How ‘George & Tammy’ Got the Country Duo’s Songs and Story Right
Above all else, Showtime’s “George & Tammy” limited series was charged with getting two things right: the relationship, and the records. Cut any creative corners on either the music or the portrayal of the marriage, and the series might have been shamed by all of Nashville and the country-loving world at large. So far, the series has gotten a lot of love and credit for standing by the truth of George Jones and Tammy Wynette from those who know either the story it’s portraying or the nuts and bolts of the classic solo and duo recordings that are being recreated… in their entirety, and not crammed into medleys or montages, it’s worth noting.
Variety talked with series writer and creator Abe Sylvia, music producer Rachael Moore, source memoir author Georgette Jones, and cast members Jessica Chastain, Michael Shannon, Kelly McCormack and Pat Healy about their efforts to create a series that an attentive audience of hardcore fans as well as newbies wouldn’t stop loving today, or at any point before the six-episode run wraps up in January.
Sylvia worked on “George & Tammy” for many years as a theatrical screenplay before it became a television project instead. He thinks he had found a way to crack the story in shorter form as a far shorter film, but is still grateful it ended up in the lap of Showtime as a more leisurely drama instead — with the ability to pack more music in being a substantial reason for his gratitude.
“I was very happy with the film script, but at the same time I was always sort of pouring one out for all the things that I couldn’t get in there,” says Sylvia, who wrote “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” for Chastain’s previous project. “I love those scripts very much, but it was abbreviated and truncated. And what’s happening in television is so exciting, and it’s really become the place where you can tell grown-up stories about serious relationship stories, with the breadth and detail that they deserve. And we were able to get 41 songs in the show and play them from beginning to end, so you really had people experience this music as one of the driving elements of our storytelling.
“Their personal story was told through their music,” Sylvia continues. “You know, you could point to any of the sort of tentpole moments in Georgia and Tammy’s love story and there’s a song that was tailor-made for that moment. Tammy says you have to live a song to make it good, and that was certainly true for them. I think it’s why their fans felt so close to them. They lived their truth right out loud for their audiences. And it was a tremendous gift that came at great personal cost to them, but that’s, I guess, sort of what happens to artists.”
Nashville studio veteran Rachael Moore took over as music producer on the set and in post-production, after her mentor T Bone Burnett brought her in while working on the pre-recordings early in the process. Moore recalls a key moment of withholding, on leading man Shannon’s part.
“There was one in particular that Michael didn’t want Jessica to hear him sing this song until they were filming, because he wanted her reaction to be real. And that’s what actually happens in that scene,” Moore says — that song being the number that many consider the greatest country song of all time, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” “It is real. I think she really teared up, and it was very believable and really cool because you could feel the chemistry between ’em on set. It’s in a later episode, and you’re going to be blown away when you see that.”
Verisimilitude was key in many ways with the music, but not when it came to trying to duplicate exact vocal styles and ranges. “Having two people try to sound like Mr. and Mrs. Country Music, two of the most iconic voices of all time, would fall into the danger of it coming off as an impersonation or as a hokey, cheesy parody, almost,” says Moore. “In order to draw people in and make it believable, it was more important that they do insert a little bit of themselves into this character, into the singing voice, so that you are connected with them and you feel the emotion they were so good at conveying. I mean, there’s certainly times that they both sound like both of them, for sure. But connecting with themselves and connecting with the characters so that it’s a believable performance was the most important thing. I mean, when Jess sings ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ in episode 6, oh my gosh, and when Michael sings ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ you’re just immediately drawn in to the emotion. Connecting with the audience was the biggest, most important thing, because trying to match those people, I mean, that’s a mountain.”
