Updated: Feb 16
"I Believe You Have To Live The Songs"
Few people's lives are more tragic than the songs they sing, even after death.. If we start from the very beginning, we'll see how Tammy Wynette was a true honky tonk queen. She earned her crown singing anywhere they'd let her utter a word. Early on, the places were rough, and the people oblivious to the legend-in-the-making pouring out her heart.
If country music is anything at all, it is about life.. The good, the bad, and the ugly.. If you can accept the previous as a defining statement, then Tammy's life was more tragic than most country songs.
For starters, Tammy never knew her father. He died from a brain tumor before she reached a year in age. She was raised by her mama, and maternal grandparents. Tammy would rise at day break to pick cotton. They were not rich, but they were self sufficient, and had more than most in the area. The town was very poor-no electricity or phone service to be had.
William Pugh (Tammy's Father)
Not brutal enough for you yet, well read on..At age 17, she married a moonshiner by the name of Euple Byrd. But not before she dated all of his brothers. She fell for the oldest DC, and well his marriage ended.. However, after he came back from a military tour, he remarried his ex wife, but continued to see Tammy on the side. Unrequited love much?
It is said that she was madly in love with DC, and was heartbroken when he remarried his ex wife. She was still a teenager.
Tammy before blond hair oh my gosh!
Tammy married Euple because she thought she was pregnant. She said, she had miscarried a time before. But also, her mother bird dogged Tammy quite a bit, which she was tired of. Tammy was only 17, and Euple was 26.
They moved around quite a bit. some reports say, he couldn't hold a job, and others say it was Tammy, who would take off to wherever she could sing. One of the houses they lived in was a literal shack insulated by cardboard. What I found more astonishing was that the house actually belonged to her grandfather. There was no utilities to speak of.. Not even a stove. And with two young children in tow, I can hardly believe this was acceptable.. Poor Tammy..
They eventually moved to Memphis, and Tammy started working at Mary's Bar, five tables, and a handful of drunks is how its described.. There she was able to cut her teeth as a performer. She sang classic country favorites from Kitty, Loretta, and Patsy. She was 21 years old.
They moved to Tupelo, and there Tammy found out she was pregnant, but was determined to leave Euple. They got into a heated argument, and Tammy had a nervous breakdown.. She was unable to speak, and was hospitalized for depression.. She received 10 shock treatments.
Things got worse when she came back home, and arguments ensued. One evening, she came home to find the apartment completely emptied of all her possessions. The police came shortly after, and informed Tammy that they were going to arrest her for being an unfit mother. Euple had provided the information to the police, and was indeed the one that took all her possessions. Her family physician was able to attest to Tammy's sanity, and the matter was dropped. Can you imagine?
There was not much support from her mother, who viewed divorce as a cardinal sin, and sided with Euple. Her mother was so angry that she knocked a pregnant Tammy to the ground in the driveway of the apartment.
She finally left Euple who belittled her dreams, who uttered the infamous words Dream On Baby only to eat them later when he appeared at one of Tammy's concerts asking for an autograph. So shameless..
She moved to Birmingham with her two daughters, and was pregnant with the third. She lived with her paternal grandparents.. There she was surrounded by an extended family that were musicians just like her late father.
Tammy landed a spot on the Country Boy Eddie show, where she met David Vest, and his wife. He was instrumental in recording Tammy. Armed with a raw demo, she started going to Nashville on the weekends. One of the songs on the demo was "You Can Steal Me".
On one of those weekend trips to Nashville, she met a struggling songwriter who had just gotten his first two cuts. He was recently divorced, but more importantly, he was on the same label as George Jones.
Don Chapel was Tammy's Get Out of Jail card.. Her all-time favorite artist was George. She fantasized about meeting, and singing with him for most of her life. And even better, George had recorded a few of Don's songs. Don Chapel was working at the Anchor Motel where Tammy was staying. But he got fired when the management found out he was sneaking Tammy into his room..
Don & Tammy
If anything can be said about the very short marriage, it is that Tammy's career started to move forward with Don. He was at the time passionate about helping her succeed. With no record deal in sight, Don, and Tammy took to the road, and played every hole-in-the wall. They were living a hand to mouth existence with three kids in tow one of which was a special needs child. For six months, that was Tammy's life.
By now, Tammy had been turned down by every label in Nashville. She had even gone to see Billy Sherrill, who was a budding producer.. He told her to find better songs, but eventually, he did come around, and signed her to a contract. Billy recalled that he knew, he was Tammy's last hope. She looked desperate, and was going to go back to Alabama, and give up on her dreams. Her first major label release was "Apartment #9" a song co-written by Johnny Paycheck. It charted peaking at #44.
Tammy, and then husband Don landed an opening slot on a George Jones tour. Tammy finally lived out one of her dreams to sing with the Possum. She also started traveling with George to the shows as Don trailed behind.. In less than a year, Tammy would have the biggest hit of her career as a soloist.
She would also marry her favorite singer George Jones. For several years, her star shone bright with multiple hits spawned by duets with George. They were Mr. & Mrs. Country Music, a title no couple has been able to claim since.
Life looked great from the outside, but reports of abuse, George's drinking problems, and her pill addiction circulated. She eventually left George, and married two more times. She was now an established cultural icon. Stand By Your Man will forever be the rallying battle cry that echoes deeply for fans from all walks of life.
I wish, I could say that life got better...In some respects it did.. She was a doting mother, and adored her four girls. Her health got worse, and often she would perform so heavily sedated that she would fall asleep on stage. There was also that bizarre kidnapping in 1978.
If honky tonk music was born out of the dive bars where hard working folks drowned their sorrows, and lived through the messy parts of real life then Tammy was their queen. I can't think of any other female country singer that had more heartache, and pain than Tammy.
The greatest tragedy for me as a fan is that her daughters were not able to benefit from the legacy their mom fought tooth, and nail for. At the end, George Richey, Tammy's husband at time of death inherited everything, and gave nothing to her daughters.
When he died everything was left to his wife, Sheila Slaughter, who was a friend of Tammy's and about 30 years his junior. I cannot begin to imagine how heartbreaking this is. At the end, Tammy busted her butt to leave her hard earned wealth soaked in literal tears to someone that is not any relation to her at all..
Tammy's songs often mirrored what was going on in her real life. She pushed through financial obstacles, physical pain, and heartache to become the First Lady of Country Music. I wonder, if at the end, when she was able to reflect, if it was all that she thought it would be.. If she felt it was worth it...
In our next installment, we'll look at the lil' ole honky tonk girl that became an icon for women in the 60's. she was also one of the few that can say Patsy Cline was her friend.
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