Tammy Wynette (May 5, 1942 – April 6, 1998) was a country singer and songwriter. She was known as the “First Lady of Country Music.” Wynette’s signature song, “Stand by Your Man,” was one of the biggest selling hit singles ever and became an icon of the female country vocal genre.
Beginning in 1966, her career spanned 30 years and produced many memorable hits. Wynette’s troubled marriage to country star George Jones brought additional fame and produced many fine duet recordings. The emotional tone of her performances and poignant, honest lyrics of her songs made her a “voice” not only as a country singer but also for American women in general.
Tammy Wynette was born Virginia Wynette Pugh near Tremont, Mississippi, the only child of William Hollis Pugh (died 1943) and Mildred Faye Russell (1922–1991). As a girl, she was called Wynette (pronounced Win-NET), or Nettie, instead of Virginia.
Her father was a farmer and local musician. He died of a brain tumor when Wynette was only nine months of age. Her mother worked in an office, as a substitute school teacher, and on the family farm. After the death of Hollis, Mrs. Pugh left Wynette in the care of her grandparents, Thomas Chester and Flora A. Russell, and moved to Memphis to work in a World War II defense plant. In 1946, she married Foy Lee, a farmer from Mississippi.
Wynette was raised on the Itawamba County farm of her maternal grandparents where she was born. The place was partly on the border with Alabama. Wynette claimed that the state line ran right through their property, joking that that “my top half came from Alabama and my bottom half came from Mississippi.” As a youngster, she worked in the fields picking cotton alongside the hired crews. She grew up with her aunt, Carolyn Russell, who was only five years older than she was. Wynette sang gospel tunes with her grandmother and also learned to play the piano and the guitar.
As a child and teenager, country music provided an escape from her hard life. Wynette grew up idolizing Hank Williams, Skeeter Davis, Patsy Cline, and George Jones, and would play their records over and over on the inexpensive children’s record player she owned, dreaming of one day being a star herself.
She attended Tremont High School, where she was an all-star basketball player. A month before graduation, she married her first husband, Euple Byrd, a construction worker. Byrd, whom she left before the birth of their third daughter, was not supportive of Wynette’s ambition to become a singer. Her early jobs included working as a waitress, a receptionist, a barmaid, and in a shoe factory. In 1963, she attended beauty school in Tupelo, Mississippi, and became a hairdresser. She would renew her cosmetology license every year for the rest of her life, just in case she should have to go back to a daily job.
When her youngest child developed spinal meningitis, Wynette tried to make extra money by performing at night. In 1965, she sang on the Country Boy Eddie Show on WBRC-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, which led to a brief tour with the well known country star Porter Wagoner. In 1966, she moved with her three girls from Birmingham to Nashville, where she pounded the pavement to get a recording contract. After being turned down repeatedly, she auditioned for producer Billy Sherrill, who signed her to Epic Records.
Rise to fame
Sherrill suggested Wynette consider changing her name to something that might make a better impression with the public. In her 1979 memoir, Stand by Your Man, Wynette relates that she was wearing her long, blond hair in a ponytail at their meeting, and Sherill said she reminded him of Debbie Reynolds in the film Tammy and the Bachelor. He suggested “Tammy” as a possible name; thus, she became Tammy Wynette.
Her first single, “Apartment #9” (written by Johnny Paycheck), was released in late 1966, and reached the top 50 on the U.S. country charts. In 1967, she had hits with “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” “My Elusive Dreams” (a duet with David Houston), and “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” all of which reached the country top ten.
Wynette had three number one hits in 1968: “Take Me to Your World,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and her best known song, “Stand by Your Man” (which she said she wrote in fifteen minutes). In 1969, she had two additional number one hits: “Singing My Song” and “The Ways to Love a Man.” That same year, Wynette earned a Gold record (awarded for albums selling in excess of one million copies) for “Tammy Wynette’s Greatest Hits.” She was the first female country artist to do so.
During this time, she began a tumultuous relationship with country mega-star George Jones, whom she would later marry. Their collaboration would produce many memorable duets (including the number one hit, “We’re Gonna Hold On”) and made them in effect, the reigning king and queen of country music. They would continue to record together, even after their divorce, through the mid 1990s.
