Panel discussion: Singing My Song: The Music of Tammy Wynette
Panel discussion: Singing My Song: The Music of Tammy Wynette
Unlike nearly all singers, Tammy Wynette stood as still as a statue when she sang, even when shifting into her most dynamic and powerful notes. That trait was one of many discussed during a nearly two-hour panel discussion of Wynette's career Saturday (Aug. 21) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
"It was almost comical to watch her stand behind the mike," said Norro Wilson, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member, who contributed to Wynette's career as a songwriter and producer. "She wouldn't move hardly at all, yet she'd go from singing so soft then suddenly hit a phrase so dang hard. Somebody today, their britches would fall off doing that. But for Tammy, it was completely and totally effortless. That's how fabulous she was."
Added Lou Bradley, who engineered nearly all of Wynette's classic recordings produced by Country Music Hall of Fame member Billy Sherrill, "Tammy inspired musicians. I'd see goose bumps go right up (legendary steel guitarist) Pete Drake's neck because she was so great. She inspired all the musicians to play better because she was just that good. You wanted to rise to the occasion and give it your best."
Bradley and Wilson were joined by Musicians Hall of Fame member Hargus "Pig" Robbins, who played piano on a vast majority of Wynette's classic cuts, and veteran producer and A&R executive Steve Buckingham, who produced several of Wynette's recordings for Epic Records from the mid-1980s on. The program, hosted by the museum's Jay Orr, was part of opening weekend activities for a new exhibition, Tammy Wynette: First Lady of Country Music.
"How couldn't you play well when with a singer like that and with the songs that she was singing? God almighty!" exclaimed Robbins. "We were absolutely listening to her and wanting to play better because we were there with her."
The panel focused on Wynette's music rather than her personal life or other aspects of her story. "When all is said and done, that is how Tammy touched us first and most deeply," said Orr in the panel's introduction. "Her life was filled with glamour, celebrity, and some drama, but her songs and her incredible voice were her trump cards."
Robbins asserted that, from her first Nashville session in 1966, it was evident Wynette had a unique voice that would stand out. "I met her when they brought her in to do 'Apartment #9,' her first record," Robbins said. "When I heard the playback, I knew she had a recognizable voice that would catch people's ears, like that of Kitty Wells or Loretta (Lynn). She had that sound of her own."
The program focused almost as much on producer Billy Sherrill, the architect of Wynette's sound and writer of so many of her best-loved songs, and how he worked with the singer and the musicians who played on her recordings.
"He was a real knowledgeable guy," Robbins said. "Being a songwriter and a musician too, he had a pretty good idea of what he wanted. But if he needed an idea for a musical part, he'd say, 'Give me something here.' He had the whole deal covered."
Bradley backed up Robbins's statement. "I'd seen producers who would have a headstrong idea of how they were going to do a song," Bradley said. "Billy wasn't that way. He'd have an idea, but if the band took it in a different direction, and he liked it, he'd get on that horse and ride it. But if the band went off in a wrong direction, he had the greatest way to work with them. He'd sit down at the piano and say, 'What if we do this?' And everybody in the room would know it was time to try it a different way."
Wilson, who wrote several important songs with Sherrill, considered him a mentor in the studio as well, something that bode well when Wilson later became a top Nashville producer. "I learned just about everything I know watching him," he said. "I know many others did too. If you had something pretty good, he'd help you get a hold of it, and it would be something special when you finished."
Orr pointed out a trademark Sherrill practice: pairing a softly sung and played verse against a forceful chorus. "The dynamics came about by Billy making the band play soft." Bradley said. "It's different than just turning the volume down. They would play soft, and it would help her sing softly. It'd be so soft she could whisper and be heard, and the loud parts were so unbelievably loud, it would overwhelm the studio."
The engineer also noted how Wynette's special talent made the best of Sherrill's technique. "Some singers could sing real loud, and some could sing real soft," Bradley said. "But she could sing both ways."
Another important aspect of the Wynette sessions came from how Sherrill situated Wynette in relation to the studio band. Sherrill noticed how Charlie Rich stood near the piano (played by Robbins) when he cut such classic hits as "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl." He positioned Wynette next to Robbins' piano for her recordings as well. "It added something special to the feel of her records," Bradley said.
Wilson also revealed a songwriting trick that helped him get cuts on Wynette albums, including his first contribution, "I'll See Him Through," which he co-wrote with Sherrill in 1970. "I don't know if I should tell you this or not," Wilson teased. "But when a singer gets some success with a song like 'Stand by Your Man,' everything after that, if you look at the titles I had anything to do with, had that 'Stand by Your Man' theme-'I'll See Him Through,' 'He Loves Me All the Way.' If it works one time, why not try it another time?" After the audience laughed loudly, Wilson smiled and quipped, "I'm just being truthful."
The panel also discussed the power of Wynette's classic duets with George Jones, recorded while married and after their divorce. Bradley noted how Jones's distinct phrasing, one of many traits that made his voice so memorable, also made it difficult for anyone to sing duets with him. After struggling with it at the start, Wynette and Sherrill decided she should overdub her parts after Jones sang his. That made it easier for her to blend with his unusual touch.
Wilson, who produced Jones and Wynette's final album, 1995's One, called it "one of the most unforgettable projects I'll ever do. They were king and queen on the mountain every time they did their duets. But it was a tough project, because Tammy wasn't that well (and Jones just had endured a heart bypass operation). It was kind of hard to get it done, but I'm truly blessed to have been a part of it."
Wilson joined Buckingham and Wynette's fourth husband, George Richey, who died July 31, 2010, on the small list of producers who worked with Wynette after Sherrill left CBS Records-which included the Columbia and Epic labels, the latter of which was Wynette's home throughout her career.
Buckingham stepped into an A&R position with CBS Records about the time Sherrill departed. "I came around at the perfect time," Buckingham said, citing Sherrill, Chet Atkins, and Owen Bradley as influences on his production work. "It was the old era starting into the new era. CBS still had George and Tammy, and Merle (Haggard), (Johnny) Cash, Marty Robbins. We got Waylon (Jennings) and Dolly (Parton) from RCA, we got Chet from RCA. Walking the hallways was like walking through the Hall of Fame."
In 1985, Buckingham was charged with returning Wynette to the charts. The legend had only scored two Top Ten hits in the '80s, the last in 1982. Buckingham paired her with younger singer Mark Gray on a '70s pop hit, Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch." The song would be the last Top Ten hit on the Billboard charts in Wynette's career.
Buckingham also produced and organized the 1987 album Higher Ground, which matched Wynette with other singers, including Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Vern Gosdin, Emmylou Harris, the O'Kanes, Ricky Van Shelton, Ricky Skaggs, and Gene Watson. He recalled how the O'Kanes requested that Wynette not be in their line of sight, "because they were too nervous" to sing while she watched.
He also told of the 1993 Honky Tonk Angels album, which featured Wynette with fellow Country Music Hall of Fame members Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. "We just wanted to make a classic country album," Buckingham said, adding that Kitty Wells sang on one song, as did Patsy Cline, whose voice was taken from a track she recorded more than 30 years earlier. "That whole album was magic. We all knew it was historic."
To close the program, Orr played a special recording Buckingham made of George Richey on piano and Wynette on vocals on the gospel standard "Precious Memories," which had many in the audience wiping away tears.
Earlier, Wilson had summed up the program by saying: "This town is loaded with talent, but I don't know that the town is loaded with gifted people. Billy Sherrill was gifted. Tammy Wynette, as a singer, was hugely gifted. You don't see a whole lot of that."