Country music is full of rags-to-riches stories, like the one about how Virginia Wynette Pugh became Tammy Wynette. In a way, it’s true. Even after becoming the most successful woman country singer at that point in history, the life she lived was hard and painful. But if you want to know what actually happened in that life then she’s the last person you should ask.
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
The sources for this episode can all be found in The Main Library and the Season 2 Library.
Transcript of Episode
‘Round and ‘Round
When joust became the most popular tournament event in the exhibitionist culture of chivalry, they were forced to find ways of making it safer. Otherwise too many princes and kings would die trying to prove they were honorable warriors like the heroes of popular stories. In the 14th century, to prevent head-on collisions, riders were separated into defined lanes by a short fence or suspended length of rope, called a “tilt,” likely because it forced lances to impact at an angle, tilted indirectly at the opposing rider rather than thrust straight into his body.
From then on, “tilting” became another term for the joust. Special tournament lances were made lighter and more easily-shattered by hollowing out the center of the shaft. Pointed tips were replaced with multi-pronged or blunt ends to dull and spread impact, theoretically lowering chances the lance would pierce another knight’s armor and kill him. Some unchivalrous knights were said to use trick lances, built with a weak safety tip designed to break off and uncover a sharp, reinforced, armor-piercing shaft. But even with no subterfuge and all manner of precaution in place, there’s no way to predict how a lance will shatter…
The main cause usually given for the joust’s gradual fall from popularity in the second half of the 16th century is the death of King Henri II of France in 1559. This is definitely the reason knights stopped jousting in France, because King Henri’s wife, Catherine de Medici was watching from the stands when pieces of a broken lance flew through the visor of her husband’s helmet and into his brain. When this happened, Henri was wearing the favor and house colors of another woman, who he was in love with, but Catherine was still very upset by his death. She dressed in black for the rest of her life, adopted the personal emblem of a broken lance and banned jousting in France. In his defense, Henri’s marriage to Catherine never had anything to do with love and was arranged when they were both 14 years old in 1533. The Medicis, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in all of Europe during the Late Middle Ages, effectively controlled the Republic of Florence for much of the previous century. And by “controlled,” I mean there were decades-long periods when the only thing keeping Florence “a republic” was the illusion that most government officials weren’t bought and paid for by the Medicis. Just prior to Catherine marrying Henri, the Medicis did away with this illusion and established a monarchy in Florence (then, soon after, all of Tuscany), a reign which lasted another 200 years. If Catherine’s parents hadn’t become sick and died immediately after her birth, it’s a near certainty the family would’ve chosen her father to rule over Florence. But her parents did die, leaving behind an orphan girl of common birth, who would normally never be considered fit to marry a prince, except this orphan girl’s uncle happened to be the pope. With papal promises of an enormous dowry, Catherine was married to Henri, the second oldest son of the King of France. Not next in line to the throne but, still, a prince. Then, right after the wedding, the Medici pope got sick and died. Next pope? Not a Medici. Worse, he said the Roman Catholic church was under no obligation to pay the outrageous sum promised by his predecessor for Catherine’s dowry. So the King of France came out of this deal with no money and no political alliance to a pope. Just an orphan girl of common birth married to one of his sons.
The general consensus at his court was a prince’s hand in marriage had been entirely wasted. A year after the wedding, 15 year-old Henri took a lover, Diane de Poitiers, the 35 year-old woman who tutored him on French culture. Young Henri needed these lessons because he hadn’t learned much about France during the four years he spent in a prison cell in Spain, where he’d been sent as collateral to secure his father’s release from the same prison after the King of France was captured in war. Henri remained in love with Diane de Poitiers for the rest of his life. In an age of arranged marriages, it was common for men to have a mistress (or several) and there wasn’t much need for secrecy. But by the time his older brother got sick and died, leaving Henri heir to the throne of France, he’d moved well beyond openly flaunting his relationship with Diane de Poitiers. They went everywhere and did everything together, his wife Catherine trailing behind silently, if at all. Henri had Diane’s initials embroidered on his clothing. He and Diane created a hybrid signature of their names to sign letters, as if speaking to one was as good as speaking to the other. When his father died and Henri became King of France in 1547, Diane was as involved in his daily political life as any advisor. Catherine was not. Even though she was literally the Queen of France, she continued playing the part of rescued orphan girl, just grateful to be fed and clothed and protected by royal guard. Anyway, Diane was one of the few nobles at court who came to Catherine’s defense when everyone said the orphan girl without a dowry should be sent away so a suitable bride could be found for the prince. And Diane continued to defend her as the years passed without Catherine becoming pregnant, when many people said the prince should have a bride who could make more princes. Surely anticipating the threat some unknown woman with more confidence may pose to her relationship with Henri, Diane encouraged him to keep trying to have kids with Catherine. Finally, after ten years of marriage, a royal doctor noticed… a peculiarity with Henri’s anatomy and suggested the couple try a different position. Soon after, Catherine became pregnant and they had many children, including boys, thus securing her place at court. And, still, she remained a passive observer in her own marriage, accepting Diane’s intrusion and largely avoiding affairs of state. Right up until the moment King Henri was fatally wounded in the joust.
When the pieces of lance went into his head, it didn’t kill him instantly. Doctors did recognize at once his injuries were mortal but Henri lived another ten days. He did, of course, ask to see Diane on his deathbed but, after decades of silence, Catherine played her hand. The Queen of France said Diane de Poitiers was not to be permitted audience with the dying king and Diane knew she had no recourse against the command. Further, she understood its full implications and quickly fled from Paris, retreating to a beautiful castle Henri had given her years earlier, a beautiful castle Catherine had always wanted for herself. After her husband died and their teenage son became King of France, Catherine ordered Diane to vacate the beautiful castle and return it to the royal family. Over the next thirty years, as one after another of her sons sat upon France’s throne, Catherine de Medici sat behind them, pulling strings of European politics and culture.
As mentioned, one of her first acts was to ban jousting in France. Tournaments continued but the ever-so-dangerous joust was replaced by tilting at rings with survival all but guaranteed to any idiot who could stay on his horse. As long as all the pomp and chivalry remained, it turned out audiences were willing, even enthused, to watch knights compete in what had previously been a mere practice exercise. Instead of getting themselves killed trying to learn to joust by actually doing it, young noblemen learned accuracy with a lance by riding horses around a course and spearing metal rings suspended on strings. Trainees who weren’t yet comfortable holding a lance on a real horse sat on a wooden horse in a cart and had assistants wheel them past the rings. Alternately, a wooden horse could be attached to one end of a plank suspended parallel to the ground, then rotated to simulate riding in a circle while tilting at rings.
Since at least the 1st century A.D., humans had fashioned similar rides by hanging two baskets at each end of a pole but the rise of tournament culture in Europe coincides with the spread of practice horse versions across the continent. As enterprising folk took notice of how many women and children with no hopes of ever becoming knights enjoyed riding around in circles on wooden horses, the modern carousel was born by adding more planks to the central axis with a horse at each end of each plank. Operators spent winter months hand-carving new horses for the apparatus they then hauled around from town to town when the weather turned warm, charging mere pennies for a ride on their “flying horses.” Later designs hung each horse on a vertical pole suspended from overhead beams, which caused the horses to lift up and away with centrifugal force as the central axis spun, creating a more dynamic and crowd- pleasing ride.
Sometime in the 1700s, after platforms started being built under the horses to prevent their lifting away, competitive operators reintroduced a dynamic element to the ride by attaching the pole of each horse to a simple gear, causing the horse to move in a vertical “o” path and simulate a gallop as the axis spun. By this time, carousels had grown in size to include multiple horses per row, each on a pole attached to its own gear, causing the riders in each row to feel like they were galloping independently of each other while moving forward as a pack. It was all great fun but operators kept the galloping mechanism off of the outside horse in every row. This was partly a safety issue, what with the outside of a spinning disc moving faster than the inside, but also a matter of curb appeal, since operators always proudly displayed best-looking and most intricately-designed of their hand-carved horses on the outside of a row to attract customers.
