Wynette, Tammy (1942–1998)

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Wynette, Tammy (1942–1998)

Enduringly popular country music singer, the first woman in the genre to record a million-selling song, who was beloved by fans for both her talent and the resilience she showed throughout a hard life . Born Virginia Wynette Pugh on May 5, 1942, in Itawamba County, Mississippi; died of a blood clot in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 6, 1998; daughter of Hollice Pugh and Mildred Lee Pugh; married Euple Byrd, around 1959 (divorced c. 1965); married Don Chapel (a musician), in 1965 (divorced 1968); married George Jones (the singer), in 1969 (divorced 1975); married Michael Tomlin (a real-estate agent), in 1978 (divorced six weeks later); married George Richey (a songwriter and producer), in 1978; children: six, including (first marriage) Gwendolyn Byrd; Jacqueline "Jackie" Byrd Daly; Tina Byrd; (third marriage) Georgette Jones.

Taught herself to play the guitar and, after separation from first husband and a move to Birmingham, Alabama, began singing on local television programs; signed first recording contract in Nashville (1966), and over the next 30 years had 20 #1 hits; released "Stand By Your Man" (1968) which became the first country music recording by a female artist to sell more than a million records; later career marred by illness and financial difficulties, but won two Grammy Awards and was three times named the Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year; was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (1998).

She was known as the "Heroine of Heartbreak," a description that could be applied to Tammy Wynette's life as well as to her music. She was trapped in a loveless marriage at 17, when she had the first of six children in a ram-shackle cabin in the middle of Mississippi cotton fields; came to Nashville with little else than a guitar and stars in her eyes; overcame two abusive marriages, financial problems, and ill health to become one of the most famous country music stars of all time, famous enough to demand and receive a personal apology from Hillary Rodham Clinton ; and died young amid controversy so vituperative over the cause of her passing that a second autopsy had to be performed. "Her story is really the story of country music," said one official of the Country Music Foundation at her death, "from humble beginnings … to superstardom."

She was born in such rural isolation that there was no village or town that could lend its name to her birthplace. Virginia Wynette Pugh was born on May 5, 1942, to Hollice and Mildred Lee Pugh in Itawamba County, Mississippi, not far from the Alabama border. Everyone called her Wynette, except for her beloved grandfather, who called her Nettiebelle. Tammy remembered little of her father, who died of a brain tumor when she was just nine months old without realizing his ambition to become a professional musician. "The only legacy my father left me was his love of music," she wrote almost 40 years later, claiming that one of Hollice Pugh's last wishes was that the same passion would be instilled in his daughter. While Mildred left Mississippi to find high-paying war work at an aircraft factory in Memphis, little Virginia was raised by her grandparents, who became "Mama" and "Daddy" to her. "My grandfather was the rock of my childhood," Wynette wrote, filling the early chapters of her autobiography with stories of him. "From him I formed the images of what a father and a husband should be." But true to Hollice Pugh's wishes, she learned to pick guitar and sing from an uncle and could play songs on the piano after hearing them only once by the time she was six. Her favorite time was Sunday morning, when the nearby Baptist church attended by her grandparents was filled with hearty voices floating on strong chords from piano and organ. Everything else revolved around the cotton season, from the spring planting to the late summer's picking, and Wynette worked the fields like every other child, daydreaming about one day meeting her favorite country music star, George Jones.

By the time Tammy's mother had moved back from Memphis at war's end and Tammy had entered Tremont High School, an hour's drive from her grandparents' home, her dreams of escaping from the tedium of farm life had grown even stronger. As it had been for her father, music was one path to freedom, if only a temporary one. She and a high school friend were invited to sing once or twice on a local radio station and, later, formed a band that sang at school events, peppering their shows with country music, current best sellers from those early days of rock 'n' roll, and even some of the gospel songs they had all been singing in church for so many years. But for most young women of the 1950s in the rural South, marriage beckoned as the only sure way to a new life. "Marriage meant escape," Wynette once remembered, "and I began daydreaming about meeting someone, falling in love, getting married and, of course, living happily ever after." The someone that Tammy settled on was Euple Byrd, the attractive son of a family she had known since childhood. Just back from the service and with stories of what lay beyond the Mississippi cotton fields, Euple proposed to Tammy one Sunday morning during a church service. Over her mother's furious objections, Tammy accepted and drove with Euple to the nearest town where a preacher could be found to conduct the service. Tammy was just 17. The next day, after the young couple had moved into the Byrd family homestead, Tammy went back to high school but was later barred from graduating because she had neglected to tell the school of her marriage.

