Why Tammy Wynette and George Jones' Bittersweet Love Story Is the Stuff of Country Music Legend

George Jones and Tammy Wynette's turbulent marriage inspired countless heartbreaking country songs—and now a prestige limited series starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

By Natalie Finn Dec 10, 2022 1:00 PMTags

Tammy Wynette showed the world she loved George Jones.

And she stood by her man, but could only be his wife for so long.

Country's first couple while they were married—and still a formidable pair when they continued to meet at the microphone for years after their divorce—Wynette and Jones were made for each other in many ways. It was the duo's self-destructive tendencies that ultimately drove them apart.

Their bittersweet love story is being explored in the Showtime limited series George & Tammy, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as the legendary artists (both doing their own singing, BTW) whose lives fatefully intertwined in 1960s-era Nashville and remained bound in hearts and minds. The network said 3.3 million tuned in for the Dec. 4 premiere, making it the most-watched original series debut in Showtime history.

Meaning, never underestimate the pull of classic country tunes or the complicated artists who make them. 

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"It's introducing George and Tammy to a whole new generation of people," Chastain, who spent time in Nashville and did a deep dive into the history of country music to prepare, told E! News last month. "I'm hoping our show brings them back into the conversation."

It certainly will have folks wondering just how much of the drama is true, from the explosive arguments to Jones, desperate for a drink, driving 5 miles-per-hour on a riding mower to the liquor store after his wife hid his car keys (which occurred in Texas during his second marriage, according to his autobiography, and while he was with Wynette in Tennessee according to hers).

But drawing from real-life events chronicled over the years and officially based on the 2011 memoir The Three of Us: Growing Up With Tammy and George by Georgette Jones, their one child together, the six-part series didn't need to exaggerate much to make it a wild ride.


When did Tammy Wynette meet George Jones?

Wynette, who was 11 years younger than Jones, grew up a fan of the "She Thinks I Still Care" singer, listening to his records at home and reading stories about him in magazines—and becoming increasingly determined to make her own mark on the music world.

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The Mississippi native, born Virginia Wynette Pugh, married first husband Euple Byrd in 1960 when she was 17, a month before her high school graduation (her grandfather signed the paperwork giving legal permission). Byrd couldn't find steady work and the couple, who were soon the parents of daughters Gwen and Jaclyn, were living in poverty in Tupelo, music on the backburner for Wynette while she earned a beautician's license. 

According to Jimmy McDonough's biography Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, she was briefly hospitalized for depression during this time and given electroshock treatments. In 1965, she and Byrd had another daughter, Tina, who was born three months premature and suffered from spinal meningitis as an infant, but eventually made a full recovery.

Wynette divorced Byrd and, in 1966, she packed up her kids and moved to Nashville to pursue singing full-time.

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She checked into the Red Anchor Motel and struck up a romance with the front desk clerk and aspiring songwriter Don Chapel, marrying him in 1967, the same year she had her first three No. 1 singles on the country chart with "My Elusive Dreams," "I Don't Wanna Play House" and "Take Me To Your World." (In the meantime, she hung onto her beautician's license for years after becoming a recording star, just in case it didn't work out, according to Georgette.)

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Jones met rising star Wynette, who had the same tour booker, around this time. Married to second wife Shirley Ann Corley since 1954, Jones was also friendly with Chapel.

According to Jones' recollection in 1996 autobiography I Lived to Tell It All, he went over to Chapel and Wynette's house one night for dinner and witnessed them get into a nasty fight. Enraged by Chapel cursing at Wynette, Jones wrote, "I jumped from my chair, put my hands under the dinner table, and flipped it over. Dishes, utensils, and glasses flew in all directions. Don and Tammy's eyes got about as big as the flying dinner plates."

He told Wynette he was in love with her that very night, he recalled, then he left with the "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" singer and her three daughters and they never looked back.

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When did George Jones and Tammy Wynnette get married?

Wynette's marriage to Chapel was annulled. After he secured his divorce from Corley, Jones and Wynette tied the knot on Feb. 16, 1969.

"Mom believed she had finally found her Prince Charming," Georgette wrote in The Three of Us. "She desperately wanted a champion. Sure, she knew he had a few rough edges when he drank, but like a lot of women have thought about men they loved, she believed she could change him."

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The newlyweds settled in Lakeland, Fla., building a performance venue on their property dubbed the "Old Plantation Music Park" where friends like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash would come to play. Jones, who also had three children from his previous marriages, adopted Wynette's three girls, and Georgette was born in October 1970. 

