, no more being there to keep George out of trouble. Sure enough, he never even made it to the first concert without her. Somewhere between Florida and Iowa, he just disappeared. Tammy spent six days in a panic, stalling lawsuits from angry promoters by promising free makeup dates, even though she couldn’t be certain her husband was alive. After nearly a week of no word, one of George’s sisters called to say he’d been dumped on her porch in Beaumont, Texas in the middle of the night, mumbling something about how someone must have slipped a drug into one of his drinks. But this was his biggest lapse of 1970 and, like Shirley Jones before her, Tammy Wynette observed a year of mostly-sober George following the birth of their child, Tamala Georgette Jones, on October 5th. The family moved into Old Plantation later in the month and George focused on getting his music park ready to open.

 

George and Tammy with Georgette

George & Tammy with Georgette

 

George & Tammy with their Nudiemobile in front of Old Plantation

Posing with their Nudiemobile in front of Old Plantation

 

From purchasing the house and initial property through the additional land and renovations of everything above, it wound up costing $250,000 to bring this scheme from imagination to reality. Part of the cost was a $20,000 marquee at the front entrance to let travelers know they’d arrived to Old Plantation Music Park, “Home of Country Music’s George Jones & Tammy Wynette.” George placed the covered stage about a half mile from the Old Plantation house, so audience members in the concert area could look over during a show and see George and Tammy’s home right there. On April 4th, 1971, the marquee advertised Conway Twitty as the grand opening’s headliner. With Conway a few years into his Owen Bradley-produced run at the top of the charts and the certainty of freewheeling performances from George and Tammy, the park hosted a capacity crowd of over 10,000 people. Tammy secretly flew in George’s old buddy Charley Pride, also several years into a decade-plus run of #1 hits, and Charley played his own surprise set. Billy Sherrill and other industry pals flew down from Nashville for the occasion. A great time was had by all and, since George actually charged admission at the front gate, the day was a huge financial success. Unlike the Rhythm Ranch debacle, he’d created a sustainable operation in Old Plantation Music Park and they continued to book major talent. Sammi Smith, Del Reeves, Bill Anderson, Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely are only a few of the stars who headlined there. Curiously enough, David Houston was once booked at Old Plantation. In 1972, prominent segregationist George Wallace survived an assassination attempt that left him unable to walk and civil rights activist Shirley Chisholm (then the only Black woman serving in Congress) caused a national controversy by visiting Wallace in the hospital. Less surprising was a month later, when Old Plantation Music Park hosted a fundraiser for Wallace’s presidential primary campaign. Based on George Jones never being very politically outspoken with his music or interviews, Tammy’s talent for being politically outspoken in her music and her interviews, her strong ties to Alabama (where George Wallace was governor) and the fact she remained friendly with Wallace and his wife, it seems pretty likely the fundraiser was her doing. Either way, Wallace lost.

 

Old Plantation sign

 

 

The previous year, when Billy Sherrill attended the music park’s grand opening, it may have been more than a miniature vacation in support of Tammy’s new business venture. Two weeks later, Tammy and George went to Nashville and, for the first time, recorded together with Billy for Epic. This was not quid pro quo with Jones going against his contract the way Tammy went against hers to record for Musicor. This was a full transfer of allegiance and it came at great cost. To say Pappy Daily was unhappy with releasing George from his Musicor contract would be an understatement. Pappy’s existence in the industry depended entirely on his relationship to George Jones. While it’s unclear precisely when George began negotiating the terms of his early severance, the full details of which are similarly unclear, we do know the eventual deal included George paying somewhere around $100,000 and relinquishing future royalties from his Musicor catalog. In other words, he gave Musicor the same amount of money he’d just paid for his house plus the checks he stood to receive from his previous six years as a recording artist. Compared to this, lighting $100 bills on fire is a joke. As for the rest of the exit terms, we can only try to make educated guesses based on the evidence. For example, it appears Epic was obligated to wait until 1972 to release George Jones solo recordings. As George continued to record solo material for Musicor (a.k.a. unpaid labor) throughout 1971, Epic only recorded him as Tammy Wynette’s duet partner until near the end of the year when this presumed embargo was nearly expired. Pappy Daily may also have arranged some kind of say over the material Tammy and George would record together for Epic in 1971. Their first single was a version of “Take Me,” the song George wrote with Leon Payne and took to the Top 10 years earlier on Musicor. It went Top 10 again for Tammy and George. Even though there’s one extremely likely reason why half the songs on their first Epic LP were chosen from Pappy Daily’s publishing company, when George Jones biographer Bob Allen said Peanutt Montgomery told him this was all worked out in the deal for Jones to leave Musicor, Billy Sherrill denied it was true because, you know, such an agreement would be illegal. And it is theoretically possible Billy selected material Jones was already familiar with in order to make the duet sessions a little easier.

 

 

Just Another Bedtime Story

With several years of concert experience behind them at this point, one would expect Tammy and George to be pretty good at singing together. One would be wrong. What they were good at was bringing the honeymoon phase of their relationship to the stage so audiences could watch two newlywed stars adore each other and goof off between and during songs. As for the singing itself, they were great at taking turns while trading verses but when it came to syncing up their phrasing to harmonize on a chorus, just forget about it. George’s range and versatility did place him in an entirely separate class of vocalist from Tammy but most of their problems came down to his never singing a song the same way twice. The very thing that made him so effective as an artist, his willingness and ability to entirely give himself over to an emotional connection with a song, meant the way he phrased a lyric or lent emphasis to certain words was as unpredictable as any given person’s day-to-day changes in mood. Similarly adventurous vocal partners in his past – Johnny PayCheck, Melba Montgomery, Gene Pitney – were able to jump on George’s wavelength to ride out each song, whereas Tammy was the kind of singer who tried her very best to do her part the same way every time. No matter how often she said their voices blended as if by magic from the very beginning, she was not the kind of singer who could easily harmonize with George Jones on the fly and was regularly frustrated in her attempts to do so. Clips of their live performances together gain a comedic twist once you learn to recognize how hard they’re trying, taking turns staring at each other’s lips and radically lowering volume to pull back after small mistakes. Tammy often breaks into a smile if she’s able to successfully guess what Jones will do and match him. Billy Sherrill spotted the rarity of such an event right away in their first studio session. For the rest of his life, he consistently spoke on how bad it was for his liver’s health to try recording George and Tammy singing together, how it drove all three of ’em nuts. You do have to listen as closely as a producer to hear it but the problem is evident on every cut from their first sessions. It’s in the way they barely miss starting the word “cold” at the same time in the chorus of “Never Grow Cold” and the way their “L” sounds are out of sync all over “Livin’ on Easy Street.” George and Melba Montgomery had no such difficulties recording this song years earlier in their final session together. The struggle Billy Sherrill found recording George and Tammy is most obvious on “You’re Everything” because they accompany each other for the entire song and routinely fail to land on consonants simultaneously. This problem is why they simply take turns singing on several songs, like “After Closing Time,” and it’s why Tammy’s voice is barely on “Take Me,” the lone single released from their first LP.

