Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
In addition to The Main Library and the Season 2 Library, these books were used for this episode:
Transcript of Episode
The Beauty Pageant
Most of you haven’t been paying attention but Miss America is in a pretty bad way. They’ve got a lot of problems over there but the reason I can assume you haven’t been paying attention is that’s the biggest one: nobody really cares anymore. First televised in the mid-1950s, by the 1960s Miss America’s annual broadcast captured roughly 3/4 of the national television audience, at which point they were probably already screwed, even if it took a while for anyone to realize it. Like Bob Dylan (and maybe Abraham Lincoln) said, you just can’t please all the people all the time.
There are several ways to view the beginning of Miss America. One is: in 1921, a year after women started being allowed to vote, local business owners in Atlantic City decided to boost tourism by throwing a swimsuit contest to remind everyone of the role women were supposed to serve in America. And one way to view how women finally gained real support for being allowed to vote after fifty years or so of trying is: they got dressed up and made up as if to attend a prestigious ball, then paraded their smiling faces through cities and towns to prove an interest in the body politic wouldn’t affect their interest in the body beautiful. They did this because one of the ideas holding suffrage back for so long was the fear political involvement would lead women to abandon the roles and aesthetics society expected of them, from poised and polite behavior to wearing makeup and feminine fashions. Basically, a lot of people worried women who were allowed to do things only men did would start acting like men across the board. So, near the beginning of the 20th century, smiling suffragists took to the streets serving their finest looks for everyone to see the nice and pretty ladies who would pretty please like to be able to vote, which was made clear by the sashes hanging from their shoulders, reading VOTES FOR WOMEN. These were similar to the sashes worn by similarly dressed up women parading through the streets to support temperance and/or Prohibition. In 1920, the year after federal Prohibition went through, the 19th Amendment was ratified and millions of women were given a vote. Sashes, who knew? In 1921, Atlantic City businessmen threw those sashes on young women in swimsuits, paraded them down the streets and declared one to be the most aesthetically pleasing.
Now, many types of beauty pageant existed for centuries prior to this and many tamer versions had already generated a great deal of controversy, so the guys who started this thing must have planned on having haters from Day 1. But it wasn’t women’s rights activists who shut down Miss America little more than five years after it began. It was the men who launched it. Because what they hadn’t planned on was all the women whose strategy for winning the crown included revealing swimsuits and otherwise provocative fashions. In 1927, nearly every contestant chose to display a then-scandalous amount of skin and, in 1928, there was not a Miss America pageant. The Atlantic City businessmen decided the money and publicity weren’t worth destroying their reputations as upstanding citizens of the community and they scrapped the whole thing.
When Miss America came back in the mid-1930s, it was with a few modifications to keep history from repeating. Most importantly, Lenora Slaughter was put in charge, partly due to her successful track record running other pageants, partly to use a woman as a shield from criticism by the increasing number of women’s rights activists. Toward this end, Slaughter added the Talent category which became mandatory from 1938 forward, providing at least the claim Miss America was no longer crowned exclusively based on the way she looked in a swimsuit. However, the way a woman looked in a swimsuit could still prevent her from even being able to compete because one way Miss America needed to look was white. As part of Lenora Slaughter’s plan to keep the pageant “respectable” and all controversy in its past, every contestant was required to be single (that’s never married, divorced or pregnant), “in good health” (meaning no physical or mental disabilities, no visible deviations from beauty standards represented in contemporary movies and magazines) and at least able to pass as white. Though this last item may have only been an official, on-paper rule for a few years, Slaughter ran Miss America for three decades and as late as 1969 pageant officials were still making statements to the press in defense of their allegiance to “plain American idealism” by saying things like, “We are for normalcy. We have no interest in minorities or causes.” And, of course, the reason a Miss America representative would say such a thing in 1969 is all the publicity generated by feminist protests in 1968.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, there were no bra burnings on the Atlantic City boardwalk outside the ceremony that year but there were homemade signs comparing the evaluation of women’s bodies to a cattle auction. Many protesters were quoted in many articles pointing out the racism and ableism on display in the previous 50 years of Miss America, so you could say it was a long time coming. In fact, by this point, several contestants of the pageant inside would have agreed with issues raised by the protestors outside. Over the previous thirty years or so, many Misses America had pushed back against being viewed as little more than someone with a physically appealing body. As early as the 1940s, some winners resisted making further public appearances in the swimsuit they had to wear to even be considered for the crown and by the end of the decade all winners changed out of the swimsuit before being crowned. At the beginning of the 1950s, one Miss America announced her intention to remain fully clothed for all public appearances in her year under the tiara and the pageant’s swimsuit sponsor reacted by launching a new pageant on the other side of the continent. California’s Miss USA has always been an unapologetic beauty pageant. Women wear a swimsuit to be judged on how they look at the beach. They wear a dress to be judged on how they look at parties. They are interviewed to be judged on how well they speak when spoken to. There is no Talent category. There is also no evidence of the identity crisis which has plagued Miss America for the past 50 years, ever since they said they didn’t care about “minorities or causes” only to discover how many contestants, fans and viewers in the TV audience at home did care about such matters.
As ratings and profits steadily declined in the wake of declaring an official position which clashed with shifting social mores, Miss America set out to once more rehabilitate her image, using the language of female empowerment to shield a beauty pageant from accusations of patriarchal exploitation. By the end of the 1980s, a new Platform category required contestants to speak out on their chosen social cause, the very thing rebuked by pageant officials two decades earlier. Further updates followed this trend until the whole thing morphed into some kind of pretend political campaign for a woman presidency which doesn’t actually exist. Official Miss America messaging now refers to contestants as “candidates” and it’s no longer a pageant at all but, rather, a “competition.” The Platform category has become a “Social Impact Initiative” and, of course, there is no longer a Swimsuit category. Many of these recent changes were made by Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989 and ex-Fox News TV personality, who became chairwoman of the pageant’s board in 2018, following the scandal caused by her male predecessor’s leaked emails. Sam Haskell may not have been the first executive in the history of the organization to privately body-shame or slut-shame “candidates” but, in post-#MeToo America, he was the first to be instantly fired and replaced by a woman.
As far as human shields go, they could hardly have done better than Gretchen Carlson, who many would argue launched the #MeToo age by suing Fox News CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. This and Carlson’s sweeping changes to the pageant were the stories sold with every bit of Miss America’s PR might. Well, every bit except for Cara Mund, the woman who happened to be the actual Miss America when the scandal broke out. In August of 2018, Cara wrote an open letter stating “the rhetoric about empowering women and openness and transparency is great: however, the reality is quite different.” It took her five further pages of text to paint a picture of that reality, in which her own voice, agency and utility as the reigning Miss America were stifled by a team of handlers tasked with ensuring Cara was effectively erased as the face of the pageant, replaced by the PR narrative of Gretchen Carlson swooping in to save the day. Whatever media outlets still believed anything that happened at Miss America may be considered newsworthy were pushed to interview the chairwoman of the board instead of the pageant’s most recent winner, who claims she was sometimes deceived into missing scheduled appearances to give her the reputation of being “difficult” and unprofessional, thus making it easier to keep her off-camera and out of sight. To say the least, this is not the corporate culture one would expect from a “competition” once more rebranding itself as a place of empowerment for women. But even without evidence of such cynical insincerity and hypocrisy, these optical maneuvers had little chance of doing the trick because this whole thing was a last-ditch gamble that alienating whatever was left of a beauty pageant’s ever-diminishing fan base would gain the attention of a larger audience who wants to see a pretend political campaign for women. The problem is there’s no proof this audience exists. When people start paying attention to a beauty pageant, it’s because they want to watch a beauty pageant. Nobody tunes in to a swimsuit contest because they care about politics. They tune in to see a swimsuit contest, a cattle auction, a charming and beautiful woman crowned royalty so they can imagine a handsome bachelor stepping into frame with a rose. And if Miss America won’t be that princess, then someone else will.
