It is fair to say that once Abe Sylvia gets an idea, there is no going back or giving up. His latest effort is the Showtime limited series George and Tammy which chronicles the whirlwind love story of country legends George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
This poignant tale of the king and queen of country music took Sylvia 11 years to make, and as he said in a recent interview, “This was my first project soup to nuts.” As a series creator, he wore many hats. “I’ve been number two many times, but this is my baby.”
The six-episode series premiered on Sunday, December 4 and has already earned lead star Jessica Chastain a Golden Globe nomination. The Oscar winner stars alongside Oscar nominee Michael Shannon, and the chemistry between them is palpable.
The series is based on the novel by George and Tammy’s daughter, Georgette Jones, titled “The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George.” The series debuted its first episode simultaneously on Showtime and the Paramount Network, with the remaining episodes exclusively on Showtime. The final will be broadcast on January 8.
Over the years, Sylvia has become close to her family, especially Georgette. “I’m fiercely protective of them and their story, and it’s a story that deserves to be told. It was emotional and strangely enough, as deeply sad as it is, it’s an incredibly life- and love-affirming story, and I think these kinds of stories are timeless. It’s Romeo and Juliet set in the world of country music.”
He told me that Georgette gave free reign with the scripts, but she had two important requests. “First of all, she asked that we not treat her mother as a tragic figure. Georgette was clear that her mother’s life was not a tragedy. Tammy had 20 No. 1 hit songs. It is not a tragic life. Despite all the sad things she endured, she broke barriers with her music. She soldiered through some trying things and came out the other side of it as an iconic artist. Something happens in the mythologizing of women in history, and it was a really insightful thing she said, and it changed the way we approached the character.”
There was another thing Georgette asked, which was that they not give anyone else the credit for George’s sobriety. “There were a lot of people who claim credit for getting George clean and there were people who had his back and picked him up and dusted him off a million times, but you can’t own another person’s sobriety. Those things were very important to her, so we honored them.”
The series chronicles the complicated and passionate love story of this country music power couple and how their love inspired some of the most iconic songs of all time. There were also complications behind the scenes. The road from start to premiere was uphill and took many repetitions.
Over the years, Sylvia became known for her brilliant writing on hits such as Liz Feldman’s Death to me (she credits him for the twisted season two cliffhanger) and the 2021 movie The eyes of Tammy Faye (also starring Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker).
He explained how George & Tammy was originally set up as a feature. It bounced around to three studios with three different directors. “It was difficult to get anything done, especially stories about problematic, complicated people. That work was on TV, and we made it the turning point. It also gave more breadth to the story, and I’m glad we did it.”
Although Sylvia thinks his original movie idea would have been great, he’s happy to have had six episodes to work with. He also feels that there is so much more to this story. “I could do a five-season version of this given the amount of material we have, but the six hours distill the story down to the most essential aspects. A lot of events and career milestones fell out of the narrative because it was about this third life that was created when George and Tammy sang together. It’s a love story about two people destined to make art together. Whether or not they were able to work things out personally doesn’t change the fact that the music they made together is proof of an enduring love story.”
Tammy will be remembered as the “First Lady of Country Music” with hits like “Stand by Your Man”. To this day, this song remains one of the most iconic and best-selling country singles by a female artist. George Jones’ song “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is still widely called the greatest country song of all time. With over 30 No. 1 country songs between them, including the duets “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring” and “Near You,” George and Tammy’s legacy, both musically and romantically, remains one of the greatest love stories of all time told.
Sylvia always had Chastain in mind for the lead. She signed on in 2011. At the time, he was considering it as a Fox Searchlight feature. When it went episodic, Chastain (a producer via her production company Freckle Films) recruited Shannon.
He got several top talents behind the project, i.a The white lotus Steve Zahn as George Richey, Walton Goggins as Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery, and Kelly McCormack as Sheila Richey. And John Hillcoat (The road, lawless) directed, and executive produced.
There is some irony in this story of making a TV series. Sylvia admitted he was initially researching another country music idea when a Google search changed everything. “I grew up in Oklahoma surrounded by country music, and my parents were big into music and played all kinds of music in the house all the time,” he explained.
He was well aware of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and their wild love affair and iconic songs. While researching his second idea, a picture of the couple appeared. “It was just the most beautiful picture of them. It hit me like a bolt of lightning that no one had done this story yet. I fell in love with George and Tammy that day and knew I had to tell their story.”