E.X.H.U.M.E.D.

She was the First Lady of Country and she was a survivor. She'd lived with drug addiction, depression and D.I.V.O.R.C.E. And then she died. What killed Tammy Wynette? And why?

Georgette Smith asks her twin five-year-old boys to go play somewhere else and then turns on the stereo. It is a gentle country ballad that fills the room, light on twanging guitar but heavy on crying strings and the cooing of backing singers. And then there is that voice, soft yet powerful and always heartbreaking. Especially heartbreaking today, in this home. "So I'll keep on falling in love/ Till I get it right."

The artist is Tammy Wynette, still called the First Lady of Country, who died at just 55 on 6 April last year, curled up like a child on a sofa in her Nashville mansion. Georgette, sitting motionless with her hands clasped together, almost in prayer, is Tammy's youngest daughter. She can listen to her mother's music now. For several months after her passing, she could not. "I get comfort out of it," she admits.

The songs of Wynette have been bursting out all over Nashville this week, like at the scruffy Legends' Corner bar in the Tin Pan South district on Wednesday night. On stage, Holly's Buddies played their set of country covers. "Did you hear the news?" Holly asked the punters, some in cowboy hats and boots, before launching into the most famous Wynette song of all, "Stand by Your Man". "Tammy's back!"

Back, but only for a few hours and in gruesome circumstances - under the knives and scalpels of a coroner. At 7.30 am that day, the body of Ms Wynette had been disinterred and subjected to a belated autopsy. It took until noon, when her year-old corpse was returned to its resting place behind a marble panel on the third floor of a bland mausoleum building in a cemetery just south of the city.

Ms Wynette, whose lyrics were infused with her struggles in life, had thus been thwarted once more. For nearly 30 years she suffered multiple failed marriages and crippling medical and drug addiction problems that she fought furiously to keep private. Now, all of it is splashing in gawdy Technicolor into headlines and television stories around the world. Even in death, the hairdresser-turned-superstar who cut 39 country Top 10 hits and sold 30 million records - and who, in 1992, chastised Hillary Rodham Clinton, a First Lady-to-be, for proclaiming that she was not a "Stand by Your Man" kind of woman - cannot find peace.

Responsible for disturbing her are those who say they loved her the most, her daughters. Earlier this month, Georgette and two of her sisters - Jackie Daly, in whose modest Nashville home we sit now, and Tina Jones - filed a wrongful death suit against George Richey, Wynette's last and fifth husband and her personal manager, and Dr Wallis Marsh, a Pittsburgh- based doctor who alone had supervised her medical care since the late Eighties. The filing forced the hand of Richey who, early on Wednesday, gave the city's medical examiner, Dr Bruce Levy, permission to exhume his wife's body. Thus the autopsy that the three women had been publicly agitating for for months finally went ahead.

At the core of the suit are allegations that the two men botched Wynette's care over a long period (Marsh, in part, because he was acting as her primary doctor even though his practice was hundreds of miles away in Pittsburgh); that they reacted inadequately to her final and fatal crisis; and, more gravely, that over years they acted as conscious enablers of her addiction to pain-killing narcotics. The suit also seeks to establish what occurred precisely on that night, just over a year ago, at the Tammy Wynette mansion.

The story we have now, supplied mostly by Marsh and Richey and rehearsed in the suit, is that Wynette had complained to her husband on that day of feeling especially unwell, with a strange stinging in her legs. Richey apparently phoned Marsh for advice, who told him to "seek immediate medical attention". The lawsuit contends that Richey instead gave her medication himself; a short while later Wynette died while asleep on the sofa. It was many hours before Marsh arrived from Pittsburgh. He reported that Wynette had died from blood clots on the lung. She was buried; a memorial ceremony was held three days later at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and broadcast live on CNN. No autopsy was thought necessary.

The court action, which asks for $50m (pounds 31m) in damages, has left Nashville and the country music industry in shock. And people are beginning to take sides. In one camp are those who accuse the women of digging for money. They note that all of Wynette's estate was left in trust for her children, with income from it going to Richey, now 60, until he dies. They also point out the singer stipulated in her will that anyone who challenges it will be automatically disinherited. With the lawsuit, the critics say, the daughters are circumventing a provision that was designed to forestall exactly this kind of public family brawl. Others offer quiet sympathy for the women and share with them their suspicions about their mother's death.

