Total references: 581
Text available: 256
Scan available: 0
By Bill Drummond (09 April, 1998, Guardian)
Tammy Wynette was the first lady of country music. Bill Drummond recalls his trip to Nashville to persuade her to sing on his record
A phone is ringing somewhere. Let the answerphone take it. I roll over, switch on the radio to the 6am news headlines on the Today programme. Something about the peace process, something about a wonder drug for breast cancer.
'Legendary country and western singer Tammy Wynette has died, aged 55. She had sold more records than any other female country and western star, and was known as the first lady of country. She was less successful in her personal life: married five times she . . .' I switch it off, get dressed, go out to feed the animals and open the chicken run. The damson trees are now in blossom, but the weather forecast for this Easter weekend is wintry conditions. A late frost could wipe a whole crop out.
People can never get enough of dead rock 'n' roll stars. Writers want to write about them, movie-makers make movies about them and record companies want to repackage them. I'm sick of the whole thing: all those dead rock 'n' roll stars should be taken out and shot. Except for the ones who died young and pretty - they should be forced to live until they lose their looks, talent, cool and credibility.
I collect the eggs. A blackcap is singing in the hedge. It's the first I've heard this year. They have a song that confirms all your innocent notions that there is a plan, and the plan is good. Back in the kitchen, I put the porridge and on and sit down at the table and write.
Early summer 1991. My KLF partner, Jimmy Cauty, and I were about to dump the track. We were working in a south London studio, trying to breathe life into a song that had originally been the opening track on our first album, 1987 (What the Fuck's Going On). The singer we had been using sounded uninspired, doing a job, watching the clock.
Jimmy turned to me: 'What this song needs, Bill, is Tammy Wynette.' Jimmy is always right. I sang along with the track mimicking her southern twang. It was going to be the best record we had ever made.
I disappeared into the TV room to make phone calls. Somewhere in the world was Tammy Wynette, doing whatever the greatest female country singer the world has ever known does, and somewhere near her would be a telephone. I just had to find the number of that phone. Twenty minutes later, I was talking to her backstage in a Tennessee concert hall. She sounded exactly like Tammy Wynette should sound; a classic warm and friendly southern drawl. We played her the track down the phone. She laughed and told us she loved it. When could we get over to record together? In the 20 minutes between Jimmy suggesting the idea and me speaking to her down the line backstage, I had been talking to Clive Davis, boss of Arista Records, the company that put out the KLF's records in the States, and Davis had been speaking to George Ritchie, Tammy Wynette's latest husband and manager. Davis had convinced Ritchie that although he had never heard of the KLF, we were in fact currently the biggest selling British act in the world.
A deal was struck. Jimmy and I went to a cafe and re-wrote the lyrics to our song, Justified and Ancient. We were proud of them, but doubtful that Tammy Wynette would ever agree to sing them. 'They called me up in Tennessee/They said 'Tammy, stand by the Jams . . . They're justified and they're ancient, and they drive an ice-cream van . . .' A week later I was touching down at Nashville, Tennessee, with a tape of the backing track of Justified and Ancient in my pocket. It was mid-afternoon. George Ritchie met me at the airport. He was driving a powder blue Jag. The cassette case to our White Room album was on the rosewood dashboard, and he wanted me to know how excited he and Tammy were about the project. I didn't tell him the project stank. The whole British tradition of 'young' white artists dragging up some hasbeen legend to perform with is an evil and corrupt exchange; the young artist wanting to tap into the mythical status and credibility of the hasbeen, the hasbeen wanting some of that `I'm still contemporary, relevant (and will do anything to get back in the charts)' stuff.
George Ritchie was a time-served Nashville songwriter. Snakeskin boots, fresh pressed jeans, wet-look hair and just recovering from major heart surgery. I liked him. We pulled up at a pair of huge iron gates. Across them was spelt out, in 2ft-high metal work, First Lady Acres. The gates opened automatically and we drove up the drive to a low, southern sixties mansion.
'Bill, is that you honey? Bill, you come on up here.' Deep white carpets, huge bad taste art, and from somewhere upstairs, that voice, calling out directly to me. I was 39, been there done that and seen it all, but I was starstruck like I'd never been before in my life, and I'd not even met her yet.
As much as I have loved all sorts of music, from unlistenable avant garde classical shit through to Barbie Girl by Aqua, country music is the only music I've been able to identify with totally, especially now that I've gone through divorce, heartache, kids, revenge and Jesus in my own life.
Many of my contemporaries may dig the kitsch value of country. For me, that's just something I try to ignore. There are more country records in my collection than any other kind. It's what I listen to when I'm alone in the house. The day Jim Reeves died was my first great rock 'n' roll death moment. The weep of a pedal steel guitar is the sound of heartstrings being torn. We all need one outlet for the Sad Bastard in each and every one of us; country music is my avenue.
Tammy Wynette was talking to me, calling me honey, telling me to come on up. I would have declared my undying love for her, agreed to run away together, live a life in cheap motels and all-night bars and . . . Ritchie turned to me: 'Bill, you better go on up and meet her - she's in her boudoir.' I followed the voice up the wide staircase. Tammy had her own beauty parlour. Her fingernails were being manicured by a young man, as a woman teased her hair into some feathered concoction. Her free hand was flicking through the pages of Vogue.
Tammy never had the movie star looks of some of her lesser rivals, but she had a tough beauty, a no-messin' allure. No amount of airbrush on record sleeves could ever conceal it; this face was the epitome of that over used phrase, southern white trash. Married at 14, divorced at 17, three kids by the time she was 20. (I embroider the myth.) Every fuck-up, heartbreak, overdose, chiselled lines of real beauty into her face that the soft focus tried desperately to hide.