Six months later, with Euple finding only sporadic work in construction and Tammy pregnant, the couple moved into an old cabin on her grandparents' farm, lacking indoor plumbing or electricity, where Tammy had a daughter, Gwen-dolyn Byrd , followed little more than a year later by a second girl, Jacqueline (Jackie Daly ). "By the time Jackie was born, I put music out of my head altogether," Wynette once recalled. "I resigned myself to the fact that I had a family to raise … and music wouldn't bring in any money." She settled on hairdressing as a useful trade, driving 40 miles each way every day of the week to Tupelo, Mississippi, to attend the classes paid for by her mother, but Wynette actually ended up working nights as a waitress in a Memphis bar when Euple took his family north to find work. Mary's Place, on the Memphis waterfront, was more of an education for Tammy than any amount of hairdressing classes. "It was like throwing a lamb to the wolves," Wynette said. "I was married and the mother of two children, but I was still a country girl who had never been anywhere." What made the job bearable was the music that filled the place all night, a mix of Memphis blues, rock 'n' roll, and country. Before long, Wynette was singing a few tunes for the customers every night and was listening half-seriously to the piano player's suggestion that her voice was good enough to make it in Nashville.

But it was her failing marriage that finally set Wynette on the road to independence. After four years of nearly constant moving as her husband quit one job after another, she found herself back in Tupelo, ill from a persistent kidney infection, and carrying her third child. A severe depression followed—cured, Wynette later revealed, by a series of 12 electroshock treatments—after which she tried to leave Euple for good. Euple attempted to have her children taken from her because of what he claimed was her "mental instability," followed her constantly, and claimed the child she was carrying was not his. But not long after the birth of Tammy's third daughter, named Tina Byrd , Euple finally agreed to a divorce and Tammy moved with her children to Birmingham, Alabama, where she found work as a beautician and where, as it happened, an uncle worked as an engineer at a local television station that broadcast a morning country music show. Noticing that the group that performed each morning had no girl singer, Wynette asked her uncle to put in a good word and soon found herself singing two songs each morning on the station for $35 a week. Frequent visits to Nashville to make the rounds of record companies followed, but it was not until the great Porter Wagoner brought his traveling country music show to Birmingham that Wynette got her first real taste of show business.

Almost all country stars of the time were male; and Wagoner's road show, like others of the day, always opened with a female singer to warm up the crowd before Wagoner himself stepped on stage. But the show arrived in Birmingham with no warm-up act after Wagoner's longtime girl singer quit. Recommended by her friends at the television station, Wynette auditioned for the job, ended up opening the show for Wagoner and was invited to join the road company for the next ten days for $50 a night. Thus began Wynette's long love affair with life on the road. It was, she said, "like I was playing hooky from real life." But Wagoner hardly spoke to her during her time with the show and her hopes of an offer to find her a recording contract vanished when the Wagoner show left Alabama without her. Angry at the way she had been treated, Wynette headed back to Nashville with her daughters vowing not to leave until she had been signed. "I bet I'm the only one [Wagoner] has helped by not helping," Wynette later said.

She had begun to doubt her rash decision after more fruitless rounds of recording company front offices, leaving her two older daughters in the car to look after little Tina for the few minutes it took to be told there was no opening for a female country singer, and certainly not for one called Wynette Byrd. But that was before she arrived in the office of Billy Sherrill, a producer for Epic Records who listened to her sing two numbers and offered her a song he had just heard called "Apartment #9"; and it was Sherrill who suggested that with her blonde hair and ponytail, she adopt the name Tammy Wynette. "Apartment #9," released in October 1966, was hardly the big hit Wynette had been hoping for; but it was enough to finally get her in the door at one of Nashville's most prominent agencies, which she chose to approach because George Jones was the agency's major client; and it was enough to prepare the ground for her second single, "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," which became the first of four consecutive #1 hits and the beginning of a string of 20 chart-toppers she would record under Sherrill's guidance over the next 15 years.