Wynette's health problems began with a hysterectomy shortly after the birth of Georgette, who is now 28. What followed was an unremitting battle with crippling intestinal pain and blockages in the bowel. Wynette underwent multiple surgeries, but with each operation came more scar tissue. Towards the end, Wynette's once piercing beauty had shrivelled, leaving her with the face of an old woman. She had a catheter in her side and took much of her food through intravenous tubes. Above all, however, her addiction to narcotics, which even a spell in 1986 at the Betty Ford Clinic failed to break, had continued to worsen.

Georgette recalls her mother's plight. "Sometimes she would go for a couple of weeks without eating any solid food. But here is the kind of mother she was: one of those times, we were all visiting Tammy and when I got up there she was in the kitchen making this huge breakfast for us all, all our favourite things to eat, even though food made her feel nauseous. I told her, `You don't have to do this', and she replied: `I love doing this for you and I would be heartbroken if you told me to stop.'"

She remembers, too, the misgivings she felt for her step- father, Richey, who had been married to her mother for 20 years. According to Georgette, whose real father was Wynette's third husband, the country singer George Jones, Richey would grow jealous of friends who took up any of his wife's time and spin lies to turn her against them. "Once, he told her that one of her girlfriends had tried to hit on him, which wasn't true." Nor, allegedly, was Wynette allowed to spoil her own children. "She had to sneak things to us. If we went shopping and she bought us clothes, we would have to leave them in the trunk of her car and switch them to our cars when he wasn't looking."

Even Wynette occasionally acknowledged the strains in her marriage. Georgette believes her mother was unable, however, to face the prospect of yet one more divorce and life alone, particularly when she had become so frail. "She was embarrassed by the failures of her earlier marriages."

It was the drugs, however, more than the illness, that enslaved Wynette. And it will be the drugs issue that will dominate if the wrongful death claim makes it to trial. According to the suit, the star was hooked during her last years on

Dilaudid, methadone and Versed. And extraordinary means were allegedly devised to get them to Nashville in sufficient quantities. The suit says packages were often shipped by Dr Marsh from Pittsburgh via the courier UPS. Georgette offers further detail. She says Richey would pay for plane seats for drug packages or charter jets to allow himself or a staff member to take personal delivery. Once, she says, Richey actually flew Concorde to Europe to pick up a shipment.

"Obviously there was something wrong here," Georgette offers. "You don't have to use much imagination to see that shopping for drugs in these quantities at the pharmacy down the road would have raised the red flag to the drug enforcement agencies."

It will take Dr Levy, the examiner, about six weeks to gather the results from Wednesday's extraordinary autopsy. They could help settle the dispute in two ways. They might show up unusual levels of drugs in Wynette. They might also show whether or not large blood clots were present on her lungs.

Georgette Smith has mixed hopes for the tests. "I would prefer it if the tests show that my mother died a natural death. If they show a huge blood clot on her lungs, then her death was supposed to be and it was her time and we can all move on. But I really don't think that's what we're going to find," she comments.

Richey himself revealed that the autopsy had taken place, to a stunned Nashville press corps at a downtown hotel. He used the occasion to excoriate his step-daughters. "I'm saddened that, out of frustration over financial matters, her daughters have been willing to work so hard to discredit their mother," he said. Of the autopsy he said: "I know exactly what happened to Tammy today, and I despise it."

Opinions about the quarrel at Legends' Corner were as divided as they are across the industry. Peter Miles, a country performer in Nashville this month to produce a record for a friend, was disgusted by the suit.

"A lot of us are saddened by it, because there is no reason for it. Everyone paid their respects to Tammy when she died and everybody is distraught about this. They should let her rest with dignity."

Another small-time performer who is well known in Nashville offered a different opinion, but on condition of anonymity. "I think Richey was addicted to the money that she was making him. And he thought that he could just keep her going with the drugs. Every time she had a crisis, he would shoot her up. This time he just gave her too much. In my mind that means he murdered her," he said quietly.

Inside the Woodlawn Cemetery Mausoleum - a five-storey block that looks from the outside like an office building - there are no signs of the invasion that was made this week on the dead. The marble square in the wall that bears the name Tammy Wynette is quite intact, with brass fasteners holding it in place. Beside it is a stand with a small book where fans can write their tributes. One, a Mindy from Nashville, visited on Wednesday morning, during the time when the crypt was actually empty.

Attached to the marble itself are a few family mementoes, including a sentimental poem left by Georgette. It ends: "I love you Mom, Georgette." And there is a small birthday card too, attached with Scotch tape to mark 5 May last year, when Tammy Wynette would have turned 56. Inside is a handwritten message that reads: "Mom... We love and miss you, Richey and the kids." The sentiment of love is surely genuine. The suggestion of family togetherness, sadly, is misplaced.

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