`I'm yours, Tammy, take me,' was not my opening line, but would have been if I were honest. Instead, I suffered a blackout. 'I'm not worthy," etc, had the better of me. The next thing I remember is sitting at a white grand piano in a huge front room, big enough for a hoe-down; crystal chandeliers, the lot. I tried to steady my hands as I played the chords to Justified and Ancient while Tammy sang along. It wasn't working out - she couldn't find the key, let alone get it in pitch. Ritchie kept us going, encouraging the both of us, telling us it sounded great.
Ritchie had booked a studio for that evening, between seven and ten. Tammy had cancelled my hotel reservation, telling me I was to stay with them and that she was going to cook me grits for breakfast. The two of them gave me a grand tour of the house. It was a museum to her legend: walls covered in gold discs, awards, framed letters from heads of state, massive oil portraits of her children and a Warhol of herself. The place was everything that anybody could want from a Tammy Wynette mansion; from backwoods shack poverty to what most of us over here would see as endearing tack on a massive scale. Not quite Imelda Marcos, but you get the picture.
Then Tammy took me out to her back lot, where her tour bus was parked. This, she told me, was her real home. She only ever had a good night's sleep when she could feel the highway speed by four feet below. She spent as much of the year on the road as possible. The idea that Jimmy and I had a commercially successful band and had never played live was beyond her comprehension. The only reason she could think of for making records was to get out there and perform for people, to give love and get it back. The concept that Jimmy and I made records that were not intended to be performed live - worse, would be impossible to perform live - was as ludicrous as playing concert halls but not letting anybody in (Tammy's analogy). 'Bill, you're from Scotland? Can you tell me why I have such a large lesbian following there?' I had no answer, but promised to look into it for her. An off-duty policeman, armed and fully uniformed, had been hired to provide security for our half-mile drive to the studio. Tammy didn't go anywhere without security; it came with the star status. Her legend required it. It also demanded the full make-up and hairdo for a mere recording session. A star must look like a star all the time, even if it was just the recording engineers and me that got to see her. Being the first lady of country isn't a part-time job, nor was she in the White House for a couple of terms. It was a lifetime commitment.
All studios around the world have basically the same gear. I had been kind of hoping it would be all down-home 1950s Americana, but no. Even the studio engineers looked the same. Apart from the waist-length hair and the cowboy boots. As soon as Tammy started to try to sing to the backing track I had brought in with me, I knew the whole project was a complete disaster. She could not keep in time with the track for more than four bars before speeding up or slowing down. I began to fill my face from a bowl of boiled sweets that was sat on the mixing desk. Being a non-smoker, I resort to stuffing myself at the approach of any emotional crisis.
`How's it sound, Bill?' came the voice from the other side of the glass. How do you tell the voice you have worshipped for the past 20 years, one of the greatest singing voices of the 20th century, a voice that defines a whole epoch of American culture, that it sounds shit? 'It sounds great, Tammy. We just want to try it a few more times, so your voice can feel the track.' More complete bollocks. Ritchie knew the score, he knew it wasn't happening. He explained to me that when Tammy was recording her own stuff, the band always laid down the backing track with her singing along; they took their timing from her. Speeding up and slowing down is part of any proper singer's arsenal of emotional fireworks. She had never sung to a bunch of machines playing dance music.
The whole idea was turning sour. What sort of egocentric, vanity-drenched trip were Jimmy and I on, appropriating one of the world's greatest and purest musical treasures just to reduce it to an ironic aside? Ritchie had an idea. 'Hey, hon, I'll come in there with you. We'll sing it together.' So Ritchie went into the booth and attempted to conduct her through each line, mouthing the words for her to follow. We did take after take, but things didn't get much better. I felt truly ashamed hearing her voice, the voice of poor white American womanhood, struggling to find some emotional content in our banal, self-reverential lyrics. I shoved more boiled sweets into my face and prayed it was just a bad acid flashback, and nothing to do with reality.
Thirty-six hours later, I was back in that south London studio with Jimmy, piling up more and more excuses as to why I had failed to get any sort of usable performance out of the first lady of country. This was before I played him the tape. When I did, he said: 'We just got this new machine. We can sample up every word she sang separately - stretch them, squeeze them, get them all in time. As for her pitching, the listener will hear that as emotional integrity.' As I said earlier, Jimmy is always right. 'It's a Christmas Number One,' he added.
Jimmy was wrong. Freddie Mercury died, Bohemian Rhapsody was re-released and we had to settle for the Number Two slot. A singer dying always messes up the agenda.
I eat my porridge and check the answerphone to hear who rang at the ungodly hour of 6am. It was a researcher from the Today programme, who wanted to know if I'd go on air with a quote. I don't want to speak to anybody, but if I did, this is what I'd say: 'Tammy Wynette may have been the greatest female country and western singer of all time, but she is also the only woman who has ever cooked me grits for breakfast.' There will be one less Christmas card on my mantelpiece this year. Tonight, I will go to bed and cry.
1998 Bill Drummond
Art for art's sake
Bill Drummond (left) is a founder member of the pop group KLF; along with collaborator Jimmy Cauty, he dominated the charts of the late 1980s and early 1990s with dance hits such as What Time Is Love, Last Train to Trance Central and Justified and Ancient, which featured country star Tammy Wynette. Also with Cauty, and as part of their art project the K Foundation, he founded an award in 1993 for the worst art in Britain (pounds 40,000, won by Rachel Whiteread) and burned pounds 1 million in cash.
There are 2 comments for this record
You can leave a comment below.
I just cried watching the Top of the Pops performance of Justified & Ancient with Tammy. Sad to see her go so young.