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March 14, 2010

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In her own style

SOMETIMES it's hard to be a biographer. Tammy Wynette is known as the queen of country music, a legend and a drag queen staple. The first country artist to go platinum, with more than 20 No. 1 hits, she is beloved and rightfully respected, the Elvis of the Opry, a tiny wisp of a woman who went from beauty school to record sales of more than US$30 million.

Her appeal springs primarily from two wells: her hardscrabble story and heartbreaking voice, an idiosyncratic, affecting warble of longing and regret. After you've read "Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen," Jimmy McDonough's rollicking if reverential biography, the voice remains unimpeachable. The story, not so much.

While Wynette the singer warrants extravagant praise °?- her unique interpretations fortifying every song, taking lyrics that would otherwise seem cheesy and transforming them into little odes of devastation - Wynette the person is a letdown.

If you drained Dolly Parton of her swift wit and Loretta Lynn of her winning pluck, you'd get Tammy Wynette, a fairly plain, small-minded gal whose searing ambition and begrudging temperament kept her from any lasting contentment.

As McDonough describes in striking detail, Wynette's life may have been a heaping helping of trouble, but it was trouble, with few exceptions, she brought on herself.

She was born in Mississippi in 1942, and her childhood was not as abject as she suggested. One friend recalls, "Wynette was rich as far as we were concerned," getting US$50 for Christmas, never wanting for anything, unlike many neighbors.

When she picked cotton, it was as a family chore, not an inevitable career. Actual poverty came later, after she fled her strict family, marrying at 17 a man she hated to get back at his brother, whom she loved.

In her autobiography, "Stand by Your Man," Wynette depicts her first husband, Euple Byrd, as a layabout who held her back. In reality, McDonough discovered, Byrd was a simple, upstanding boy who found himself tied to a wild colt.

Wynette, dreams deferred, considered married life "dull, drab and exhausting." Though she would ultimately marry five men - most significantly George Jones, with whom she sang perhaps the finest country duets recorded - Wynette was ill suited for the compromises domestic relationships required.

She was even less adept at child rearing. When her nanny contacted her on tour, concerned about the kids, an annoyed Wynette snipped, "If you need me, call my lawyer." Her four girls were frequently neglected in her pursuit of fame, though she did mine her failings for material, writing "Dear Daughters," a spoken-word number reciting the milestones in her girls' lives that she'd missed.

Wynette's career striving inflamed other struggles - with family, with drug addiction, but mostly with truth. McDonough's scrupulous research suggests Wynette lied compulsively. About her background. About her husbands. To her husbands. She fibbed about everything from how much makeup she wore to how many drugs she took.

The biggest fabrication was perhaps Wynette's "kidnapping" - most likely a flimsy publicity stunt - in 1978, when she claimed she'd been assaulted and abducted, then set free. It was followed by the discovery of threatening notes many believe Wynette wrote herself.

The book's pace is akin to that of a true crime story: fast, fun and flip. Frequently, though, quotations are stacked atop quotations like egg crates, many contradicting the lines that came before. In the end, despite McDonough's strenuous efforts, it is difficult to muster much empathy for Wynette.

Not surprisingly, the music is where McDonough, like Wynette, shines. The book is worth reading for the musical history alone, the sloppy authenticity of those early days a stark contrast to the deadening current Nashville music. Of all the country balladeers, Wynette (who died in 1998) remains singular in her ability to reach an audience, to present herself as a conduit for our pain.


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