Then operators in the late 1800s noticed they were losing money on outside horses as groups of kids or entire families waited for the next ride to make sure everyone got a galloping horse. So they brought back tilting at the ring. Once a carousel got up to speed, a metal arm was swung into place with a dispenser on the end presenting one ring at a time for riders on outside horses to reach out and grab. Nearly all of the rings were made of iron or steel and these were worthless. Still, you had to grab for whatever the dispenser held out, even if only for practice, even if only to make sure your hand knew where it needed to be and what it needed to do if the chance ever arose to grab for a brass ring. Because if you did ever manage to grab one (and there was usually only one), the brass ring was worth a free ride. But successfully grabbing a brass ring was so rare many people who did kept it as a good luck charm, never exchanging it for the free ride. Some carousels in Europe, instead of having riders grab with their hands, still provide little sticks to lance the rings. And, of course, the word “carousel” comes from an Italian word meaning “little war.”
In 1942, having suffered from migraines his entire adult life, William Pugh checked into a hospital, had his skull cut open and learned there was a tumor in his brain which could not be removed. He was going to die, soon, but first he would go blind. The nurse who cared for him as he recovered from this information and the surgery was named Wynette. And she must have been quite great at her job because when William’s only child was born five months later, he named her Virginia Wynette Pugh. Most of the family addressed her by her middle name, Wynette. Or, sometimes, “Nettiebelle.”
Previous to his death sentence diagnosis, William Pugh was a farmer, who lived and worked on the 600 acres of land his father-in-law owned on the Mississippi side of the Alabama state border. William and his brothers all grew up with fantasies of becoming professional musicians. They had a little band with their cousin and a couple friends but, a handful of local gigs aside, all the pickin’ they ever did was at family get-togethers. In the nine months he was able to spend with his infant daughter – as he lost more, then most, then all of his sight – William found solace in sitting with the baby on his lap at a piano, pressing her tiny hands onto the keys so she could hear the different tones produced by each touch. Later in life, Wynette will say she had no memories of her father, which may be just as well, since remembering those early piano lessons could’ve come at the cost of also remembering her father’s screaming fits of rage as the growing tumor dragged him into darkness.
William was only 26 years old when he died. Before he did, he made his wife Mildred promise to foster any interest their daughter showed in music. This promise was kept, though largely by Mildred’s parents, whom Nettiebelle addressed as “Mama” and “Daddy” for the rest of her life. Mama taught her shape note singing to participate in Sacred Harp hymnals at the local Baptist church but Wynette preferred their occasional visits to William’s old pentecostal congregation. At the Church of God service, guitars were allowed, so the hymns over there got a little more “rockin’.” She began piano lessons at the age of 8 but her teacher soon quit after realizing Wynette was playing her homework from memory instead of learning to sight read sheet music. She kept at the instrument on her own and it remained her best, though she also picked up guitar, accordion and – for high school band – the flute.
But before we cover her high school years, we may as well get something out of the way: Wynette is one of the most unreliable narrators in the history of country music. This obviously doesn’t mean everything she ever said was a lie but there are many instances where her version of reality cannot be squared with documented and verifiable history, the accounts given by nearly every other witness or her own contradictory accounts of the same events. For example, she’d tell you her growing up on a farm meant she picked cotton from the age of 6 until she left home at 17; if she happened to get more Christmas presents than other kids in her school, it wasn’t because her family had more money but because she was an only child in an area where other families had ten kids; she wasn’t particularly popular or considered especially pretty at school and she was always much too fixated on music to be “boy crazy” like her friends. Except she’d also tell you when she was 10 she accepted her Mama’s offer of staying in the house to help with the cooking instead of picking cotton. Then she’d tell you about her Aunt Carolyn, who was only five years older and raised in the same home like a sister, how Nettiebelle and Carolyn both received a clean $50 bill every Christmas (as did every other member of Mama and Daddy’s immediate family) in addition to all of their other presents. And this only happened because, again, Daddy owned 600 acres of farmland, worked by the hired parents of several schoolmates Wynette claims were her financial equals. Plus it’s just pretty difficult to imagine Wynette being considered unpopular and ugly at school while also being voted prom queen, which she 100% for a fact was. You may be wondering how many sources I had to compare in order to spot so many inconsistencies. One: Wynette. All of this conflicting information comes from Wynette herself in a 1977 profile and her 1979 autobiography, both authored by/with a writer named Joan Dew, who later went on record several times to reveal how much truth had been obscured in Wynette’s versions of reality.
Those seeking a more accurate source of history would do well to read Jimmy McDonough’s fascinating 2010 biography, Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, written from several years of immersive research and dozens of interviews with witnesses from every period of her life. As Jimmy’s title suggests, much of what really did happen to Wynette, from the circumstances of her birth all the way through to the circumstances of her death, was pure tragedy. Some of her fabrications were standard celebrity attempts to sanitize aspects of her life which didn’t conform to society’s expectations of women. However, most of the lies she told were clear attempts to make her life seem even more tragic than it was, thus presenting herself as deserving of more sympathy. As with most prolific fabulists, her attempts to cover up and manufacture reality often ultimately achieved the opposite of her intention; revealing much about her true self, true fears and true desires to those capable of reading between the lines of stories she created in response to her inner critical voice, reacting to its persistent reminders of what really did happen. Several of the probably-true stories were equally instructive, especially the ones she felt compelled to keep telling over and over again her whole life, like this one…
Wynette was around 10 years old but hadn’t yet made the deal with Mama to cook instead of picking cotton. In fact, it seems pretty likely this story is how that deal got put on the table. When she said how much she wanted to go to the country fair, she was told to pick a certain amount of cotton by a certain time of day and then she could go. Well, with the deadline approaching and her bags not yet heavy enough, she did the single worst thing a cotton picker can do: put rocks in her sack to make it heavier. Before she even made it off the property, one of her rocks caused a fire at the communal cotton gin which burned the entire day’s haul from multiple farms in the area. Daddy knew right away what had happened and started bringing an ass whipping her way, so she ran from it. When she tripped and cut her knee on a rock, her first thought when she saw the blood was, in her words, “Oh, this is great because now he won’t whip me.” Expecting sympathy for her wound, she got the whipping instead.
In the house where she grew up, Mama and Daddy kept separate bedrooms. Nettiebelle slept in Daddy’s bed every night until she was about thirteen years old, when (for obvious reasons) he said she had to start sleeping in her own bed. She thought he was punishing her by making her spend the night alone, something she hated to do for the rest of her life. By this time, her biological mother Mildred had moved back to the farm with her new husband, Foy Lee, and they lived in a separate house on the property. So Wynette dragged her little bed across the field to live with Mildred and Foy Lee, until she did something to get in trouble over there, then dragged the bed back to Mama and Daddy’s, repeating this show of force pretty much any time she was scolded.
While she claims to’ve been too obsessed with music to care about boys or her unpopularity at school, the people she went to school with (including one of her first singing partners) remember her being very popular and neither music nor any other subject standing in the way of her being the most “boy crazy” girl they ever met. The more her schoolmates share their versions of Wynette, the more one learns about why she repeatedly brings up certain topics in order to try establishing her version as true. Because not only was Wynette considered pretty by all the boys, she found time to spend with most of them – older boys, younger boys, popular boys, loner boys, boys, boys, boys… And her being popular in school meant her classmates took an interest in these romantic activities, an interest Wynette cultivated by involving friends in secret, elaborate plots to help her elope with whichever boy she was seeing at the time. She’d then suddenly drop the plan along with the boy, only to choose a different boy a couple weeks later and repeat this cycle of fantasy, essentially creating a middle school soap opera with herself as the star. Whether she actually went all, most or some of the way with any of these boys doesn’t matter at all but Wynette did try to impress the other kids by at least pretending to have first-hand knowledge of sex, which soon gave her a reputation, which she relished. At one point, Mildred and Foy Lee took Wynette to live in Memphis, probably thinking she couldn’t get herself into any trouble in a city where she didn’t know anybody. But then she started sneaking out at night with Memphis boys to smoke cigarettes and do who knows what else. Worried her daughter would soon end up pregnant, missing or dead, Mildred brought Wynette back to the farm.
Though she’d later claim to’ve been on less than a dozen dates prior to her first marriage, this would be difficult to believe even if Wynette said she’d only been on dates with less than a dozen individual boys. She was known to use sleepovers with girlfriends as cover to climb out a window and disappear for a few hours with whoever she was dating. In her autobiography and several interviews over her career, Wynette pointed out her astrological sign of Taurus and said telling her “no” was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. She also often stated how badly she needed freedom from Mildred and the farm, freedom to do the things she wanted to do. Like many farm girls with similar feelings, she began to view marriage as the only way out. Around the age of 16, she worked up another plot to elope and, this time, she meant it. She picked out a boy, selected rings from a mail order catalog and had them shipped to school so nobody’s parents would catch on and foil everything. Despite such precautions, Mildred was warned before the plan could be put into action and she shut it down. Wynette was furious. Not heartbroken. Furious. And now Mildred knew how far her teenage daughter would go to escape, she kept an even tighter leash. So Wynette resolved to knuckle down, finish high school, then make her final getaway. Still settled on marriage as a necessary piece of the plan, though, she continued to hold auditions for a husband, which led to working her way through the Byrd brothers.