Keep On Falling
One of everyone’s favorite Tammy Wynette songs is the quintessential “Til I Get It Right.” It’s something of a decoder ring for the character. Unlike most of her love songs, the lyrics make no reference to a man because this one isn’t about being in love with a man. It’s about being in love with being in love. It’s about that feeling being the most important thing in life to her and how losing that feeling would, therefore, be the most terrible thing. This explains the actions, beliefs, fears and tolerance for awful partners found in so many other Tammy Wynette songs. While both Tammy the character and the person were in love with being in love, this played out very differently in real life than it did in musical works of fiction. With few exceptions, once the Tammy character fixated her love on one man she was capable of holding it there forever. No matter what the man did or who with, the only way a relationship could end was if he walked away. Even then, she’d take him back if he returned before the next chance at being in love came along. This was absolutely not true of real-life Tammy, the partner who filed in every one of her divorces. It does sound like she had great reasons to end most, if not all, of those marriages but nearly everyone who knew her described an inability to fixate her love on one man and hold it there forever. Though she excelled at the first part, the fun free-fall into love, it was only a matter of time – maybe a year or two or three – before the initial rush wore off and she started looking around for another hit. Whether they were the one who got left or the one doing the leaving, both Tammys kept falling in love. “Til I Get It Right” was written by Red Lane and Larry Henley. According to Henley, Tammy and Billy Sherrill were both going to pass on the song, only George Jones happened to be there during the pitch and convinced everyone it would be a hit for Tammy. She cut it in May 1972 – about a month after she and George recorded “A Lovely Place to Cry” – then the record came out in December, around the time they moved from Florida back to Nashville. With his artists in Music City again, Billy Sherrill must have known it wouldn’t take long for the trouble he saw in their private lives to spill out of one mansion or another and land in the news. After “Til I Get It Right” hit #1, he went digging around in the vault for something to play into the rumors of why Tammy and George may have left what was supposed to be their Old Plantation dream home. What he found was “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
Three years after cutting the tape, the idea of Tammy’s children repeating overheard threats of divorce had taken on a whole new meaning, so Billy released it as a single. A couple months after the record hit #1, Tammy filed her bluff divorce at the same time the label put out “We’re Gonna Hold On” and Billy Sherrill decided the Tammy character was going to be unhappily married for a while. On her next solo album, 10 of the 11 songs were about cheating, being cheated on or sleeping with a new lover to get over the previous one. Tammy and Billy wrote the title track with Norro Wilson after Tammy said she felt like writing “another lonely song.” “Another Lonely Song” went #1 as her final single of 1973 and the LP came out in March 1974, the same month she failed to sabotage Melba Montgomery’s “No Charge.” On the b-side of Tammy’s “No Charge,” “The Telephone Call” again recruited her daughter Tina, this time paired with George Jones, whose attempt at a sweet call home to the missus goes wrong thanks to using a child as translator. After “No Charge” failed to become a hit or stop Melba Montgomery from going #1, Tammy’s next single was “Woman to Woman,” the #4 record she feared was the beginning of the end. Her following single also only made it to #4, despite a theme and title seemingly intent on provoking rabid fury from anyone who was even mildly annoyed by “Stand by Your Man.” Released the month after filing for divorce from Jones in 1975, her anxiety over “You Make Me Want to Be a Mother” performing no better than “Woman to Woman” no doubt contributed to Tammy’s reckless drug use in this period.
Her first single to come out after the divorce went through was “I Still Believe in Fairy Tales,” written by A-Team guitarist Grady Martin, who worked with Billy Sherrill and Tammy often enough to glimpse how these scripts were made, go back a few years to “Til I Get It Right” and create a new version disguised as a chivalrous romance. This language was not new to a Tammy Wynette record. The year before “Til I Get Right,” Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton sent out for a bunch of children’s books to research “Bedtime Story,” a #1 hit about a king being tempted away from his queen. But in “Bedtime Story,” the king comes back to his queen and lives happily ever after. Grady Martin’s “I Still Believe in Fairy Tales” doesn’t give us a happy ending because his song has a dragon. Many years earlier, Loretta Lynn told her man not to come home a-drinkin’ with lovin’ on his mind. And Tammy covered the song on her first album before she and Billy figured out her character. Once they did, Tammy started wishing and begging for her man to come home and get some lovin’ no matter how much drinkin’ he did because it was almost always implied the drinking happened as a byproduct of his spending time with other women, which is what tortured Tammy much more than the booze. Then, on “I Still Believe in Fairy Tales,” the dragon slayed her king.
Chasing the Dragon
From this side of history, George Jones’ alcoholism is viewed as integral to his persona and often taken for granted as always having been so. Everyone in the industry and most of his fans had seen him drunk off his ass at least once in the 1950s and ‘60s. He did have a few boozy hits in those decades, like “Just One More” and “White Lightning,” and continued to cut drinking songs every now and then, like “Heartaches and Hangovers” on I’ll Share My World with You. But that song and nearly all others like it were only used for filler and, in this era of his career you could easily buy a couple new George Jones albums in a row without hearing one drinking song.
The fact is he was only typecast as an alcoholic on record after his divorce from Tammy Wynette at the beginning of 1975 and her role in making alcoholism a core trait of the Jones character can not be overstated. First of all, the mainstream media only came to know of George Jones’ existence through his marriage to the much-more famous pop crossover artist Tammy Wynette. For the same reasons Billy Sherrill was able to sell country music in a package that appealed to these consumers of popular music, pop culture media became fascinated with Jones’ problems and the potential for controversy he brought to the Tammy Wynette narrative. To this media, the end of their marriage was like blood in the water and Tammy proved willing to dish out sordid details in interviews, concerts and on albums. When George’s lawyers responded to her divorce filing with a lawsuit against Tammy and their booking agency for somehow conspiring to damage George’s career, she immediately went to the press and generated headlines with a passive-aggressive statement about George’s “illness” and how much “help” he needed. By the end of the year, her concerts featured a segment in which she sat on stage with an acoustic guitar and played a miniature set of songs she introduced as being written about her marriage falling apart. Everyone paying close attention at the time noticed one of these songs was “A Lovely Place to Cry,” dating the beginning of the split all the way back to Lakeland in 1972. One of the newer pieces in the segment was “The Bottle,” a song Tammy wrote on her own about “a loser” who she hopes sees the face of his now ex-wife and their daughter every time he looks at the bottle.
