George Jones & Tammy Wynette: Now separated – but together on record

First published in Country Music People, April 1981

GEORGE JONES & TAMMY WYNETTE, at one time husband and wife, still continue their partnership in the recording studios although seldom on the road. ALAN CACKETT examines their success in terms of their record releases, in preparation for their (separate) appearance at this month's Wembley Festival. 

Now separated – but together on record

The partnership of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, both off and on record, has been the most controversial and publicly analysed of any country team-up during the past dozen years. When they married it was like a fairy tale come true for Tammy, and it seemed, at least for a while, that the First Lady of country music might do a June Carter, curb George’s wild and wicked ways and get him off the bottle. Booze has always been George’s problem, but then again his bouts of drinking have certainly helped him to sing sad country lyrics with more realism and feeling than just about any other country vocalist there is.

Before Tammy married the legendary singer, she had also experienced a whole host of personal problems, and on reflection it would be true to say that their marriage was doomed to failure before it even started. It could even be said that the only good thing that came out of their marriage was a string of fine duet recordings, but even the quality of those was very much an up-and-down affair.

Because of contractual difficulties (George was signed to Musicor Records and Tammy to Epic) it was almost three years after their marriage that they finally made it to the studios to record together. They had been singing together for a number of years, having teamed up for many of their concert tours, so when they worked in the studios there was a natural empathy that gave them a relaxed atmosphere for working. The first album, WE GO TOGETHER, was recorded in the summer of 1971 in a two-day session that was supervised by Billy Sherrill. 

It was musical perfection. The superb phrasing and faultless interpretation by Tammy and George of songs by top Nashville songwriters Jack Clement, Bobby Braddock, Carmol Taylor and Norro Wilison resulted in a winning combination. The pair even came up with some songs of their own: It’s So Sweet and Never Grow Cold being joint efforts and You’re Everything being a solo contribution from Tammy.

The release of the album was awaited with bated breath in Nashville, and CBS made the rare move of releasing a country album in a special fold-out sleeve. The single taken from the album was the old George Jones/Leon Payne classic Take Me, which soared high on the country charts in the early months of 1972.

By this time George had left Musicor Records (which rapidly fell apart at the seams) and signed with Epic, joining Tammy under the guiding hand of producer Billy Sherrill. A second album ME AND THE FIRST LADY, followed that summer and led to another op ten single hit with the Sherrill-penned The Ceremony. It was pure Nashville schmaltz, being a re-run of the Jones-Wynette marriage ceremony; and however hard I try, I cannot help but squirm every time I hear this embarrassing piece of work.

The rest of the album more than compensated for this one flaw. The songs, once again utilising Nashville’s best writers like Ben Peters, Curly Putman, Jimmy Peppers and Earl Montgomery, range from up-tempo to mid-tempo to romantic ballads to bring a satisfying balance to the programme. At times the two seem to bring the best out of each other’s distinctive style. George is in superb vocal from on To Live On Love and The Perfect Match, with Tammy taking a back seat but making an important contribution to the overall results.

Their next excursion into the studio was to record a religious set—WE LOVE TO SING ABOUT JESUS. This was released in the autumn of 1972 and included Tom T. Hall’s Me And Jesus, the gospel-flavoured Let’s All Go Down To The River and their next single, Old Fashioned Singing, which gave them another country hit, reaching only 38 on the charts.

By this time the pair were making up for lost time during the period of contractual problems, and seemed to be spending more time in the studio than on the road or at home with their children. Their fourth album, LET’S BUILD A WORLD TOGETHER, was another masterpiece. Separately or together, their pure, convincing country vocals always shine. Supported with guitars, steel, piano and strings, the duo perfectly pine their way through such favourites as My Elusive Dreams, When I Stop Dreaming and The World Needs A Melody.

The title tune, a slushy ballad lifted into a tasteful setting by the superb production of Billy Sherrill, gave them another minor country hit in the spring of 1973. But it was becoming apparent that George and Tammy were not the million-dollar duet team that the giant CBS Company had anticipated. Their record sales were healthy, but as established names they should have been hitting the top ten with every single, and it just was not happening.

George and Tammy were much too busy trying to be a happily married couple, and it showed in the way their recordings were being produced. The pain in Tammy’s voice was being held back and George’s emotional style was much too subdued to be convincing. Contented people find it hard to feel pain, It was only when the marriage began to crack that this pair captured the need to bare their souls.

Their next single, We’re Gonna Hold On, part-written by George, gave hem their first chart-topper as a duet team in the autumn of 1973. It led to the release of another excellent album under the same title. Included were the sing-along Never Ending Song Of Love, the bluegrass-flavoured Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, given a diluted Nashville pop-country styling, and their next single release (We’re Not) The Jet Set. This was the perfect Jones-Wynette match-up. Both of them singing the give-and-take lyrics of his simple but effective Bobby Braddock song as if it was the story of their own life. In a way, it could well have been, For all their success, George and Tammy have never settled in being wealthy people. They both came from a poor, hard background and there’s no way they can live naturally with the ‘Jet Set.’