Record producer Billy Sherrill sent Wynette roses and a recording contract for their newborn, signed and ready for the crown princess of country whenever she was. (Georgette, who is a singer and musician, wrote that she didn't find out about the sweet deal until she was a young teen, but she considered it more of a bigshot's "fun gesture" than something she'd actually consider.)

Having already toured on the same bill, Jones and Wynette answered the call of the all-star duet gods and embarked on a prolific recording career as a duo, releasing their first album, We Go Together, in 1971.

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But even though the music was flowing, behind the scenes the great love affair was already starting to fray—largely due to Jones' alcoholism and drug use that was never much of a secret, even earning him the nickname "No Show Jones" for all the concerts he was too drunk or high to play. (On the flip side, his voice is revered as one of the all-time greats, which is why he was also known as "King George.")

Jones would quit drinking time and again but his sobriety was always temporary. They left Florida for Nashville in 1972 for a fresh start, but it didn't matter. If Wynette was the one who remembered the riding mower incident correctly, that occurred after they moved back to Music City. (Either way, the episode was captured for posterity in a mural outside Colonial Liquors in Nashville and Jones later wore the story as a badge of honor, spoofing it in music videos later in life.)

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In The Three of Us, Georgette described her dad as "anything but" the boozing, life-of-the-party troublemaker he was often painted as. Rather, she wrote, "George Jones drank to fit in with the partyers, not because it came naturally." She thinks he started overdoing it when he was first playing clubs and that was the sort of crowd he fell in with. "It was almost a defense mechanism," she wrote, "a weapon against his introverted nature."

Wynette may have been the tougher cookie, but "in a nutshell," Georgette wrote, "my mom never trusted stardom, and my dad never liked it." Jones "admitted he was shocked that people hold him in such esteem," his daughter recalled, and if Wynette "heard that a movie star or a president was a fan, it never failed to amaze her." 

Talking to EW.com, Shannon agreed that Jones "had a deep desire to have a normal life...that he did want to get off the circuit and he did want to not be such a mess all the time." Overall, the actor reflected, "They were really sensitive people, but they were also extraordinarily strong, and they both were their own worst enemy. But they had a desire to try and overcome that."

Wynette was also plagued by health issues that led to her own substance abuse troubles. According to biographer McDonough, she had a hysterectomy after Georgette's birth in 1970, after which she developed an infection that caused a build-up of scar tissue and chronic gall bladder issues that left her in constant pain. She ended up addicted to painkillers, and then moved on to shots of Demerol when the pills stopped working, and she started taking Valium on tour. 

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Was Tammy Wynette and George Jones' marriage that much of a roller coaster?

Wynette first filed for divorce in 1973, but they reconciled, Jones once again vowing to get sober—and they ended up with a No. 1 single on the country chart, the aptly named "We're Gonna Hold On."

"I just looked at the situation and realized all the pain I was causing and all the pain I was suffering wasn't worth it," Jones told Music City News at the time. "We love each other very much."

He co-wrote "We're Gonna Hold On" with Earl Montgomery, who shouldered his own share of remorse from a night he charged the many drinks he downed at a Holiday Inn bar to Wynette's room while they were all out on tour, according to Bob Allen's George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend.

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But the drinking and the volatility resumed. Jones later denied Wynette's remembrance in her 1979 book that he once chased her around the house with a loaded rifle, but he did disappear for days at a time, including once that resulted in her driving all the way to Florida to look for him, and after a recording session in late 1974.

She filed for divorce once again and this time it was finalized on Jan. 8, 1975.

"George is one of those people that can't tolerate happiness," Wynette said at the time, per McDonough. "If everything is right, there's something in him that makes him destroy it."

What happened to George and Tammy's relationship after their divorce?

Though Wynette released "Stand by Your Man" in September 1968, before she married Jones, the song—in addition to becoming a catchphrase and cultural lightning rod—inevitably called to mind their relationship. (Though her longest marriage by a mile was to fifth husband George Richey; she wed the record producer and songwriter in 1978 and was with him until her death at 55 in 1998 from a pulmonary embolism.)

"It does mirror what Tammy and George were," Chastain told E!, reflecting on Wynette's signature track. "She brought him on tour with her after they were divorced and he was really struggling, so she never abandoned him. It doesn't say in there specifically about what a woman needs to be to support her man. It's not about that. It's about when someone's struggling, you stand by them, and you forgive them."

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Though folks interpreted it as they would, Wynette said in a 1977 interview, "I guess I've proven that I don't believe in staying with a man you no longer love. All I was saying in the song was 'Be understanding. Be supportive. There'll be good times and there will be bad times, but if he's worth being with at all, he's worth seeing through the bad times.'"