When reporters then asked Jones all the questions you’d imagine, he never attempted to lie about or underplay the role his drinking had in destroying the relationship. What was previously left unspoken or addressed only as a fixable problem became an immutable aspect of George Jones. We should note it was only after both artists persisted in openly discussing Jones’ alcoholism as the main factor in their divorce that Billy Sherrill and his crew of songwriters decided to play the ball as it lay. Jones’ initial post-divorce singles had not put a spotlight on the bottle. First came “These Days I Barely Get By,” written by Tammy Wynette when they were still together and recorded by George two days before he left home with his overnight bag for what turned out to be the last time. The record went Top 10 Tammy said it broke her heart hearing him sing it on the radio every day. The first song he recorded after the divorce was “I Just Don’t Give a Damn,” which he wrote with Jimmy Peppers. Even though the lyrics seem to explain why Jones plans to keep drinking through the night, drinking is never actually mentioned. “I Just Don’t Give a Damn” may be one of the best country songs in history, often placed on George Jones’ “greatest hits” compilations, but it was originally released only as a b-side to the downer divorcee ballad “Memories of Us” and not, in fact, a hit. Then – two months later, following half a year of back and forth between both artists in the press – Tammy’s first post-divorce single pointed her finger at a dragon and George Jones’ on-record persona received a permanent update.
After “I Still Believe in Fairy Tales,” every George Jones album produced by Billy Sherrill contained at least one drinking song. For the next LP, Billy dusted off a b-side from over a year earlier with lyrics George and Tammy wrote about a man-baby begging a woman to wean him off the bottle with her love. Far too bizarre to ever make it as a single, “Wean Me” was placed as an album track on The Battle LP. The title track (written by Norro Wilson, George Richey and Linda Kimball) seems to be a direct response to “I Still Believe in Fairy Tales,” borrowing the vocabulary of chivalrous romance to depict love as a noble battle. As coincidences are seldom in any universe controlled by Billy Sherrill, the title of “The Battle” being one letter away from Tammy’s “The Bottle” is probably significant enough to mention. The big drinking song on Jones’ next album was “A Drunk Can’t Be a Man,” written by George and Peanutt Montgomery. The course plotted with this turn toward alcoholism as a recurring theme would eventually lead to some of Jones’ biggest hits and/or most enduring songs, like “Bartender’s Blues,” “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” “Still Doin’ Time,” “Tennessee Whiskey” and so many others. This update to his character proved incredibly marketable in the late 1970s and carried his career well through the ‘80s, in part because it was periodically reinforced by George Jones, the person, behaving like a complete lunatic.
Near the end of the ‘70s, he started doing cocaine like it was his job and, as a result, began acting increasingly self-destructive and insane. But his fans in this era already had an image of him as a drunk. Many had little or no experience with his new, expensive drug of choice, so whenever cocaine was mentioned alongside booze in the headlines and gossip columns, most assumed it was just some supplemental party drug he did between swigs from a bottle. Besides, Tammy Wynette never wrote a song about him doing blow, right? There arose a sick form of synergy whereby every article covering a no-show or other major fuckup lent more power to every drinking song by or about George Jones and every drinking song by or about George Jones lent more power to every article covering a no-show or other major fuckup. This is when he became country music’s heroic drunk, the perpetual underdog. Even though he was truly only ever fighting against himself, everybody loves to root for the underdog. This was the sympathetic character Tammy Wynette accidentally helped create for George Jones and it must have been frustrating for her to watch it all play out, as it’s the role she thought she was giving herself.
The problem was Tammy’s character only had one path to sympathy, suffering at the hands of a villain. The men she loved became the men who left her for the women she’d always feared would steal them away, thus making Tammy not a perpetual underdog but an eternal victim. She was cursed to a cycle of giddy happiness at the beginning of a relationship, anxious fear while in the relationship, then guilty loneliness after the relationship’s end. Because she only existed in relation to other characters, the plots available to her writers were inherently limited and repetitive, leaving no room for any kind of development without betraying her entire nature. If “Tammy Wynette” were a major role on a soap opera, viewers would eventually start complaining until writers simply killed off her character in a plane crash and brought the actress back as an evil twin, giving her a more interesting and unpredictable role as the type of villain who’d inspired such fear in the boring, dead sister. Unfortunately, the cocktail of fact and fiction served up by Billy Sherrill and his writers was much more delicate than a soap opera and such heavy-handed twists were not an option, regardless of how much the real Tammy had in common with the femme fatales she feared so much in song. Outside of fiction, if Wynette wanted a man, she’d get him and it was entirely irrelevant whether he was already in a relationship. In fact, there were several instances when it seems a man already being in a relationship only added to her excitement and perhaps even inspired the initial attraction. Her own hairdresser claimed Wynette slept with no less than three of the hairdresser’s boyfriends, seemingly just to prove she could do it, and would then invent a reason to be angry with the hairdresser in order to get around feeling remorse for the transgression. But for her songwriters to introduce such complex behavior to the character would unmake the Tammy fans thought they knew, who had spent years singing about such women as villains. There was no choice but to stay the course, even as fans received glimpses of the real person which gave them the same feelings of betrayal as if her songs all suddenly took on the perspective of a man-eating seductress.
The more her audience learned about Wynette, someone journalist Alanna Nash characterized as “a person who needed to cause a lot of chaos in her life, a lot of drama,” the less credible her audience found the Tammy character. In the second half of the 1970s, this became an insurmountable problem. Beginning with her increased attempts to engage the press after the divorce from Jones, through several scandals and embarrassing media stunts, then culminating with the publication of so many obvious lies in the 1979 autobiography, her fans saw too far behind the curtain and Tammy’s solo career never recovered. While George Jones released twelve Top 5 singles in the 1980s, Tammy only put one record in the Top 10, precisely the thing she feared would happen when she kept George awake at night wondering if her career would soon be over. And maybe she was right to worry. Maybe this was always going to happen when country music fans grew tired of the repetitive storylines on her records. Or maybe she manifested her own personal nightmare through clumsy attempts to orchestrate a reality she believed would cause her audience to buy into the character rather than perceive deceit and begin to doubt it. Either way, her fears came true.
One of the more blatant inconsistencies in her book was the bit about taking off the whole month of December 1974, immediately followed by the bit about the last show she played in December 1974. It’s impossible to know which parts of this self-contradictory story are untrue but the reason she told it was to explain how she wound up keeping George Jones’ band in the divorce. She assumed the Jones Boys would stay with their original boss when she told them about the split and said to contact George after Christmas for information on future gigs. To her surprise, each band member reached out one at a time over the following days to say they’d rather keep working for her. For one thing, they had enough experience with Jones to know the path his life was about to take did not present a stable source of income to anyone who only got paid if their boss fulfilled the terms of a contract. Whatever else one could say about Tammy Wynette, she showed up to work. At the first concert she played in 1975, someone in the audience yelled out “Where’s George?” and she froze onstage, unsure what to say or do. Then, Jones Boy James Hollie stepped up to the mic and said, “She doesn’t know where George is. Even George doesn’t know where George is,” diffusing the situation with laughter. But recycling the line at future concerts and the continued support of the Jones Boys didn’t always dissuade hecklers or relieve the anxiety Tammy felt over taking the stage each night without George. And there was always the fear of selling fewer and fewer records until the label eventually dropped her. She self-medicated with pills, leading to several concerts given from a stool because she couldn’t stand, then the “accidental overdose,” after which she corrected course through the only method available to her character: vilifying her most recent hero/lover.