Let’s Hear It for the Boys
The version she settled on later is she briefly dated D.C. Byrd before deciding to marry his younger brother, Euple. If you believe pretty much anyone else who was there, the truth is Wynette became full-blown obsessed with D.C. The other part she conveniently forgets to mention is D.C. was already married. Her “dating” him broke up his marriage but then he crushed her heart by getting back together with and remarrying his ex-wife. So Wynette dated all three of his younger brothers, one after the other, at least partially but probably mostly just to remain in close proximity to D.C., who by all accounts but hers remained an obsession. Naturally, Mildred was horrified by all of this. She even tried pushing her daughter to start dating the substitute math teacher at school, probably figuring he was at least an unmarried man so there would be less risk of someone getting shot. But Wynette carried on with her trifling way which eventually came to a head in some kind of physical altercation between mother and daughter. She later claimed Mildred attacked her with a belt and the metal buckle hit her in the face but this seems to be a story she only started telling in the late 1960s, after hearing and appropriating it from one of George Jones’ friends. Whatever did happen, it brought a premature end to her high school career. In 1959, at the age of 17, she left home and married Euple, the Byrd brother who truly did love her though Wynette admitted she never loved him back. They spent their wedding night in the Byrd family home, in a bed loud enough for Wynette to be embarrassed that everyone in the house could surely hear what they were doing. Afterward, her husband fell asleep and she lay awake for hours, feeling disappointed by all her new freedom.
When the young couple found jobs in Tupelo, MS, they moved into a small apartment in town. Six months later, they’d both lost their jobs and Wynette was pregnant so they moved back to Daddy’s farm, into a dilapidated log cabin built in the 1800s way back in the woods on those 600 acres. This is where Wynette’s first daughter, Gwendolyn Lee Byrd, was born in 1961. Six months later, Wynette was pregnant again. The log cabin was wired for electricity but it only worked half the time and the stove was broken anyway, so Wynette did all the family’s cooking in a fireplace. Since the cabin did not have indoor plumbing, all their drinking, bathing, laundry and cooking water had to be brought up from a creek about 100 yards away. If she needed water when no other adults were around, Wynette, several months pregnant, lifted a leg of the bed to put baby Gwen’s dress under it and keep her pinned to one spot while Wynette went to get buckets of water from the creek. When she entered labor with her second child, she walked the half mile from the cabin to Mildred’s house with Gwen under one arm and her hospital suitcase under the other. Jacquelyn Fay Byrd was born in 1962.
Twenty years old with two kids and a husband she says couldn’t or wouldn’t hold down a job, this is when Wynette started borrowing money from Mildred to go to beauty school. But then, still according to her, the same good-for-nothing husband got a job in Memphis, so she dropped out of beauty school and the family moved to Memphis. One day, she was walking down the sidewalk with little Gwen and carrying baby Jackie when she heard honky tonk piano being played in a bar and stopped outside to listen for a minute. The owner of the bar saw her out there and said they weren’t open for a while yet if she’d like to bring her kids inside to listen to the music. When the owner said he was looking for someone to run drinks to tables, Wynette took the job. Soon she was picking up extra tip money by getting onstage to sing one or two songs while the piano player was on break.
Now, it’s a fact she always loved music. As a kid, she and a couple friends started singing gospel together and Mildred drove them around to talent contests. They never won but they did get to sing on a few small radio shows – like Carmol Taylor and Country Pals out of Hamilton, Alabama – and, once, they even got to be on local TV. Some of the elopement fantasies Wynette played out for her schoolmates ended with her becoming a famous singer after leaving the farm. In addition to gospel, she enjoyed R&B music like The Platters, The Drifters and The Coasters but, at the end of the day, country music was her favorite. With Hank Williams’ unreleased recordings still trickling out a few years after his death, Wynette was about 15 years old and knew she was listening to a ghost when she became obsessed with “No One Will Ever Know,” listening to the record over and over to hear the dead man sing about living a lie. It’s unclear exactly when he became Mildred’s favorite singer but George Jones’ first single was released a few months before Wynette’s 12th birthday, so Mildred was back in her daughter’s life by the time she began buying every Jones single and album as soon as it came out. Though they butted heads on every other subject, here, mother and daughter had no quarrel. George Jones was the Greatest Country Singer Ever. By the time she left home at 17 years old and married Euple Byrd, Wynette knew the lyrics of every George Jones release on Starday. Regardless of personal interests and childhood fantasies, though, there is no indication she seriously considered or pursued the possibility of a career in music until patrons of a Memphis honky tonk found out she could sing and began tipping her the first dollars she ever earned with her voice. That is when everything changed. And the truth of the next several years’ events will never be possible to ascertain. It’s a fact Wynette portrayed ordinary individuals as the larger-than-life heroes and villains required by her narrative. We have a great deal of evidence suggesting she took extreme measures to cover up the terrible actions of a person she needed us to believe was her savior. When there is overwhelming testimony she did the inverse – exaggerating or inventing hostile behavior from the villains her story required – it’s really only a question of whether she took the same extreme measures. And it’s a question worth raising whenever hers is the only surviving account, as is the case with most of what happens next.
According to her, they left Memphis after learning Jackie had been born diabetic, which made it too stressful to leave the baby home with Euple at night while Wynette did her singing waitress thing. So 1963 found them living in the back rooms of a Mississippi beauty salon, where Wynette resumed work toward her beautician’s license while Euple’s job on a construction crew took him away for two or three weeks at a time. These absences were fine with his wife because mostly all they did when he came home was argue. Wynette never explicitly said what they argued about but, reading between the lines, it seems like they didn’t have enough money to afford what she considered the basic comforts of owning a television, paying someone else to watch the kids while husband and wife went to a movie or really any of the exciting things she thought being a married adult with freedom meant one could do, such as anything other than work all the time to provide for and raise two children. Her only form of entertainment was the beauty salon’s gossip magazines, which she read to pass the time by keeping up with the latest storylines of various soap operas she didn’t have a TV to watch and details of how rich and famous all these movie stars were with their big houses and fancy lives, all interesting and important enough to be reported as if it were real news. This is when she started dying her brown hair platinum blonde. And while it sounds like most of the arguments between Euple and Wynette were over her disappointment with the contrast between gossip magazines and real life, the one thing she said they never argued about was sex, even though she found that disappointing, too. The reason they didn’t argue about sex was her husband wanted it and she believed it was a wife’s duty to give it. Then she got a kidney infection. A doctor took her off birth control and said she shouldn’t have sex until the infection was gone. But Euple still wanted it, so now they did have to argue about sex before she invariably relented. By this time, Wynette knew she wanted a divorce but was too scared to try getting one because she knew her family would probably disown her and she’d either lose one or both children to Euple or be left to raise them alone. Then the doctor discovered she was pregnant again, meaning she could die if the kidney infection wasn’t allowed to heal, meaning she seriously needed to stop having sex with her husband. According to Wynette, once it became a matter of life or death, she went home and told Euple they were getting divorced. They argued all night and when it became clear he wasn’t gonna leave, she had some kinda fit and began “screaming hysterically.” Euple tried to bring her out of it by shaking her and slapping her face but she just kept screaming. Even though she was aware of what she was doing and wanted to stop, she couldn’t stop. By the time Euple got her to a hospital and told the doctors he thought she’d gone crazy, the screaming had stopped but Wynette was now non-responsive. When the doctors asked questions, all she could do was stare blankly or cry. Their solution was to apply twelve electroshock treatments to her brain and send her home, where she calmly informed Euple they were definitely getting a divorce. This time, he believed her and left.
[Again, the only source for these events is Wynette’s 1979 autobiography. While I don’t doubt some of these things did happen, it feels very worth pointing out that elsewhere in the book Wynette mentions going to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while it was in theaters in 1975. This movie prominently features varied states of hysteria and catatonia as well as ECT treatment for same and it won five Academy Awards and six Golden Globes in 1976, thus proving the commercial appeal of such storylines right before Wynette decided to sell her own. It’s also worth mentioning the account Wynette gave Joan Dew for the 1977 profile preceding the autobiography, which hinged upon Euple Byrd’s having “deserted” her and their children, which sounds approximately nothing like the story she eventually settled on, to which we now return.]
