The story behind “Tammy Lee”

As you know, almost all of the songs we write tell stories. We want to share those stories with you.  Just as we did for the songs on our first CD 13, we’ll post the story behind each song on our new CD Again here for you to read. The plan is to feature one song each week for the next 11 weeks.

Here is the story behind Tammy Lee as related by Clark Hansbarger.

From our new CD Again

The song “Tammy Lee”

“Tammy was born in a house of grief;
All long faces and no belief
In the power of hope or a benevolent god.
She grew up wondering what she’d done so wrong.”

I was on my deck strumming chords when the first four lines of Tammy Lee rose out of the nowhere of my subconscious. I hadn’t a clue at the time where the song might end up going, but I had a character I latched onto immediately.

Though I’ve never known this specific Tammy, I’ve taught dozens of girls just like her during my thirty years in public high school. She’d sit politely in my at-risk classes, doing her work, smiling shyly when she earned a good grade and scowling when the rowdy boys made a ruckus. She was the girl who seemed wiser than her years and better than her circumstances—and also the girl with some sort of grief or shame about her that I simply didn’t understand.

Teens like this simultaneously broke my heart and healed it. They came from worlds that would have left me cynical and hopeless, but they somehow kept their spirit. I see them now occasionally in WalMart or Food Lion, and they introduce me to their children and tell me about their lives and I’m always moved that the spark is still there. Life hasn’t beaten them, though I feared when I taught them that it would. It makes me wonder if some people are simply born with such attitude.

So, this is a song about spirit, and the power of hope and love in a girl who comes from a world lacking in both.

The first version of the song was long, essentially a six verse ballad that ended in tragedy for Tammy Lee. Things got worse and worse for the poor kid. I even had Troy hunt her down and murder her after she left him. Pure Melodrama. Or the nightly news. I just didn’t know how to end the story.

It wasn’t until I brought it to the band that I cut it to three verses. When we played it through, they recommended that we end it where it ends now, with this bit of moonlight and hope coming through the window. That the ending would be this small joy— to dream of her lovely baby boy at peace.

The story is pretty simple: Tammy has her first sex too young, she marries too young, and she has a child too young. But woven through these missteps is a sense that her heart is good, and that she is trying her best. She accepts her fate and moves on: the world just “is what it is when you’re Tammy Lee.”

Though the chorus of Tammy Lee is pretty bleak, reminding us of a dark world where “in the end, it don’t matter much,” Tammy’s heart and behavior contradicts this idea. She’s no nihilist. Things do matter to her, which is why she tries to find some light in the dim place she inhabits. She seeks that “lucky spark” all the time. Or at least she does in my hopeful imagination. I like to picture Tammy decorating their little apartment with great care and love, even if Troy comes home and doesn’t notice.

Clark Hansbarger

Read the lyrics to Tammy Lee.
Learn the story behind Aceldema
Learn the story behind Worry Me No More

10 thoughts on “The story behind “Tammy Lee”

  1. Pingback: The story behind “Aceldema” | The Bitter Liberals

  2. Clark and my other Bitter Liberal Friends
    That’s really neat. We’ve all known people who somehow “rise above” the hand life dealt them; and they are ALWAYS inspirational. Thanks for writing the song, and, thanks, above all, for noticing ordinary, but inspirational ( without trying to be) people!
    Take care Liberals, one and all

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