In June of 1975, she recorded the self-written “Your Memory’s Gone to Rest,” which is about the night she decided to get her shit together by calling some girlfriends to come over and help purge the house of all evidence George once lived there. Just to prove she could handle hearing him on the radio all the time, they listened to a stack of George Jones albums while removing his awards from the walls and clothes from the closets, putting it all in boxes. “Your Memory’s Gone to Rest” was sequenced next to “The Bottle” on the I Still Believe in Fairy Tales LP and placed on the b-side of the title track’s single. None of these songs were major hits but they all went in the new, Jones-centric acoustic mini-set at her concerts. As for other updates to her act, Tammy gave credit (or blame) to Billy Sherrill, who pointed out she could expect hecklers to keep asking where her ex-husband was as long as she continued to tour the exact same package with George the only thing missing. Taking this advice, she rebranded The Jones Boys as Country Gentlemen and fired her opening acts, comedian/banjo player Harold Morrison and singer Patsy Sledd. Since Patsy also sang backup and harmony during Tammy’s set, this position became vacant and Tammy decided to fill it with a full, Nashville Sound-style vocal chorus. News of the job opening reached Larry Gatlin, then one of Nashville’s newest hitmakers, and he suggested his little brothers and sister for the job. Tammy named her new backup group Young Country and soon, much to the dismay of older brother Larry, began sleeping with Rudy Gatlin.
The Dating Game
She said the relationship with Rudy, then 23 years old or so, made her feel young and came with no expectations because he knew she was also seeing other people. Hell, everyone knew she was seeing other people. The tabloids kept track of newly-single Tammy Wynette’s nocturnal activities like some kind of documentary on an endangered species released into the wild to find a mate. Readers received regular updates on the various men she was confirmed or suspected to be dating and it’s a wonder Vegas bookies didn’t start taking bets on who she’d choose for her next attempt at monogamy. Since this was three years after the combo of starring in Deliverance and posing for a nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine made Burt Reynolds one of the biggest movie stars in the world, most gossip rags and fans picked him for the favorite.
Tammy and Burt had met in September 1975, when he came to Nashville to tape an episode of Jerry Reed’s TV talk show. After Burt found out Tammy was also scheduled as a guest, he asked Jerry to invite her out to a dinner with several other friends the night before the taping. She accepted, everyone had a fun time and, after dinner, Tammy and Burt separated from the pack to spend an hour or two on their own, just hanging out and talking. After taping Jerry’s show the next day, everyone went out for dinner again and, again, Tammy and Burt wound up alone at the end of the night. This time, though, they woke up next to each other in the morning. A couple months later, Tammy used a small gap in some tour dates for a quick trip to Los Angeles to do more talk shows. Burt heard she was in town, figured out what hotel she was at and phoned to she if she had any time for him but she said she was too busy, which may or may not have been true. What definitely was true is one of the shows she was in town to do was hosted by Dinah Shore and Dinah Shore had famously been in a serious relationship with Burt Reynolds for the previous four years or so. In fact, Tammy wasn’t exactly certain whether or not this relationship was over and gossip rags had already printed photos of her and Burt having dinner together in Nashville. So Tammy was scared of what may happen if Dinah found out she and Burt slept together. If Dinah did know and/or was upset, she never said anything to Tammy about it.
Back in Nashville the following week, Tammy received another call at home from Burt Reynolds, who kept calling every week or two. Burt being even more famous than Tammy, his “dinner companions” were more frequently and widely reported than hers, so she was constantly informed and reminded of his involvement with other women. Still, she began to develop real feelings for him, which biographer Joan Dew suspects was the main reason Tammy made at least one of the several disastrous choices she made over the next several years, either she was trying to sabotage the relationship before he had a chance to break her heart or she was trying to make him jealous enough to quit fooling around with other women and commit to monogamy with her. Whatever the case, gossip magazines continued to track her dating life and she continued to provide names worthy of bold type, dating other glitterati of Nashville society, famous athletes and… George Jones. Or, at least, that’s what country music fans were given plenty of reason to believe.
Tammy and George hadn’t spoken since their divorce when she spotted him at the 1975 DJ Convention in Nashville. Presumably, Jones took a short break from embalming himself to show up and rub elbows with power players in the industry, so the person Tammy saw across the room didn’t look like the “loser” from “The Bottle” but George Jones, The Greatest Country Singer Ever, who’d once before committed to a monogamous relationship with her. And they may not have spoken since the divorce but Tammy had seen quite a bit of him. All she had to do was look out her living room window at the right time to catch him doing a few laps in the driveway, just to let her know he hadn’t moved on. Was this an unhealthy and manic display of attention? Hell yeah, it was. And if Burt Reynolds ever did anything like it then Tammy Wynette probably would have married him. These periodic drunk check-ins inspired her to write a song called “I Just Drove By to See If I Was Really Gone.” We don’t know what else they discussed at the 1975 DJ Convention but she must’ve told him about this song because, even though it’s never been released, Jones cut it the same month. The month after the convention, Tammy joined him onstage at Possum Holler, the Nashville nightclub in Printer’s Alley Jones opened earlier in the year, the day their divorce went through. They ran through their duet act just like old times and Tammy told the crowd she was “having a date with Mr. Jones.” The week before that, she made a surprise appearance at a George Jones concert in Kentucky and audience members watched her hop on his bus after the show for the ride back to Nashville. They both gave quotes to the media explaining they were just friends trying to figure out how to stay in each other’s lives for the sake of their child. But other “unidentified sources” claiming to be in the know gave their own quotes saying it was only a matter of time until Tammy and George got back together as they’d done so many times before.
Then, in January of 1976, Tammy dropped her next single. Just about everyone thought it meant she and Jones were an item again. George Richey had come up with the title – “Til I Can Make It on My Own” – a full year earlier, when Tammy and Jones first split, but Billy Sherrill told him to shelve it for a while and see how everything played out. After Tammy and Jones began appearing together in public, Richey called Tammy and Billy over to his house to finish the song. Billy didn’t want to go because he had money riding on a football game but they said he could watch the game at Richey’s house. In between downs, he’d come check on whatever Tammy and Richey had going at the piano, make some changes, then return to the TV. Tammy wrote the line everyone agreed was the best one in the song: “Til I get used to losing you, let me keep on using you.” At the beginning of each verse the vocal melody lifts to its highest point as Tammy sings optimistically of a future time when she’ll get an ex-lover off her mind, when she’ll need a friend, when she’ll keep trying and when there’ll be a brighter day with a morning sun. Each time, the melody then drops with her spirit as we return to the present, when she’s still occasionally finding herself back on the phone and, presumably, back in a bed with the same ex-lover. When she says it’s only until she can make it on her own, the melody doesn’t rise with the words because this is Tammy Wynette and everyone knows she will never make it on her own. According to Tammy, everybody in studio was silent during playback because they all knew how near this song was to a journal entry for her. When the single came out amidst rumors and articles she was getting back together with George Jones, it became one of her final two #1 records as a solo artist. The other was also written by George Richey with help from Billy Sherrill.
