One of country music's most compelling rags-to-riches figures, American singer and songwriter Tammy Wynette (1942–1998) rose from dire poverty to become the first female performer to sell a million albums in her genre. Dubbed the "First Lady of Country Music," she racked up 57 Top 40 country hits between 1967 and 1988 and won dozens of awards from her industry peers. Despite worldwide acclaim and riches, the singer-songwriter did not enjoy a particularly happy life and her 1998 death remains a controversial subject.
Born Virginia Wynette Pugh, May 5, 1942, in Itawamba County, Mississippi, she was the daughter of a local musician William Hollice Pugh, who recorded briefly in 1939 and 1940. When Wynette was only eight months old, her father died of a brain tumor. Subsequently her mother, Mildred, left her with grandparents while she took a wartime factory job in Birmingham, Alabama. Chopping cotton and baling hay on her grandfather's farm for spending money, the youngster discovered her musical inclinations at age nine when she began picking out little melodies on her father's old instruments. She first sang publicly in church and liked it so well that she began attending two different churches so she could sing even more. Teaming with high school friend Linda Cayson, she sang gospel tunes at church events, on local radio, and even attempted a little Everly Brothers style rock'n'roll on local television.
As she listened to such stars on the radio as George Jones, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves, and Patsy Cline, Wynette dreamed of stardom. However, at age 17, she married Euple Byrd, an itinerant carpenter, and the routine of a housewife and mother temporarily buried her career ambitions. By all accounts, the marriage was a rocky one, heavy on financial burdens and light on luxuries, and it ended five years later in a nasty divorce and an even nastier child custody battle. Supporting children on her salary as a beautician proved tough, especially when her third child developed spinal meningitis. Hoping to raise money to pay doctor bills, she began to sing locally again. A stint on WBRC-TV's Country Boy Eddie Show in Birmingham, Alabama, and a 10-day tour with Porter Wagoner built her confidence sufficiently so she could pack up her kids and move to Nashville.
After suffering rejections from United Artists, Hickory, and Kapp, producer Billy Sherrill took pity on the desperate singer-songwriter and signed her to Epic Records. Sherrill is best known today as the architect of the "Countrypolitan" sound, a country music hybrid that employs large dollops of adult contemporary strings and vocal chorus. Sherrill, who had previously recorded hits with pop singer Bobby Vinton and country crooner David Houston, was a gifted songwriter as well as commercial music visionary. The Alabama-born producer and songwriter knew how to pick songs that fit his artist's style and often helped writers hone their material to make it catchier and more direct. He would eventually write or co-write many of Wynette's biggest hits while grooming her to be a fine songwriter in her own right. Moreover, he knew how to craft a singer's image on record and off. Sherrill's first step in that process with Wynette came when he observed that the bottle blonde's ponytail made her look like a Tammy, so he re-christened the singer Tammy Wynette.
Under Sherrill's guidance Wynette made her recording debut with a cover version of Bobby Austin's regional hit "Apartment #9." It so successful that Wynette received hundreds of sympathy letters from fans who thought the song was her true story. The follow-up, "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," was shrill sass on the order of Loretta Lynn, but it became Wynette's first of 20 number one records.
Few artists sang about domestic discord as convincingly as Wynette; her confidential vocal tone and the little catch in her voice combined to create the illusion of a woman who's trying hard not to frighten you to death while she's telling you something horrible. This schism gave her work undeniable power and personal credibility. Wynette's great early hits—"I Don't Wanna Play House," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," and "Kids Say the Darndest Things"—resonated with American women, who felt she was singing about their lives. As a result, in a matter of a few months, she became one of the top singing stars in America.
The singer's most enduring classic, "Stand by Your Man," was written at the tail end of a session when Sherrill and Wynette realized they needed one more song. The resulting recording vaulted to the number one spot for three weeks in the fall of 1968, and it angered members of the feminist movement along the way. Sherrill was quoted in The Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits as saying that critics of the song can "like it or lump it," before clarifying, "'Stand by Your Man' is just another way of saying 'I love you—without reservations.'" Wynette herself has famously quipped, "I spent 15 minutes writing ['Stand by Your Man'], and a lifetime defending it." As late as 1992, President Clinton's spouse Hillary Rodham Clinton caused a rift with her husband's southern base when she declared on TV's 60 Minutes that she wasn't "like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." (Mrs. Clinton later apologized.)