We Go Together was rush-recorded over two days of sessions and, in addition to other considerations, the songs were selected to serve the public perception of this relationship informed by newspaper headlines and concert appearances. Fans believed them to be true soulmates, two broken halves made whole through a perfect fit, each persona providing the rescue desperately summoned by the other. The audience of this play thought Tammy Wynette’s old-fashioned love had cured whatever was so wrong for so long with George Jones, bringing his heartbroken prodigal son phase to a close, transforming him into the man who deserved a love like Tammy’s, a man whose name she could be proud to put hers behind on the side of a tour bus. Billy Sherrill’s role in constructing and delivering this story can not be overstated. He did this, starting with his creation of and revisions to the Tammy Wynette character.

In October of 1967, “I Don’t Wanna Play House” had gone #1 and Billy knew he wanted to lean into this “divorced woman” thing for Tammy’s character but Bobby Braddock hadn’t yet written “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” So Billy did what he usually did: cracked open a bottle of scotch with Glenn Sutton and wrote a song. For “Good,” they pulled from Wynette Byrd’s real life to make Tammy a barroom waitress. When a lonely customer asks her to dance to a song on the jukebox, she sees an opportunity to get out of the “wrong side” of town with a man who doesn’t know enough about her or her past to suspect she’s anything but good. He does take her away from the honky tonk life but the end of the song finds her right back in the barroom, waitressing again, presumably because of her cheating ways, because she’s not good. On the same album, Billy and Glenn wrote “Take Me to Your World,” in which Tammy’s no good waitress begs her ex for forgiveness, saying she’s ready to come back, ready for him to take her to his world. This waitress is the kind of woman Billy’s final version of the Tammy character will forever be warning us about: the younger or prettier or easier woman who will take your man if you don’t stand by him, swing when and where he wants, love him all the way, etc. On Tammy’s first album with George Jones, Billy again casts her as a waitress by writing “After Closing Time” with Danny Walls and Norro Wilson. The first three lines are essentially a rewrite of “Good.” Tammy starts off by telling us she’s a honky tonk waitress who’ll dance to the jukebox with male customers but then Jones pipes up from the corner to let us know none of it matters because everyone knows she’s going home with him at the end of the night. This story justifies the waitress from “Good,” suggesting her previous relationships failed not due to her moral weakness but because she believed those men were right to try taking her away from the honky tonk world rather than join her there. And when George Jones officially signed a ten-year contract with Epic on October 1, 1971, Billy Sherrill gained control over the other main character in his Tammy stories. With his small team of songwriters, all skilled at crafting narratives which felt like glimpses behind the scenes, Billy was now able to exploit and build on the narrative created by newspaper headlines, interviews and album covers, playing it out across both artists’ solo LPs as well as the duets. Billy and Glenn Sutton wrote George Jones’ first single on Epic, “We Can Make It.” Here, George’s character sings with metaphysical certainty of love as an unbreakable chain wrapped all around himself and the woman we know as Tammy “Stand by Your Man” Wynette. These two are safe from the rough world within each other’s arms. They now provide each other shelter from the storm and he no longer needs wine to keep him warm. The record went Top 10.

 

Tammy and George in studio with Billy

in the studio with Billy Sherrill

 

We Go Together ad

 

Billy always said the financial sacrifice George made to leave Musicor was because of how much George loved Tammy and wanted to record with her. This is the story you would expect to hear from a man with so much to gain by selling it. We know George eventually decided to say his exit from Musicor was in order to escape the greedy villain Pappy Daily but unnecessarily sacrificing a fortune seems like the opposite of solving such a money problem. Also, in 1975, with his memory of then-recent events still in tact, all George had to say about it to Country Music magazine was, “Pappy was a fine old man. He really was. But, like everyone else, he has his faults.” Based on many sources, including George Jones in other interviews, it seems the greatest of Pappy Daily’s faults was keeping Melba Montgomery signed to the label after George and Tammy Wynette became an item. If anyone even said the name of the woman George spent years heartsick over, Tammy was known to start yelling and cussing up a storm. Unfortunately for Pappy, it seems nobody ever sent him the memo. Not only did he keep Melba signed to Musicor, he continued pushing George to work with her, as this was always her most profitable work. One day, close to the end of George’s time on Musicor, Tammy answered the phone at home to find Melba Montgomery on the line, saying something about a session Pappy scheduled for Melba and George to do overdubs on some old recordings so the label could release another duet LP and, well, Tammy went ballistic. That overdub session never happened and there’s a real solid chance this story has a lot to do with George’s eventual need to quickly leave Musicor even if it cost him an arm and a leg.

