In the late 1960s and early 1970s the country music charts were dominated by a trio of creative, unique, and defining women: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette. Stylists and songwriters, they each articulated women’s perspectives with an autobiographical slant that made their lives as much an object of audience interest as their music.
Like her country sisters, Wynette grew up in a hardscrabble, rural household in the South, but she had big-city dreams. Born Virginia Wynette Pugh, in Itawamba County, Mississippi, she was raised by her cotton-farming grandparents. Her father, William Hollice Pugh, died of a brain tumor when she was less than a year old; he left her a recording of himself and a musical legacy, as he had attempted to be a professional singer rather than a sharecropper. Her mother, Mildred, left for Memphis to work in a defense plant during World War II.
Wynette worked in the cotton fields, played her father’s inherited instruments, took music lessons, and followed the careers of many gospel quartets who traveled through Mississippi and Alabama during the southern gospel explosion of the late 1940s and early 1950s. She was one of a trio of friends - Wynette, Linda, and Imogene - who performed on a local gospel radio show.
Wynette married Euple Byrd a month before she graduated from high school in 1959. They had two children, and with no steady employment, Byrd moved the family from place to place. Wynette went to beautician’s school and even did a stint as a barmaid and singer in Memphis. Divorced in 1965, at the age of twenty-three, she was by then the mother of three, working at a Birmingham beauty salon, singing on a local TV show, living in government housing, and making $45 a week. But several trips to Nashville and a brief tour with Porter Wagoner fueled her fantasy of a career in music, and she made the move to Music City in 1966.
That year she walked into the office of producer-songwriter Billy Sherrill, of Epic Records, to pitch some songs. Two weeks later her name was changed to Tammy Wynette, and she was recording for Epic, with Sherrill, who would write many of her songs.
Wynette’s first recording, the Johnny Paycheck-Bobby Austin composition “Apartment #9,” earned decent airplay but did not ignite as a hit. But her next release, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” (1967), in which she sang of a woman who was going to join her man in his own philandering game, reached the Top Ten. Her first #1, a duet with David Houston, soon followed, and her first solo #1, “I Don’t Wanna Play House” (1967), won her a Grammy. Her classic “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” followed in 1968, as Wynette continued to explore the complicated feelings of women and children faced with the breakup of a family, a theme important personally and musically throughout her career.
Sherrill and Wynette collaborated in writing her signature tune, “Stand By Your Man” (1968), a #1 country smash that also went to #19 on the pop charts. At the height of the women’s liberation movement, as bras were being burned in a trash can at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, Wynette’s song recommending forgiveness of wayward men hit the airwaves. A statement of womanly domestic strength, the record nevertheless drew harsh criticism in some quarters (Wynette’s critics tended to overlook Janis Joplin’s singing of allowing men to take her heart if it made them feel good), but also led to the first of Wynette’s three consecutive CMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards (1968 - 1970). “Stand By Your Man” also entered the movies in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces, starring Jack Nicholson.
Wynette co-wrote her next two hit singles, “Singing My Song” and “The Ways to Love a Man.” But songs, no matter who wrote them, were a seamless presentation befitting the “Heroine of Heartbreak.” Her gripping, tear-drop-in-every-note vocal style seemed to weep with emotion, while her songs elaborated on the theme that suffering ennobles a woman.
Wynette’s marriage to singer-songwriter Don Chapel in 1967 was beset by professional jealousy. In 1968 country superstar George Jones witnessed a fight between the Chapels, and at Jones’s urging, Wynette and her daughters drove away with him. Wynette and Jones married February 16, 1969, and Wynette’s fourth daughter, Georgette, was born in 1970.
Jones and Wynette, nicknamed the “President and First Lady” of country music, recorded a string of hit duets that seemed drawn directly from their volatile relationship, which resulted in their divorcing in 1975. Their classic recordings included “Two Story House,” “Golden Ring,” and the humorous “(We’re Not) The Jet Set.”
Wynette married Nashville businessman Michael Tomlin within weeks of their meeting, in 1976. The marriage lasted six weeks. In 1978, she married her fifth husband, songwriter-producer George Richey, who had been present in her life for many years, contributing his business acumen and accomplished musicianship. Her 1979 autobiography and a 1981 TV movie based on her life chronicled her personal life of frequent illness, often tumultuous relationships, and other hardships - such as being abducted and beaten, having a death threat placed on her life, and being involved in a public bankruptcy case.
By the end of the 1980s Wynette had scored twenty #1 singles and sold more than thirty million records. Her surprising 1992 collaboration with British duo the KLF - which resulted in an international hit with their dance-pop number “Justified and Ancient” - capped a decade of collaboration projects that extended beyond the country field. In 1995 she joined Jones again to make the duet album One (MCA), produced by Tony Brown and Norro Wilson.
In her career Wynette cultivated being professional, dignified, and ladylike while tough. Her cosmopolitan style had a country-grit soul. Assertively working-class and womanly, Wynette expressed the difficulties facing working women: raising children, holding down a job, and performing domestic roles. Her “steel magnolia” image allowed her to work within a male-dominated environment in which prejudices against women were still strong. If she has been the victim, she has also been the survivor. Her professional and personal life have been indistinguishably interwoven, revealing the reality of only partially realized dreams and painful experience.
Wynette died of a blood clot at age fifty-five and was mourned by the industry and her fans during a nationally televised service, broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium on April 9, 1998. Appearing at the memorial were, among others, Randy Travis, the Oak Ridge Boys, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Wynonna, and Lorrie Morgan. Later that year Wynette won election to the Country Music Hall of Fame.