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With 30 chart-topping hits between them, George Jones and Tammy Wynette earned the title of Mr. and Mrs. Country Music many times over. But their tumultuous private life put an end to their passionate marriage in 1975 after just six years, leaving a string of hits and heartbreak in their wake.
The production was "a process of laughing and crying" for Georgette Jones Lennon, the couple's only daughter. "It's been a crazy emotional rollercoaster," she tells PEOPLE. "But it's therapeutic because you start thinking about things you tucked away a long time ago, whether it be painful or even good memories."
For Lennon, whose 2011 memoir The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George formed the basis of the script, the series offered more than an opportunity for reflection and catharsis. It also provided the chance for fans to get to know her parents as she knew them. "People look at them as superstars and forget they're human. Like everyone, they had their faults and their good traits," she says.
Though titans of Nashville mythology, their roles are frequently reduced to caricatures. Wynette is often cast as the besequined heartbreak queen of the country charts, whose early hits like "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "Stand By Your Man" tapped into the pain of her impoverished upbringing and lean years as a single mother before her life was cut short by illness at age 55.
"People see her as a very frail and sick person who was surrounded by tragedy," says Lennon. "Although she did have medical problems and there were tragic things, Mom was not that person. She was very funny, loving and brave. She wasn't afraid of anything on this planet."
She cites an occasion when Wynette went up for a ride with the Blue Angels aerial stunt squad — a trip that's emphatically not for the faint of heart. "Mom could not wait for them to do more spins and twirls. Like, 'Do it again, do it again!' When they got out of the plane, she was giggling. The pilot called me over and said, 'I have to tell you something about your mother. She's the first person I've had in my airplane — who wasn't a pilot — who did not need a sick bag.' And she loved haunted houses. She would laugh while the rest of us were screaming. She just was so brave and strong and so much fun."
Lennon, 52, also hopes that viewers will see beyond her father's one-dimensional reputation as the hell-raiser behind "No Show Jones," "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today." She recalls him first and foremost as a loving grandfather to her twins, often conjuring impromptu songs to make them laugh.
Georgette Jones Lennon Instagram
"With my dad, I think a lot of people look at him and their first thoughts are of that stereotypical crazy guy who drank and all of that kind of thing," she continues. "He had a great sense of humor, and he was so much fun. He loved to play games, and he just had a great personality. And I wanted people to see him not as that outlaw country singer, but as the human being who loved and laughed and cared, but struggled with his own demons — which he did finally conquer, thank God."
Lennon wore one of her father's suits to the Nashville premiere of George and Tammy on Nov. 21 — a flashy gray number with designs embroidered down the sleeves — and, for an extra dose of authenticity, a decades-old laundromat ticket. "I'm not exactly the kind of person who goes to red carpet events," she laughs. "So, when I found out I was invited, I had no idea what in the world I was gonna wear. And then it really dawned on me! My sisters and I really never got anything belonging to either of my parents. We just have a few things of our own that we've saved or kept along the way. Of course, they're precious to us."
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It's a touching tribute to a man with whom she shared blood and a name but little else for many years. Lennon was just 5 years old when her parents' divorced, and she came of age at a time when her father's debilitating substance abuse made him a fleeting presence in their family.
"I think my dad tried to shelter me from his lifestyle when he was young, and he didn't want me to be around that," she reflects. "So, we had an estranged relationship for a while. I was a nasty teenager at times. I was mad that I felt like he wasn't in my life. I think I blamed him for not being there, not really taking the time to think about the reasons why — because when you're a teenager you don't. I didn't think about what he had been going through and the reasons why he wasn't present in my life. He was trying to protect me. And once I released that, I understood more about him and was willing to accept that and forgive."
It wasn't until years later that she heard the stories, very different from the famous drunken antics involving lawnmowers and firearms. After the divorce, Jones often drove hours just to take a lap in the driveway of the family's Nashville home where he no longer lived, desperate to revisit the life they once shared. Lennon later learned that her father sometimes dropped by while she was at school, spending hours at the foot of her bed and gazing at her picture with tears in his eyes.
Emotions came easy to Jones on the microphone, but it was a different matter without a song to shield him. "When it came to my dad's music, he had one-hundred-percent connection with the song," says Lennon. "He laid it all out on the table every time he opened his mouth and sang. That's what he loved about music. He could be whatever he was in that moment — act out whatever he felt — and it was okay because it was music."
Like so many who shared his background, Jones found it difficult to articulate those feelings in ordinary life. "He was raised in Texas many years ago. Most of my family and friends that live out there were told, 'You're a man, you don't cry. Don't you dare show emotion, you're supposed to be a tough guy.' And at times he did try to be tough, but I know that he was softhearted. He was kind, and he loved people. So, that's how he used his music. That softer part of him was able to come out and shine."
It was tragedy that brought them together. Wynette died on April 6, 1998, after years of health problems. "It wasn't until my mom died that Dad was truly there for us," Lennon says. "When it was time for us to go pick out a casket and do all those horrible things, it was my dad who went with me and my sisters to do it. And he hated all of that kind of stuff — he stayed away from funerals as much as possible. But he knew that I needed him. He was there for me when I needed him the most, and it meant everything to me. From that point on, we started spending more time together and began mending our relationship. I treasured that."
Alan Mercer Georgette Jones Lennon
They began to reconnect in the best way they both knew how: through song. "We bonded through music as we got older. I would play him songs I wrote and he gave me great feedback." There was one song in particular that she was particularly eager to show him. It was called "You and Me and Time." Written as a duet, the autobiographical lyrics describe a father and daughter making up for lost time after years apart.
"I co-wrote that song especially for Dad," says Lennon. "At that point I was still trying to learn how to tell him how I felt. I wrote this song with my friends, and they guided me and helped me say what I wanted to say. It was really a present to him saying, 'This is how I feel, and I'm so happy that we've made that connection.'"
Singing such intimate lyrics to a parent would be daunting for anyone. But Lennon had the added challenge of simultaneously presenting a song to a living country legend. A case of nerves is understandable.
"I was kind of scared to sing it for him because my dad was very honest. I mean, he wouldn't have purposely tried to hurt my feelings, but he would tell me the truth if he needed to give me some constructive criticism. I felt very vulnerable," she says. "So, when I played it for him, I was just kind of waiting to see what he thought. But I could see tears rolling up in his eyes. He gave me the biggest hug and a kiss on the forehead. He said, 'Honey, I love it.'"
They would record the song together as a duet, which was released on Jones' final studio album before his death in 2013, Burn Your Playground: The Unreleased Duets — Lennon's voice an uncanny echo of her iconic mother's. "That was one of my proudest moments, musically and personally, to be honest," she says. "It just meant so much to me that he understood this was my way of trying to express my feelings to him. As awkward as he felt showing emotion, so did I for a while, because we didn't get to have that close personal relationship until later in life."
After their session together, Jones snuck back into the studio to record a message to his daughter on the song's fadeout. They were the words that he sometimes found difficult to say in his daily life: "I love you, darlin'."