In the official story, “You and Me” is about Richey secretly being in love with Tammy for two years prior to marrying her. However, in the official story Tammy was “shocked” to discover Richey and his previous wife were getting a divorce, which is difficult to imagine since Tammy and Richey sleeping together was a contributing factor to the divorce. According to Joan Dew, the two of them thought it was hilarious to prank call Richey’s wife late at night when she was alone and had no idea where her husband was. So maybe “You and Me” is about Richey’s secret love for Tammy and maybe she was already in on the secret. Billy Sherrill is who had the idea to place musical cues beneath certain lyrics, like sprinkles of piano to represent the rain and a drum to represent the heartbeat of the man she’s in bed with. The month “You and Me” came out, Tammy got married – not to George Richey, George Jones, Burt Reynolds or even Rudy Gatlin – but Michael Tomlin.
As always, we’ll probably never know exactly when Tammy and Michael started sleeping together. This time, that’s because Michael was one of the guys she stole from her hairdresser. Given the way this story unfolds, it seems likely Michael was not surprised to learn his girlfriend’s boss was Tammy Wynette and perhaps the hairdresser was a means to his end from the beginning. And, really, it was bound to happen. The more Tammy shared in interviews about her desire and need to be married and the more tabloids speculated on who this rich, famous serial monogamist may select for her next husband, the more conmen became aware of a prime target. If Tammy spent any time in a chair listening to her hairdresser talk about this new boyfriend, she’d have heard how Michael Tomlin was a rich bachelor who made his money in Nashville real estate and celebrated his wealth in all the stereotypical ways, wearing fancy clothes while driving an expensive car from his fancy office to drink expensive bottles of champagne in fancy nightclubs before returning home to an expensive apartment. And when Tammy started sleeping with Michael, she was impressed by the way he’d drop everything to lease a private jet and come visit her on the road. After they were married, she paid the bill for the jet. The marriage only lasted about 40 days, during which time Tammy learned how much of Michael’s lifestyle was a sham. He wasn’t so much a rich bachelor who’d made a fortune skillfully navigating real estate deals as he was a bachelor who spent whatever money he managed to get on appearing rich. Most of the things he used to signal wealth, right down to the expensive furniture in the fancy office, were rented or placed on various lines of credit.
Pretty much everyone in her life warned her against marrying Michael. The fact she did it anyway is a prime example of the stubbornness Wynette Pugh’s mother faced when trying to make her teenage daughter stop chasing after a married man. Wynette’s mom was so alarmed by Michael Tomlin, she got in touch with George Jones to have him call Tammy and ask if she really knew what she was doing with this guy. But no matter who said it or what they said, Wynette only grew more determined to marry Michael in an extravagant wedding befitting the lifestyle to which they were both accustomed. Of course, Tammy paid for the wedding. And when the marriage ended fewer than two months later, well-informed tabloid readers and the general public began asking what everyone in her personal life had wondered all along: why did she marry this guy?
Her autobiography contains many explanations: she was scared of her strong feelings for Burt Reynolds, tired of reporters asking if Burt Reynolds would be her next husband and Michael Tomlin would look like an idiot if she called off the wedding right after telling reporters they were in love. This last one is a particularly strong candidate for why she actually went through with saying the words “I do” but it’s a sure thing she wasn’t thinking only about Michael’s potential for embarrassment. According to Tammy, she made the decision to marry Michael about 48 hours prior to her lawyer finding out the National Enquirer had a cover story coming out on her relationship with Burt Reynolds. According to Tammy, the Enquirer was too close to their print deadline to completely change the cover when she announced her engagement to Michael Tomlin and that’s why they pivoted at the last minute from a story about Burt Reynolds dating Tammy Wynette to a story about Burt Reynolds dating Tammy Wynette at the same time he was dating Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. If you’re thinking, “Well, that doesn’t really make any sense,” no, it doesn’t. Especially if you look up when that National Enquirer cover story ran and learn it came out three months after Tammy’s wedding to Michael, by which time they were already divorced.
After Tammy’s version of this story came out in her autobiography, Lucie Arnaz publicly admitted having a fling with Burt Reynolds for a year-and-a-half just prior to the long-term relationship he entered with Sally Field in 1977. All of which means it’s fairly certain the National Enquirer was never planning a cover story on Burt Reynolds exclusively dating Tammy Wynette, which means the questions she was tired of hearing from reporters weren’t about Burt Reynolds exclusively dating Tammy Wynette. Maybe she really did decide to marry Michael two whole days before announcing it to reporters. Or maybe she decided to marry him when she heard herself telling a reporter that’s what she was going to do because it’s the first thing she thought of to make them stop asking why Burt Reynolds was dating her and Lucie Arnaz at the same time. And if it sounds farfetched to propose Wynette would actually marry someone just because she lied to a tabloid about being so extremely in love with a guy who wasn’t Burt Reynolds, consider the fact she told her lawyer (the man who supposedly hipped her to this article) all the same lies. She was so in love with Michael there would be no need for a prenup. There was no reason to keep their finances separate because they were gonna be together forever. She told her lawyer this even though, as she admits in her book, she spent the entire wedding day in full cognizance and dread of the horrible mistake she was in the process of making, hating herself the whole time for going through with it. Then there’s the other explanation she gives for her poor decision-making on this matter, which is the fact someone tried to burn her house down two months before the wedding. She just felt like she needed a man around for safety.
According to her, the anonymous harassment began in the spring of 1975, soon after the divorce from George Jones. What began with some sinister person calling her house late at night to breathe heavily down the phone line soon progressed to death threats sent in to her concert venues and hotels on tour. Then the death threats started showing up in her mailbox. You know the kind, letters cut one-by-one from a magazine and pasted into a message on a piece of paper so there’s no handwriting to recognize or analyze, just like the movies. Then came the home invasions, almost always with a twist of vandalism: graffiti on the walls or flooding caused by stopping up a sink drain and running the faucet. Tammy called the cops every time but they never came up with a suspect or even a solid lead, probably eventually concluding what Joan Dew and many others later admitted to believing: Tammy did all or most of these things herself to generate attention and sympathy for herself.
Even Tammy’s own account of these incidents seems like she’s begging to be found out, acknowledging the mysterious villain operated with an apparent supernatural awareness of her life and plans. This person seemed to know what she was going to do and when before she knew it herself. No matter how many times she changed her unlisted phone number, she claims the prank phone calls kept coming, sometimes only hours after getting a new number. There was never a break-in or any other incident at her home while she was away on tour. For the three months she hired a private security firm to watch her house, nothing happened, so she got rid of the security and the break-ins started again. Then there’s the part where this alleged harassment was carried out by a person who, when it came down to it, was evidently not interested in killing or even harming Tammy Wynette. Despite well over a dozen incidents and many opportunities a homicidal person could have used to easily follow through on a death threat, they never even tried. The details of any given incident rarely add up to any kind of sense. For example, there were multiple times a skylight on her flat and easily-accessible roof was left open, which always coincided with the wires of her security system being cut in the basement of the house. Now, if the intruder entered through the skylight, they’d need to be an incredibly fast person to reach the basement and cut those security system wires before triggering the alarm. But if they used a different point of entry, near enough to the basement to cut the security system wires before triggering the alarm, why on earth would they always choose to leave through the furthest away of many available exits in the house, a skylight? And why would the intruder do this exact combination of things multiple times solely in order to do this exact combination of things and nothing else? The skylight incidents were never accompanied by any kind of theft and never resulted in any kind of harm coming to Tammy. It seems the only and entire point of these missions was to leave some wires cut in a basement and a skylight open on the roof. Since there were often cigarette butts left on her roof or in the bushes outside, Tammy deduced this intruder must be a smoker. She also happened to be a smoker at this time but neglects to share whether she and her tormentor enjoyed the same brand. We also have to ask whether these acts of vandalism were committed by the same person who, several years earlier, used red lipstick to write “PIG” on the back door of Old Plantation? Charlene and Peanutt Montgomery sure thought Tammy was the person who did that, which would certainly explain why the same word appeared so frequently in the graffiti left in Nashville.