Melba Montgomery’s brother Peanutt somehow survived the transition period and remained one of George’s best friends, best drinking partners and sometimes rhythm guitarist for the Jones Boys, backing George and Tammy on tour. Peanutt even moved from Pappy Daily’s publishing company over to Billy Sherrill’s inner circle of songwriters. While Tammy tolerated all of this, she didn’t love it because, whenever Peanutt was around, the odds of George disappearing for a week-long binge went up by a lot. It seems she either recognized the friendship was too strong to break or felt the risk of occasionally losing her husband to chaos was worth a hit songwriter staying in close enough proximity to create the kind of near-documentary material required by Billy Sherrill’s method. Early minor hits aside, Peanutt started handing in legendary country songs about halfway through George’s Musicor period. Bob Dylan once told Rolling Stone magazine the Jones cut of Peanutt Montgomery’s “Small Time Laboring Man” was one of his favorite records of 1968. Also in 1968, George recorded one of Peanutt’s all-time masterpieces, “Where Grass Won’t Grow.” While neither single was a big hit, most fans consider both records to be among Jones’ best. Peanutt then wrote George’s final Top 10 at Musicor, “Right Won’t Touch a Hand.” After “We Can Make It” became George’s first hit record at Epic, the followup was Peanutt’s take on the same “soulmates disappearing from the world into their love” story. “Loving You Could Never Be Better” went #2 country, barely missed the top of the chart, and fit so perfectly into Billy Sherrill’s strategy he had Tammy cut it solo as well. From then on, most of Billy’s albums for Tammy and George, solo and together, featured at least one song written by or with Peanutt, who was better positioned than most to provide compositions which felt like behind-the-scenes glimpses of what the public thought they knew about this relationship. For example, on George’s fantastic second album for Epic, “The Man Worth Loving You” spells out the way Tammy’s character resolved the troubled Jones character fans knew from headlines and gossip.

Perhaps recognizing the inevitability of these specific country stars’ private lives spilling out into the media, Billy instructed his crew of songwriters to use their access and write ahead of what the audience knew of the story. Among this crew was Tammy herself, who Billy had always encouraged to write her own songs. And while many of her credits (like those of George Jones) were the product of handshake deals rather than her pen, some of what she really did write soon after marrying George was heavy on the foreshadowing. Written with Billy in 1971, Tammy’s #2 country single “We Sure Can Love Each Other” is not the romantic boast suggested by the title. Rather, the lyrics reveal a couple equally talented at hurting each other and the chorus points out how much effort is required to keep this love alive. Tammy wrote the b-side of the record with Carmol Taylor. Today it’s a rarity, unavailable on major streaming services, but it probably would have been a huge hit if Billy waited a couple years to release it as an a-side after the public knew more about Tammy’s marriage to George Jones. In “Fun,” she typecasts herself as a housewife stuck at home while her husband is off chasing fun. Even though her own idea of fun is having him around and taking care of him, what breaks her heart is when he comes home and she sees that spending time with her is no fun for him at all. Then there’s “A Lovely Place to Cry” which Tammy wrote with Peanutt Montgomery for the second duet LP with George. By the time of this session, Tammy had saved everyone the headache of trying to record her and George at the same time by suggesting the solution they’d use from then on: recording his vocal first and alone so she could study his part and then overdub hers. As a result, they sound more in sync than ever while singing about the exterior beauty of their home hiding a love that’s dead inside.

 

 

Of Principalities

In this period, despite Tammy’s misgivings, Peanutt and his wife, Charlene, were semi-regular houseguests at Old Plantation. Even though nobody believed she really meant it, Tammy would sometimes accuse George of wanting to have sex with Charlene Montgomery, perhaps thinking George would be less likely to fly off into a whirlwind binge if he thought Tammy was already mad at him. One night, early in 1972, the Montgomerys were staying at Old Plantation when Charlene heard George’s dogs barking outside after everyone had gone to bed. Charlene walked down the hall, knocked on the door of the main bedroom to get George and Tammy, then everyone went outside to look around. After not finding anything out of place, they all turned to go inside when Wynette screamed. Someone had used red lipstick to write the word “PIG” in big letters on a back door. Terrified, Charlene and Wynette ran inside and locked themselves in a bedroom while Jones and Peanutt thoroughly searched the property. They found no more graffiti, no evidence of intruders, no answers. It was only later, after Charlene realized Wynette had stopped acting scared once they were away from their husbands and locked in the bedroom, that Charlene remembered she’d seen Tammy reading a book about Charles Manson’s cult of murderers in California, who used the blood of victims to write words like “PIG” on the walls of crime scenes. (This book was probably Ed Sanders’ The Family, published in 1971.) After putting this together, Charlene began to suspect Wynette had snuck outside and vandalized her own home with her own lipstick, so George would be too worried for her safety to go chase down some fun for himself. In his autobiography, George shared another of Tammy’s tactics to keep him from drinking, which was pretending to get drunk herself. She knew if she seemed to be getting tipsy her husband would set down his own glass to watch out for her, so Tammy would sometimes conspire with a tour manager or band member to keep her in steady supply of vodka cocktails which secretly contained no vodka. She’d drain glass after another, acting like each made her a little more drunk, and it would usually cause George to put the brakes on his own drinking for the night.

One reason George would’ve been so concerned over Tammy hitting the booze was probably the way it interacted with the prescription “diet pill” Preludin (a.k.a. speed), which she started taking while still married to Don Chapel. Assuming we can believe the several band members and other witnesses over the years who recalled Tammy’s violent outbursts, during which she’d try to beat the shit out of George, it’s safe to say the speed had more than a little to do with such behavior and adding alcohol to the mix wouldn’t have helped. Of course, another reason George would’ve been concerned by Tammy drinking was probably the way alcohol interacts with Valium, which she was also prescribed. In 1977, two years after Tammy was hospitalized for a drug overdose, Joan Dew wrote, “Although they are definitely real, most of her medical problems are brought on by the fact that she never allows herself enough time to recuperate from an illness or operation before heading back to work.” By the time Joan walked away from writing the 1979 autobiography two years later, even if she couldn’t put it in the book, she’d seen enough to know the truth. Yes, there were doctors involved and, yes, she did a much better job than Jones of hiding it, but Wynette was a drug addict who simply found a new doctor whenever pen stopped betting put to prescription pad and/or the word “rehab” started being thrown around. Assuming she did not fabricate the stubborn kidney infection from the days of being married to Euple Byrd, her major health problems pre-date the name Tammy Wynette. But when she gave birth to Georgette in 1970, something went wrong and doctors gave her an emergency hysterectomy, followed by more and stronger painkillers than she’d ever done. In late 1971, Wynette passed out behind the wheel of a moving car and crashed through two trees near her home in Florida. The official story pinned it on blood sugar levels causing her to pass out. In the year 1973, she was hospitalized nearly a dozen times for various reasons. As stated by Joan Dew, Tammy often exacerbated her health problems by resuming a regular tour schedule and several of her return trips to the hospital were due to incisions from previous surgeries not being allowed to properly heal. It is impossible to know how often Tammy intentionally reopened these wounds or at what stage of her long career as a drug addict she may have discovered such tactics in her attempts to score. But nearly a dozen hospitalizations in 1973 is a lot and whether or not she was already actively harming herself, the end result was the same: excessive scar tissue forming on both the outside and inside of her body, further complicating every medical issue she’d have for the rest of her life. And maybe her blood sugar levels really did cause her to pass out while driving a car and run down two palm trees in 1971. Maybe she spent so much of 1973 laid up in hospitals for completely legitimate reasons. Or, maybe, the story of how her marriage to George Jones turned so wrong in 1972 is a story about more than his substance abuse.

