(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Tammy Wynette by any other name is still Tammy Wynette. Tammy Wynette was the feisty and foxy singer I loved listening to and talking with.
That was not Virginia W (sic) Richardson I was listening to who could transfix adoring fans with “Stand by Your Man” and “Apartment No. 9” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “I Don’t Wanna Play House” and so many other great songs. That was not Virginia W (sic) Richardson I sometimes enjoyed salty backstage banter with. That was Tammy Wynette, the powerful woman and persona that this former rural cotton picker and beautician developed into and perfected and became over the years after she fled rural poverty and early marriage and motherhood and invented herself as a country star.
Strange things often happen with famous performers after they die. Mysterious new heirs and heiresses appear, new wills are miraculously discovered, previously unknown children suddenly pop up, dubious relatives come forward to announce their claims. Money makes people behave in very odd ways. As one example, the legal battles surrounding Hank Williams’ estate and settlements lasted for many more years than his 29 years of life on earth.
But dead celebrities seldom have their names changed on their tombstones after they die and are long buried.
Such is the case with Tammy Wynette — 14 years after she was entombed. I found it astonishing — but not totally surprising in the end — to learn recently that the name “Tammy Wynette” had been removed from her crypt in Nashville’s Woodlawn Cross Mausoleum. And that it had been replaced with “Virginia W (sic) Richardson.” Woodlawn officials said the “family” had requested the change. Just which family members were not specified. Couldn’t the “family” have afforded to put a period after the “W”? Could they have perhaps afforded a few more letters and spelled out “W-Y-N-E-T-T-E?” Her fans do, after all, still come to visit her tomb and to lay flowers. How will they find it with no “Wynette” to lead the way?
Her birth name was Virginia Wynette Pugh. She came out of Alabama’s cotton fields and first married while still in high school. After working in menial jobs, she graduated to a career as a beautician. With her three daughters in tow, she moved to Nashville with the impossible dream of making it in the music business. She ultimately did, with the guidance of producer Billy Sherrill. She achieved great success and, along the way, had many unhappy marriages. The most tumultuous was to country star George Jones.
There were strange, unexplained episodes in her life. She endured more than two dozen major surgeries for various ailments. There were mysterious fires at her house. There was the equally mysterious kidnapping when she was allegedly abducted at a Nashville mall. There was a stalker. There were bankruptcies throughout her life, due to ill-chosen advisers and bad investments. Throughout her life, she kept her beautician’s license active, just in case she needed to fall back on that if all else failed.
She was married to her fifth husband, George Richey, whose real last name was Richardson, at the time of her death — the circumstances around which remain murky. Her body was once exhumed in an attempt to determine the conclusive cause of death. She lived and died in high drama.
But I never heard her introduce herself as “Virginia Richardson.” She was just plain Tammy Wynette.
What does this name change mean? Who knows? We can be sure, though, that the other shoe will drop one of these days. And when it does, we can be sure that it will not be a pretty story.
For now, she rests — however uneasily — in a drawer in a Nashville mausoleum with a different name on her shoebox of a crypt, with her last husband in an unmarked drawer immediately above hers.
The Country Music Hall of Fame member would have been 70 years old on May 5, had she lived. Her legacy still belongs to the world of music at large as Tammy Wynette, not as Virginia W (sic) Richardson.