Less spiritual aspects of the music had to exactly match, of course. “I was very grateful that John and Abe were very open to my critiques about ‘This is how a recording session would look, and this looks real and this does not,’” says Moore. “Because I knew that I would be answering to the music community. So I’m very thankful that everyone involved really wanted to get all the details right, because the Quonset Hut in Nashville is just hallowed ground, and everyone involved (who produced and engineered there) — Billy Sherrill, Lou Bradley — they are legends in Nashville. We got so detailed that we were putting Nashville number system charts on their stands. And luckily, we had musicians that actually played on the records, like Dennis Crouch and Russ Paul, who actually worked with a lot of the A-team and knew really what went on in these sessions, and we worked really hard to recreate that. Then it was also fun telling my friends in Nashville, ‘Today I had to tell Billy Sherrill how to be a producer’” (meaning the actor who played him).
Chastain was thrilled to be working with Moore, who has a long list of credits in normal studio work in Nashville but, apart from some work on the “Nashville” TV series, hadn’t stretched her wings into film or TV work the way she got to on “George & Tammy.”
“Rachel Moore is a huge standout, and I am excited for her to have this moment,” says Chastain, “because she’s worked with T Bone for years and hasn’t really had this kind of opportunity. Once we got on set, it was her and Ron (Browning, the vocal coach) every day. We did all the singing live. And it was so scary, but I felt like I was in really good hands. And I’m excited to celebrate her, because just in the same way that it was tough for Tammy in 1960s Nashville, it’s still tough for women in country music in Nashville. And so for Rachel to have like this spotlight (through) our work, I think, is a really cool thing.”
(Responds Moore: “How amazing of her to think of that. And I will never be able to thank her enough for using her position to pass it down. You know, I can only hope to be in a position like that one day to pass it down any way I can.”)
Georgette Jones wrote the source book, “The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy & George,” and laughs at those who might’ve imagined the series would skimp on warts-and-all, although she will admit she worried about how wart-some the project would become without her having any script control.
“We didn’t ever back away from that knowing that there were gonna be a lot of difficult things to discuss and to show people,” Jones says, “and it was one of the reasons why I may have hesitated in the very beginning. But I felt like it was an important story to tell for people to see that we are all human, we all have demons, we all have struggles, and some of them are able for us to overcome and some of them are not. But to be honest about this, when we first started talking about it, I asked, how much say would I actually have in it? The direct quote from my attorney when I started asking him about it was: ‘Unless you’re Stephen King, probably not much.’” She laughs now at her naïveté in having imagined she might have had any veto power. “But after we saw all the episodes, I was really very thankful that they not only told the truth, but they did tell it in a way that shows them as human beings and shows them as who they really were.”
For Kelly McCormack, who plays the supporting role of Sheila Richey, “George & Tammy” is invaluable in that the ampersand in the title is there for a reason, with the Wynette character being every bit as complicated as Jones, in her ambition and other untranquil characteristics.
“We definitely have seen enough of big biopics where they just kind of play the hits and everyone’s getting drunk and falling on and off the bandwagon,” says McCormack. “I think we’ve given a lot, maybe enough, air time to the male, enigmatic, tortured genius artist who gets drunk and treats his family like crap. And, of course, those elements of male rock stars are, like, true! But what I was excited about with this story was, number one, how it dramatizes the woman, and how she navigates being a mother and a wife and a musician and an artist — and also a bulldozer and a badass woman who’s trying to push herself forward in an industry that wants to just kind of eat her up and objectify her. I was excited to see some of the flawed qualities that are normally given to male artists in film given to Tammy Wynette.
“And then the more ‘sensitive’ need for domesticity that George Jones had — like, he wanted a house and to decorate and to kind of maybe not be famous — was given to him,” continues McCormack. “So that kind of role reversal was exciting for me to watch. I mean, Nashville at this time period had, in terms of what it was expecting women to be in performative femininity, the Dolly Parton sort of big hair and nails and lipstick; they were not just singing, but they had to be on camera, and I can imagine that it was very tough to be a woman and to feel like you could drown in that kind of expectation. Abe Sylvia is just masterful in the writing of the series, and such a kind, thoughtful, gentle human himself, and I think he brought a lot of really wonderful perspective to this that isn’t just (dramatic) high-octane banger after banger after banger.”
