10/02/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE CROWD OF 3,400 AT THE STAR Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Ind., has been waiting all evening for this moment, and George Jones is milking it for all it's worth. "I'm gonna bring out Miss Tammy Wynette now," he says, managing to sound heartbroken, "and see if we can get along for the first time in our lives." It has been nearly 20 years since the last tour by George and Tammy, whose tortured, six-year marriage begat, among other things, a string of melancholy duets unequaled in country music. But before tonight's show can go on, a young lady thrusts a red rose at Jones. Without missing a beat, the craggy singer takes the flower backstage where, far from the gaze of their current spouses, he silently offers it to his ex-wife.
Could it be? Has the old Possum gone sweet again on the First Lady of Country Music? In the last year they've suddenly renewed their friendship, recorded a collection of duets titled One and may even win their first joint Country Music Association award for Vocal Event of the Year. Is there more to all this togetherness than just music? Not a chance. As Tammy foretold in her 1968 hit song, their D-I-V-O-R-C-E remains final. Singing together, says Jones, "brings back a lot of memories of old stage things when we used to work together. But as far as bringing back old memories of other things, it don't. We've completely blocked all that out of our minds."
A good thing, too, given the demands of a 33-city, five-month tour on such much-traveled troupers. "We can't hardly put on a show like we did years ago," admits Jones, 64. "By the time we each go out and do an hour, we're about wore out right there." Where once Jones depended on whiskey and cocaine to calm the pre-show jitters, now it's just chewing gum and a couple of cigars a day—plus a TelePrompter to help him remember the lyrics. Wynette, 53, plagued by poor health for the past 30 years, was forced to miss two shows in August to undergo surgery on her vocal cords in Pittsburgh. Jones, notorious for ducking performances during his drinking days, ribbed his absent partner onstage, calling her No-Show Tammy.
So far, though, having a chance to sing together again has made it all worthwhile. "More than anything in the whole business, I missed the duets with George," says Wynette. "I've [sung] with a lot of artists, but there's something about George and me that makes our voices blend."
Unfortunately, singing together is about the only time when George and Tammy have ever enjoyed that kind of harmony. While they were married, they fought constantly, until one night Jones came home tanked on whiskey and chased Wynette through their Nashville mansion with a loaded 30-30 rifle. They divorced soon afterward, in 1975. "It was some bad blood," says Nancy Jones, 46, the former telephone company worker from Shreveport, La., who met George on a blind date in 1981 and married him two years later. "Tammy and George were not what you'd call the Waltons or anything." After the split, Jones and Wynette spoke only rarely, but they reconnected in 1993 after the birth of Kyle and Ryan, the twin sons of their only child, Tamala Georgette Smith, 24, and her husband, Joel Smith, 31, both nurses in Tuskegee, Ala. True reconciliation, though, wouldn't come until later that year, when complications from a bile-duct infection nearly cost Wynette her life. Encouraged by his wife, Nancy, Jones paid Tammy a call at Nashville's Baptist Hospital, where she lay in a coma. When she later heard Jones had visited, Tammy joked with her fifth and current husband, producer George Richey, "Oh God, I've already been to hell and back; I didn't want to go again." But the bedside visit was a turning point in their relationship. "That sort of broke the ice," she says. "[It] sparked the interest to sing again."
Despite their rapprochement, George and Tammy are still not that close. Between shows they spend no more than a few minutes a day together. Wynette, who loves life on the road, sticks to her tour bus with Richey, 59, whom she married in 1978, and a hyper toy Pomeranian named Killer. Catalogues from Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's clutter the table. "Oh, yes," Wynette admits, pointing to a supermarket tabloid, "I buy that every week just to see what I'm doing."
The truth, though, is plainer than the headlines. These days, Wynette, who gave up smoking two years ago, uses the extra energy for baking and canning fruit with the housekeeper at her seven-bedroom Nashville home. "I peeled so many peaches this summer I thought I'd die," she says. "We gave some to the Joneses...and George just loved them."
Jones, too, has turned to more wholesome pastimes since going off the bottle in 1984. At home, he has a barber groom his snowy coif daily in a room specially set aside for hair care, then trims the grass on his 88-acre Franklin, Tenn., farm, where Susan, his daughter from a previous marriage, and Nancy's two daughters and their families also live. "I like to keep it real manicured," says Jones. "By the time you finish, it's time to start mowing again."
Back onstage at the Star Plaza, George and Tammy's newfound serenity shines through. For a laugh, Wynette sniffs Jones's water glass, and he gets even with mildly barbed patter. "What're you doing, sweating?" she asks as he mops his face. "Yeah, I'm nervous," he says. "I haven't been around you in about 18 years." But when the opening chords of their 1976 classic "Golden Ring" sound, the real act begins. "I've worked with George for so long, I know when he drops his chin he's going for one of those low notes he does so well," says his ex. "And when he's going for a high note, I just love working with him."
KATE KLISE in Merrillville