Decades later, Joan Dew characterized Wynette to biographer Jimmy McDonough as the kind of person who would become obsessed with acquiring something (or someone), then lose interest after getting what she wanted. It is fascinating how often friends, family, coworkers and other close sources tried to explain the behavior of Tammy Wynette or that of George Jones by offering a description of one which could just as easily be applied to the other. Many examples have already been given. Another would be the time Tammy’s daughter Jackie said, “I think Mom liked chaos. She liked having things goin’ on even if they were bad.” This is not to say George and Tammy had identical personalities. For instance, she certainly cared more than he did about staying famous and his inability to manage money was not a problem she shared. But where their audience was sold two halves coming together to form a whole, they much more closely resembled a mirror image – two broken pieces who couldn’t come together as a whole because the only place they touched was on the points of their jagged edges – and for either to serve as the other’s rescuer would be like one drowning person saving the life of another drowning person.

When George succeeded in putting together a new home and sustainable business for the latest configuration of his dream life, he was able to relax, enjoy it and drink less. But “less” for George Jones merely meant it wasn’t as often he’d take off on a serious binge. Since the weight he gained from Tammy’s country cooking during these relatively sober years led her to put him on the same “diet pills” as her, adding booze could kick up a tornado that crossed several state lines before it died a week or more later. One morning in 1972, he woke up at home, got dressed and left in his car to drive less than a mile down to the music park’s office building, where he never arrived. He just kept driving. Nobody knew where he went or how long he’d be gone. This time, he only wound up disappearing for most of a day but he did come back extremely drunk. Tammy claims she enlisted some help from an employee to get Jones in bed, which they were nearly successful in doing until he violently sprang awake, tried to fight everyone, then misinterpreted Tammy’s running away as her trying to leave him for good. So he picked up a gun to stop her for good. She ran out the front door and into the dark night, screaming as she heard the gun fire behind her. She kept running until she made it to a telephone and called a private detective friend, who said to not call the police unless she wanted to be the next day’s news and to meet him back at the house. Their ex-neighbor Cliff Hyder happened to be on the premises, so he and the private eye and Tammy hid in the bushes outside, listening to what sounded like Jones picking up everything he could lift inside the house and throwing it into everything he couldn’t: TVs hitting walls, chairs hitting china cabinets, that kind of party. Everyone decided they really didn’t have any other choice but to call the guys in white coats to come take Jones away in a straitjacket, which is what they did. The next morning, Tammy left. She left to make their two-week tour of Canada by herself, she left Jones in a padded cell and she left the house destroyed so he could see what he’d done when they let him come home after a week and a half in the psych ward. In his book, George denied ever firing a gun at Tammy and drew attention to how her account referred to the weapon as both a “30-30 rifle” and as a “shotgun,” which are very different, as Tammy would know since she grew up on a farm. This inconsistency could easily have been the fault of Joan Dew or some editor with a thesaurus but where Tammy’s gun story loses credibility is with Cliff Hyder. According to Tammy’s version, Cliff witnessed George firing the gun at her and listened from outside the house as George destroyed the inside. Presumably, he would have seen the damage to the inside of the home that night after George was hauled away. When Tom Carter, the co-writer of George’s autobiography, asked what happened here, Cliff said nothing about a gun and then went on to agree with George’s claim that it wasn’t him who destroyed the Old Plantation home he’d worked so hard to restore and decorate. When George came home from the hospital, he thought the inside of Old Plantation looked an awful lot like Tammy wrecked the place so the damage would look far worse than whatever Jones caused. Cliff Hyder went a step further and suggested Tammy enlisted the maids to help her destroy the house. Maybe she hoped to shock her husband with “evidence” of the danger his addiction posed to their lives or maybe she was simply scared he’d be pissed off about the straitjacket and ten days in a sanatorium if there wasn’t proof he deserved it. At the time, George said nothing of his suspicions, choosing instead to spend the few remaining days until Tammy came back from Canada cleaning up the mess, patching holes in the walls and replacing broken items in order to make another attempt at the good husband routine. The doctors prescribed Librium, a benzodiazepine used as anti-anxiety medication and to help ease the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. George took it, too. Whenever a restless feeling started creeping up inside him, he tried to kill it with the Librium, even exceeding the recommended dosage if it didn’t work. Unfortunately, Librium and alcohol have a synergistic effect on each other, so the more Librium was in his system, the less alcohol it took to put him right back in a blackout.