Adds Pat Healy, who plays Wynette’s (soon to be ex-) husband as the story kicks in, aspiring songwriter Don Chapel: “I think the performative aspect is really interesting for the men too. Like you were saying, Kelly, George Jones was sensitive and had a feminine side and wanted to decorate. Don Chapel, who I play, was extremely insecure. He wore a wig. Everyone felt that they had to present a certain image of themselves, and we think about that with the women a lot, but the men were held to this certain standard, too. In Nashville at the time, all those songs were about getting drunk and getting in fights and things like that, but they felt insecure and sensitive and wanted to express that side of themselves too…”
“Wearing Nudie suits,” laughs McCormack.
Sylvia says the career drama was always intended to take second place to the love story… although, to be certain, there is a fair amount of music-biz intrigue. “We always remembered that their fans loved them because they saw themselves in them,” says the writer. “They were people’s lives reflected back at them. … So we all know what the events were. We know which events got sensationalized. I think there are things in the show that no one has ever heard before that we were able to uncover in our talks with Georgette and her family. But I think we always put it through the lens of: Where are George and Tammy in their love? Not where are they in their career. This is what’s happening in their career, for sure, but how does it relate to their connection as two people who, though both troubled, loved each other deeply?”
Shannon was pleased that the scripts got to the heart of how Jones and Wynette could be both obsessive and ambivalent in their off-again, on-again relationship, which rarely withstood easy definitions, especially as they fell apart and paired with other partners but reunited professionally and, it would seem, personally.
“It seemed to me, as far as I can tell, pretty true to life, you know?” says Shannon. “And, like you say, not as much of a pure slope … because that’s more what life’s like… It’s hard to say with absolute certainty what happened between these two people. And the hardest part to judge is the moments where they were really truly alone and there wasn’t a big chaotic conflict going on, but they were just together. … I mean, even though they divorced, they were very important to one another for their whole lives. I think that’s one of the strongest things about the story, really, is how it’s not cut and dry, really — what love is or what form it’s supposed to take or how long it’s supposed to last or how you’re supposed to do it. It really kind of captures how mercurial and enigmatic love can be.”
Says Chastain, “Mike and I would watch a lot of the performances of them on YouTube, and when they performed when they were married and when they performed when they were divorced, there was always something incredibly magical. It was like, they knew they were on stage, but it was like they were the only two people in the world, and there was a very special energy there. And that’s what I felt like I really wanted to show in this series.”
Moore points out how much the two lead actors were on double duty, conveying a lot of the drama in those 40-plus performances that, as Sylvia pointed out, play out primarily at full length.
“When they came in to sing, I treated them like artists, because that’s the only way I knew how to treat them,” Moore says. “With the music aspect of the show, they were having to learn their lines and practice scenes, but then also practice music on the side. And we were having rehearsals for the music on the weekends, and so it was a whole other thing that they had to do on top of just doing the scenes. And then also, Jessica is getting nominated for ‘Tammy Faye’ and going to all these awards shows and winning Oscars and all this stuff while also coming back and coming to rehearsals…”
The pre-records that were done mostly went unused in favor of live takes on-set, but were valuable both as practice and for backup when set conditions proved unfavorable audio-wise.
“In November of last year, they came to Nashville and we did 10 days of them singing all of these songs in a recording studio, and that’s how we all kind of bonded and built a working relationship and built a lot of trust,” says Moore. “Because both of them, especially Jessica, were so out of their comfort zone, and I really wanted to meet them where their vulnerability was. Within 20 minutes, not even 15 minutes of meeting them, we were sticking them in a vocal booth and making them sing. And they needed bribing here and there with bourbon and whatever else,” she notes, acknowledging that Chastain used the slight-shot-of-courage approach she used when she first started singing as Tammy Faye Bakker with Dave Cobb on her previous film.
“Oh yes. We called it her specialty — we would make tea and put bourbon in there,” says Moore, “and it helped. And I will say also, she’s not a smoker, but she got cigarettes — not real cigarettes, they were herbal or something like that — and she would be chain-smoking in the booth to get her voice husky or raspy like Tammy. And then also behind the recording studio was the cemetery where Tammy and George were buried. And so they would almost every day walk out there and go see them before coming in to sing, which was all very interesting.”