One night, while Tammy was still dating Rudy Gatlin, Rudy and George Richey took her daughters roller-skating while Tammy stayed at home with Richey’s then-wife, Sheila. According to Tammy, she and Sheila were so involved in conversation they hadn’t thought to turn on any lights in the house when the sun went down, so the mysterious villain probably thought nobody was home and decided to pay a visit. If anyone out there is making a murder wall to try and solve this thing, it seems Tammy was Team Skylight-as-Point-of-Entry because she claims she and Sheila were talking in the dark when all of the sudden they heard footsteps on the roof of the house. While trying to choose whether they should hide inside or make a run for the car, the phone rang because one of her daughters just so happened to call from the skating ring. Tammy said to send Rudy and Richey back to the house at once. When the men pulled up about ten minutes later they saw words like “pig” and “whore” written all over the outside of the house in lipstick and red paint. Checking around for the perpetrator, the guys found nothing, then took everyone to spend the night at Richey’s home. When they returned the next day, the inside of the house had also been vandalized with derogatory remarks, including the words “YOU SLUT” on a mirror above Tammy’s bed. Strangely, even after acknowledging this intruder seemed to know every little thing about her life, Tammy found it especially perplexing they’d discovered the mirror facing down from the wooden canopy over her bed. But Tammy couldn’t have done this one herself, right? Because George Richey’s wife was right there with her the whole time, right? Well, Tammy’s version of what happened this night differs significantly from the version given by Richey in the Dolly Carlisle biography of George Jones. There, he states on record that Tammy called him at the skating rink to come back to the house. There was no fortunately-timed, happenstance phone call from the skating rink home. When Rudy and Richey arrived, there was no graffiti on the outside or inside of the house: “When we got back, Rudy and I went through every crevice, nook, and cranny in the house. We had no gun. I had a butcher knife and a fireplace poker. Rudy had a fireplace poker. We went through every inch of the house and found nothing.” Richey didn’t see any graffiti until they came back to the house the next day and it was only inside the house, not outside. Since his ex-wife Sheila died of what was ruled a suicide in 1981, we can’t ask her what happened when it was just her and Tammy at the house. We can’t ask if she maybe dozed off in the darkness of Tammy’s unlit home only to be awakened by Tammy convincingly freaked out over hearing footsteps on the roof. We can’t ask if Sheila heard those footsteps. And wouldn’t it be interesting to know if, after the men came back, searched the whole house and found no intruders or graffiti, anyone happened to accompany Tammy from room to room as she packed sleeping bags and clothes for her and her daughters to spend the night with the Richeys?
By far, the strangest thing about her footsteps on the roof story is that she tries to sell it as “the most terrifying of the incidents” even though only months later it was followed by a sequence of events she could not possibly have staged herself, all much more violent than these earlier oblique harassments and some posing great risk of physical harm to her and her children. At least twice, someone threw large rocks through her home’s windows, sending broken glass flying into rooms where Tammy sat with one or another of her daughters. These later assaults on her house were often preceded by Tammy and others inside hearing the voices of multiple men speaking to each other outside. The night someone tried to burn down her house? She and her family were in it.
Earlier in the evening, Rudy Gatlin had taken Tammy, her Mama Pugh and Aunt Athalene to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while two of Tammy’s daughters had friends over for a slumber party. After returning from the movie, Rudy went home and everyone at Tammy’s house had gone to bed when she got a stomach ache, went to the kitchen for some antacid and found Aunt Athalene also came back to the kitchen for a beer, so Tammy sat down to talk with her. When they heard voices speaking outside, Tammy called Rudy at home and asked him to come back with a gun, which he did. There were no intruders found upon his search of the immediate property, so Rudy went back in the house. A little while later, they heard some more noises outside and Tammy made up her mind to go ahead and take the children over to the Richeys’ place. Then Rudy smelled smoke, which they found billowing out from under the closed door to Tammy’s office, two rooms down the hall from her bedroom. Someone called the fire department while everybody else ran outside. The fire trucks showed up and doused the flames without any trouble. After the firemen left and the adults were done inspecting the damage to her office, Tammy once more prepared to take the children over to the Richeys’ when someone again smelled smoke, new smoke, now coming from the room between the burned-out office and her bedroom. When they ran around the house to look from the outside, they saw it wasn’t so much another fire in that room as it was the entire room on fire, flames roaring out of the window and climbing up to the roof, where they spread further. By the time the fire department could be convinced there was a second fire at Tammy Wynette’s house, not just delayed alerts from the first one they’d already extinguished, nearly half her home was destroyed. The ensuing investigation uncovered evidence of arson and concluded it could only have been performed by someone close to the victim. An inside job. But, who?
It’s unlikely we will ever be certain. George Jones, Rudy Gatlin and George Richey are the names most commonly thrown around in fan theories. Anyone who suspects George Jones in any of this harassment or the arson is operating from a place of pure fantasy based in knowing approximately nothing about Jones. Even if his alibis on many of these nights didn’t include concert appearances several states away in front of thousands of people, if he had malicious feelings toward Tammy in this period of his life (which he didn’t), he’d have driven a car into her swimming pool before waging some extended campaign of discreet psychological terror. And considering Tammy’s instant response to every one of these incidents was to call either Rudy Gatlin or George Richey on landlines at their homes, we can safely conclude they wouldn’t have been able to answer if they were at her house tormenting her. The police weren’t so quick to reach this conclusion when it came to Rudy. Even though he was at home when Tammy called for his help on the night of the fire, Rudy found himself the target of an arson investigation and local Nashville media printed his name as a suspect. Once Rudy passed a lie detector test, the police moved on to questioning Tammy’s family members but the stress was too much for his personal and professional relationship with Tammy. They quit seeing each other shortly after and Young Country soon quit touring with Tammy Wynette. As for Richey, Georgette Jones’ 2011 memoir points out all these “incidents” ended as soon as Tammy agreed to marry George Richey but Georgette was a small child when these things happened and her timeline is off by a couple years, stating the first home invasion took place in 1977. Her account does seem to agree with Tammy’s that all the home invasions, vandalism, death threats and harassment stopped after the arson. It’s just that we know for a fact the arson took place in May 1976, two months before Tammy married Michael Tomlin.
