Long before Tim McGraw and Faith Hill became country music’s power couple, George Jones and Tammy Wynette fulfilled that role as Mr. & Mrs. Country Music. Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton may have sung about the ups and downs of life and love during the 1970s, but George and Tammy actually lived it.
Their earliest recordings date back to November 1968 when Tammy sang harmony vocals on “The Race Is On”, “I’ll Share My World With You”, and “The Hardest Part of All”, all remakes of earlier hits that George had re-cut for use as album filler. Tammy’s performances were uncredited, since she was under contract to Epic Records and George was still signed to Musicor. Cross-label collaborations were virtually unheard of in those days; only artists that were signed to the same label could record with each other. Tammy did appear on the cover of George’s 1969 LP I’ll Share My World With You; her Epic contract apparently did not prohibit her from doing so. She can be heard quite prominently on the 1969 recording “Never Grow Cold”, which she and George wrote together. This song is virtually a duet; it was buried on an album, since releasing it as a single would almost certainly have invited a lawsuit from CBS (Epic’s parent company at the time). The pair later re-recorded the song for Epic.
The pair wanted to record together regularly and more openly, so George negotiated a release from his Musicor contract — costing him $300,000 out of his own pocket — and signed with Epic in 1971. The first official Jones and Wynette duet, “Take Me”, under Billy Sherrill’s guidance, appeared later that year. It was a remake of George’s 1965 solo hit. The original version had reached #8. The duet version did almost as well, climbing to #9. It was followed up by “The Ceremony”, a #3 hit in which the pair exchanged sung wedding vows, in response to lines spoken by a minister. The next two singles, the gospel tune “Old Fashioned Singing” and “Let’s Build A World Together” fared less well, just cracking the Top 40.
Their next release, 1973’s “We’re Gonna Hold On” became the duo’s first #1 hit. Written by Jones and Earl Montgomery, its lyrics are simple but effective, as Jones and Wynette promised to always hold on to each other through good times and bad. Their biggest hit to date was followed by the #15 hit, “(We’re Not) The Jet Set”, which cleverly played off the theme of small towns in America that shared names with the capitals of Europe:
By a fountain back in Rome, I fell in love with you.
In a small cafe in Athens, you said you loved me too.
And it was April in Paris, when I first held you close to me.
Rome, Georgia … Athens, Texas … and Paris, Tennessee.
In 1974, they sang triumphantly about coming through the hard times, in “We Loved It Away”, which reached #8. Offstage, however, things were less rosy. Their turbulent private life, fueled by George’s alcoholism and drug abuse, reached the breaking point and the couple divorced in 1975.
Although their marriage was now over, the couple continued to record and tour together. Interestingly, and perhaps because of all the tabloid drama surrounding their break-up, the couple’s post-divorce records reached the Top 10 more consistently than their previous releases. Their most famous hit was 1976’s “Golden Ring”, which was their first joint release after their divorce. Written by Bobby Bradock and Rafe VanHoy, it became their second #1 hit and remains the song for which they are best remembered today. Later that year, they scored their third and final #1 hit with a remake of the old pop hit “Near You”. It had reportedly been recorded about a year or so earlier, one day before the couple split up for good.
In 1977 Epic released a Greatest Hits LP, which contained one new track, “Southern California”, an underrated gem in the Jones & Wynette catalog which peaked at #5.
The late 1970s, after their divorce, was a dark time for George Jones, which found him falling further under the influence of drugs and alcohol, earning him the nickname “No Show Jones” because of all the concerts he missed. His personal problems may be the reason why the couple recorded so infrequently during this time. After the success of “Southern California”, there was a three-year gap before Jones and Wynette released another single, 1980’s “Two Story House”, which looked poised to become their fourth #1, but instead stalled at #2. It was followed by the underrated and largely forgotten “A Pair of Old Sneakers”, in which they sang about the guilt they felt while carrying on an extramarital affair:
We’re just a pair of old sneakers,
We know that cheatin’ is wrong,
We’re just a pair of old sneakers,
And we’ve been in the closet too long.
“A Pair Of Old Sneakers” reached #19. It was the last time the duo reached the Top 20 and it was the last George Jones & Tammy Wynette single released by Epic Records. By this time, Tammy’s solo career had begun to cool. She switched producers, which may be the reason that no further duets were released.
George and Tammy reunited in the studio in 1994, after a 14-year hiatus, to re-cut “Golden Ring” for George’s Bradley Barn Sessions project for MCA. The following year they released a full album of new material, called One. The retro-sounding album was produced by Norro Wilson and Tony Brown. Stylistically, it was largely a throwback to their 1970s heydays. They realized that the project was unlikely to get any attention from country radio, so they concentrated on making an evergreen record for their own enjoyment. A video was made for the title track, which was also released as a single, reaching #69 on the Billboard chart. In addition to being the last Jones & Wynette duet album, One was the last Tammy Wynette studio album released during her lifetime. Ten years after Tammy’s death, the couple appeared together on record one more time, when their rendition of Sonny Throckmorton’s “Lovin’ You, Lovin’ Me”, recorded in the 1970s but never released by Epic, was included on George’s 2008 album Burn Your Playhouse Down.
Purely from a chart perspective, Jones and Wynette were the least successful of the “Big Three” male-female duos of the 1970s. They only reached the Top 10 eight times, as opposed to twelve times for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and fourteen times for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. As a duo, Jones and Wynette won no CMA, ACM or Grammy Awards, and there is no question that their stormy relationship at times overshadowed their music. However, they did produce a number of classic performances between 1970 and 1980. Several of their Epic studio albums are still in print, as is their final album One. For those who are interested in just the hit singles, 16 Biggest Hits provides the most bang for your buck; it contains all of the essential singles and less filler than most of the other compilations that are currently on the market.