Moore notes that “there was a day or so that we wanted them to get the full Nashville experience, and so they actually sang with a band in the studio. We had a couple more songs to cut, and so we put ’em in and had ’em sing down with the band, and they got to experience that. And Michael had had bands as an artist and, and he loved it. Jessica needed a little more coaxing, but she did it. I was so grateful that they trusted me. I told them from the beginning, ‘I will always be honest with you and will always put you in the best light.’ And so it was a whole relationship that kind of built over months and I‘m thankful to call them friends. I’m so inspired by both of them — they’re such hard workers and I really loved the way they bloomed over this whole process.”
As shooting commenced in the Carolinas, “we had the pre-records just as a safety net, really, just to have in our back pocket. I mean, there was one night in one scene that it was 30 degrees outside and Michael’s microphone kept cutting off because there was frost on the mic line. But he sang for 15 hours that day. and at 2 in the morning he’s still asking me if he’s doing a good job. And I was like, ‘Michael, you’ve been singing for 15 hours, you’re doing great.’ And with Jess, I mean, singing ‘Stand by Your Man’ for eight hours, that’s just not reasonable. So the (pre-records) are peppered in there, here and there. But we were very delighted that sometimes they beat their recorded takes on set. And so we were able to use a lot of those, which was really nice. And then when they were in the Quonset Hut (set), we had a very good mic in front of them, and they had headphones on and they were actually hearing the music in the headphones, and we were able to use, I think, 95% of all of the (live vocals) in the recording scenes, for sure.”
For the 26-song soundtrack that just came out digitally this weekend on Sony, “I went back and forth with the label, and it’s like, we’re not approaching this as a soundtrack. We’re approaching it as a country record, because that’s what it is.” Even for scenes that are set live in the series, they’ve been mixed and mastered like studio recordings. “And then we’re pushing for a vinyl release as well, and we’re hoping to have a few surprises on that, to be determined.”
As far as some of the studio equipment that is pictured in the series, says Moore, “What’s funny is in the recording world, kind of what’s popular is vintage microphones. And so, a lot of the microphones are in our shots are microphones that I actually use. I would say 90% of the microphones on set I was very familiar with, because those microphones are still preferred today as far as sound quality. Now, the gear in the control room isn’t largely used today, although we do still (sometimes) use tape machines. But (overall) it wasn’t that far removed from how we actually record things — or, let me specify, how I prefer to record things. And then we were looking at pictures from the Quonset Hut. We saw that George Jones didn’t wear headphones a lot of the times, which makes total sense based on his personality, while we saw that Tammy did, and so there are scenes where George isn’t wearing headphones, though sometimes he is. For the placement of the room, we referenced pictures from actual Quonset Hut recordings.”
Chastain had had a long time to think about this before she went into the recording studio and sipped that bourbon-laced tea.
“I came onto this job in 2010 or 2011,” she says. “And I sat with T Bone maybe six years ago and sang ‘Stand by Your Man and said, ‘I just want to know…. Is this ridiculous?’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, it’s fine. It’s gonna work. We have work to do, but it’ll work.’ T Bone introduced Mike and I to someone named Ron Browning, and Ron is a genius — he’s a vocal coach out of Nashville who works with Alison Krauss and all these incredible people.”
Shannon recalls a key moment in Browning’s coaching: “‘There’s a reason God put your nose in the middle of your face.’ That’s what Ron Browning used to say all the time. Because he was trying to get us to use our nose horns, and get our voices in our nose, which is not something… I don’t think, Jessica, when you were at Juilliard, there was anybody talking about the nose horn in voice class? I certainly was not familiar with the nose horn. I always thought you were supposed to just put it on the back of your teeth… You always think, ‘Well, I’ve got this big high note I’ve gotta hit — I better take a big gulp of air.’ And Ron would say, ‘Don’t breathe at all. And as a matter of fact, push your stomach out.’ The opposite of taking a deep breath. There’s no way that it’s gonna work — and then it works. So it’s little tricks like that.