Wynette says she moved into a new apartment after leaving Euple, only to come home one night and find all her stuff had been stolen (and presumably sold) by Euple, who then had her arrested for being an unfit mother and tried but failed to have her declared mentally incapable of raising their children. Two weeks later, she went to pick up her kids from daycare and learned they’d already been taken by a man and woman whose descriptions sounded a lot like Euple and Mildred. She called her mother, but Mildred had no idea what she was talking about. Wynette then spent nearly a week panicked over where her kids may be before deciding to drive out to Mildred’s house, where she found her children playing in the front yard. According to Wynette, Mildred had conspired with Euple to kidnap the kids because she believed divorce was wrong. So, Wynette took her children and went to live in Birmingham with her father’s family, the Pughs. Euple tracked her down here and talked his way into her bed for a night, which legally nullified her divorce proceedings and forced her to file all over again. A few weeks later, their third daughter, Tina, was born. Euple talked his way back again, convincing Wynette to move the family into another apartment and give the marriage another chance. When they found out baby Tina had spinal meningitis, Wynette stayed in the hospital with her for weeks while Euple stuck around for less than six months before supposedly bailing for good. This is Wynette’s version of what happened after her alleged ECT treatments. And, again, some of this stuff is certainly true. But if we forget everything in the middle to look only at the beginning and the end, this is a story about how she earned the first money she ever made as a singer working in a barroom in Memphis, then wound up living in Birmingham, where her father’s music-loving brothers owned two nearby radio stations and another uncle was the chief engineer at a TV station with the most popular country music show in the area. As for what really did happen between Memphis and Birmingham, once she filed for divorce from Euple Byrd, other parties had to get involved, which is where Jimmy McDonough’s biography picks up a few other sources of information, creating a radically different picture of likely events.
Nearly everyone who knew Euple Byrd says he was completely and hopelessly devoted to Wynette, despite her own family members admitting she cheated on him their entire marriage. Multiple witnesses say Wynette even continued to sneak off with D.C. Byrd after marrying his little brother, the man she didn’t love. She once allegedly brought a sailor home with her from a bar, presumably just to see what Euple would do about it. If he couldn’t buy her a TV, well, she’d learned how to make her own soap opera as a teenager. And the whole daycare kidnapping conspiracy thing makes her a much more relatable victim than the more likely scenario, which is Euple and Mildred went over to a motel where Wynette was shacked up with some guy and took the children away from what they considered an improper environment. This certainly adds some background context to the story one of Wynette’s friends tells about seeing an angry Mildred knock her pregnant daughter down in a driveway. Again and again, Wynette returns to imagery of Euple and his family mocking her taste in “hillbilly” music and dumping on her dreams of becoming a singer. But they couldn’t have had an opinion one way or the other until the job in Memphis gave her those dreams and, according to the Byrd family, all the moving around Wynette and Euple did after Memphis was a direct result of him supporting her attempts to become a professional singer. Where she paints him as the kind of guy who would steal and sell all her stuff because he wanted to make her life difficult and/or he was unwilling to hold down a job, Euple’s sister-in-law says it wasn’t possible for him to keep a job when he’d come home from work to find Wynette had sold all of their belongings because they were moving to another town where she thought she had a better chance of being discovered as a singing waitress. And Euple made those moves with her. He drove her around to different honky tonks so she could talk her way into getting on stage for a song or two. The only remotely discouraging thing he ever said was it may be a good idea to wait until the children were a little bit older and could take better care of themselves while both parents worked before seriously pursuing a music career which wasn’t bringing in enough money to support a family. The more you learn about Wynette, the more believable it is this alone was a crime worthy of vilification in her mind.
Her autobiography claims Euple simply disappeared a few months after Tina was born. She hadn’t seen him for weeks, maybe months, when he just so happened to drive by the very moment she was packing a car to move from Birmingham to Nashville. He stopped long enough to make fun of her for still trying to be a hillbilly singer, then drove off. She didn’t see him again until ten years later, when he stood in a line to get her autograph. What a great story, right? It’s almost like a scene from a movie. Wynette knew the difference between a good story and a great one often comes down to having an unambiguous villain. She also knew the complete truth wouldn’t fit the character she’d become by the time this story was told. Despite the grief caused to the Byrd family by her book, there was later a reconciliation to the point Euple would come visit with his daughters and got to be part of their lives. When he died in 1996, the family found a box full of news clippings he’d kept from articles about Tammy Wynette, the character his ex-wife would become soon after moving to Nashville by way of Birmingham.
Staring through the Window at the Jewelry
In Birmingham, she found a job at another beauty salon, then began walking through all the doors her uncles were able to open. These were the uncles who’d played in her father’s band before she was born, so they knew how happy William Pugh would be to see Wynette become a singer and tried to help however they could. Turns out, owning two radio stations and getting her an audition with The Country Boy Eddie TV show was plenty of help. The Pughs were also able to watch her children while Wynette got up early enough to go do the TV show, wrap at 8am and drive back to a full day’s shift at the beauty salon. She did that five days a week plus radio appearances wherever she could squeeze ‘em in. Within a year, she made the move to Nashville. Her version involves another stretch of creative history but the lies of celebrities get a lot easier to debunk when they’re about other famous people and the bad guy she chose for this story is Porter Wagoner…
According to Wynette, Porter came through Birmingham in 1965, right after splitting with his pre-Dolly Parton sidekick, Norma Jean, and they needed a woman to replace Norma on the concert bill. One of the radio stations suggested Wynette and she got the spot without even having to audition. She just knew this was her big break. Porter would hear her sing and hire her away to Nashville to be the new sidekick on his very popular TV show… Only, he didn’t come out of his dressing room at all during her set. She was about to go home disappointed when someone else on the tour asked if she could do a few more dates. She agreed, thinking Porter was sure to hear her sing on one of these shows. But he never paid any attention to her at all. She went home sad, then got mad at Porter Wagoner for not caring about her dreams and made up her mind to go to Nashville on her own and prove to everyone she could make it. The first problem with all this bullshit is Porter Wagoner and Norma Jean hadn’t quit working together in 1965. In fact, 1965 is the year Norma’s career entered its peak and she remained on Porter’s TV show and tours for at least another two years after Wynette claims these events occurred. The second problem is any definition of “replacing” Norma Jean on a Porter Wagoner concert bill would include singing with Porter, not singing while he was in a dressing room. The much more realistic version is what Wynette’s second husband said she told him: one time, she opened for Porter Wagoner before moving to Nashville. The end.
The truth is her move to Nashville wasn’t inspired by anger at Porter or anyone else but rather the support of an Alabama DJ, named Fred Lehner, who fancied himself a songwriter and asked Wynette to sing his demos. The earliest available tape of Wynette Byrd singing is on one of Fred’s songs. Just like young Johnny PayCheck arrived in Nashville with his trademark vocal style nearly entirely in place, there is no mistaking the voice on this tape for anyone other than Tammy Wynette. And where George Jones connected to a song in different ways every time he sang it, if Wynette re- recorded “You Can Steal Me” twenty years later, you can bet it would sound almost exactly like this demo. Either Bonnie Guitar or her producer, George Richey, heard Wynette’s demo, decided to cut “You Can Steal Me” and had a minor country hit in 1967. In 1966, Johnny PayCheck and Micki Evans recorded Fred Lehner’s “The Way Things Were Going” after hearing the Wynette Byrd demo. The first time Wynette visited Nashville was near the end of 1965, when she accompanied Fred and his wife to the DJ convention. While there, they visited all the standard country music pilgrimage sights and the day they went to The Ryman, there was a flatbed trailer parked outside with a cover band playing on it and a sign welcoming visitors to get on the makeshift stage to sing with a real live country band in Nashville. Wynette got up and sang Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and, if this were a movie, it’d be the part where a crowd instantly gathers to hear the unknown prodigy who then gets discovered by an industry executive. But even she admits nobody really paid her any attention. Same story when Fred and his wife drove Wynette over to the record labels and publishing companies on Music Row. Nobody thought they were hearing anything special. So the gang went back to Birmingham. But now that Wynette knew it was possible to just go knock on doors and audition for industry gatekeepers, she started making return trips to Nashville on her own. She claimed someone at Hickory Records said they were looking to sign a female version of Don Gibson, their biggest artist at the time, and she was given a stack of his albums to take home and learn his phrasing. However, this could not possibly have happened, as Don Gibson was an RCA artist at the time and for at least five years in either direction from this story. She said Owen Bradley turned her down at Decca and Owen’s old boss, Paul Cohen, would’ve signed her to Kapp Records but he didn’t have a budget to actually do anything with her. Cohen suggested she try some bigger labels like Columbia or RCA. RCA told her they weren’t signing anymore women that year. When Mildred and other family members asked how the trips to Nashville were going, Wynette made up lies about all the labels who were interested in working with her.
