Wynette, Tammy (1942-1998)

views updated

Wynette, Tammy (1942-1998)

Often criticized for her conservative, traditional values, country vocalist Tammy Wynette became famous in the late 1960s for "Stand by Your Man," a hit single that made her an unintentional spokesperson for antifeminists. While she was known for her "doormat" songs, in which men treat women subserviently, much of her material offered valuable insights into the lives of working-class housewives and mothers. Her songs often exhibited an optimistic perseverance in a never-ending quest for love and happiness. Wynette expressed this attitude with a heartfelt sincerity, for even after she became a country superstar, her life was not easy. Sometimes referred to as the "Heroine of Heartbreak," she suffered from marital difficulties, drug addiction, financial troubles, and countless severe health problems. Although she was portrayed as an unhappy victim, Wynette was stronger than she appeared to be. As a woman in the male-dominated music industry of the 1960s, she held her own as a performer. During her 30-year career she sold more than 30 million records, had 39 Top Ten country hits, and received three Country Music Association awards.

Born in Itawamba County, Mississippi, on May 5, 1942, Virginia Wynette Pugh was raised by her grandparents after her father died not long after she was born and her mother found work at a Memphis defense plant. As a child, she picked cotton on their farm, and this arduous and exhausting work made her determined to create a better life for herself. She learned to play the piano and the guitar, and she started singing in church. Accompanied by a female friend, she performed on local radio programs and in area talent competitions. In her autobiography, Stand by Your Man, she recalled, "during my adolescence I daydreamed a lot about singing professionally." However, in the spring of 1959, 17-year-old Wynette married Euple Byrd, and in 1961, their first child was born. Two years later, after the birth of a second child, she was training to become a licensed beautician. The family lived in Memphis briefly, where she worked as a barmaid, occasionally singing songs requested by the customers. Unhappy in her marriage, Wynette asked Byrd for a divorce; he responded by attempting to have her committed to an institution. In 1965, pregnant with their third child, she and her two daughters moved to Birmingham, Alabama. Born prematurely, her third daughter was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. Wynette managed to support her family by working as a hairdresser full-time and singing on a local early morning television show. She maintained her dream of being a professional country singer, and after attending a disc jockey convention in Nashville, she decided to move there and focus her efforts on landing a record deal.

Wynette auditioned unsuccessfully for several labels located in the part of Nashville known as Music Row. Executives and producers repeatedly turned her down, saying that they were looking for a "girl singer" who sounded like a particular established male country artist, or that they simply did not need any more female artists. After a series of rejections, she approached Billy Sherrill, a producer/songwriter with Epic Records. Recognizing her tremendous vocal capability, he agreed to record her. Within a few weeks, he suggested that she call herself Tammy Wynette, and he chose "Apartment #9" as her first single. By December of 1966, Wynette's debut release was on the country charts; less than a year later, her first album, Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad, reached the Top Ten. Despite this success, Wynette encountered further difficulties as she searched for a booking agency. According to her autobiography, one agent she approached expressed the opinion that women were "not worth the trouble" because of conflicting obligations to their families and their careers. She managed to find an agent lacking this prejudice and began performing regularly as her next three singles became number-one hits. She married songwriter Don Chapel, but their marriage dissolved as she became involved with singer George Jones. By the time she married Jones in 1969, she was a full-fledged star known for the anthems "DI-V-O-R-C-E" and "Stand by Your Man," which became one of the best-selling country songs ever recorded by a female artist.

As Jones's wife, Wynette was known as "The First Lady of Country Music," and together they performed and recorded duets that often reflected problems existing in their own relationship. Jones's legendary substance abuse and his tendency toward violence caused Wynette to seek a divorce in 1975. A year later, her fourth marriage lasted less than two months. Her fifth and final marriage took place in 1978 to George Richey, a songwriter she had known for several years. During the 1970s, she began to be plagued by a variety of medical problems, many requiring operations, that continued up until her death. Her house in Nashville was broken into on 15 separate occasions and mysteriously set on fire. In 1978, she was the victim of a bizarre kidnapping incident. By the late 1980s, she had been treated for addiction to painkillers and had filed for bankruptcy. As a writer for People noted after her death, "in Tammy Wynette's world, something always seemed to go wrong."

As Wynette's career continued into the 1990s, so did her image as the devoted, subordinate wife. In 1992, after Hillary Clinton made a condescending reference to Wynette on 60 Minutes, she quickly apologized at Wynette's insistence. That same year, Wynette collaborated with the dance group KLF on "Justified and Ancient," which became a British club hit. An album she released in 1994 featured duets with Elton John, Smokey Robinson, and Sting, among others, and the following year, she and George Jones were reunited on a new album, which would be her last. While the country industry essentially abandoned older artists like Wynette, the fans remained faithful. In spite of increasingly serious health problems, she persisted in performing up until a month before she died on April 6, 1998. Months later, artists from various musical genres recorded a tribute album of her songs entitled Tammy Wynette Remembered.

—Anna Hunt Graves

Further Reading:

Bufwack, Mary A., and Robert Oermann. Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music. New York, Crown, 1993.

Dew, Joan. Singers and Sweethearts: The Women of Country Music. Garden City, New York, Doubleday and Company, 1977.

Gliatto, Tom. "Heroine of Hardship." People. April 20, 1998, 54-61.

Wynette, Tammy, with Joan Dew. Stand by Your Man. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979.