 

George and Tammy in car with Hyders

Cliff & Maxine Hyder in the backseat of George and Tammy’s Nudiemobile

 

Now mixing speed, benzos and booze, his 66% doctor-prescribed binges soon returned to Phase II levels, unseen since the mid-1960s. By 1973, George and Tammy had given up on operating the Music Park. Every month or two, he’d spin out into the abyss for several weeks at a time, then come back with promises of never doing it again. Then he’d do it again, leaving Tammy on the road to perform concerts without him or sitting at home to wonder if he was dead this time. Each time he got drunk his face started swelling up so bad Tammy eventually made Jones go to the doctor, who diagnosed cirrhosis. When told his scarred liver would kill him if he continued to drink, Jones began drinking even more, like he was trying to die and to make sure he was drunk when he did it. On several occasions, Tammy watched him turn a fifth of liquor bottom-up, chug until it made him puke, then put the bottle right back to his lips and force more alcohol down his throat. Tour stops in Nashville were usually the worst, what with all Jones’ old drinking buddies and favorite hangouts in the city. This is the period when Jones entered the backstage men’s room at the Grand Ole Opry to find Porter Wagoner standing at a urinal. Since Jones was aware of a rumor dating back to the 1960s that Porter and Tammy had slept together, he decided to show Porter the current score by walking up behind him, grabbing his junk and squeezing with a death grip. Another night after another Nashville show, Jones drunk-drove away in a car, so Tammy sent Peanutt Montgomery after him. Peanutt found Jones a ways down the road, car pulled off onto the shoulder, driver’s side door hanging open and the country music star passed out behind the wheel with vomit everywhere.

One day in August of 1973, six weeks since she’d heard any news from or about her husband, Tammy decided she’d bear witness to no more of this slow suicide. With her doctor and lawyer, she came up with a plan to take the children away from Florida to an apartment she and George rented near the Nashville airport, where she waited for her husband to be served divorce papers. Now, Tammy said she never intended to follow through with this divorce. It was another shock tactic, meant to scare her sweet George into putting down the bottle for good rather than lose her love. But the plan wouldn’t work if Jones suspected a bluff, therefore the paperwork needed to be legitimately filed, which instantly triggered stories in the local media, then the music media, then the national media: Tammy Wynette was about to stop standing by another man. Jones was still drunk when he saw the news, still drunk when he found Tammy at the apartment by calling every phone number he could remember and still drunk when he arrived in Nashville swearing he was ready to try quitting booze for good. But Tammy needed him to do more than try, so she left Nashville and took the kids back to Florida, where she worked on getting used to the idea of her fake divorce becoming real while she knowing Jones was doing what he did best in Nashville. But then Jones showed up in Florida, sober, claiming he was ready to stay that way. She believed him and withdrew the divorce. A few months later, Old Plantation Music Park was again operating at a profit and George, according to Tammy, was “a different man.” He only occasionally sipped wine or beer (which neither he nor Tammy considered really drinking) and, pretty soon, they felt it was safe for the family to move back to Nashville. However, the timeline created by Tammy’s version of these events is impossible. On page 203 of her book, she says the Music Park’s renewed success allowed them to again not tour very much. On page 204, she explains the move away from Florida by saying they were on tour so much they rarely got home anyway. The fake divorce she definitely filed in August of 1973 could not possibly have resulted in the family moving back to Nashville “in late 1972,” as she claims. These and other major discrepancies in her story have no doubt caused stress dreams for anyone seriously trying to pin down what happened and when in her life. But there are two things we know for a fact. One, aside from gossip, rumors and the lyrics of country songs, the media attention on this near-divorce in August of 1973 gave fans the first concrete evidence all was not well in this fairytale romance. Two, this plot development was the overt theme of “We’re Gonna Hold On,” their first duet to go #1 country, released the same month, August of 1973.

 

 

A Failure

Up to this point, whatever really went on behind closed doors or was hinted at in album tracks, their singles had stayed on brand, presenting only the newlywed soulmate characters. After the “Take Me” remake, their second duet record was “The Ceremony,” a literal reenactment of wedding vows, complete with a priest. When “The Ceremony” came out in June of 1972, an audience with no clue toward this marriage’s fragility sent the record to #6. Their next two singles were a happy gospel duet, called “Old Fashioned Singing,” and another honeymoon anthem, called “Let’s Build a World Together.” Both bombed, barely making the country Top 40. Then, in August of 1973, they flipped the script, giving fans a soundtrack to the divorce Tammy filed two days before this single came out. The song was recorded “We’re Gonna Hold On” four months earlier, after Peanutt Montgomery and George Jones wrote it on tour. Tammy was mad because they’d just come back from being drunk for a week. She started off yelling at both of ‘em but then turned her focus to Jones and something to do with money, possibly something to do with their most recent duet singles bombing, possibly something to do with her fears their careers were in rough shape. When George told her to stop worrying because he’d been in this business since before she was a hairdresser, all it did was make her even more pissed off and she said she knew they weren’t going to make it. George responded by saying they were just going to have to hold on. Well, the bus pulled into a hotel at their next stop and Peanutt was still annoyed over Tammy yelling at him, so he went down to the hotel bar, drank up a $300 tab and charged it to her room, just to get her goat. The whole time he was drinking, he also kept thinking about what Jones said to her, about holdin’ on. The next day, he took a guitar up to his bosses’ hotel room. George thought the whole bar tab thing was pretty funny. Tammy? Not so much. But when she started in on Peanutt about that, he just started playing what he’d written of “We’re Gonna Hold On.” All the sudden, Tammy wasn’t mad anymore. Jones finished the song with him and they cut it near the end of March 1973. Billy Sherrill slowed Peanut’s tempo way down, then added a whole mess of chords and a key change through which Jones and Tammy just had to hold on. George and Tammy both claim he was able to stay off the bottle for another year after the fake divorce and #1 duet in 1973 but, again, this requires her impossible timeline to be true. It’s not so much we know for a fact that she was lying when, on this page of her book, she states Jones even made it through his 40th birthday without taking a drink, it’s just that he turned 40 two years earlier in 1971.