By 1968, only three years after leaving Alabama, Wynette was well on her way to becoming a genuine country music star, earning several thousand dollars a week in bookings. It was Tammy's unique ability to combine a robust country voice with an underlying vulnerability that attracted attention and sold her records. "She was as soulful a singer as I've ever heard," the prominent music producer Don Was once said of her. "In her own way, she was every bit as soulful as someone like Aretha Franklin ." But with her success came hard lessons in surviving in a business run by men. "The same men who treated wives and girlfriends with respect and consideration treated girl singers like merchandise," she complained. "Everyone joked about what 'the boys' did, but if a woman stepped out of line her career was ruined." Years after receiving minor injuries in a plane crash on her way to a concert and arriving an hour-and-a-half late, she would still write bitterly of the reprimand she got from the show's cigar-chomping promoter. "Every career woman knows the fine line you walk to succeed, and there are times when you can't help but resent it," she said. At the same time, it was with men that Wynette sought security and safety, although a short marriage to musician Don Chapel, who played in the band backing up Wynette on the road, ended in divorce after Chapel became jealous of her relationship with the country star she had dreamed of meeting as a little girl, George Jones.

Wynette had been booked on the same bill with Jones for several concerts during 1968, the same year she was presented with the first of three awards as the Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year. Even though they never actually shared the stage for a duet, Wynette always made sure to watch from backstage when Jones, more than ten years her senior, began his set. "He could hold an audience in the palm of his hand from the first note," she said. "He made it so easy, you would have thought he was singing in his own living room." Then, during a show in Winnipeg, Canada, Jones surprised Wynette by inviting her on stage for a duet as a suspicious Don Chapel looked on. Some weeks later, after Jones had announced his divorce from his wife of 17 years, he showed up unexpectedly at a benefit concert Wynette was doing in Alabama, just over the state line from her childhood home in Mississippi; still later, Jones began intervening in the vituperative arguments that broke out backstage between Wynette and Chapel over everything from arrangements to the men Tammy was seeing. Events reached a climax in Wynette's kitchen one night when the two men nearly came to blows; Jones dramatically announced that he loved her and then swept Tammy and her three daughters out of the house. Overnight, Wynette became known as the singer who'd left her husband to hitch her star to Jones', an ironic turn of events for the woman whose two biggest hits would be "Stand By Your Man" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." But Wynette insisted she had acted out of love. "My heart was so full of love for this man I had worshiped since childhood that I felt as if it would burst in my chest," she proclaimed.

The messy issue of a divorce was neatly solved by a judge in Alabama, who pointed out that Wynette's marriage to Chapel had never been legal under Alabama law because she had been divorced from Euple Byrd for less than two months at the time. Still, Jones and Wynette waited until February 1969—a month after they had both been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry—to become legally married in a civil ceremony in Georgia. Such was her affection for Jones that Wynette felt sure she could deal with her new husband's alcoholism and erratic, sometimes violent, behavior. The incidents were infrequent enough at first for the couple to buy a huge estate in Florida, on which Jones planned to create a "country music park," and for Tammy to give birth in 1970 to another girl, named Georgette Jones . The marriage seemed to settle down after Georgette's birth. Jones' "Old Plantation Park" in Lakeland, Florida, became a major tourist attraction; Wynette released "Stand By Your Man," the crossover hit that sparked a considerable backlash from the women's movement of the 1970s and an equal amount of comment over the fact that Wynette was on her third husband in ten years at the time; and the couple made a series of wildly popular joint appearances, even though Jones frequently had to be fetched from local watering holes while Wynette paced backstage. But even Tammy had to finally admit that the marriage was doomed. "There's no love in the world that can't be killed if you beat it to death long enough," she later said.

Jones' drinking, held in abeyance after Georgette's birth, returned even more violently than before. Wynette's bruises and injuries grew more alarming, interfering with her performance schedule; on one occasion when she threatened to leave him, Jones pointed a 30/30 rifle at her and swore he'd kill her first. Wynette finally left Jones in December 1974, pouring out her grief in songs like "Till I Can Make It on My Own" and "These Days I Barely Get By" which never failed to draw a sympathetic response from her audiences. "The audience responded to me with equal intimacy," she said, "and I would come off the stage feeling that I had actually known or experienced these people in such a close way it's difficult to put into words."

It was during these first years after her separation and divorce from Jones that Wynette's health became increasingly troublesome. In the three years after her divorce from Jones in 1975, she underwent four operations—one a hysterectomy and two for intestinal disorders; and it was also during these years that mysterious phone calls, some threatening her life, began to plague her. These were followed by 15 break-ins at her Nashville home in 9 months. Obscenities were scrawled over her windows and doors, and a fire was started in her basement while Wynette was in an upstairs room, causing major damage but fortunately resulting in no injuries. None of it was ever satisfactorily explained, least of all by Wynette, although she later linked the incidents to the months in which she had been dating Rudy Gatlin, one of country music's Gatlin Brothers, pointing out that the incidents ceased when she and Gatlin broke off their relationship.

