What started out as a peaceful evening catnap on the couch in her Nashville, Tennessee home, became the “First Lady of Country Music” Tammy Wynette’s final hour on Monday, April 6th, 1998. Her long-time physician, Dr. Wallis Marsh of the University of Pittsburgh Hospital, disclosed that the 55-year-old, legendary songstress died in her sleep due to a blood clot to the lungs. Country’s heartbreak heroine had suffered a series of health battles in recent years. Surprisingly though, she had been in good health recently, according to her Music City publicist, was even fulfilling several live concert commitments.
Still very heartbreaking as we now mourn her loss, it’s enlightening to know that the famous singer, wife, mother and grandmother had actually expressed her feelings about death. Following a serious health condition a while back, Wynette explained to Nashville’s famous WSM Radio that maybe death “ain’t no big deal,” she expressed. “I did not know I was sick, during this time. I felt no pain, no fear or anything. I just felt like I was floating. And when I came to on the sixth day, Richey (Wynette’s husband, George Richey) said, ‘Honey, you almost died.’ I said ‘I certainly didn’t know it — I guess that’s God’s way of telling me that death ain’t no big deal.”
Wynette established herself as country’s First Lady with elegance and style early in her career.
While Wynette, born Virginia Wynette Pugh on May 5, 1942 in Itawamba County, Mississippi, is perhaps best known for her very “big-deal” classic country hit, “Stand By Your Man,” recorded in 1968, her unyielding devotion to family and those closest to her was more important to her than ever during her last days.
“My family — they’re the most important thing to me now,” said Wynette only a few weeks prior to her untimely death. “There was a time that I put my career first. But I did what I thought I had to do. My kids — I’m sure they suffered. They say they didn’t, but I’m sure that’s just to soften the blow on mama.”
Family was extremely important to the velvet-voiced entertainer. Happily married to her manager/husband George Richey for 20 years, Wynette is survived by four daughters, Gwen, Jackie, Tina and Georgette; a step-daughter, Georgie, a stepson, Richie; and nine grandchildren.
Wynette was like family to so many who met her in life, not to mention a heroine, icon and a phenomenal influence to countless other music entertainers.
“I am just very glad that we were able to work together and tour together again,” says former husband and long-time singing partner George Jones. “It was very important for us to close the chapter on everything that we had been through. I know Tammy felt the same way. Life is too short. In the end, we were very close friends. And now, I have lost that friend. I couldn’t be sadder.”
“It was important to me to mend the relationship George had with Tammy,” added George’s wife Nancy, “and we did that. It also gave me the chance to get to know Tammy. Once I did, I truly loved her. She became my friend, too. I will miss her terribly. Nashville has lost another legend and we don’t have that many left.
“It’s hard to even describe the feelings I’m having because I loved her so much,” says one of those remaining and cherished legends, Loretta Lynn, the one-third sistership of her, Wynette and Dolly Parton’s Honky Tonk Angel reputation in country music. “She was my best girlfriend in country music; we did vacations together. I just loved her more than any other girl singer in Nashville. I’ll miss you greatly, Tammy. I’ll always be thinking of you.”
“I feel I have lost a sister, a friend and a wonderful singing partner,” adds Parton. “Tammy was just as much country with class as Loretta was just country-country,” explained Dolly. “I remember when I first heard Tammy’s records, I was impressed with the richness and the bigness. It was like something we hadn’t had since Patsy Cline. She had that same kind of professionalism. I just thought she had a great voice and I loved the subjects that she chose to sing about. As a singer, I thought she deserved the title ‘First Lady of Country Music.’ The world has lost one of the most unique stylists in the music industry. The whole world will mourn Tammy Wynette.” Countless other country artists strongly agree.
“The strength of her music was that she connected with a wide audience, because she really tapped into real situations in people’s lives,” said Kyle Young of the Country Music Foundation. “Her story is really the story of country music.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the recording of one of country music’s penultimate anthems. Tammy Wynette’s chart-topping recording of “Stand By Your Man,” which she co-wrote with her then-producer Billy Sherrill, has become one of the quintessential women’s songs in the country music canon. Since its recording in August 1968, the single reportedly has sold in excess of five million copies and remains one of the biggest selling singles by a female country artist.
“Stand By Your Man” turned out to be the career song for Wynette, thus making her name a household word. When Sherrill and Wynette wrote the song, the women’s movement was just beginning to take hold. Although Tammy’s hard-core country fans loved the number, women’s groups from coast-to-coast took exception with the song’s conservative lyrics. Recalls Wynette in a 1977 interview with Joan Dew, “It’s funny that song caused so much commotion from feminist groups when you consider we wrote it in about twenty minutes. But they took it the wrong way. I didn’t sing the song to say, ‘You women stay home and stay pregnant, and don’t do anything to help yourselves. Be there waiting when he comes home, because a woman needs a man at any cost.’ No, that’s not what I was saying at all. I guess I’ve proven that I don’t believe in staying with a man you no longer love. All I was saying in the song was ‘Be understanding. Be supportive. There’ll be good times and there will be bad times, but if he’s worth being with at all, he’s worth seeing through the bad times.'”