 

George and Tammy at his 40th birthday

Jones celebrates 40th birthday (in 1971) w/ Tammy & Mario’s Ristorante owner Mario Ferrari

 

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They followed “We’re Gonna Hold On” with Bobby Braddock’s “We’re Not the Jet Set,” a goofy take on middle-of-nowhere towns with the same names as fancy vacation spots. For a poor couple who can’t afford those ritzy destinations, steak or martinis, anywhere’s good enough because of the true love they have for each other. Billy Sherrill didn’t take a piece of the song for it but he came up with what Braddock said was probably the best line, about how the Jones and Wynette set ain’t the flamin’ Suzette set. This single did well but the whole concept of the song was the opposite of their real lives. In truth, Tammy Wynette and George Jones could afford to go anywhere in the world they wanted. The problem was they’d be there with each other. Even just taking a look at their real estate spending spree in this period suggests all was not well. Peanutt Montgomery said, “They’d buy up everything they could get and once they bought it they didn’t like it.” Even though George probably never really eased off the bottle in 1973, it’s almost as if he and Tammy were trying to escape a bigger problem than substance abuse, like they wouldn’t have to acknowledge the death of this marriage if they found a way to leave it haunting a previous residence, possibly hoping their love could be miraculously reborn within a new set of walls. This is perhaps the truth Tammy’s convoluted logic and timeline tried to obscure when explaining why they returned to Nashville. They first moved back into the vacant home they never sold, then split time between a $190,000 French Regency-style house on a hill seven miles south of the city and a 350-acre farm thirty miles north of the city. This gave George plenty to do in 1973. He stocked all his new farm land with over 150 beef cattle and that property came with a house about as big as Old Plantation. Between the farm home and the house on the hill, he now had two huge residences to refurbish. Preferring futzing around on a tractor to pretending he was French royalty, he spent more days on the farm than at the city house. But, then, in 1974, they sold the farm and moved from the French house on the hill into a thirty-five room mansion two-and-a-half miles closer to the city. George custom ordered wrought-iron burglar bars to place the musical notation of “Stand by Your Man” across the windows of their new home. By the end of the year, they were legally separated.

It’s always possible that owning multiple residences within an hour’s drive was some kind of attempt to give each other space while keeping up the appearance of “holding on.” Maybe they thought spending a day or a week apart here and there would be best for both of them, maybe make it easier for George to drink less. Or maybe they figured putting him on a farm outside of town would at least keep his drinking away from Nashville reporters, always sniffing around for a hint of trouble ever since Tammy told the media she rescinded the divorce because George quit the booze. One strong indication he hadn’t quit drinking is the note his mother left behind when she died in April of 1974, instructing her other children to give her Bible to George: “I want George Glenn to have my new Bible and for him to be sure and read it for my sake and his. I love him so much. I made a failure but I hope we all meet in Heaven.” If George hadn’t stopped doing the thing he wasn’t supposed to be doing, it would only take one major, public fuckup for the whole world to find out, which would instantly be followed by the media calling Tammy’s bluff, questioning whether she’d stand up for herself or stand by her man. Tammy and George wrote a song about this situation. George recorded “Our Private Life” in 1974 and the entire track is dripping with his sardonic disdain for the tabloid reporters who couldn’t wait to entertain readers with the very real problems of celebrities’ personal lives. The song came out on George’s The Grand Tour LP, which further complicated matters because it’s the album where Billy Sherrill finally cracked the George Jones code, launching the title track to the top of the singles charts, Jones’ first #1 record since “Walk Through This World with Me” in 1967. They followed “The Grand Tour” with “The Door,” another #1 single, released in October 1974. Putting out two #1 records in the same year brought in plenty of major opportunities for George’s solo career, each of which probably came with an earful of Tammy worrying about the possibility he’d get drunk in front of a bunch of people and ruin everything.

Far worse, after releasing nearly nothing but #1 and #2 solo singles since 1967, the one record Tammy put out in 1974 only went #4. Worse still, in 1974, her sworn-enemy-for-life Melba Montgomery came out of nowhere with a #1 country hit. Worst of all, Tammy thought “No Charge” by Harlan Howard should have been her hit record because it was just the kind of conservative mother-as-giving-tree heartstring puller she’d been knocking out of the park for over half a decade. In the previous five years, Tammy often boasted to Peanutt and Charlene Montgomery how if their Melba ever had a single that even started to look like it was going to be a hit then Tammy would just rush right in the studio, cover the song and bury Melba’s record. Since Melba Montgomery had never charted a solo single higher than #20, this was all just a bunch of idle shit talk until the day Wynette heard Melba just cut a song everyone said was going to be a smash hit. After getting someone to bring her a demo of “No Charge,” sure enough, Wynette got on the phone to Billy Sherrill. Billy wanted nothing to do with her mean-spirited campaign and tried to talk her out of it but Wynette wouldn’t back down. He caved, let her cut the song and rush-released it as a single before Melba’s record came out the following month. They even went for extra schmaltz points by putting Tammy’s daughter Tina on the track. But it wasn’t enough. Tammy had done everything in her power only to watch her own record bomb while her nemesis who hadn’t had a hit in a decade walked away with a #1 on the same song. So, to say the least, 1974 was not a great year to live inside the mind of Tammy Wynette. She was frequently in a state of barely concealed panic, fearing a long walk down the mountain while her backslider and promise-breaker of a husband sat on the peak with a woman he used to love. Anyone who seriously researches the matter will find Tammy often used third-person perspective when discussing the difference between Tammy Wynette and Wynette Pugh. She also typically referred to Wynette Pugh in the past tense, as a scared little girl who married too young and made too many mistakes. Wynette Pugh is who she was before she became Tammy Wynette, the badass country music superstar who went to Nashville, married her idol within two years of getting a record deal and made more than enough of her own money to support a family. Tammy was a woman who knew how to solve her own problems and was in a position of power to do so. It’s unclear whether she was just talking tough for interviews or truly thought of Wynette Pugh as a previous incarnation, a discarded cocoon. Either way, Wynette Pugh was very much still around and there was a lot more of her in Billy Sherrill’s Tammy Wynette character than it seems she wanted to acknowledge. The one single she released in 1974 that only went #4 and caused her so much stress? That would be “Woman to Woman,” written solely by Billy Sherrill. The message to all women is simple and direct: somewhere out there is a lady who is gonna take your man. If we equate “man” with “mental well being and happiness” and “other woman” as “any kind of threat” as Tammy Wynette songs so often do, the lyrics of this one are probably close to what it was like for Tammy to live with the voice of Wynette Pugh in her head: “if you think you got your man in the palm of your hand, you better listen” because “she’s out there, too, and she’s a whole lot better lookin’ than me and you,” etc. Some of Wynette’s most obvious appearances in Tammy’s career were in songs she wrote for herself. There’s an interview with Entertainment Tonight where Tammy explains her approach to songwriting as, “Many times I write what I can’t talk about. Something that I’m upset about or hurt about, I put down on paper and pretend it happened to somebody else.” That is certainly true. She did pretend certain events, thoughts and feelings happened to another person. It’s just that she was also the other person, Wynette Pugh, who Tammy pretended had gone away when, really, George Jones was married to Tammy and Wynette at the same time.