And she saw Jones through a lot of bad times, even once she was the third ex-Mrs. Jones. (And vice versa, Jones flying to be by her bedside every time she was hospitalized—for bronchitis, her gall bladder, intestinal obstruction, flu—in the months after they split up.)

They made eight albums together in nine years, three coming out after their divorce. That run ended with Together Again in 1980, after which life and addiction and other relationships took them down separate roads.

How did alcoholism affect George Jones' career?

Jones' memoir starts off with him musing about how two of his trophies, including the CMA Award he won in 1980 for Male Vocalist of the Year, ended up at a Florida garage sale. "I had likely been drunk...Or maybe I got high and left them someplace after an awards show," he guessed.

Regardless, Jones wrote, "the awards had left me during the troubled journey that was my life, a journey across a sea of whiskey and a mountain of cocaine in a vehicle of self-destruction." He noted that, in addition to contacting numerous family and friends to make sure he remembered his own life correctly, his lawyers told him he'd been sued upward of 1,000 times, mainly for failing to show up at contracted appearances.

Talking to Billboard in 2006, however, he reflected that the nickname was the result of people making "a mountain out of an anthill." But, he acknowledged, "they wouldn't have wanted to see or hear me anyhow, the shape I was in. Now I know it did hurt my fans in a way and I've always been sad about that, it really bothered me for a long time."

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He credited "the power of one love from one woman" for his eventual redemption—and that was his fourth wife, Nancy Jones, whom he married in 1985. They were together until his death in 2013 at 81.  

Wynette's drug issues didn't become widely known until she checked into the Betty Ford Center in 1986 and had to cancel her own shows for a change. That wouldn't be the end of her battle, though, her ongoing medical troubles resulting in a cycle of painkiller abuse that lasted on and off for the rest of her life.

What happened when Tammy Wynette was abducted in 1978?

Though Georgette was adamant in her book that her mother should in no way be defined by the tragedy she faced in her life, writing, "the word shouldn't be glued to her life story," Wynette did have more than her fair share of tough times.

In 1978, following a period of harassment that included receiving threatening phone calls and someone setting fire to her house, Wynette reported being abducted from a Nashville shopping center and forced to drive her own car 80 miles away, where she was beaten and left on the side of the road. Police never found out who was responsible—and naturally some more salacious reports speculated as to whether she hadn't faked the whole thing.

"I wake up and think, why didn't I just ram the car into an empty car in the parking lot?" Wynette, who started going everywhere with bodyguards, told the Washington Post in October 1978. "I think of a hundred things I could've done...but then again, I think, well, I'm alive. If I'd done that he might've shot me. They'd have caught him, but still—I'd be dead."

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As for the public's response,  "two-thirds of the people were wonderful," she said. "The other third I would have to say were the cranks who said it was all done for publicity stunt, which broke my heart, or that it was done to hide an affair I was having."

"If I wanted publicity," she added, "I'd go down to Possum Holler and dance all night." She was referring to a nightclub owned by Jones.

Wynette, who was married to real estate developer Michael Tomlin for six weeks in 1976 before the union was annulled, had recently wed Richey—a friend who played the organ at her and Tomlin's nuptials—in July 1978. 

"To like somebody to me is as important as being in love with them," Wynette told the Post, "because if they like me and really like what I am and like what I stand for, then they're gonna love me."

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She also admittedly hated living alone, she added, explaining, "I don't like to play the dating game, it's not for me. If I'm in love with someone, I don't want to waste my time with him dating somebody else and me dating somebody else. I'd rather we be married."

And so began a period of domestic stability for Wynette. Jones followed suit when he married Nancy in 1985, though he wouldn't get sober for good until 1999 after a near-fatal car wreck.

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When did Tammy Wynette and George Jones last perform together?

Over the years, Wynette and Jones' personal troubles only added to their respective larger-than-life myths as artists, and when they reunited for their ninth studio album, 1995's One, fans were over the moon.

"It was wonderful, it was as though we had never quit," Wynette told reporters at a press conference for the album's release. "I just walked in the studio and I seemed to know what he was gonna do, and he knew what I was gonna do, and it was really great."

"Just like old times," Jones agreed.

They took the stage together for the first time in 15 years, including at the 1995 CMA Awards to sing a medley of their hits, and set off on what would be their final duet tour. Though it wasn't enough to keep their marriage humming, their chemistry never lost its spark while they were singing.

After Wynette's death three years later, 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. I know Tammy felt the same way. Life is too short. In the end, we were very close friends. And now, I have lost that friend. I couldn't be sadder."

New episodes of George & Tammy premiere Fridays on Showtime and Showtime Anytime.

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