In January of 1966, without a single lead on a record deal or day job, she moved to Nashville. What she did have was a lead on her next husband and the next villain in what would become Tammy Wynette’s backstory, a guy named Don Chapel. Unlike Euple Byrd, Don Chapel probably does deserve most of the scorn heaped upon him by Wynette. He seems to’ve also been a world-class liar. Don Chapel’s account of the night they met in 1965 cannot possibly be true because it centers on him impressing and seducing Wynette with a publishing deal he didn’t have until 1966, a record deal he didn’t have until 1967 and taking her to a nightclub George Jones didn’t open until 1967. But what he did have was plenty enough to interest a 22-year-old wannabe singer from Alabama who did not know one other person in the city. What Don Chapel did have was a stage name he took to match the stage name of his fairly successful songwriting sister, Jean Chapel, and Jean and Don were the younger siblings of Martha Carson, writer and singer of “Satisfied.” Even though Don Chapel was working at the front desk of the first motel where Wynette stayed in Nashville, he was able to talk a big game about his industry connections and his hit songwriting career being just around the corner. He was also able to save Wynette some money on her return visits by sneaking her into his room at the motel instead of her paying for a room. If they didn’t become romantically involved on her first trip, it happened soon after.
When she did move to Nashville, they combined their efforts to break into the business, following leads, knocking on doors and singing together on any shows either was able to drum up. After about six months of this, Don got the opportunity to pitch some songs to George Jones. Since Don knew Wynette kept a notebook in which she’d written the lyrics to all of Jones’ songs, he figured he’d impress his girlfriend by bringing her along to meet her favorite singer. They went to Jones’ hotel room, where they found the country star wearing a bathrobe, drinking and hanging out with several people, including a young woman who sat with Jones on his bed the whole time. Don played his songs, Jones said he liked one of ’em and his people would be in touch, then went back to hanging out with his friends. Seeing Wynette’s disappointment at being ignored, Don tried to introduce her as a singer by asking who they should talk to at Musicor about getting her an audition but Jones barely even looked in Wynette’s direction. His only response was to say the name of some person who worked at the label and Wynette sulked for days afterward. She did get a record deal within six months of that meeting but it wasn’t at Musicor. Even though George Jones liked a song enough to record it, which landed Don a publishing deal with Pappy Daily, Wynette never got her audition. Weeks after the hotel room meeting, she was still knocking on doors of Music Row offices. Kelso Herston at United Artists recognized her potential and said he would sign her on the spot… if he hadn’t just signed Billie Jo Spears. Kelso said the label wouldn’t let him sign another woman because Billie Jo made three women on his roster and he couldn’t dump Billie because he was pretty sure he’d get a hit by marketing her as “the female George Jones.” Wynette asked, well, did he know who to talk to at Musicor or how she could get in touch with Pappy Daily? Kelso said Pappy Daily and George Jones both lived in Texas, so her best bet at getting a record deal in Nashville would probably be to go see Billy Sherrill at Epic, a subsidiary of Columbia Records.
Now, just about everyone working in this era of country music who’s commented on the first time they heard Tammy Wynette, whether it was on the radio or in person, has said some version of the same thing – a thing she also always said about herself, by the way – which is she was not a technically great vocalist but her singing conveyed a great deal of emotion and she sounded different from anything anyone had heard before. Jan Howard was once talking to the Country Music Hall of Fame about iconic singers – those unmistakable voices anyone can identify the second they start to sing – and she gave Tammy Wynette as an example. Merle Haggard once said Tammy stood out from other women in country music because “she had her own style” and wasn’t trying to sound like Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn or anyone else. This is what Kelso Herston recognized in his office and what Billy Sherrill heard the following day when Wynette came to see him. She did not have Patsy Cline’s range. She did not have Loretta Lynn’s attitude. What she had was Something Different. There was a unique pain in her voice and she could take it from quiet to loud and back at the drop of a hat, hurtin’ the whole way. Billy Sherrill understood the inherent value of Something Different but nobody in Nashville was writing songs for a voice like hers because there wasn’t a voice like hers in Nashville. He told her to come back when she found a hit song. Before long, Wynette returned with “She Didn’t Color Daddy,” a Scotty Turner and Ray Warren song she found on the b-side of a Kay Adams record. Billy took Wynette’s phone number and said he’d call when he had time to cut the record, which was industry speak for he expected to never see her again. And if she had just gone home to wait for the phone to ring, Tammy Wynette would’ve probably never existed. When she hadn’t heard from Billy in about a week, Wynette called to see where they stood. He said to come back to his office. As in, hang up and get over there, right now. He’d found a hit.
Just Follow the Stairway
Ten years earlier, musician and songwriter Bobby Austin moved from the state of Washington down to Los Angeles, ready to see what he could shake out of the city. He found work as a bass player in sessions at Capitol Studios, then joined Wynn Stewart’s band during the L.A./Las Vegas period you heard about in the Ralph Mooney episode of Season 1. When Merle Haggard became Wynn Stewart’s bass player in 1962, he was filling a vacancy left by Bobby Austin, who’d finally secured his own artist contract with Capitol after releasing a handful of singles on various indie labels. But his Capitol singles all bombed and the label dropped him after a year. In 1966, Bobby put out another record. While you wouldn’t know it from the credits on the label, Bobby wrote nearly the whole song by himself. Johnny PayCheck did happen to be staying with him in Las Vegas at the time, though, and PayCheck did come up with the opening lines of the chorus, so Bobby gave him half the song. Then Bobby split the other half with producer Fuzzy Owen and Bobby placed his own share of the credit under his wife’s name, Fern Foley. PayCheck sang harmony on the session and, yes, that is Ralph Mooney’s pedal steel guitar. Tally, the same tiny Bakersfield label that Merle Haggard’s first singles came out on in the early ‘60s, released Bobby Austin’s “Apartment #9” in July 1966.
The following month, Wynette Byrd left Billy Sherrill’s office in Nashville for the final time, having been told he’d call when he was available to cut the song she found. With Wynette out of his hair, Billy went back to doing his job, which, as far as he was concerned, began with finding a hit song and ended with making sure nobody in the studio screwed up a hit song. Because if they didn’t take at least one song worth recording into the studio, then nothing else mattered – not the artist, not the musicians, not the producer. When he looked at the country singles chart and noticed a record coming in from the bottom on a piddly little label whose name he hadn’t seen since they discovered Merle Haggard a few years earlier, Billy sent someone out to buy the single so he could hear it. And he liked what he heard well enough to start making calls to California, trying to license the master in order to reissue it on Epic with real distribution and real marketing to turn it into a real hit. When Tally turned down his offer, they did it with a sort of “we don’t need your Nashville Money” type attitude, so Billy hung up the phone with a new plan. He’d just cover the song and bury their fucking record… which is when his phone rang. Wynette Byrd wanted to know if they were really gonna cut the song she’d found or if he was just trying to be nice and, please, give it to her straight because this was maybe the last shot she had at a music career and she needed to know if it was happening or not. He said to get down to his office ASAP because he’d found her first hit record.