They were in their final recording session of 1974 when Tammy noticed Peanutt and Charlene Montgomery walk in the studio and Wynette immediately started freaking out. Most of the times in their marriage when Jones vanished for several days or more, Peanutt was involved. However long Jones may have been able to keep a lid on his drinking after returning to Nashville, he was soon back to the regular schedule of staying straight for a month or two, then tearing off for a week, often going down to Alabama to binge with Peanutt. So, here in the studio, Wynette thinks about the fact she and George hadn’t booked any concerts for the month of December in order to take it easy, then go on a family trip to Acapulco for Christmas, and she gets more nervous than ever. Because if Jones goes off and gets drunk with them, she won’t hear anything from him until probably January, by which time their vacation and Christmas will be ruined. Turns out, she was wrong to worry. All George did was go talk to Peanutt and Charlene for a minute, finish the session, then return home with Tammy. But it was too late. Wynette had already pressed play on the panic reel and, as she and George settled into bed for the night, everything came spilling out. For nearly the entire night, she kept George awake worrying over their marriage, his drinking and, most of all, her career. Did her #4 record mean she was never going to have another #1 record? Did it mean all her records were going to chart lower and lower until she never had a hit again? How long could she keep working without hit records? Would she lose her contract with Epic? The late hours of December 12th turned into the early morning hours of December 13th and, still, Wynette could not stop. On and on and on… When George woke up in the morning, unsure of how many hours or maybe even minutes of actual sleep he’d been able to get, he left the house and never showed up to where he was supposed to go. When Tammy checked to see if he’d taken his overnight bag, it was gone and someone at the house said, right before he left, they overheard George muttering something to himself about how something was never gonna work. Tammy filed for legal separation that day, which is a pretty huge decision to make based solely on some mumbling and the whereabouts of a bag, if we believe the official story is the whole story, which I think you know by now we should not. Eight pages after claiming she and George booked no shows for the month of December and tells us how worried she was over Jones potentially wrecking their vacation, Tammy begins a new chapter of her book with details of the last show she played that year, “in December, right after George left.” Throughout the book she does shoulder some blame for often creating a stressful environment by (quoting her) “nagging” George over his drinking. However, she insists the night of Dec. 12, 1974 was the only time she ever unloaded all her worries on him in this matter, which doesn’t really gel with the many arguments she and others describe as beginning with her worries over various matters. A piano player who worked closely with Wynette Pugh and helped her record some early demos back in the Country Boy Eddie TV show days told Jimmy McDonough that Wynette once said she got afraid every night before falling asleep. She didn’t know why but some existential fear came over her and she was swallowed by dread of where her thoughts may take her in the dark. Considering all the events of this year, it’s pretty likely George Jones spent more than one night in 1974 listening to Wynette Pugh keep him awake in one or another of their big beds in one or another of their massive homes, giving endless voice to baseless fears it would all soon come crashing down. Friend and biographer Joan Dew suspected Wynette no longer wished to be married to George Jones whether he was sober or not. Wynette craved excitement and crowds of people and whatever got her adrenaline going. Two of her favorite things to do were ride carnival rides and go to haunted houses, the scarier the better. Conversely, George Jones had all of the haunted houses anyone could ever need locked away in his mind. And he’d much rather have a beer in front of the television than be in the middle of any kind of crowd. Joan Dew thought Tammy was probably bored with this relationship, wanted out and wanted George to look like the bad guy, needed it to be his fault the marriage failed. So maybe the story about this one night of panic is yet another instance of Wynette condensing weeks or years of true events into a tidy, little, fictional set piece. Or maybe she initiated divorce proceedings so quickly because it’s what she’d wanted to do for a while.

Regardless of whatever he was alleged to’ve said before leaving their home the last time, George did not want this marriage to end. He had left to get drunk, of course, but not for any kind of party. He drove thirty minutes away from home, got some liquor, checked himself into a hotel room and, alone, drank himself into a stupor for three days. When he called Tammy afterward to say he wanted to come home, she said he no longer had a home with her and this was the end. Following the legal separation in December, she filed for full divorce in January 1975 and the marriage was terminated in March, making August 1974’s “We Loved It Away” the final duet single released while they were married. Two of Billy Sherrill’s regular writers, George Richey and Carmol Taylor, created this chapter of the reconcilement-after-fake-divorce storyline, in which the “it” loved away is each partner’s insecurity over the relationship. He’s been told she treats love like a game and leaves when she’s bored. She’s been told he’s too restless to ever be tied down. But remaining arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand keeps them together through it all. It was another Top 10 record. A little over six months after it came out, their real divorce was finalized and neither Wynette nor Jones handled it well, at all.

