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Lovesick Blues: The Romance and Wreckage of Country Music’s Greats

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There’s an evolution to love in the South. If we’re to believe the music, it goes something like: 1) Courtin’. 2) Marryin’. 3) Drinkin’. 4) Cheatin’. 5) Divorcin’. 6) Repeat.

We typically take our romance either saccharine sweet or downright gothic. So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, Bourbon and Boots’ Editor, Amy Bowers, and her main squeeze, ruminate on some of country music’s most admirable and infamous unions.


“Help Me Make It Through The Night” – June Carter Cash & Johnny Cash
When you think of undying, down-right, ring of fire-type true love, you can’t help but think of Johnny and June. They met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956. Sure, Johnny had married just two years earlier, but his immediate connection to June was undeniable. After three kids with first wife, she divorced Johnny in 1966 due to his booze and amphetamine abuse (not to mention his obvious attraction to June, who at this point was performing often with Cash).

After many failed proposals, June finally agreed to marry Johnny in 1968 when he did it on stage in front of 7,000 fans. The two were inseparable after that. June was credited with sticking by his side while he battled addiction. They were married for 35 years and had one son together, John Carter Cash, a music producer. June died in early 2003 and Johnny continued to record music and even played a few surprise shows, including his last public performance in July 2003. Before he sang their most notable hit, “Ring of Fire,” he said to the audience, “The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has.” Johnny followed June in death just two months later.

 

“(We’re Not) The Jet Set” – Tammy Wynette & George Jones
If Johnny and June were Antony and Cleopatra, George and Tammy were more like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor who played them. It must’ve been tough to be married to George. There’s the famous story of Tammy taking away George’s keys and him driving his John Deere mower an hour and a half – at 5 mph – to get to the liquor store. But that’s a rare charming anecdote in the six stormy years they were married. In that time, George gained the nickname “No Show” for so often being too drunk to perform, found a new friend in cocaine, and eventually wound up in an Alabama psychiatric hospital. Their divorce finally came in 1975 after a whiskey-drunk Jones chased Wynette around the house with a loaded rifle. If all that weren’t bad enough, they named their poor daughter “Tamala Georgette.”

The great consolation, of course, is that their duets are arguably the best in the history of country music. From “Golden Ring” to “Two Story House” to “Something To Brag About,” all the rage they had at each other off stage translated into passion once they were on it. Jones and Wynette both eventually found lasting love in subsequent marriages (George in his fourth and Tammy in her fifth). They also gradually put aside their differences and performed together several more times before Wynette’s death in 1998.

 

“Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” – Willie Nelson
Arguably the most beloved artist in the history of country music, the Red-Headed Stranger is no stranger to marriage, having tied the knot four times and fathered seven children. His first marriage, to Martha Matthews, produced three children, but was rife with violence. In the most notorious episode, she found him passed out again, so she sewed him up in the bed-sheet and beat him senseless with a broomstick. Willie’s second marriage (to Shirley Collie) wasn’t much better, ending when she found the bill from a Houston maternity ward charged to Nelson and Connie Koepke for the birth of a daughter, Paula Carlene Nelson. Nelson married Keopke soon after, a union which lasted 17 years until they divorced in 1988 and Nelson married his current wife, Annie D’Angelo. The couple has two children together. The fourth time seems to have been the charm for this Highwayman.

Lorrie Morgan & The State of Tennessee
In a 2004 interview with Larry King, Morgan said, “Drama is something that lets you know you’re still alive.” And King can sympathize as he may be the only person on Earth that’s been married more times than Lorrie Morgan. (King’s eight to her six.)

Morgan married a bass player from George Jones’ band, then a one-time bus driver for Clint Black, then singer/songwriter Jon Randall. She was married to singer Keith Whitley until he drank himself to death to get away from her. In the early 2000s, Morgan and singer Sammy Kershaw got married, got mutual restraining orders, reconciled, both (separately) filed for bankruptcy, got more restraining orders, then divorced for good in 2007. Mixed in there, she had relatively long-term relationships with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and actor and former Republican Senator Fred Thompson (we hope to God it wasn’t at the same time). Morgan trod back up a well-worn path to the altar in 2010 to marry Tennessee businessman, Randy White. But this time it’s real.

Out Of The Limelight – Dolly Parton & Carl Thomas and Loretta Lynn & Oliver “Dolittle” Lynn
There’s a breed of country music romance that doesn’t thrive on turmoil and public displays of anger, or any display for that matter. Perhaps the key to a successful (or at least lasting) marriage is for one member to be nearly invisible. Both Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn have been/were married for nearly 50 years to “quiet types” Carl Thomas and Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn.

Parton met Thomas at the Wishy-Washy Laundromat on her first day in Nashville. Two years later, the couple were wed. The reclusive Carl operates an asphalt company in Nashville and Parton claims that he’s only seen her perform once ever. While a person’s privacy must be respected, Carl’s extreme reclusiveness does nothing to refute (and has mostly been the cause of) the years of rumors questioning Dolly’s sexuality. It certainly doesn’t help that plastic surgeries are gradually turning Dolly and Kenny Rogers into the same person.

Meanwhile in Kentucky, Lynn married Doolittle, a former moonshine-runner known locally as “Mooney” (does everybody get two nicknames in Kentucky?), in their hometown of Butcher Hollow in 1948. She was 15, he was 21. To escape the coal mining cycle, the couple moved all the way to Washington state to explore the logging industry, but without much luck. By the time Loretta was 19, she and Oliver/Mooney/Doolittle had 6 children. By 21, he had become her manager. The couple stayed together until his death in 1996 at the age of 70 and, though lasting, their relationship was checkered to say the least. Doolittle was a known womanizer and alcoholic and there were accounts of domestic violence on both of their parts. Browsing briefly through the liner notes and lyrics, it also becomes easy to see that Doolittle was the inspiration for songs like, “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” “The Pill,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” and “Fist City.”

Think Of The Children
Music also brought together and (literally) gave birth to some of the most impressive and melodic progeny around.

A.P. Carter, his wife Sarah, and her cousin, Maybelle, made up the Carter Family. By the time the trio called it quits, Maybelle’s three daughters – Helen, Anita, and June – carried on the tradition. June would go on to marry Johnny Cash, of course, then both June’s daughter from her first marriage, Carlene Carter, and Johnny’s daughter from his first, Rosanne, would both have impressive careers.

There’s Hank, Hank Jr., and Hank III. Then there are Tillises, Judds, and Mandrells (this is starting to sound like an anatomy class). Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter brought their son Shooter into the world. And though Steve Earle’s marriage to Carol Ann Hunter was short-lived, it produced the great young Justin Townes Earle (named for Earle’s friend and one of the best songwriters of the last century, Townes Van Zandt).

Even if the marriages were often unharmonious in private, we can be thankful that they wrenched, wrestled and strangled out such beauty for the rest of us. The above are just a small sampling, of course. Feel free to add to our list with comments below…


Of these couples, Amy and Graham most identify with Johnny and June, though neither are likely to give up the bottle or the pills. They live in a 1,000 square-foot home with two toddlers, two dogs and a cat so don’t be surprised if you see them riding off to the liquor store on a John Deere mower.

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