The personal crises that marred her life only seemed to bind her more firmly to her audience and make her an object of interest outside of traditional country markets. One of the first country music stars to break out of the traditional mold, Wynette was a frequent guest on network television variety shows and daytime chat shows and performed at the White House during a state dinner arranged by President Gerald Ford. Her brief relationship with Burt Reynolds was much reported in the mainstream press, as was a fourth, brief marriage in 1976 to real-estate agent Michael Tomlin. ("An expensive lesson in my life," Wynette later said, claiming that Tomlin's taste for luxury had cost her more than $30,000 in their six weeks together.) A grueling tour schedule did little for her increasingly fragile health, resulting in another operation for a gallbladder disorder. Two years later, Wynette married the man who would finally give her the support she had been seeking. He was George Richey, a songwriter and producer whom she had known since her days with George Jones, for whom Richey had written two hits. Their time together after their marriage in July 1978, she wrote, was "the most contented I've known since I was a little girl, when Daddy was always there to take care of me."

But the upheavals that had marked her earlier years could not be kept at bay. There was a bizarre incident late in 1978 in which Wynette claimed she had been abducted at gunpoint from a shopping mall in Nashville. She was later seen flagging down cars on a busy highway, her clothes soiled and torn. Mysteriously, no one was ever charged with the crime when Wynette herself refused to press charges against her assailant by saying he had already been sent to jail for another crime. In 1988, Wynette was forced to file for personal bankruptcy after investing in two failed Florida shopping malls. But there was always her music to keep her going. By the early 1990s, she was universally acknowledged as "the first lady of country music"; and her career seemed to attain a certain dignified maturity when she recorded a duet, "Two Story House," with George Jones and produced a joint album with him in 1995, called One. She made national headlines when she angrily challenged soon-to-be-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1992 remark while campaigning for her husband, "I'm not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette." Wynette's response included the barbed observation that the comment had offended everyone who had made it on their own "with no one to take them to the White House. I can assure you, in spite of your education," Tammy continued, referring to Hillary Clinton's Yale degree, "you will find me to be just as bright as yourself." Clinton later telephoned to apologize for the remark, to such effect that Wynette agreed to perform at a fundraiser organized by the Clintons. That same year she explored new musical territory by joining the British pop group KLF for the song "Justified and Ancient," which became an international dance-pop hit; while in 1993, she teamed with two other country music divas, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn , for the landmark album Honky Tonk Angels.

Patty Loveless">

When Tammy opened her mouth, it was the soul of country music.

Patty Loveless

But everyone in the country music business knew that Wynette's health was growing steadily worse through the 1990s. She underwent several operations between 1990 and 1997 for recurring infections and inflammations of the bile duct, and by 1998 it was widely believed that she was terminally ill. On the afternoon of April 6, 1998, Wynette laid down on a couch in the living room of her Nashville home for a nap. She died in her sleep, a medical examiner ruling after an autopsy that she had died of blood clots in her lungs.

Even in death, the world would not let Tammy Wynette alone. Nearly a year after her passing, her daughters with Euple Byrd filed a $50-million wrongful death suit against her doctor and George Richey. The doctor, they charged, had given their mother powerful narcotics while Richey had "improperly and inappropriately maintained her narcotic addiction." Richey retaliated by winning a court order to have Tammy's body exhumed and another autopsy performed by Tennessee's chief medical examiner, who ruled in May 1999 that Tammy Wynette had died of natural causes, specifically heart failure. "I am saddened that part of Tammy's legacy is this fiasco," Richey told the press, charging that Wynette's daughters had wanted a larger share of her estate than was left to them in her will.

But in the end, even this final controversy failed to overpower that legacy, one Wynette herself admitted was not without its flaws. "Sometimes the notes were flat and the words didn't rhyme," she once said of the life and the career that were so inseparable. "All the people I love … have contributed the notes. But the melody is mine. I sing it for them."

sources:

Wynette, Tammy, with Joan Dew. Stand By Your Man. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

suggested reading:

Daly, Jackie, with Tom Carter. Tammy Wynette: A Daughter Recalls Her Mother's Tragic Life and Death. NY: Putnam, 2000.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York