She had been in ill health for years, but the news was still a shock: Tammy Wynette was dead. The nighttime radio announcer on clear-channel WSM-AM broke into programming Mon-day with the same kind of sober confusion that always floods those late-night phone calls that bring bad news.
After a moment of silence, he did what everyone listening probably wanted him to do at that moment - he played "Stand by Your Man."I didn't really know Tammy Wynette. Over the years, I had interviewed her several times and developed the kind of chatty-but-distant relationship of two people doing their jobs. The Tammy Wyn-ette I loved was the one that millions of country music fans knew as well - the down-to-earth singer with the choking voice who, without even knowing it, created a voice for women in a field largely dominated by men.
Wynette's tree-shielded mansion with the long, curving driveway that she shared with longtime husband George Richey sits out Frank-lin Road, within eyeshot of Nashville's growing skyline. It's a familiar stop on the Grayline tour, and fans were often delighted to cruise by and spot the country legend - sometimes in a housecoat - picking up the morning paper or getting mail out of her box. She once laughed and told me, "Sometimes I'll see 'em coming and hide behind a tree if my hair's up in curlers."
On Monday night, shortly after paramedics pulled out of that same driveway en route to Woodlawn Funeral Home, the house sat still and quiet. The big black iron gates were closed, the streets deserted. I pulled my car over, turned the radio up and flashed back. WSM, the legendary country radio station that carries the Grand Ole Opry each Saturday night, was playing nonstop Tammy.
"My man, I understand, he holds me in the palm of his hand and I liiike it."
Songs like this one, "My Man," were so unaffected, so simple. And so was her life. She had reached the country star's dream, living in a big house (built by Hank Williams). But behind its landscaped facade, she always put out a garden.
"Oh, the garden's coming in good," she bubbled one morning. "I guess I'll always like homegrown tomatoes."
Her next activity of the day? Making biscuits for Richey.
She sold millions of records, toured the world, dated Burt Reynolds and was immortalized by the 1970 Jack Nicholson movie "Five Easy Pieces," whose soundtrack featured several Wynette tunes that served as theme songs for the waitress played by Karen Black.
Her passing, in a way, symbolizes the death of "just folks" country music. Wynette came along at a time when country music stars rarely considered themselves artists. They often felt embarrassed by their wealth and fame, seemingly desperate to prove to fans that they were really just like them - only luck kept them from working at the filling station or waiting tables.
Today's Nashville stars navigate their careers like savvy marketing execs, but Wynette was from the school that let life happen. Her own story was like a country song - messy divorces, domestic violence (the famous story of George Jones chasing her with a shotgun), a bizarre kidnapping from a Nashville shopping mall, mysterious lingering illnesses.
In later years, she resonated a kind of peace - reconciling professionally with longtime partner George Jones, recording the 1994 album "Without Walls" with pop stars such as Sting and Elton John, and even touring.
On Wednesday, workers were busy at the Ryman Auditorium preparing the historic home of the Grand Ole Opry for a public memorial service for Wynette scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Earlier in the day, she was to be eulogized by family and famous friends in a private ceremony. She will be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.
George Jones said in a statement, "I am just very glad that we were able to work together and tour together again. It was very important for us to close the chapter on everything that we had been through. Life is too short. In the end we were very close friends. And now, I have lost that friend. I couldn't be sadder."