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Tammy Wynette: The 'Tragic Country Queen'

A new biography sees past Tammy Wynette's glittery costumes to examine the singer's deepest struggles.
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A new biography sees past Tammy Wynette's glittery costumes to examine the singer's deepest struggles.

When Tammy Wynette died in 1998, she was known as the First Lady of Country Music. She was born in 1942, as Virginia Wynette Pugh, in a rural county of Mississippi. By the time she was in her mid-20s, the hairdresser-turned-glittering-country-superstar was on her way to being the first artist in the genre to go platinum. Wynette had more than 20 No. 1 hits, though she's still most widely remembered for signature songs of the late 1960s and early '70s, such as "I Don't Wanna Play House" and "Stand By Your Man."

Drama is what Wynette's music best expressed. And, judging by a new biography by Jimmy McDonough, there was no shortage of it in her own life. The book is called Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen.

"I have a theory that great artists learn how to do one thing great. And that's Tammy," McDonough says. "In terms of a slow, sad song, nobody could rip it up like Tammy. She is just unrelenting."

'A Pretty Little Love Song'

Her biggest hit, "Stand By Your Man," has had an incredible lifespan. Following its release, the song was widely criticized within the feminist movement; in the mid-'90s, it became the subject of discussion again when soon to becoming first lady Hillary Clinton referenced it in a news interview. McDonough says Wynette remained proud of the song.

"When asked about it, she'd say, 'I just thought it was a pretty little love song,' " McDonough says.

Tammy Wynette had five marriages, and she often played the part of the tragic heroine. On that topic, McDonough says that Wynette was in love with love. One of her most intense marriages was to fellow country star George Jones.

"There's an intimacy that comes when those two sing together," McDonough says. "You don't see it, really, with, say, Loretta [Lynn] and Conway [Twitty] or Porter [Wagoner] and Dolly [Parton]. They were in love and they were singing to each other, and you felt it."

Later in her life, Wynette suffered from health problems that contributed to ongoing struggles with addiction.

"There was no levity in the last few decades of Tammy's life," McDonough says.

She was plagued with pain in her stomach and underwent, according to Wynette, more than 30 operations. With the aid of painkillers, she was able to continue playing shows, but not without pain, according to those closest to her.

"Life did her in in the end," McDonough says. "She couldn't make it on her own."

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