Tammy Wynette: 1942 to 1998
I suppose there was a time, way back before I can remember, when I was not aware of Tammy Wynette — but I imagine I soaked up her presence before I knew I was doing it. I didn’t have any of her records, but I know I heard her music somewhere, and repeatedly, because by second grade I knew at least one of her songs well enough for the mention of it to make a lifelong impression on me.
Our teacher probably had some time to kill between whichever lesson and lunch, and asked us to tell, each after the other, our favorite songs. I don’t remember my answer, or anyone else’s, except for one. Lee Williams was poor, a child who got free lunches. I knew nothing else about him, but I remember that when it was his turn, he said his favorite song was “I Don’t Wanna Play House”.
This probably was not a song he’d heard repeatedly on the radio, as it had been a hit several years earlier and had long since fallen out of steady airplay. I like to imagine that his mother played it over and over on one of those record players with a lid and a handle. It tugged at her heart. It spoke to her of her own hard life. She cried when she heard it and played it yet again. Twenty-five years later, I still think of Lee when I hear that song, and I can still hear him giving his answer in his little seven-year-old Alabama cracker voice.
Maybe over the years I’ve invested that scene with more meaning than it actually contained. But I think I can remember a feeling, a knowledge that Lee’s life was reflected disturbingly accurately in “I Don’t Wanna Play House”, and that he’d revealed a lot about himself by naming it as his favorite. This knowledge was fleeting, because in ensuing years I didn’t pay much attention to Lee. By high school he was no longer in our class, probably no longer in school. But I’ve remembered him.
At some point, I became much too cool for country. I stationed myself beside my clock-radio and my Lloyd’s integrated stereo system with 8-track player/recorder and immersed myself in Top 40. It wasn’t until I’d been in college a couple years that I began to appreciate country the way I appreciated rock. It was a period of general mind expansion in my life, and as I devoured every indie-rock record that passed my way, I also got to know the best work of a few country singers.
My teenage disdain for these familiar songs gave way to a respect for their peculiar artistry, and I particularly loved the premier women of country. Patsy crooned, Dolly soared, Loretta hollered, but Tammy…Tammy sobbed. And I felt it. Not as melodrama or histrionics, but as heavy life lessons, learned the hard way.
My mind expansion must have sparked some heart expansion, too, because I got it, I finally got it, that people love the music they do because it reaches in and touches them; it speaks to them in such a way as to let them identify. It bridges gaps in the self. Country music, Tammy’s and that of others like her, spoke to people who just didn’t get spoken to much. I’ve always thought of this music as a sort of white woman’s blues, and I’ve carried for years a mental picture of a woman crying while she irons and listens to the radio, saying through her sobs, “She’s talking to me!” She’s the same woman I see when I try to picture Lee Williams’ mother.
Tammy Wynette excelled in reaching out to that woman. Maybe it was because she’d been there. Before she ever began her musical career, she’d had three kids and been divorced, and had earned a living as a hairdresser. She moved to Nashville with virtually no connections or experience. Her personal life had its share of tumult, and she had health problems as well. So there wasn’t a lot of distance between Tammy and the characters in many of her most popular songs. People could hear that, I think.
And maybe her empathy shone through because of a fortunate accident of nature, because her voice was lower pitched than those of her contemporaries. It had gravity and maturity; the breaks and sighs that could be annoyingly girlish in other voices came through as weary and wise in Tammy’s — as, well, empathetic.
It doesn’t matter what made it so, though. I hear it. I like to think Lee Williams’ mother heard it. And recently I got a pleasant little illustration as to how that empathy has jumped the boundaries of style, right into an audience I’m not sure Tammy ever imagined.
I was traveling with a band a few weeks before Tammy’s death, a band with members from all over, each of whom had done lots of time in various rock ‘n’ roll outfits. We rode without talking much, listening to a country mix tape as we plowed through the night. The songs were all from the ’60s, and turned up loud in the dark of the van, they sounded full and complete, wholly country yet polished and precise, each a lovely balance of heartfelt sentiment and deft production technique. It was satisfying listening.
After awhile, “I Don’t Wanna Play House” came on, and as I drove I soaked it up, marveling at its structure (a three-note introduction, one verse, one chorus repeated) and arrangement, but mostly listening once again to a singer who knew that of which she sang.
I thought I was probably the only one who’d been reveling in the gorgeousness. Then a voice came from the back: “Who needs a second verse?” We chuckled our assent. In the hearts of some itinerant musicians with rock credentials to spare, none of whom was old enough to have really appreciated Tammy’s golden age as it happened, she’d reached common ground.
And that, to me, is what it’s all about.