‘George & Tammy’ Lawsuit Could Have Chilling Effect on Artistic License

photo: Dana Hawley

By most all accounts, the late 2022 Showtime limited series George & Tammy was a major success. The opening episode was the most-watched debut episode in Showtime’s history. Ratings remained stellar throughout the series run. It was nominated for four Emmy Awards, and received mostly positive reviews from fans and critics alike.

Most importantly, the series helped put Tammy Wynette (portrayed by Jessica Chastain) and George Jones (played by Michael Shannon) back into the public consciousness, even if it came through saucy and sometimes scandalous details of the couple’s often tumultuous relationship.

That doesn’t mean everyone was happy about how the series turned out. Some hardcore Tammy Wynette and George Jones fans didn’t appreciate some of the artistic license taken with the facts, or the dramatic interpretations of certain events. And they’re not alone. The estate of Tammy Wynette’s fifth husband, George Richey, is not too pleased with the characterizations of the late songwriter and producer in the series either, and is now suing Showtime.

“The series depicts Richey as a devious husband who abused Wynette and Richey’s prior wife, facilitated and encouraged Wynette’s addiction to prescription painkillers, and engaged in financial and managerial manipulation of Wynette,” say the lawyers for George Richey’s widow, Sheila Slaughter Richey.

The lawsuit takes special exception to the final episode of the series, which portrays George Jones discovering a last will and testament Tammy Wynette wrote on a yellow note pad. Near the end of the episode, text appears on the screen saying, “George Richey inherited the vast majority of her estate” and that “Tammy’s yellow note pads were never found.”

George Richey passed away in 2010. Sheila Slaughter married George Richey in 2001 after Tammy Wynette passed away in 1998. Sheila and George Richey’s daughter Tatum Richey is also a party to the lawsuit.

The source material for the George & Tammy series was the only child of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Georgette Jones, and her 2011 memoir The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George. Georgette Jones was also a producer and consultant on the series.

It’s the participation of Georgette Jones in the series that the estate of George Richey is taking exception to. Hypothetically, Showtime can’t be sued for the portrayal of George Richey outright, especially since it’s a dramatic series that everyone expects to take liberties with the story to make it more appealing. So instead they’re suing Showtime for supposedly putting Georgette Jones in a position where she could have violated a previously-signed agreement with the Richey estate in 2019 that disallowed her from making disparaging comments about the estate—or what is being called “tortious interference with contract.”

Whether George Richey treated Tammy Wynette in the manner that the series portrays is up for dispute and interpretation, as are many of the other details in the series. After the conclusion of the series, Saving Country Music did a run down of some of the disputed facts and timeline issues with the project. But nobody ever claimed that George & Tammy was a true to life reenactment. It was not a documentary. George & Tammy was a dramatic series based off the recollections and understandings of George and Tammy’s daughter run through a dramatic filter.

Whether Showtime put Georgette Jones in a position where she could violate her non disparagement clause with the Richey estate is something the courts will decide in the coming months, and likely, years. The truth is that the estates of George Jones, Tammy Wynette, George Richey, and the real life doings of Georgette Jones are a mess of lawsuits, counter-lawsuits, non disparagement clauses, gag orders, and other litigious goings on as everyone fights for control and money among two of the most important estates in country music history.

History is messy, and sometimes there are no easy or concrete answers to conclude upon when it comes to who said or did what, and when. Emotions get in the way of people’s memories and perspectives, people pass away and take their recollections with them, and when others are legally bound to not speak about certain matters, it makes getting to the real truth even harder for the public.

At points in the George & Tammy series, George Richey is portrayed as more of a good guy, or simply as a secondary character. As the relationship between George Jones and Tammy Wynette turns sour and outright violent, Richey steps up as emotional support to Wynette. It is fair though to say that Richey does play a villain role later in the movie, and it’s understandable why his estate would be upset.

But in truth, none of the characters in George & Tammy were portrayed in a positive light, most especially Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Their flaws and frailties were put on full display in often starkly honest and outright shocking moments. George Jones was portrayed as an unhinged, clinically insane alcoholic prone to outbursts and narcissistic rage. Tammy Wynette was portrayed as a drug abuser with her own mental health issues and secrets to hide.

But this is all what made the series so compelling, honest, and more like real life than fiction, even if certain things were embellished to allow the story to flow and be more dramatic on screen. George & Tammy was like country music, full of two-timing, broken hearts, broken families, and divorce.

So often we hear about biopics or other projects portraying country music greats that never get off the ground. Satisfying certain demands of estates and legal concerns over potential lawsuits are often the reason these projects never come to fruition. Screenplay writers, directors, and producers should be given the latitude to work with long-standing artistic license as long as they are open with the public that liberties are being taken in certain instances and the work is “inspired by actual events” as opposed to a dry recitation of them.

Commonly films inspired by actual events utilize artistic license. The 2011 film Moneyball with Brad Pitt was nominated for six Academy Awards. It portrayed Oakland A’s manager Art Howe as the “bad guy” in the film while real-life accounts dispute this characterization. 2013’s Dallas Buyer’s Club starring Matthew McConaughey was also critically-acclaimed, but took multiple liberties with the true story.

Meanwhile, despite the portrayals in George & Tammy, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and George Richey are remembered fondly for their contributions to country music. Just a couple of weeks ago, Saving Country Music highlighted the song “The Grand Tour” co-written by George Richey, and recorded by George Jones during better times between the two men. The song is told from the perspective of a man walking through an empty house after his wife has left.

Songs like “The Grand Tour” are what come from the real life turmoil that George Richey, George Jones, and Tammy Wynette experienced, and its these dramatic interpretations of actual events in song that give country music the unique quality to offer solace, commiseration, and a sense of relief to those suffering from similar fates. The George & Tammy series had a similar effect for many, and it would be a shame if lawsuits and potential lawsuits had a chilling effect on such dramatic interpretations of events moving forward.

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