George “The Possum” Jones might be one of the top three most influential country musicians of all time. He was born in 1931 in Texas to a working-class family and grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio—especially the bluegrass stylings of Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff. He was raised in a musical Pentecostal family and got a Gene Autry guitar when he was eleven. He’d perform on the streets of Beaumont, Texas for tips and eventually started playing on a Jasper radio station with one of his friends after dropping out of school. After enlisting, Jones met Hank Williams and claimed he cried like he lost a friend when Hank died in ’53.
Jones’ first big hit was “White Lightning,” a 1959 cover of a song written by J.P. Richardson, a singer also known as “The Big Bopper.” That song spent 22 weeks at the top of the charts. After switching record labels, Jones teamed up with Melba Montgomery, a talented songwriter with a crooning gospel sounding voice. The ‘60s were Jones’ most prolific and shining years. Though he only had a handful of hits and several broken marriages, his finest work was the long stretch of the decade when he wrote: “Things Have Gone to Pieces.”
By 1969, George married Tammy Wynette—cross yourself, pour one out, and cry a little before I tell you about one of country music’s most darling angels.
George and Tammy were the First Couple of country music. Although their chemistry ruled the show circuit, they were by all accounts a volatile and savage combination. Married for six years, the two had one daughter named Tamala Georgette.
By 1975, George and Tammy were destroying each other, and George went on a bender that lasted several years. He was pulled over on I-65 one night and nearly beat a cameraman’s ass, which he described as a kind of wakeup call.
Sometime in the ‘80s or ‘90s, Jones settled near or around Muscle Shoals, Alabama for a while. His Wikipedia page ominously claims that he “went on a drunken rampage in Alabama in fall 1983.” Rumor has it that the Dawson Gang, a family I’ve researched extensively, played poker with the Possum. More importantly, my great-grandmother was in love with George Jones. I don’t mean she had a crush. Whether she was in the early stages of dementia, she was truly, wholly, completely in love with him. I always made the connection between the two through the Dawsons. That, maybe, my wild-assed great-grandmother hooked up with George one night out at Big Bear Resort. A girl can dream, can’t she?
The hero of the story isn’t George. Yes, being the ol’ Possum, lawnmower-riding-fool that could break your heart with a song was valuable. Tammy was the hero. Tammy was the Queen.
Though she was born Virginia Wynette Pugh near Tremont, Mississippi, she’s claimed by the small town of Red Bay in Franklin County, Alabama. They have a Tammy Wynette Highway and a Tammy Wynette Museum, complete with dresses and her old makeup. She learned to be a hairdresser at a beauty college in Tupelo, Mississippi and renewed her cosmetology license every year until she died in case she needed work to fall back on. She, like George, grew up working-class.
They gave her a stage name that would work better on a blonde. In 1966, she recorded “Your Good Girl’s Gonne Go Bad,” which became a hit. She made several hits with somewhat risqué lyrics and, oddly, she was reported to have been kidnapped at gunpoint in 1978, an encounter that resulted in a broken cheekbone and bruises. After Tammy’s death, one of her children claimed that the entire kidnapping was made up to cover up Tammy’s husband’s physical abuse. Either way, she had to put up with a hell of a lot of bullshit in both the music industry and her personal life.
“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman…You’ll have bad times, and he’ll have good times doin’ things that you don’t understand…If you love him, be proud of him, ‘cause after all, he’s just a man”
She pities him. She knows he needs her to take care of him because he’s too pitiful or weak to do it himself. It’s patronizing, infantilizing, yet oddly supportive. And that was always my Southern gender theory, as radical as it sounds. Tammy taught me that men were fragile, that they did stupid shit, and that you had to stick with them or they’d end up getting drunk and getting a DUI for driving a riding-lawnmower. Because they did. And they do. Pity them, those dumb men.
Later, Tammy wrote songs like “Womanhood,” which has the bold lyric: “I am a Christian Lord, but I’m a woman, too.” She recorded an album with the other wild country women—Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton—with the notable cover of Kitty Wells’ response song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Tammy died in 1998 at 55 years old due to a blood clot in her lung and taking pain medication. Her name was changed on her grave multiple times, from Tammy Wynette to her father-and-husband given name, Virginia W. Richardson. Two years later it was changed back to Tammy Wynette, her record-label-and-father given name. I don’t know which one she would have preferred.
George and Tammy are the prime examples of gender and music. Both poor, both with God-given talent, both addicts. Tammy still remains a legacy, but her career is a rarely deemed as legendary and influential as George’s. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame twenty years before he died. Tammy was inducted after she died. I don’t know if that’s something to criticize, but I do.
Pour yourself a glass of bourbon and listen to the First Couple croon:
“White Lightning” –George Jones (1959)
“She Thinks I Still Care” –George Jones (1962)
“We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” –George Jones and Melba Montgomery (1963)
“I Don’t Want to Play House” –Tammy Wynette (1968)
“Take Me to Your World” –Tammy Wynette (1968)
“Stand By Your Man” –Tammy Wynette (1969)
“Take Me” Duet (1971)
“Womanhood” –Tammy Wynette (1978)
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” –George Jones (1980)
“Yesterday’s Wine” –George Jones and Merle Haggard (1982)
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” –Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn (1993)