George Jones and Tammy Wynette's Wonderful, Heartbreaking, Clumsy Duets

The late country singer never sounded as good, or as corny, as when with his ex-wife.

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AP/Christopher Berkey

Tammy Wynette died 15 years ago. It took George Jones, her duet partner and ex-husband, until today to follow her.

Jones had a long and amazing solo career from his early crazed gulping rockabilly sides to the tottering glop masterpieces with producer Billy Sherrill. Great as he was on his own, though, for me it's his collaborations with Tammy Wynette and Sherrill that are his greatest recordings. Jones's textured tone and the ragged-but-right phrasing—the way he sounded like he'd just been hit on the head with a bucket every time he opened his mouth—somehow never sounded so ragged or so right as when it was paired with Wynette's smoother, more decorous performance. The part-schtick, part-sincere corniness that was in different ways so integral to both of their performance styles was multiplied to extravagant levels when they sang together under Sherrill's auspices.

This could lead some bad places, as in the unlistenable, cover-your-eyes, wedding-vow recitation on "The Ceremony"—a wreck only compounded now that we know just how dreadful their marriage actually was. But it could result in sublimely klutzy vaudeville, as on "Did You Ever?" where the interrupted question-answer patter suggests a perfect merging of minds into single, bickering, doofy oneness. Or, occasionally, as on "Something to Brag About," it could turn into a kind of counterintuitive cool. Surely I can't be the only one who thinks that Tammy Wynette is just outrageously sexy when she throatily boasts about her "swinging mini-dress/that I made by myself/out of momma's curtains and old bed sheets."

And then there are the weepers. Again, both Jones and Wynette were rightly known for their heartbreak songs, but they were never more heartbroken and never more affecting than when they sang in unison about being alone. On "Two Story House," George comes in with his backwoods accent and backwoods dreams, deliberately almost out of sync with Sherrill's over-carbonated thumping drums. "We always wanted a big two story house/back when we lived in that little two room shack." The catch in Wynette's voice when she comes in, so much like the catch in Jones's and so different, tells you the whole story before you even get to the chorus. Though you'll want to listen through for the way Jones makes "splendor" sound like it's got four syllables, each one more devastated than the last.

There aren't really songs like that anymore, and not just because Jones's voice is irreproducible. The whole he-said/she-said genre, once a staple of both country and R&B ("Tramp!"), seems to have fallen by the wayside. Country has moved away from duets and towards mixed-gender bands, while on the other side of the radio the rappers sometimes comment on the fact that there's some woman singing the chorus, but rarely banter with her.

Listening to George and Tammy, it's not hard to figure out why we've moved on. Theirs was a decidedly awkward, hokey take on gender; they were united in not being able to figure out how to fit themselves onto those records at the same time. Maybe there's been progress and women and men seem less like different species now—or maybe second-wave feminism and the fissures it drew across the culture forced some conversations that we've now learned how to avoid.

In any case, there's not much out there like "Southern California," the story of a rural woman leaving her man to make her dreams come true. The song comes across like the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac with something important broken. The hippie shrug is hijacked by countrypolitan backing, some self-parodic pedal steel, and the final sad, separate recitations with each one humming behind the other. "The weather's good in southern California," they chorus together at the end. Rural/urban, male/female has split them apart, and all they have left of their dreams and their love is stupid small talk.

"Golden Ring," their most famous hit and perhaps their greatest song, is even more brutal. The jaunty Bakersfield guitar seems to have swaggered in from a Merle Haggard record, but instead of a Merle song of lonesome fugitives and branded men, the narrative wraps back around on itself to make a cramped circle. The best decision Billy Sherrill ever made in his life, probably, was to transsex the vocal parts for the climactic scene in "The small two room apartment, where they fight their final round." Tammy gives the man a throbbing vulnerability when she has him say, "You won't admit it, but I know you're leaving town." George gives the woman a bleak hardness when he has her answer, "One things for certain, I don't love you anymore." The singers have switched places, but only to emphasize each other's isolation and bitterness.

"Golden Ring" ends where it began: in a pawn shop in Chicago, where hope and love swing back to despair with a gracious, clumsy inevitability. There aren't many folks left to sing with either that clumsiness or that grace, though I'd like to think Jones himself will maybe reprise it now that he's rejoined his greatest collaborator, to sing apart together one last time.