Again, it is unclear when Tammy and Michael began sleeping together or how long he dated the hairdresser beforehand. If we want to believe Tammy didn’t stage the earlier and less violent forms of harassment, then her full-time hairdresser’s boyfriend would certainly have the access and information necessary to pull off many of these stunts. But if Michael wasn’t around when the alleged harassment, break-ins and death threats began, if Joan Dew and others were right to suspect Tammy of faking those events, then how long do you think it would take a conniving sort of man to work out what was really happening once he got close to such a situation? And if that man’s goal was to really become the kind of wealthy he constantly pretended to be, what might he then do? Let’s pretend, purely for argument’s sake, Tammy did fake the earlier incidents. Well, why would she do that? Perhaps to at least temporarily secure the undivided attention of the men she always called for help – George Richey, who was married to another woman, or Rudy Gatlin, who was dating other women? If so, then her suddenly becoming the real victim of violent attacks could only force her to recognize how many miles away Richey and Rudy always were when she needed them most. If there was some other man who wanted her to feel unsafe and exposed without a person willing to commit 100% of his time to her, this would be a way to do that. Tammy said Michael Tomlin asked her to marry him on their third or fourth date. At the time, she laughed it off because they didn’t know each other well enough to be married. Two months after someone set her house on fire, she said “I do.”
The Run of the Bull
Michael’s whole attitude toward her changed as soon as they were on honeymoon in Hawaii. He began making off-hand insulting comments about her previous lovers and took every opportunity to try asserting himself as the dominant partner in the relationship. The only thing that seemed to make him happy was enjoying the luxuries afforded by Tammy’s wealth and discussing future plans for how to spend it. The whole week before the honeymoon, Tammy had been dealing with an excruciating stomachache and it got so bad in Hawaii she had to check into a hospital. They diagnosed her with some kind of gallbladder problem, gave her a heavy duty shot for the pain and said she’d probably need surgery when she got home.
After receiving an operation in Nashville, she was given strict instructions to relax for a week, which she decided to do in a home she owned on a beach in Florida. Michael thought Florida sounded like a great idea, invited some of his friends along for the trip and started drinking with them on the flight down. Their first night ended abruptly when he decided to drunkenly entertain his friends by firing off a pistol on the beach behind Tammy’s house. She had to reprimand him like a child. The next day, Michael’s friends left and he sulked all the way back to Nashville. Tammy had just settled in for her prescribed week of relaxation when the doorbell rang: another of Michael’s friends who’d been told he could stay at her house for the week. Tammy said “screw it,” left the kid her house and booked the only flight she could find back to Nashville, which just so happened to have a stop in Atlanta, Georgia, where Burt Reynolds just so happened to be filming Smokey and The Bandit… with Sally Field. Tammy never made it on the second plane from Atlanta to Nashville due to pain from the unhealed surgery wound, now infected from coming open at one end “where a stitch had been removed.” If Tammy had any theories as to how this stitch came undone, she kept them to herself. But she did feel pretty certain Burt Reynolds could recommend a doctor in the Atlanta area, so she found out where he was staying and checked in to the same hotel. Later that evening, Burt visited her room and, just like that, he was back in her life. They spent Thanksgiving through Christmas of 1976 together in Florida with only a few days apart and continued seeing each other, non-exclusively, through the summer of 1977, at which time Tammy said the romance evolved into “a warm, easy friendship.”
Tammy never saw Michael Tomlin again after he left Florida. But once they separated she learned he’d gone to her bank in Nashville while she was hospitalized for the gallbladder surgery and withdrew $8,000 he said was for a hospital bill which didn’t actually exist. When Tammy tried to have the marriage annulled, Michael dug in for a full divorce and a $300,000 settlement. So Tammy’s lawyer got to work and, in the end, Michael agreed to go away if allowed to file a joint income tax return for the year, which gave him 50% of Tammy’s refund check. Following the failure of her fourth marriage, the media was still there to snoop around in her private affairs and Tammy gave them plenty to write. In October 1976, the Enquirer ran that piece about Burt Reynolds simultaneously dating her and Lucie Arnaz. An April 1977 issue of People magazine ran a similar story about Burt dating Tammy and Sally Field at the same time. And, by the end of the year, rumors leaked about Tammy having an affair with a married member of her tourmates the Statler Brothers, an affair she later all-but-confirmed was the inspiration for a song she wrote and recorded in July 1977, “That’s the Way It Could Have Been.” The lyrics find her imagining how beautiful and perfect her married life would be, if only she’d met a certain man back before he married someone else. The song wasn’t released as a single but did come out on an album containing one of her final Top 10 hits, so plenty of fans heard it and wondered who she wrote it about. Since nowhere near as many people heard the rumors of her dating a Statler Brother as had seen the various Burt Reynolds articles, Burt again became a fan favorite. But there was also (and always) George Jones.
Billy Sherrill had capitalized on their meeting at the 1975 DJ convention by getting Tammy and Jones back in the studio to record “Golden Ring.” Written by Bobby Braddock and Rafe VanHoy, “Golden Ring” is just as much a short story or film treatment as it is one of the best country records of all time. Braddock began the song after watching the 1974 made-for-TV movie, The Gun, one of those “biopic of an inanimate object” things (similar to 1993’s Twenty Bucks), following events which transpire around a .38 special revolver’s multiple transfers of ownership. Borrowing heavily from the melody of “Long Black Veil” by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill, the verses of “Golden Ring” track the life of a simple wedding band, from a pawn shop purchase by a young couple, through their wedding ceremony and the marriage falling apart, to the ring landing back in the pawn shop, where another young couple considers buying it. The chorus between each verse stops by to remind us it is love, not a hard rock affixed to a circular piece of metal, which keeps a marriage together. Billy Sherrill told drummer Jerry Carrigan to put away his sticks and play the kit with his hands to mimic the warmth of this message, leaving Jerry’s occasional closing of a hi-hat the only “cold, metallic thing” in the song. This was recorded the month before half of Tammy’s house burned down, so that’s Rudy Gatlin and his brother, Steve, on background vocals. The month “Golden Ring” came out, May 1976, George Jones gave Tammy a brand-new Ford Thunderbird as a Mother’s Day gift and the higher “Golden Ring” climbed the charts, the more nervous it would have made anyone with money riding on Burt Reynolds for Tammy Wynette’s next husband.
But by the time their comeback record hit #1, Tammy had pulled a switcheroo on anyone expecting more than a professional reunion with Jones. When the blink-and-you-missed-it marriage to Michael Tomlin fell apart after little more than a month, her adoring/confused public returned to wondering if she’d now choose Burt Reynolds or George Jones. After “Golden Ring,” Billy Sherrill decided to release the version of Francis Craig’s “Near You” that Tammy and George recorded in their last session as a married couple. Without the backstory on how this was actually cut long ago on the night their marriage ended, fans assumed this record was a sign of rekindled love and sent it to the top of the country chart, George and Tammy’s final #1 together and the final #1 record bearing Tammy Wynette’s name. The month “Near You” came out, Tammy was hospitalized for bronchitis while on tour in London and George Jones caught an overseas flight from Nashville to be by her side. On his way to see her, Jones told reporters, “There will never be anyone else for either of us,” which is what he continued to say in interviews at least as late as June of 1977, when he said “I think we still love each other. I know I love her.” And the subject matter of their next single is just too on the nose for it to not have been deliberately written into this narrative. By George Richey, Billy Sherrill and Roger Bowling, “Southern California” sounds like Jones asking Tammy to stay with him in Tennessee while Tammy explains the pull she feels to explore her options in L.A. The record hit #5.
