He opened the door, held the gun in his left hand and dragged me out of the car. Then he hit me with his fist. I thought, Oh, God, I’m gonna die…
This time, country singer Tammy Wynette’s anguished words were not lyrics in another of her hymns to hillbilly heartbreak but a chillingly vivid account from her own life. Two weeks ago, Wynette reports, she was kidnapped at gunpoint in Nashville by a stocking-masked man, taken on a harrowing 80-mile ride through the Tennessee back country, then beaten and choked and left hysterical on the roadside. A local family fortuitously discovered Tammy before her fractured cheekbone, severe bruises and shock produced worse complications. The apparently motiveless brutality—her $40 in cash and 30 credit cards were untouched, and she was not sexually assaulted—was described as “very puzzling” by Nashville detectives, as they stepped up their investigation.
“It was the most terrifying experience of my life,” whispers Tammy, 36, three times the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year and the noticeably absent but chief topic of both sympathy and lurid speculation at last week’s televised awards. The former beautician’s tempestuous life (she was born Wynette Pugh) has already provided the stuff for dozens of country classics like Stand by Your Man even before her fling with Burt Reynolds and her clamorous 1975 D-I-V-O-R-C-E (another of her hits) from George Jones. He was her great longtime singing partner and the third of her five husbands.
As she rebounded into two more marriages in the last two years (the latest to a former close friend’s husband), Tammy was haunted by an eerie progression of calamities. During a single nine-month span intruders broke into her Nashville home 15 times, once scrawling SLUT and PIG on her mirrors and TV screen. At one point the bedroom wing of her 17,500-square-foot mansion burned to the ground, and cops found flammable chemicals on the curtains. Her regular airplane pilot died in a crash; her tour bus burned. Tammy herself has been hospitalized for stomach trouble and bronchitis. Last year she fainted backstage during one concert—only to have her husband since July, songwriter-producer George Richey, 42, accidentally step backward on her finger, crushing it. The injury required two bouts of surgery.
The most alarming incidents began late last month when Wynette and Richey discovered eight X’s scrawled on their back door. The next day an unknown woman unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap from her school Tamala Georgette, Tammy’s 8-year-old daughter by George Jones (she has three older girls from her first marriage).
A week later came Wynette’s own abduction. She was climbing into her yellow Eldorado at a nearby shopping center when “I felt a poke in my side and heard a man’s voice say, ‘Drive!’ All I could see was a brown glove, a lot of hair on his arm and two inches of gun barrel.” After 20 minutes and no further words, Tammy remembers, the man wrung panty hose so tightly around her neck that it left burn marks. He then drove for another 90 minutes, beat her and fled in another car. Gasping for breath, she stumbled into the dirt driveway of Junette Young, a mother of eight. “I couldn’t believe it was the real Tammy Wynette,” recounts Junette, a fan who says she can hardly afford Tammy’s records. “I wanted to say how I just love her and George Jones together, but it wasn’t the time or place to talk about her ex-husband.”
No such propriety has stopped Music Row rumor mills. The suggestion that it was all a publicity stunt to boost her career (Tammy was shut out in this year’s CMA nominations) was quickly refuted when friends saw her battered face. Besides, Tammy’s newest LP, Womanhood, is rapidly climbing the country charts. Conjecture that Tammy invented the story to cover an indiscretion of her own is refuted by witnesses who saw her shopping for Georgette’s birthday.
Inevitably, and without any evidence, the name of George Jones crops up—if only because of their volcanic relationship over the years. Even after their divorce, George, a musical genius never known for his control, carried enough of a torch to make four-hour round trips to careen around her driveway in his car. There were wild theories that the assailant was a vengeful Jones—loyally protected by Tammy—or a deranged Jones fan.
Wynette, meanwhile, maintains that she “never saw the face” and hasn’t a clue of the intent, though her new husband says cryptically, “I think I know who is responsible for all this, and we’re going to put an end to it.” He adds, in a remark that would be dismissed as paranoid in a less macabre case: “It’s a professional job with some amateurish aspects just to throw us off.”
Courageously, Tammy never interrupted her 160-gig-a-year road schedule and jetted off to a Columbia, S.C. concert two nights after the kidnapping. When she returned to the dressing room exultant from an overpoweringly emotional concert and an audience shower of cards and flowers, she found—despite 50 bodyguards—a crumpled note which read: “I’m still around. I’ll get you.”
Richey, family and friends collected around Tammy and her daughters in the mansion (which has 15 bathrooms and LOVE embossed everywhere on the carpet). “We’re keeping everybody as close as we can,” says Richey, who puts a cheerful public face on things. “I tell her she’s twice as beautiful with her bruises.” His wife is understandably less consolable. “At times like this,” Tammy muses wryly, “I have to say I wish I weren’t famous.”