Country music is rou­tine­ly mocked by non-fans for being a bas­tion of utter square­ness: lame peo­ple singing songs packed with trite hom­i­lies and liv­ing lives of the dullest pos­si­ble white­ness.  However, any­one who’s both­ered to learn the least bit about the gen­re knows that old-school coun­try musi­cians lived their lives with the vol­ume knob cranked to eleven.  Most of them believed they had to live the heart­break and anguish in their songs to make them stick and they under­took their task with the sin­gle-mind­ed devo­tion of a Kamikaze.

A prime exam­ple is Tammy Wynette.  They called her “the First Lady of Country Music” and she paid her dues to earn that title: health prob­lems, mul­ti­ple mar­riages, drug addic­tion, fam­i­ly feuds and a mys­te­ri­ous death shroud­ed in shady cir­cum­stances are just some of the tabloid-ready ele­ments that made up her life.  It’s a juicy tale, espe­cial­ly the parts deal­ing with her tem­pes­tu­ous rela­tion­ship with soulmate/musical genius/self-destructed mani­ac George Jones, and any com­pe­tent writer could weave a dishy knock­out of a tale from such mate­ri­al.

However, what Jimmy McDonough has achieved with Tragic Country Queen is tru­ly spe­cial.  He keeps the sto­ry from being anoth­er sor­did cat­a­log of tragedy by infus­ing it with human­i­ty and a gen­uine love for coun­try music’s gold­en era.  He’s hon­est about the grim facts — but he’s savvy enough (and decent enough) to give them dimen­sion and emotional/psychological con­text.  As a result, it deliv­ers the goods with­out mak­ing you feel like you’ve been snoop­ing around in someone’s trash cans.

Tragic Country Queen is also a painstak­ing­ly researched work — McDonough read every avail­able scrap of bio­graph­i­cal mate­ri­al and con­duct­ed sev­er­al fresh inter­views with major play­ers in the sto­ry like George Jones and Billy Sherill.  The result­ing book cov­ers the full dimen­sion of the Tammy Wynette sto­ry: it starts with her hum­ble upbring­ing and end­less bat­tles with a dis­ap­prov­ing moth­er, cov­ers all the false starts before her fate­ful meet­ing with super-pro­duc­er Sherill, explores all her suc­cess­es and per­son­al rela­tion­ships and gen­tly but unflinch­ing­ly chron­i­cles her slow, painful fade-out as Wynette slow­ly gives in to ill­ness, drugs and the manip­u­la­tive machi­na­tions of her final hus­band, George Richey.

McDonough def­i­nite­ly had his work cut out for him: Wynette was famous for expand­ing events from her life into tall tales as well chang­ing those reworked ver­sions to fit the needs of a par­tic­u­lar moment.  He deals with this aspect of her sto­ry by giv­ing equal time to the mul­ti­ple sides of a sit­u­a­tion and allow­ing the read­er to ren­der the final ver­dict for them­selves.  What could have been con­fus­ing instead becomes a med­i­ta­tion on how we all shape our indi­vid­u­al real­i­ties to suit our per­son­al needs.

Better yet, McDonough is able to cap­ture the pas­sion for music that drove Wynette in a three-dimen­sion­al style because he appre­ci­ates and under­stands the music.  He goes deep into how coun­try music was writ­ten and record­ed dur­ing its clas­sic era and is capa­ble of walk­ing the read­er through speci­fic cor­ners of its his­to­ry in a knowl­edge­able yet per­son­al­ized way.  The sto­ry behind each clas­sic Wynette record­ing is cov­ered in detail, the best being a thought­ful explo­ration of “Stand By Your Man” that unveils the hid­den com­plex­i­ties of a song that only seems to have a sim­ple mean­ing.

Best of all, McDonough approach­es his sub­ject in a man­ner that is com­pas­sion­ate with laps­ing into hero­ine-wor­ship.  He doesn’t hold back from reveal Wynette’s capa­bil­i­ty for pet­ty grudges or casu­al deceit — but he’s also able to allow the read­er insight into what drove such behav­ior.  It also helps that he writes with grand style, mix­ing art­ful word­smithing and down­home expres­sions to cre­ate a style that is dis­tinct with­out being exces­sive­ly man­nered.  His skill­ful­ly-paced prose keeps the tale run­ning smooth­ly, even when the going is trag­ic.

It all adds up to a must read for any­one inter­est­ed in explor­ing coun­try music’s hal­cy­on days from a mod­ern per­spec­tive.  The blend of hon­esty, human­i­ty and pas­sion for clas­sic coun­try music that dri­ves Tragic Country Queen makes it gen­uine­ly mov­ing in a way that posthu­mous biogra­phies sel­dom are.