George & Tammy Will Duet Again, but Maritally She's Standing by Her Man No. 5, George Richey

updated 02/25/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/25/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was the most dramatic possible press conference in Tennessee, sure to outdraw an announcement about Howard Baker or the snail darter, and promising to embellish Nashville's most poignant soap opry. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, C&W's most chronicled ex-couple since they split in 1975, convened at Tammy's home to announce the birth of a new duet single. It was the country music equivalent of a reunion of the Beatles.

The news had their fans aflutter with hope, but, no, the track is not titled R-E-C-O-N-C-I-L-I-A-T-I-O-N. It's Second Story House. The pair, after a scheduled Tonight Show gig this week, will tape two weeks of Hollywood Squares, then next month perform the first of some 35 concerts together. As for the temptations of togetherness on the road, they will travel in separate buses. Tammy is still standing by her manager-husband of 18 months—George Richey.

Formerly musical director of Hee Haw, fifth husband Richey has provided Tammy, 37, with apparent stability in a stormy time. She was wed six weeks to businessman Mike Tomlin after splitting from third husband Jones. She couldn't keep out of the papers, whether it was her bizarre abduction from a shopping mall two years ago, subsequent death threats and break-ins at home or the titillating hints of a romance with Burt Reynolds in her autobiography, Stand By Your Man. Indeed, Tammy has moved more rumors than records since her last duet with George, Southern California, in 1977.

The idea for the reunion came from her producer, Billy Sherrill. "Billy asked me," recalls Tammy, "if there was any other male artist I could record with. I talked it over with Richey. There wasn't anybody else but Jones." The only question was whether George was up to it. A legitimate Nashville legend with 100-plus albums at age 48, he had sunk to subsistence income as he battled booze and provoked lawsuits over concert no-shows. In late 1978 Jones filed for bankruptcy. The legal hassles are still pending, but charges of assault with intent to murder in a shooting incident involving a close friend that year have been dropped. Desperate, aimless and 35 pounds underweight by last December, the singer checked into an Alabama hospital to dry out. "I had no other direction," he says. "Every which way I turned I got more paranoid, made the wrong decisions. It was do or die this time."

Other artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride have been trying to help pull George together, but some of the people around Tammy were skeptical about getting involved. Wynette settled it, saying: "We tried helping George before, emotionally and financially, and everyone needs more than one chance. I have all the confidence in him. If he fails, I'll be really disappointed." Then they cut the new tune, and she says, "I can't remember ever seeing him so interested in working."

Jones now lives alone in a modest retreat in Florence, Ala. He has dated several women "here and there—when they get serious here, I always go there," but considers remarriage "unlikely." Performing with Tammy will be "wonderful," he says, in his famous woeful voice. "Sure, it'll bring back memories, but not like when I ached about our divorce."

Tammy, too, seems beyond the pull of their past. "No way anyone or anything can come between me and my marriage," she says. "I've never been so happy." Richey is taking some of the heat for bringing George back into the picture. As Richey explains it, "I weeded out the bloodsuckers, leeches and joyriders" from around Tammy. Paring down their life, too, the Richeys have left her $2 million 14-bath home for a more subdued $250,000 place also just outside Nashville. (She has four daughters, including Tamala Georgette, 9, by Jones, and Richey has two kids from a previous marriage, but only two live in.)

Barbra Streisand's man, Jon Peters, is contemplating a film bio based on Wynette's memoir, and Tammy has a solo LP due soon. George may do a gospel album inspired by a religious reawakening during his clean-out. There is talk of an entire LP with George and Tammy. "That's what the fans would love," says the rejuvenated Jones, so jubilant that he is even willing to stand by her man. "George Richey," he smiles gratefully, "is my husband-in-law."

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