Everyone, especially Tammy, knew it wouldn’t be long before she walked down the aisle again. Despite whatever grand gestures and statements of devotion George Jones made to her or the press, she also knew he was drinking more than ever and in 1977 he fell more in love with cocaine than he’d ever been with booze. As nice as it may have felt to be courted by him again, remarrying Jones was never a realistic option. Despite Burt Reynolds’ occasional, always quirky displays of affection, like naming a not-very-flattering character after her in Smokey & The Bandit, if Burt was ready, willing or able to become a one-woman man with Tammy, it seems like he’d at least have made an attempt by this point. One of the things she found most appealing about Burt was he possessed even more wealth and fame than her. She never had to worry he was secretly some kind of parasitic social, financial or industry climber and, after Michael Tomlin, she could no longer trust herself to spot such a villain. She also knew Husband #5 needed to last for good or else she’d spend the rest of her life listening to people joke about how Miss Stand by Your Man had more divorces than could be counted on one hand. Yet again, how long do you think it would take a conniving sort of man to work out the score if he got near this situation?
This time, the man had been nearby for quite a while. According to Georgette, George Richey was one of the first people Tammy contacted after realizing her marriage to Michael Tomlin could never work. Shortly after, Richey left his wife for Tammy and they were married in July 1978. She spent the rest of her life married to him, all the while publicly singing his praises and claiming she’d finally found true love, her own personal savior.
Tammy’s daughters say the truth is a different story. According to them, three months after the wedding, George Richey beat Tammy and the newlyweds covered it up with a fake kidnapping, followed by decades of lying to police, the press and fans. By the end of 1978, the marriage entered a period Georgette named the Great Divide, when people who previously close to Tammy – trusted friends, relatives and employees, those who’d lived and worked with her for years – were gradually pushed out of her life. Although Tammy’s children loved their nanny very much, she was soon gone and replaced by someone Richey approved. Tammy’s mother and stepfather, Mildred and Foy Lee, who’d practically raised Georgette up to this point, were told they’d be spending less time with their granddaughter, which hurt their feelings so much they moved away from Nashville entirely. Georgette later found out this happened because Richey convinced Tammy the child was being spoiled by her grandparents. Her backing band? The guys who were called The Jones Boys when they chose to work for her over the boss who’d given them that name? One by one, they drifted off to get away from Richey until Charlie Carter, the guitarist so devoted to Tammy everyone assumed he was secretly in love with her, was the only Country Gentleman to remain through the Great Divide. Tammy’s lawyer, the one who helped her undo the Michael Tomlin mistake he tried to talk her out of making in the first place? Gone. Joan Dew, who went out of her way to help Tammy obscure various embarrassing truths and drug addictions in the official autobiography? Well, once the book came out, Richey baselessly accused Joan of leaking all that information in the form of gossip around Nashville, then (unsuccessfully) tried to stiff her on the agreed-upon payment for writing the book. After that, Joan found herself on the outside of Tammy’s inner circle. Because of how much they trusted and depended on each other, both Tammy Wynette and Billy Sherrill had it written into their separate contracts with Epic that if either ever left the label for any reason, the two could continue working together. In 1980, a couple years after marrying George Richey, Tammy Wynette chose to stop working with Billy Sherrill.
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe.
While you’re on the website, please stop by the SUPPORT page to learn the several ways you may be able to help me continue making this show. My preferred method of support is the Patreon, where you can get monthly updates on how work is going behind the scenes. But if you’d just like to buy some merchandise featuring the lovely podcast artwork, do make sure to visit the MERCH page as soon as possible. As of this recording, there are many shirt designs, some stickers and some patches in stock but things sell out quickly and the current supply shortage means certain color configurations won’t be available again.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Tammy Wynette – “Til I Get It Right” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Another Lonely Song” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Tina – “The Telephone Call” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “(You Make Me Want to Be) A Mother” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “I Still Believe in Fairy Tales” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Bedtime Story” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Heartaches & Hangovers” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “The Bottle” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “These Days (I Barely Get By)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Just Don’t Give a Damn” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Wean Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Battle” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “A Drunk Can’t Be a Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Your Memory’s Gone to Rest” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Til I Can Make It on My Own” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “You and Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “That’s the Way It Could Have Been” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Tammy Wynette – “Golden Ring” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Tammy Wynette – “Near You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Tammy Wynette – “Southern California” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube (or DailyMotion) may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
These Liner Notes will be brief.
Nothing about this intro was me giving my opinion of what the Miss America pageant should or should not have done at any point in history. This was a miniature overview of an entity in the entertainment business who took it upon themselves to declare certain political positions at certain points in history, then had to deal with the consequences of doing so, usually by scrambling to appease whoever it was they thought needed to be appeased. As with anything I’m ever discussing besides music, this is only part of the Miss America story because it’s the part of the Miss America story that is relevant to the bigger story I’m telling in Season 2.
As with the rest of the intros in this season, my sources were many and varied but the one book I read on this topic was Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America by Hilary Levey Friedman. This book was a great source of information but I found the author’s bias throughout the book pretty annoying. Her mother was a Miss America and she judges beauty pageants herself, so even while detailing (for instance) the objectively horrible and unforgivable practices in the child beauty pageant ecosystem, she still seems to be building a sort of apologist’s case in support of pageants overall.
Amy Argetsinger wrote another book on just Miss America, called There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America. I haven’t read the book because it hadn’t been published when I wrote Season 2 but, after I found out she was writing it, I did have an opportunity to ask Amy a few questions to make sure I correctly understood certain things about the history of Miss America and I do feel confident in recommending her book to anyone interested in this subject.
I have one tiny correction to the main body of this episode, which is it was actually a magazine called Modern People that ran a cover story about Burt Reynolds dating multiple women including Tammy Wynette in April 1976. At this time, the logo of Modern People kind of hid the word “modern” inside the “p” of the word “people,” so I thought I was just looking at an old issue of People magazine when I saw it. However, there was a cover story on Sally Field in an April 1977 issue of People magazine. I wasn’t able to read it but the cover mentions her having “a fling” with Burt Reynolds, so I would be very surprised if Tammy isn’t also mentioned there. It’s just that it would be one year later than what I said in the episode. Still, I wanted to be clear the cover story I was referring to in the episode was actually the one in Modern People, not People.
There was nowhere it made sense to include it in the episode but my research in the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum turned up a pretty funny occurrence. As mentioned, Larry Gatlin had a big problem with his younger brother being romantically involved with Tammy Wynette. Well, the other thing that was true about Larry Gatlin back in the day, which even he later admitted, is that he was bit of a prick. When some reporter asked Larry how come he always left right after performing a concert instead of staying to sign autographs for fans the way Tammy Wynette did, he responded with some nonsense about how he leaves it all on the stage each night and if Tammy has the energy to stay and sign autographs it’s because she’s not working hard enough during the show. As you can imagine, Tammy did not appreciate this comment. In an August 1978 issue of her fan club newsletter, The First Lady News (and this is the same issue with photographs of her wedding to George Richey), Tammy shares Larry Gatlin’s comment with her fans and then says “You tell that little S.O.B. to follow me around the country for 2 months and I’ll show him what it’s like to have his tongue hangin’ out.”
When the podcast returns, it will be with an episode on Billy Sherrill. He’s been a recurring character throughout this season, whenever details of Tammy Wynette’s music or George Jones’ music on Epic is discussed, and considering he and Owen Bradley are the two individuals who single-handedly dictated the sound of country music recorded in Nashville to a greater degree than any other producers, that’s worth deeper exploration at this point in Season 2. See ya there.