With a song, Something Different and something to prove, Billy got to work putting the whole package together. First thing first, the name “Wynette Byrd” had to go or they’d spend three years waiting for every radio DJ and hack record reviewer in the world to fall out of love with their own bird puns and actually listen to the music. Once he thought about it, Wynette reminded him of Debbie Reynold’s title character in Tammy & The Bachelor, a movie about “an unsophisticated backwoods girl” whose naive approach to life wins the heart of a wealthy bachelor after Tammy’s guardian grandfather is thrown in jail for making moonshine whiskey. Billy said her new name would be Tammy Wynette, gave her a copy of “Apartment #9” and told her to be at the Quonset Hut a week later for her first session. They started by recording “She Didn’t Color Daddy” but, seeing as how it was never released, Billy was probably just letting her get comfortable and warmed up by pretending the song she’d found mattered. Then they cut the one he wanted for a single. And, since this is the first in-depth analysis of Billy Sherrill’s production on Cocaine & Rhinestones, it’s worth prefacing with a reminder he was hands down the biggest Owen Bradley fanboy in history. Columbia owned 804 16th Ave. by the time they hired Billy for Epic, so he chose a room right upstairs from the Quonset Hut for his personal office and recorded in Owen’s studio with Owen’s musicians, applying the same principles of dynamics as Owen’s Nashville Sound. But Billy Sherrill was the next generation. He’d built up a tolerance and needed more to scratch the itch. In the sonic space Owen would’ve used to create high drama, Billy condensed the audio equivalent of a hysterical episode. His peaks were higher, valleys lower and the transitions between covered a spectrum from subtle insinuation to jarring volatility. Several artists who were objectively better singers than Tammy Wynette have done versions of “Apartment #9.” But just like the best work of Owen Bradley, Tammy’s record transcends genre. The beginning is pretty standard country fare, as long as your standards come from Nashville and you’re no longer impressed with Pete Drake’s invisible tone bar. Then everyone hits a stop so two Tammy Wynettes can take the record into outer space. There was nothing new or different about a singer overdubbing their own harmony part. By this point in the genre, you could even say it was old hat. What’s different about this, though, is it’s a major label single from the first real recording session of an artist who has never overdubbed her own harmony part and does not know how to do it. While she is able to keep the second vocal track in the harmony lane most of the time, there are a few spots where Tammy, probably from lack of confidence, accidentally gravitates into doubling the lead vocal. Her phrasing is also often slightly out-of-sync. The result is something like the blood harmony of identical twins who were separated at birth and have never sung together. This amateur performance combined with the masterful technique on display in every other element of the song is nearly psychedelic. Tammy’s naive overdubs achieve the same effect all over her first LP. Another notable example is “Send Me No Roses,” where the double-tracked vocal part begins with more slightly out-of-sync phrasing, which then gives way to two Tammy Wynettes screaming about how she knows roses are red. Billy took this double-tracked screaming thing even further on “It’s My Way,” from Tammy’s second album.
In her first session, Jerry Kennedy played stop-and-start rhythm guitar as cleanly and simply as possible to help Tammy stay on time. While she remained in the studio to do those first wild overdubs, Jerry found a telephone and called indie song publisher Al Gallico to let him know there was a new singer in town who’d just cut something incredible and Al should probably try to sign her as a writer, like, immediately. Listening to playback of the finished master take on “Apartment #9,” Billy Sherrill looked over at Tammy and noticed her sweater had a hole in it, so he arranged for his wife to take her shopping for some new clothes because this girl was about to be famous. The record came out in October and created a buzz just in time for the 1966 DJ Convention, where Wynette was taken around to all the parties with her new clothes and new name and introduced as the next big thing, which she did turn out to be. A November issue of Billboard said her debut single was likely to hit the country Top 10 but Tally had by this time licensed the Bobby Austin master to Capitol and their resources behind a reissue of the original record had it simultaneously climbing the chart, each version limiting the potential of the other. Bobby’s single peaked at #21 and was the last time most people ever heard his name. Tammy’s just missed the country Top 40 and introduced the world to a legend.
Though it wasn’t a huge hit, Tammy Wynette’s debut received enough airplay to put everyone in Nashville on notice: a new voice was in town. Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton both said they knew Tammy would be a huge star the first time they heard “Apartment #9.” When George Jones came to Nashville for the DJ Convention in November, Pappy Daily had studio time booked and one of the covers they did for filler was “Apartment #9.” Tammy happened to stop by Billy’s office while the session was taking place. When he told her George Jones was downstairs recording “Apartment #9,” she started to freak out, thinking it would be released as a single and kill her version. But Billy settled her nerves, said it was only some album filler, then took her down to the studio and introduced her to George Jones. This is when and where she and Jones first had a real conversation, though his anxiety tracked to her as him still being standoffish. Later, asked what he thought when he first heard her sing, Jones said he liked her voice because she didn’t sound like other girls.
Naturally, radio stations back on Wynette’s old Mississippi and Alabama turf put “Apartment #9” into heavy rotation and DJs boasted on their local girl made good. According to her, this led Euple Byrd to assume she must now be rich and he tried suing the woman who was still legally his wife for his share of that money. Tammy went to Billy Sherrill with the problem and Billy had Columbia Records’ lawyers explain to Euple how recording contracts work and how many thousands of dollars in debt his wife was to the label unless she started selling many more records. But if he wanted to talk about his fiscal responsibility if she didn’t start selling records, they were more than ready to have that conversation. Euple disappeared again. Whether or not this actually happened, it’s true her first single was a loss on paper. And even though she thought having a record deal meant booking agencies would automatically want to sign her and put her on tour, she was wrong. Moeller Talent (formerly the Jim Denny Artist Bureau) passed because they thought it wasn’t worth the trouble to sign women artists. Most had husbands and children trying to keep ‘em home all the time and the ones who would actually hit the road like they meant it were eventually gonna find themselves involved in some kind of trouble or other, spending night after night in rooms full of drunk men. This story and others like it were what Tammy heard all over town, so she again came to Billy Sherrill with her problem. Billy made a few calls and, next thing you know, Huey Long gave her a shot, booking her into The Playroom in Atlanta for one week, doing five sets a night. Her gross revenue for the week was $500, which is less than half of what a Nashville A Team musician would’ve earned for the same hours in the same year. After Tammy gave $250 to the house band for backing her up, then covered her own gas, food and motel room on the trip, she made it back home with $82. But it was $82 she didn’t have to borrow from family or friends. And she continued to work the road. Since she’d only released one single, her early concerts were essentially cover band sets of contemporary hits, many of which wound up on her first LP, rush-recorded in January 1967.
Six months after earning $500 for her first week of concerts in Atlanta, Tammy Wynette was making $500 a night on the road.
Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
Billy Sherrill’s policy of never taking his artists into the studio without a hit song often came down to a last-minute writing session to create a hit himself, usually with one of his regular cohorts. That’s what he and Glenn Sutton did for the title track of Tammy’s first album, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” One aspect of Billy’s genius, which we’ll get deeper into later, was his ability to find and/or create songs that reinforced and advanced the public personas of his artists. He encouraged singers to write their own material if they were able and he only took professional songwriters seriously to whatever degree they were able to craft narratives his artists could sell as autobiographical to fans, who formed ideas of these artists’ identities based on album covers, marketing campaigns, interviews, tabloid headlines and so on. Contrary to mass misunderstanding, this was not done to appeal to traditional country music fans or their supposedly disproportional need for so-called authenticity. Quite the opposite. The dynamics of Billy Sherrill records may have owed strong debts to Owen Bradley but Billy’s philosophies of instrumentation and marketing came directly from Chet Atkins’ most blatant attempts to capture a pop audience. The way pop culture and pop music function is like a roving spotlight which lands on a preexisting subculture and turns it into the hot, new trend until the subculture is overrun by uncool, corporate interests, at which point the spotlight begins searching for the next cool subculture to repeat the process with something that feels more organic and “real,” until all the money-hungry bandwagon jumpers start to make it feel fake. Therefore, in my experience, it is often fans, journalists and even artists approaching country music from pop (or rock) backgrounds who have this authenticity fetish themselves and project it onto an unfamiliar subculture. This is how and why producers like Chet Atkins and Billy Sherrill were able to consciously and deliberately sell the genre to such fans in a crossover package, by taking country singers and placing them in a sonic context with compelling personas metropolitan listeners found appealing. Billy Sherrill was exactly 0% interested in catering to the ears, wallets or supposed authenticity requirements of purely traditional country music fans and nothing he ever did was to that end. If it was, his name would not invoke the disdain it does from country fans who believe the genre peaked prior to the 1960s. And Tammy Wynette’s second single definitely would not kick off with Henry Strzelecki’s electric bass doing its best imitation of a bad boy’s motorcycle revving up to take a country girl out on a date in her first black leather jacket.
The lyrics play to Billy’s first draft of the Tammy Wynette character, a naive backwoods girl who wandered into the city, landed herself a record deal and got her heart broken by those fast, two-timing honky tonk men. Now, she’s here, doing a fairly unconvincing job of swearing “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” just as soon as she figures out how to drink whiskey and swing. It’s anyone’s guess how aware Glenn Sutton and Billy Sherrill may have been they were writing a perfect allegory of Billy’s genre-bending intentions: Tammy-as-country-singer-gone-bad through Billy’s corrupting pop- and rock-informed sonic influence. The single came out in February 1967, hit #3 country and every record she released from here until 1975 went at least Top 5. Of the fourteen singles by women solo artists to go #1 country in the 1960s, six were by Tammy Wynette.