“And it’s not just George. I mean, a lot of country singers — it’s a style of singing in country, I think… It’s also a great resonator. Actually, you can sing much more quietly and be heard just as effectively, as opposed to trying to build, you know? I’d be singing this song that is just full of passion or longing or loss or suffering, and (Ron) would say, ‘Just sing it like me and you are sitting at a bar and you’re telling me a story, and that’s it. You’re just telling me a story. And just do it like you’re bored, like you’ve told this story a hundred times.”’And it would be at such odds with what you thought, you know: ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be making this amazing, dramatic moment happen.’ And he was like, ‘No, that do the opposite.’”
Chastain never quite stopped being intimidated by Wynette”s showcase number. “Tammy hated the way she sounded on ‘Stand by Your Man,’” says the actress. “Her vocal on ‘Stand by Your Man’ is incredible, but she felt so self-conscious. To her, she said, it felt like a pig squealing. And I think it’s because it comes from a place so deep inside of her. It’s like the girl who was electrocuted, who got electric shock therapy. It’s that kind of noise coming out of her. It makes it so powerful. … I’d always have that moment right before the end of that song where I’m like, ‘OK, I don’t know if I’ll make it, this take. Here we go.’ And it made me feel better to think Tammy also had that. She had little hand gestures behind her back to let the band know whether or not she’d hit the notes. That’s a scary song.”
Says Georgette Jones, “To me, I felt like the story and the acting took precedence far and above the music, even though the music certainly is very core because their life revolved around their music. … I know that there are a lot of people who are gonna be critical of the singing. I think both of them were incredibly brave and amazing and turned out wonderful music, and I’m hopeful that people will look at this and realize there’s nobody on this planet who could be exactly like mom or dad. The story being told is what’s important, and nobody could have told it better than Jessica or Michael. They really did such a great job of capturing the emotion that my parents must have felt at different times — I really couldn’t be more pleased.”
It’s very much George and Tammy’s story and the rest of the world is just living in it, for those six hours, but the rest of the cast worked to make the supporting players feel like flesh and blood.
Healy’s character — Wynette’s soon-to-be-ditched husband — comes off as something of an early villain, yet it’s not difficult to identify with his frustrations as a Salieri, at best, to George and Tammy’s country Mozarts.
“I mean, he shouldn’t have done some of the things that he did when he felt he got burnt. He was nasty and vindictive,” says Healy. “But yeah, he wanted to be like them. You know, his sister Jean had been a bit of a minor star, and then this discovery of his (Tammy) became this huge star and got taken away from him by this giant star that he wanted to be in business with. I think he also wanted to be George Jones’s friend, and he worshiped him as much as Tammy did. So what that does to a person, especially a person that’s feeling any kind of insecurity, it makes you feel small. And I’d like to think I wouldn’t behave in the way that he did, but I’m glad if you can empathize with him somewhat.”
As for Sheila Hall Richey, McCormack points out that “by her very nature, she is someone who’s in the background — and makes herself in the background. She was a real person who lived and ran a radio station and worked for a publishing company and was a consummate fan of country music. She was just one of the people that lived and breathed Nashville at the time and made it function and supported people like Tammy Wynette, and was there to kind of lessen themselves in order to let someone else shine. Abe Sylvia found stories about her in Georgette’s book, and even though she’s kind of in the background and not taking up that much space, it was important to me to really put a lot of love and heart into this gentle, feminine creature, because I think this was very much her swan song, this story. And you know, ‘Stand By Your Man’ is singing to people like Sheila Hall. Sheila Hall was masking an incredible amount of domestic abuse, and having her nails ready and her makeup done and her hair, and all the beautiful things that women do to stabilize and to present that things are OK. I really wanted to kind of create a love letter to that and the work that femininity does, for culture in general and what it did for Nashville at that time.”