More out of convenience than love, Wynette married Don Chapel in 1967. Best known for writing the hit "When the Grass Grows Over Me" for George Jones, the singer-songwriter tried to cash in on his wife's newfound fame by making himself a prominent addition to her stage show. When a dispute with David Houston's manager left her without an on-stage partner for their hit duet "My Elusive Dreams," Wynette first sang with her childhood hero George Jones. Jones, who had been a highly regarded country hit-maker since the mid-1950s, was instantly smitten. Their infatuation grew as Wynette's marriage to Chapel began disintegrating. When Wynette divorced Chapel in 1968, the two stars married in 1969. Two years later they welcomed their only child, Tamala Georgette Jones.
Jones paid the Musicor label $300,000 to terminate his contract with them so he could sign with Epic in 1971. Taking the place of his former singing partner Melba Montgomery, Wynette recorded an immensely popular string of duet hits with her new husband including, "We're Gonna Hold On," "Golden Ring," and "We're Not the Jet Set." Dubbed Mr. & Mrs. Country Music, their harmony was spirited yet tender, and together they presented the perfect sonic image of a couple who sang their way through life's troubles.
As a solo artist, such singles like "There Are So Many Ways to Love a Man," "My Man," and "Singing My Song" perpetuated Wynette's mythology as a woman triumphing over adversity because, presumably, she was well loved. In truth, her marriage to Jones began falling apart almost from the start due to his lengthy, drunken absences and abusive behavior. In the book he wrote with Tom Carter, I Lived to Tell It All , Jones disputed many of his ex-wife's claims, adding, "A lot of folks think that if it hadn't been for my drinking Tammy and I would have had a storybook marriage. But that isn't true. We argued about other things than the bottle."
When they finally divorced in 1974, the media laid the blame on Wynette, crowing that the woman who wrote "Stand by Your Man" was getting a "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Meanwhile, her personal life seemed to be in free fall. Her third marriage, to real estate broker Michael Tomlin, lasted only 44 days. A much publicized relationship with actor Burt Reynolds fizzled. More sinister, a botched kidnapping, a series of vindictive burglaries, and mysterious assaults were seen by a cynical press, and some friends, as a cry for attention. Her 1977 hit "Til I Can Make It on My Own" became her personal anthem of survival. She sought to deflect the unflattering media attention with her 1979 autobiography Stand by Your Man , but the book only seemed to exacerbate the bad press she was getting. (The book was later made into a 1981 TV movie starring Annette O'Toole as Wynette and Tim McIntyre as Jones.)
Despite the acrimony that led up to it, Jones and Wynette enjoyed a reasonably happy aftermath to their divorce; Wynette wrote the hit "These Days I Barely Get By" for her ex-husband, and Jones gave her his touring band. In 1982 they reunited to record Wynette's "Two-Story House," which reached number one on the charts. To the delight of their legions of fans, they made well-publicized appearances together both on and off record into the mid-1980s.
However, the eventual departure of the overbooked Billy Sherrill from her creative team and changing trends in country music resulted in Wynette's hits tapering off during the late 1980s. But there were bright spots. Her 1978 marriage to songwriter and producer George Richey (also known as George Richardson), turned out to be the lasting one. She even tried her hand at acting in a recurring role as a singing waitress on the daytime drama Capitol in 1986. In 1987, her LP Higher Ground was critically acclaimed. And just when everyone figured her days as a chart presence were over, she teamed up with British synth-pop group KLF and recorded the 1992 international disco smash "Justified & Ancient."
Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton teamed up for 1993's Honky Tonk Angels , which achieved instant gold record status. As Wynette was enjoying her commercial resurgence, a bile duct infection nearly took her life; the national media, which had previously treated her with scorn, provided vigilant coverage of her condition. Eventually Wynette recovered and went on tour to more favorable publicity than she had enjoyed in decades.
That was not the first time the singer had been hospitalized. Starting in 1972, she had endured 30 surgical procedures to correct various medical problems and subsequently found herself increasingly relying on higher doses of medication to manage her pain. Still, no one was prepared for her 1998 death, least of all her daughters, who were suspicious about the events surrounding Wynette's demise. They sued their stepfather, a Nashville pharmacy, and the singer's doctor for wrongful death. (Richey was eventually dropped from the suit.) Daughter Jackie Daly wrote about the controversy in great detail in her book with Tom Carter, Tammy Wynette: A Daughter Recalls Her Mother's Tragic Life and Death .
Although her life was a soap opera right up to the end, none of the lurid accusations or personal controversies could ever dampen Wynette's achievements. She won two Grammy Awards, three Country Music Association awards, eight Billboard awards, and 16 BMI songwriter awards. Wynette was posthumously inducted into Country Music Association Hall of Fame in 1998.
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Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performer , edited by Barry McCloud, Perigree, 1995.
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