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Tammy's Still Hurtin' So Good

Pop music review: Wynette's pain and poetry infuse her concert at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds as the country artist draws from her deep well of experience.

July 20, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — The wonderful thing about country music's old guard is that its members actually have distinctive personalities and rich funds of experience rooted in the Southern soil from which the music springs.

Tammy Wynette's eventful life has included picking cotton on a Mississippi farm, doing hair in an Alabama beauty shop, five marriages (the latest a long-term keeper to musician George Richey) and more bouts with illness than anyone deserves, including a brush with death two years ago from a chronic stomach ailment.

She can filter that experience into some of the most emotionally charged singing ever directed toward a microphone. Thursday night, singing at the Orange County Fair, she showed that despite all her difficulties--the latest being a bum leg that limited her mobility on stage--her talent has not eroded.

(That's another wonderful thing about the country old guard: Whether it's Willie Nelson, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings or Wynette, who is 54, they tend to have staying power deep into middle age. Wynette's latest album, "One," is a fine duet reunion with Jones, her most famous ex-husband.)

The main difference between Wynette now and a few years ago is that she no longer wastes time on such glitzy trappings as costume changes, hokey banter with her band, and the packaging of hits in medleys--the musical equivalent of the TV sound bite posing as real communication. Almost dying can focus a person on what's essential, and Wynette's 55-minute early performance outdoors at the fair's Arlington Theater was strictly about the basics of taking a good song and putting it across.

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When she did pause, it was for a warm, humorous chat that came off like a phone call from an old friend, full of updates on family news and inside jokes that any country fan would get.

After taking a song or two to warm up, Wynette showed, with the heartbreak ballad "I Still Believe in Fairy Tales," that she can still muster full power. The catch in the voice, the way of dropping to a murmur for what is too painful to enunciate, the full-on, rising plaint--all of these telling techniques were in operation at full force.

So was the fundamental tension in her repertoire between crushing realities and high ideals, as she veered from "Fairy Tales," a song of loss too painful to accept, to "Singing My Song," a determined avowal of love and devotion.

She was at her hurtin' best with " 'Til I Can Make It on My Own," about clinging to an old love that she knows has run its course. That conflict--the desperate need for connection, concurrent with the knowledge that a relationship is doomed--provided a basis for the emotional complexity and intensity that can make a song special.

Plenty of inattentive listeners have been deaf to that very complexity when it comes to Wynette's most special song of all, "Stand by Your Man." The 1968 hit often is glibly dismissed as an example of old, abject thinking--dutiful wife effaces and abases self for undeserving husband.

And that is, indeed, the story line in the lyric. But songs do not live by words alone. All the ache and poetry of "Stand by Your Man" lies in Wynette's singing. The deep hurt of the quiet verses gives way to the awesomely poignant denial-posing-as-affirmation found in the sweeping chorus: "Stand by your man, tell all the world you love him/Keep giving all the love you can" states an ideal of loyalty that the singer knows deep down she won't be able to fulfill, especially with the selfish mope she's hitched to.

Yet, in her fiercely embattled, soaring delivery, Wynette (who already had been divorced once by the time she wrote the song with producer Billy Sherrill) tells us that the ideal of absolute commitment is too compelling to let go of, even to the point of contemplating self-abasement.

"I've tried through the years to analyze why people have liked the song and kept demanding the song," Wynette said in an interview once. "The only thing I can come up with is that it's what they would have liked to have happen in their lives. Maybe it's only a fantasy. Maybe it's something they dream about that never works for them."

Wynette sang it gloriously here, although she held back a bit on the demanding crescendo finale. There were other instances during the show when she seemed to be pacing herself, and she sometimes had trouble enunciating lyrics above her band, which included strong, veteran players all around. Two female backup singers recreated the lush choral swell that marked the late-'60s to mid-'70s Nashville production style of Wynette's peak hit period. A more stripped-down approach wouldn't be bad; Wynette probably could pull off a great acoustic segment.

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She took a three-song rest at mid-set, letting her sharp ensemble carry the show while spotlighting the singing of various members. Maybe all that illness has diminished her a bit, and unlike her male generational peers, she lacks the luxury of being able to get away with craggy authority rather than clarity and purity. When it mattered most to her, though, Wynette could still draw from her deep well of experience and pour out feelings as few singers can.

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