With her first royalty checks, Tammy was able to finally get a divorce from Euple Byrd. Don Chapel immediately asked for her hand in marriage. As with Euple, Wynette knew she did not love Don but they’d been together about a year, both working toward careers in music, which meant they could tour together and she wouldn’t have to be alone on the road. She said yes and they became husband and wife in April of 1967. Between her royalty checks and touring revenue, Tammy was soon able to buy a house in Nashville. Or, really, two houses; one for Mildred and Foy Lee, who she told to retire and move to Nashville; the other for her, her three daughters, Don and Don’s three children from a previous marriage. It would have been a real pre-Brady Bunch situation, except most of the kids were left at home with family or babysitters while Tammy and Don and Don’s oldest daughter hit the road. With fourteen-year-old Donna Chapel singing backup, fans of the Tammy Wynette sold by Billy Sherrill arrived to concerts and found more of a wholesome family band vibe than they’d expected. Their good girl hadn’t gone bad at all. She’d gone married. The incongruities escalated along with Tammy’s fame.
Eyes Grow Dim
Despite a steadily rising rate of failed marriages and the fact it takes two to tango, divorced women in the late 1960s were still largely viewed, treated and made to feel as if they’d destroyed themselves, their lives and their only purpose. Billy Sherrill recognized Wynette’s potentially scandalous divorce as an opportunity to present the rapidly increasing number of American divorcees with an identifiable figure, someone who’d been through a similar experience to their own. Again, he and Glenn Sutton made a calculated effort to blur the line between the personal life and public image of the artist. Tammy’s third single was a song she found difficult to perform for the rest of her career because of how close it hit to her several broken homes. The title of “I Don’t Wanna Play House” is what the narrator overhears her young daughter tell a friend. And it breaks the narrator’s heart. She knows her failed marriage is why the child fears the game. Recorded in June 1967 and released in July, this was Tammy’s first #1 country song as a solo artist and it won a Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Of course, “I Don’t Wanna Play House” was the second #1 record with her name on the label because, a month earlier, Epic released a duet between Tammy and Billy Sherrill’s other artist, David Houston.
Billy produced his and David Houston’s first #1, “Almost Persuaded,” right around the time Tammy moved to Nashville. When “Apartment #9” came out and Tammy couldn’t get signed to a booking agency, the last phone call Billy made was to David Houston’s manager, Tillman Franks. Tillman called their booking agent, Huey Long, and asked him to give Epic’s new artist a chance, then start booking her as a package with Houston if she worked out, which is what happened. After a few months of their artists touring together, Billy Sherrill suggested to Tillman they try cutting some duets between Tammy and Houston. He already had a hit song ready to go. At this time, publishing company Tree Music gave a wall of their Music Row offices to a large map of the United States with markers indicating all the places country music stars came from: Utah, Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, Nebraska, Alaska… Songwriter Curly Putman – who’d already written “Green, Green Grass of Home,” one of the most lucrative titles ever filed with Tree – was sitting in their office one day, absent-mindedly looking at the big map on the wall when it really hit him that each of those markers represented a person who’d uprooted their entire life, often along with the lives of loved ones, just to chase down a dream. This realization turned into the beginning of a song and Curly brought in Billy Sherrill to help finish writing it. Tammy Wynette and David Houston recorded “My Elusive Dreams” in June of 1967 and it was released the same month.
In his tell-all memoir, I Was There When It Happened, Houston’s manager Tillman Franks writes about purchasing a full-page ad in Billboard to promote “My Elusive Dreams.” He never explicitly states this was a form of payola or details the unspoken benefits he may have received for this ad buy but, elsewhere in the book, he does disclose how reliably effective he found payola to be as a promotional strategy. In close proximity to these statements, he repeatedly mentions purchasing full-page ads in Billboard, Cash Box and other industry trades. I’ve never been very good at math, so I’ll let you do your own. When “My Elusive Dreams” became Houston’s third and Tammy’s first #1 single, their concert bookings got bigger and brought in more money. Tammy being the newer and less-established artist, she always played her set before David, who headlined the shows and finished his set by bringing Tammy out to close with their big hit. Then booking agent Huey Long had the idea to package Tammy and David together with another client, George Jones, still riding high (and feeling low) from his latest #1 record, “Walk through This World with Me.” Huey booked this lineup on a Canadian tour, then set some warmup dates in the States. The U.S. shows went off without a hitch; Tammy and Houston kept their act the same, then Jones closed out the bill. But the very first date in Canada went so poorly it altered the course of country music history.
As is so often the case with stories involving Tammy Wynette, there are multiple versions of how it all went down. While hers makes absolutely no sense, it was corroborated by Don Chapel, another documented liar, and repeated in George Jones’ autobiography, a book composed almost entirely of other people’s memories. So, since this is the version most people believe is true, here’s a brief rundown: Tillman Franks asks Tammy if David Houston can play first because David and Tillman need to leave early to be somewhere else. This is fine with Tammy until Tillman says she’ll still need to go out during David’s opening set for their big duet. Tammy refuses, due to some convoluted logic about how the crowd needs to’ve seen both singers separately before seeing them together, which is when Tillman loses his shit and begins screaming at her about David Houston being the bigger star and everyone knowing how girl singers get ahead in this business anyway, etc. There are just too many reasons this doesn’t add up to get into all of them. For one thing, this was the first night of a tour in another country, therefore very unlikely anyone would want to make major lineup changes at the last minute. Go ahead and double that improbability when Tammy says Tillman tried the exact same thing the very next night in a different town. She presents this like it became some kind of power move for Tillman, trying to prove he could get his way, but nine times out of ten a manager trying to make a lineup change to be a big shot, especially as some kind of power move, would push their artist closer to the headlining spot, not argue for them to be the opener, early in the evening before the whole audience has even showed up. And back to the thing about these being American artists working in another country, it’s pretty strange Tillman and Houston had some vague, unspecified engagement requiring their early departure on the first night, especially when Tammy elsewhere says Houston’s band backed her up on this tour. Tillman and Houston splitting early would’ve meant leaving his band behind to play with Tammy. Also, Tammy said there were a bunch of journalists there when Tillman screamed at her and she suspected this whole thing was staged as some kind of publicity stunt, which would be a whole lot easier to believe if any of these alleged journalists went home and wrote one word about witnessing any of this, which they did not because it’s all probably an overly complicated lie.
Conversely, Tillman Frank’s memoir is the definition of a tell-all. Among other difficult truths, he discloses the already-mentioned payola tactics, admits to every instance of a stolen melody in a song he’s credited with writing or co-writing and offers a sincere apology to Barbara Mandrell for once calling her ungrateful. He also details the many legal struggles he had with Johnny Horton’s widow following Tillman’s survival of the car wreck that killed Johnny. It is not a difficult choice for which source to believe, here. Tillman says he never spoke with Tammy Wynette on the first night of the Canadian tour. When one of the promoters said Tammy wanted David Houston to sing the duet during her set instead of his, Tillman replied they’d be happy to do that. After going to tell Tammy her request would be met, the promoter returned and said Tammy was now not going to sing the duet with Houston at all. According to Tillman, there had been no incident between Tammy and himself or Tammy and David. He claims he never said anything negative about Tammy Wynette in any context or setting and, having worked closely with many women in the industry, would never say such an ignorant and vulgar thing as she accused him of saying. He even refrains from insulting Tammy in this rebuttal of her accusations. The most critical thing he says is “my account of what happened certainly does not jibe with what she wrote.” When David Houston and his band went to leave the venue after the show that night, they found someone had put sand in the gas tanks of their vehicles.