They made a big mistake with their next album by bringing Tina, one of Tammy’s daughters by her previous marriage, into the act. GEORGE, TAMMY AND TINA was one of those frustratingly inconsistent albums. The opening song, We Loved It Away, is George and Tammy at their best. George sings the first verse, laying a solid foundation, then Tammy takes the second, and they join together for the final. It was so simple yet so effective, and it gave them another top ten single in the summer of 1974.

The shaky uncertainty had returned to Tammy’s voice, and it made songs like Ain’t Love Been Good, Those Were The Good Times and We’re Putting It Back Together all the more meaningful. Then there were those embarrassing moments and none were worse than The Telephone Call. Featuring George and Tina, this placed poor old George in the role of an erring husband trying to explain to Tammy, via daughter Tina, that he was sorry for upsetting their marriage. It would be very funny if it were not for the fact that George and Tammy were going through those very problems in real life.

The break-ups and reconciliations were headline news. George turned back towards the bottle and Tammy turned towards the children. And the publicity gave them the kind of commercial success that their record label had been hoping for. They hit the top spot on the country charts with Golden Ring in the summer of 1976. It was a superb Bobby Braddock/Rafe VanHoy song that told of a young couple seeing the ring, getting married and then the break-up, and that treasured ring being thrown down in anger. The production was modern day Nashville at its best, and George and Tammy played their roles like true professionals.

The album that followed, carrying the hit song as the title, maintained that quality and perfection. The front cover had the couple side by side, supposedly happy, then on the back they were parted. It was the real-life dilemma that George and Tammy found themselves in portrayed on the sleeve. Yet the music and the pair’s performance showed none of that. It was the sort of album for periods of social and economic depression—pure escapism. Not a scrap of reality dared dilute its mood of love and joy.
Despite some excellent support from the accompanying musicians, it was too full of late-night, fireside romance, with George and Tammy crooning to each other against a background of steel guitars and overbearingly emotive sting arrangements.
That is not to say these performances were devoid of appeal. Did You Ever? is a pleasant, light-hearted little ditty, and Even The Bad Times Are Good and Near You are two fine ballad performances, the latter reaching the top of the country charts at the end of 1976. This was to be the last album the pair were to make as husband and wife.

Another single, Southern California (not on the album) was released in the summer of 1977 and that made it into the top ten, and it seemed it was all over.

Tammy took George to task, both in her music and during her concerts, complaining of how badly he had treated her, and the record company got together a GREATEST HITS set that hit the shops in the December of 1977. George, with no one to control him, went through a very prolonged period of boozing. 

He had money problems, and even missed show dates. His fall from the top seemed to be happening rapidly. But George had more friends in country music than he realised, and with their support he has climbed back to the top.

It began with the album MY VERY SPECIAL GUESTS, an album of love that featured people like Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck and even Tammy. It took two years to complete, hindered partly because of George’s problem with the bottle, but these top names certainly helped him gain the respectability that he needed.

Tammy is now happily married to George Richey, the noted songwriter and producer, but occasionally she now works the old show date with George Jones. They have decided to let the past stay there, and last year they returned to the recording studio to record a new album—TOGETHER AGAIN.

It continues where the others left off. You just cannot fault the professionalism of it all. It’s maybe that they’re just a bit too smooth around the edges. The music slides from the speakers into your brain without making much of an impression. It can be an overwhelming feeling surrounded by all this gloss and polish—rather akin to drowning in a sea of crushed velvet, I should imagine.

Yet despite that criticism, I find the recordings of this pair so totally appealing. There’s just something naturally built into their voices that gets through to me. The songs suit their voices perfectly, from the golden oldie We Could to the new modern-day ditties like A Pair Of Old Sneakers and Two Story House, there’s little here that I can find fault with.

George and Tammy are no longer a married couple, but they should go on recording together for a number of years yet. Apart from Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and perhaps even Conway Twitty and Loretta Lyn, they have been the best and most successful male and female team-up in country music during the last dozen years. 

We Go Together – Epic KE30802
(U.S only)
Me And The First Lady – Epic EPC65347
We Love To Sing About Jesus – Epic KE31719 
(U.S only)
Let’s Build A World Together – Epic EPC65552
We’re Gonna Hold On – Epic E_C800100
George, Tammy And Tina – Epic EPC80655
Golden Ring – Epic EPC91568
Greatest Hits – Epic EPC84626
Together Again – Epic EPC84626
All above albums are British releases, except where indicated.