Movie director Bob Rafelson used a number of Wynette’s songs in the soundtrack of his 1970 film, Five Easy Pieces. Her chart success continued into the 1970s with such hits as “Good Lovin’ (Makes it Right)” (1971), “He Loves Me All the Way” (1971), “Bedtime Story” (1972), “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” (1973), “Woman to Woman” (1974), “You and Me” (1976), “‘Til I can Make it on My Own” (1976), and “Womanhood” (1978).
Home life and problems
Wynette married her second husband, Don Chapel, shortly after her first divorce became final. While still married to Chapel, however, around 1968, she began a relationship with the legendary country singer George Jones, one of her girlhood idols. Eventually Wynette parted with her second husband and married Jones. Their daughter, Georgette, was born in 1970. It was a difficult marriage, however, due largely to Jones’ alcoholism, and they were divorced in 1975.
Wynette’s private life was as troubled as many of her songs. Over the course of her life, she had five husbands: Euple Byrd (married 1959–divorced 1966); Don Chapel (married 1967–annulled 1968); George Jones (married 1969–divorced 1975); Michael Tomlin (married 1976–annulled 1976); and George Richey (married 1978). Wynette also had a much-publicized relationship with actor Burt Reynolds in the 1970s.
Her marriage to Richey, who later became her manager, proved to be the lasting love of her life. Even that relationship, however, was not without controversy. In 1978, Wynette reported that she had been mysteriously abducted by a masked man at a Nashville shopping center, driven 80 miles south in her luxury car, beaten, and released. No one was ever arrested or identified. Years later, Tammy’s daughter, Jackie Daly, alleged that Tammy told her that the kidnapping story was a fabricated to disguise the fact that George Richey was beating her.
She also had a number of serious physical ailments beginning in the 1970s, including operations on her gall bladder, kidney, and on the nodules on her throat.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wynette dominated the country charts. She had 17 number one hits and helped redefine the role and place of female country singers. Beginning in the early 1980s, however, her chart success began to wane. While her singles and albums continued to reach the country top 40, big hits were few and far between. Meanwhile, her medical problems continued, including inflammations of her bile duct.
In 1988, she filed for bankruptcy as a result of a bad investment in two Florida shopping centers. Her 1987 album Higher Ground broke through with a new contemporary sound, broadening her audience.
Stand By Your Man, meanwhile, was becoming truly iconic. First, it had been been brought to a new and much wider audience with hilarious charm in The Blues Brothers 1980 motion picture, by the unlikely characters of Jake and Elwood Blues. Later, in 1992, future First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a 60 Minutes interview that she was not “some little woman, standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette.” The remark set off a firestorm of controversy, and Mrs. Clinton eventually apologized. Wynette was nonetheless a Clinton supporter and later performed at a Clinton fund raiser.
Wynette recorded a song with the British electronica group The KLF in late 1991, titled “Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMs),” which became a number one hit in 18 countries the following year. In the video versions, scrolling electronic titles declared: “Miss Tammy Wynette is the first lady of country music.” Wynette appeared seated on a throne.
The 1993 album Honky Tonk Angels gave her a chance to record with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn for the first time. Though yielding no hit singles, the album did well on the country charts. The following year, she released Without Walls, a collection of duets with a number of country, pop and rock and roll performers, including Wynonna Judd, Elton John, Lyle Lovett, Aaron Neville, Smokey Robinson, Sting, and others. Wynette also designed and sold her own line of jewelry in the 1990s.
In 1994, she suffered an abdominal infection that almost killed her. She was in a coma for six days.
In 1995, she and George Jones recorded their first new duet album in 13 years. They last performed together in 1997, at Concerts in the Country, in Lanierland, Georgia. Wynette joined with other famous singers on the U.K. number one hitPerfect Day in 1997, written by Lou Reed and recorded for charity.
After years of medical problems, numerous hospitalizations, approximately twenty-six major surgeries and an addiction to large doses of pain medication, Tammy Wynette died at the age of 55 on April 6, 1998, while sleeping on the couch in her living room in Nashville, Tennessee. The coroner later declared that she died of a cardiac arrhythmia. She is interred in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Nashville.