As with her journey from Memphis to Birmingham, whatever you choose to believe happened in the middle, focusing only on the beginning and the end reveals the same story: another upgrade for Wynette. She couldn’t have known David Houston only had about five years left before chart placement payola could no longer hide his lack of corresponding sales and he’d wind up playing nursing homes. But she didn’t need to know that to recognize the chance at securing a much better duet partner, who also happened to be her personal hero and the Greatest Country Singer Ever, George Jones. Whether she was surprised by Jones coming to her rescue or she simply arranged it ahead of time by privately selling him a version of this power struggle story she later put in her book, Jones called her up to sing with him on the first night of the Canadian tour and every night after. This happened in March of 1968. Tammy had been married to Don Chapel for about a year, during which time he must have noticed how many fans were at least a little disappointed every time Don Chapel’s wife hit the stage instead of Billy Sherrill’s Tammy Wynette persona. Promoters routinely complained to Huey Long they and their audiences paid for Tammy Wynette, not The Chapel Family Band Show. But Don Chapel was at least as opportunistic as his wife and couldn’t help but see her growing fortune and fame in the light of how useful they may be to his own ambitions. In fact, he thought it was about time to quit focusing only on songwriting and start his own career as a major recording artist. Don pestered Tammy to have Billy Sherrill sign him to Epic. Hell, while she was at it, get a contract for his daughter Donna, too. Wynette knew her husband’s singing would never pass an audition for Billy and was mortified at the thought of asking. But Don wouldn’t leave it alone, so Tammy finally set it up. As a favor to Tammy, Billy produced two singles for Don and one for Donna Chapel. The first of Don’s Epic singles (“Hurtin’ Time”) came out a month before the Canadian tour and did nothing. The second single also did nothing upon release. Donna’s record was never even pressed.
So when this whole fiasco went down and Tammy upgraded from David Houston to George Jones, Don Chapel was initially pleased. You know, they were married, so what’s good for Tammy could only be good for him, right? He thought nothing of it when Tammy began riding from show to show not with the Chapels but with George Jones, ostensibly to practice singing together while in transit, since they were now duet partners. But immediately after the Canadian tour, Shirley Jones filed for a long overdue divorce. As he did with every one of his ex-wives, George gave Shirley all she asked for in the separation: three houses, two plots of land, 50% of his songwriting royalties, pretty much everything except the other half of his royalties, two cars, a tour bus, some stock in Musicor, a Florida vacation home and some empty land in Texas. Suddenly cash poor, Jones borrowed $1,000 from his brother-in-law and moved from Texas into a Nashville hotel room. When the divorce paperwork went through and he legally became a single man, the first thing George Jones did was drive over to Tammy Wynette’s house and tell her the good news.
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 if you’d like to see the various ways you may be able to help me keep doing this very difficult thing, even if it’s just sharing a link to an episode. If you’re a big Tammy Wynette fan and this is the first post you’ve read, you should know this is just one piece of this podcast’s second season which is all one big story built around George Jones. Tammy Wynette is obviously a huge part of that story, which is why she has a major role in several more episodes this season, but if you want to get the whole picture (and understand why I talked so much about carousels in the intro) then you’ll need to go back and start from the beginning at the episode on Starday. If you like what you hear, you’ll also want to go back and listen to me learn how to make a podcast in Season 1, which is all also connected to everything I’m talking about in Season 2.
When I come back in a couple weeks, it will be a whole episode on the song “Stand by Your Man,” its impact on the world and Tammy Wynette’s life. However scandalous, fascinating and mind-blowing you’re imagining that may be, I promise it’s on a whole other level.
I wanted to give everyone an update on podcast merch. We are currently sold out of koozies but those are coming back, hopefully with an update to the design. I am also going to try to get ladies fits and 3x shirts when I place an order for more shirts. I’ve been trying to get good coffee mugs this whole time and I think we’re finally getting close to something I like there and I’ve been working on getting some iron-on patches. None of this stuff has happened yet, just letting y’all know what to expect, but if you do want some podcast merch then you should still go see what’s currently in stock because there is still stuff in the webstore and some of it’s not coming back after it sells out.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Hank Williams – “No One Will Ever Know” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “You Can Steal Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bonnie Guitar – “You Can Steal Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck & Micki Evans – “The Way Things Were Going” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Martha Carson – “Satisfied” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Billie Jo Spears – “There’s Not Enough of You to Go Around” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Kay Adams – “She Didn’t Color Daddy” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bobby Austin – “Apartment No. 9” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Apartment No. 9” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Send Me No Roses” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “It’s My Way” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Apartment No. 9” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Don’t Touch Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “I Don’t Wanna Play House” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- David Houston & Tammy Wynette – “My Elusive Dreams” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Don Chapel – “Hurtin’ Time” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
I’m really not looking forward to the reaction some people are going to have to these Tammy Wynette episodes but it’s not my job to tell fans what they want to hear about their favorite artists, it’s my job to actually research the history a lot of people think they know and then turn that into a story that’s as close to the truth as I can get it. I love Tammy Wynette’s music, I respect her as a person and my heart breaks for her when I think about her life. It brings me no pleasure to call her a liar but she unquestionably was and the lies she told cannot be ignored or glossed over because they are a massive part of this story. Those of you familiar with the details of her personal life know there are some extremely difficult subjects I’m going to have to touch on in future episodes. This shit’s gonna get messy and there’s no way around it. Even just talking about the song “Stand by Your Man” in the next episode has to address the controversy that’s surrounded the song since the day it was released. There’s gonna be a lot of things people don’t want to hear about attitudes toward feminism in the 1960s. As I said in the Liner Notes of a previous episode, please try to keep in mind the things you see me say are not necessarily my personal opinions. You will often see me outright state something is my personal opinion if that’s what I’m sharing. At nearly all other moments, I’m trying to paint an accurate picture of the past, no matter how I or anyone else would prefer that picture to appear.
Speaking of pictures, I could not find any pictures or video of Tammy on the Country Boy Eddie TV show. She was still pregnant with Tina when she got the job, so she was supposedly filmed from the waist up for her debut performance but I was unable to confirm this.
George Richey did not actually produce the session for Bonnie Guitar’s cut of “You Can Steal Me.” That was Dot Records co-founder Randy Wood. I don’t know why Randy did that session but George Richey absolutely was Bonnie Guitar’s producer. He produced the a-side of the record, a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ramblin’ Man” and I think it’s reasonable to assume Richey heard the Wynette Byrd demo of “You Can Steal Me” before his artist recorded It. Without just yet getting into why it matters, that would mean this was probably the first time he heard Tammy Wynette sing.
I didn’t include it in the episode because there’s no way to be certain about what happened but there’s been a lot of speculation over the years as to what degree Tammy Wynette was sexually propositioned by male executives when trying to break into the business. According to her, it only happened one time but at least one other version of the story has Billy Sherrill talking an exhausted engineer into staying on the clock to work Tammy’s first session because so many jerks in town had tried to take physical advantage of her and he wanted to show everyone the talent they missed by thinking with their dicks.
The recording of “She Didn’t Color Daddy” from that session did eventually come out on the Tears of Fire box set in 1992, about 25 years later and over a decade after she stopped working with Billy Sherrill. I did technically say it was never released but what I meant is Billy Sherrill never put it out the whole time he was Tammy’s producer.
Don Chapel’s first single released by Epic was “Hurtin Time” which was produced by Billy Sherrill but you can find promo copies floating around out there of an earlier record on Epic,”Flowers and Candy,” produced by Glenn Sutton. I would assume the reason you can only find promo copies is because the song didn’t get enough traction at radio for Epic to feel it was worth actually releasing. If so, it’s reasonable to assume Billy went in the studio himself to see if he was the missing ingredient. Turns out, he wasn’t. I do think the piano lick Billy threw on the record was a pretty great trick, though, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that Ray Pennington song, so I don’t think anyone can say Don Chapel never got a fair shot at the recording career he wanted.
My primary sources were already mentioned in the episode. I’ll save discussion of Jimmy McDonough’s book for next time. As for Tammy’s official autobiography, I sure hope everyone who’s mad at me for calling Tammy an unreliable narrator is willing to take the time to research contemporary reviews of this book. In The Journal of Country Music, Vol.8, No.2, Mary Bufwack sure doesn’t have very many nice things to say about Tammy’s autobiography and points readers to instead seek out Joan Dew’s previous profile in the book Singers and Sweethearts, written more from Joan’s reporting than from Tammy’s attempts to sell a certain version of history. In The Journal of Country Music, Vol. 9, No. 3, Stephen Tucker calls Stand by Your Man the worst of the recently published country autobiographies that he’s read. I would assume both of these reviews exist because of how easy it was for journalists walking the country music beat to spot all of the inconsistencies and inaccuracies in Tammy’s version of the story. But, just like George Jones’ success with selling his uncontested version of Pappy Daily, Tammy’s audience was much larger than any country music journalist or publication, so her version of events is the one most people believe.
Alright, come back in two weeks because the episode on “Stand by Your Man” is definitely one of the best in this whole season and I know those of you who’ve been enjoying the intros this time around are gonna be real happy about all kinds of things.