Jones moved from Nashville to Florence, Alabama in order to be close to his drinking partner Peanutt Montgomery. Florence was only about a two-and-a-half-hour drunk drive from Nashville and this was a trip Jones often made multiple times in a single day, just to drive a few laps around Tammy’s circular driveway, just to let her know he cared, then turn around and drive all the way back to Florence. Drink and repeat as needed. In the year 1975, Jones didn’t just quit fighting the bottle, he switched to the bottle’s side in all-out war against himself. He’d go three or four days at a time without eating any solid food, just chugging whiskey until he threw up, then chugging more whiskey. And 1975 was the year many people discovered Tammy Wynette had her own problems. In the early months of the year, she played fewer than ten concerts and even that proved too difficult, going out there alone to face audiences who were disappointed and confused by the absence of George Jones. In February, the month after filing for divorce and the month before it went through, she played a hometown hero show in Tupelo, Mississippi, which by all accounts, was a disaster. Whatever she took (probably Valium or some other benzo), she took so much of it she could hardly stand. She had to be helped off the bus and onto the stage, where she sat on a stool with vacant eyes, mumbling something about George Jones between every half-hearted attempt at singing a song. These shows kept happening and being alone at home wasn’t any easier. One night, still in the early months of 1975, Tammy was taken to a Nashville emergency room to have her stomach pumped of what she later claimed was an accidental overdose. She said she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, even with the sleeping pills her doctors prescribed, so she decided to double the dosage. When that didn’t work, she threw some Valium into the mix and soon she was too fucked up to remember if she’d actually taken more pills or only thought about taking more pills so, just to be safe, she took some more pills. Next thing she knew, one of Billy Sherrill’s songwriters, George Richey, was standing over her and saying everything would be okay while hospital staff piped a tube down her throat. When she later realized how close she came to losing her own life and leaving her children without a mother, Tammy said she swore to “never fool around with pills again.” No account of this evening has ever explained how or why she was found by George Richey.

 

Tammy and George play pool

 

 

Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe.

While you’re on the website, please visit the SUPPORT page to learn how you may be able to help me continue making this show. For everyone who didn’t manage to get their hands on some podcast merchandise before the first round sold out, we’ve got another round of shirts (including a new color) currently in stock and available to order. There are now some embroidered patches available in the store as well. If you see something you want, get it soon because these things are going to sell out. When they do, those items will remain sold out for however long it takes to restock them without a downgrade in quality. Many of you probably don’t know this but when the live event industry started back up after being shut down by the pandemic, everyone went back on tour at the same time and they had new merchandise made to sell on their tours. This has created a national shortage of inventory. There’s nothing I can do about that without lowering my standards and I refuse to sell anything I wouldn’t want to buy myself. I’m still working on coffee mugs and I think we’re close to nailing down a different koozie type and design. I’ll let you know when I know more.

-TMC

 


Liner Notes

 

Excerpted Music

This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:

 

 

Commentary and Remaining Sources

Alright, these Liner Notes shouldn’t take very long.

The intro of this episode is about as close as we’re ever gonna get to a straightforward explanation of what’s happening in the intros of this season. Like you already heard me say, there’s a difference between handing someone a $20 bill and handing them a treasure map. One of those things is way more interesting to me than the other.

This is obviously not my only source on the Medici family or all of the interconnected religious, political and class conflict throughout Europe in the late medieval/early modern era but I did want to mention a couple articles because of how much I liked them and because I think most people who enjoyed my take on this stuff would enjoy reading these pieces. Those would be a pair of articles in Anne Thériault’s Queens of Infamy series on longreads.com. One is called The Rise of Catherine de Medici and the other is called The Reign of Catherine de Medici. Anne’s writing voice is more, I guess you could say, “modern” than mine, which I found helpful when trying to understand such a complicated story. There are hours worth of additional events I summarized or glossed over in providing only what I thought served the larger narrative of this season, so if you were interested in the parts of the story I told then you should know there’s way more and this is one of the best tellings I found.

One detail of the Medici/Valois story I found particularly amusing is: the monk who assassinated Henri III was named Jacques Clément. I have no idea if he was any relation to Cowboy Jack Clement but I would be surprised to learn he wasn’t aware of this small piece of historical trivia, as it seems like something he’d have gotten a kick out of.

When it comes to Catherine “inventing” ballet, there’s some stuff I’ll be talking about later in the season that makes me feel I should point out the difference between ballet and opera, which came along later. The quickest way to understand the distinction is that opera can include elements of ballet but ballet does not typically feature operatic singing.

I also want to point out that when I said many descriptions of either Tammy Wynette or George Jones could apply just as well to the other, I wasn’t saying any of those descriptions were somehow comprehensively accurate or that any description of one aspect of one person’s life could equally apply to the entire life of the other person. For example, the quotes you’ll see about Tammy needing things to be happening even if they were chaotic does not match the description given later in this episode of George being happy with a beer in front of the television, which is an accurate description of what George was like when he was trying to be a good husband to Tammy Wynette in this period of his life. If you replace “beer” with “industrial grade painkillers,” it’s also an accurate description of the “get high and watch hours of TV” routine Tammy settled into later in her life. On the other hand, the “chaos is preferable to nothing” attitude does accurately describe George Jones when he was failing to be a good husband in this period and, later, when he becomes addicted to cocaine. I will keep saying it because there will always be people who can’t see the forest for the trees but Season 2 is one story and we have only just entered the second half. I would recommend not focusing too much on the individual pieces until you’ve at least seen what the whole puzzle looks like.

My main sources for Season 2 are all on the Season 2 Library page.

Today I’ll talk a little about The Legend of George Jones by Charlene and Peanutt Montgomery. Look, neither of these people are authors and this book is poorly written. I cannot recommend reading it for pleasure and the whole thing feels like it only exists as some sort of self-defense argument from George Jones’ estranged friends trying to prove they were not the bad guys. As an example of the type of weird and petty complaints throughout the book, at one point Charlene (who wrote most of the book) takes issue with everyone referring to the period when George Jones was broke and mostly living out of a car as him being “homeless” because George always knew he could come stay with the Montgomerys. This kind of disjointed and rambling logic is always exhausting to sift through to figure out what kind of point the person is even trying to make. But, like I said in the episode, Peanutt and Charlene were two of the people closest to what went on behind the scenes of this marriage so their version of events has to be considered. The Montgomerys’ version of events does confirm information given by other sources and vice versa, so it was helpful in that regard, especially toward the end of trying to form a complete understanding of Tammy Wynette. And that reminds me of something I want to make sure to mention at some point in the Liner Notes of this season, which is how important researching George Jones was to understanding Tammy Wynette and how important researching Tammy Wynette was to understanding George Jones. Anyone who thinks they have a full picture of one of these people because they’ve read only books by or about that person is simply mistaken. This is yet another reason why the website has a Season 2 library page with info on sources for the season as a whole. It’s all too closely linked to present it any other way.

Alright, come back in a couple weeks for another episode on Tammy Wynette, covering the five or so years following her marriage to George Jones.