Wynette has seen her share of both the good times and bad times. Her rise to stardom reads like a fairy tale — and at times, a very grim one at that. Born on her grandparents’ farm situated on the Mississippi and Alabama state line, her father, a local musician of some repute, died from a brain tumor when Wynette was less than a year old. His collection of stringed instruments and recordings were his legacy to his young daughter.
During World War II, Tammy’s mother took work in an aircraft factory and Wynette was left in the care of grandparents. By age eight she was working alongside them in the fields performing the back-breaking task of picking cotton. Wrote Wynette in her 1979 autobiography, “I hated every minute I spent picking cotton. I had made up my mind that I’d do anything before I’d go back to that life. There had to be more to life than picking cotton and doing housework. Even when I was a little kid who’d never been off the farm, I knew that.”
To help take her mind off of her farm chores, young Wynette daydreamed of becoming a singer. To achieve her goal, she took music lessons for five years and learned the fundamentals of Sacred Harp singing. Fueled by the gospel quartets who traversed the rural Southeast in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she formed a gospel trio called Wynette, Linda, and Imogene, while still in her teens.
Headstrong, impetuous, and possibly looking for a way off the farm, Wynette married Euple Bird just one month before her graduation from high school. The couple settled in Tupelo, where Wynette enrolled in a beautician college. Bird had trouble holding down a steady job and the young couple lived in abject poverty, often without such conveniences as running water. Within a few years, Wynette had had enough and ended the marriage. By this time, however, she had two young daughters to support with a third child on the way.
After the breakup of her marriage, she settled with her daughters in Birmingham, often working two jobs to keep her young family afloat. By 1965, she was taking club work when she could get it and appearing on the Country Boy Eddie Show on WBRC-TV from 6 to 8 a.m. each day. In the fall of that year, Wynette and a songwriter friend traveled to Nashville to attend the annual disc jockey convention. That winter, she moved her young family to Nashville in pursuit of a recording contract.
After having approached several record labels (and being subsequently turned down), Wynette walked into the office of producer and songwriter Billy Sherrill. The Alabama native had joined the CBS staff in Nashville and was beginning to make a name for himself on Music Row. He jump-started David Houston’s career with a pair of hit singles, “Livin’ In A House Full of Love” and the Grammy award winning “Almost Persuaded.”
Sherrill granted the petite blonde an audience and was reasonably impressed with her vocal abilities. Recalled Sherrill, “I think I was her last hope. The songs she sang weren’t bad, but I was more impressed with her voice. There was this cry in it that really got to you.” In short order, Sherrill signed her to Epic Records, found the perfect song for her to record (“Apartment #9,” written by Johnny Paycheck and Bobby Austin, who had recorded the song a few months earlier for Tally Records), and recast Virginia Wynette Pugh Bird as Tammy Wynette. Music Row legend has it that Sherrill told her, “You don’t look like a Virginia, you look like a Tammy.” (This was, in part, due to the fact she wore her hair similar to Debbie Reynolds’ ponytail in the Tammy movie.)
“Apartment #9” entered the Billboard country chart in December of 1966, where it remained for nine weeks and picked up the ACM’s Song of the Year honors. Her follow-up, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” co-written by Sherrill and Glenn Sutton, made it to the No. 3 chart position. Her third single, a duet with Houston, “My Elusive Dream,” soon followed and topped the charts in the fall of 1967. By this time, Tammy was touring extensively to support her blossoming recording career and making the rounds of Nashville’s syndicated country shows.
Her next solo outing was another Sherrill-Sutton composition, “I Don’t Wanna Play House.” Its double-tracked vocals and crying steel guitar pulled at the heart-strings of every divorced woman in blue-collar America and shot to the top of Billboard’s chart. The song was named Best C&W Solo Vocal Performance by NARAS in 1967, thus earning Wynette her first Grammy.
The year 1968 was the beginning of an incredible run for Wynette. “Take Me to Your World,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand By Your Man” all went to No. 1. That autumn she picked up her first of three consecutive CMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards, in addition to her second Grammy trophy.
However rewarding Wynette’s life was professionally, her personal life left a lot to be desired. Many of Tammy’s songs mirrored her real-life problems. A romantic at heart, a second marriage in 1967 to songwriter Don Chapel began to fall apart. Some sources cite professional jealously as the cause for the breakup. Enter George Jones. An acquaintance of Chapel’s, Jones had recorded some of Don’s songs and was a frequent visitor to the Chapel household. One day in 1968 when George had dropped by, Tammy and Don got into a heated fight. George intervened on Tammy’s behalf, professed his love for her and took Tammy and her three young daughters away in his Cadillac. The two married in 1969 and the following year their daughter, Tamela Georgette, was born.
After her marriage to Jones, Wynette’s career continued to gather steam. She consistently topped the Billboard country charts and collected countless gold records and industry awards. Soon mainstream media took note of Wynette’s growing popularity. She was a frequent guest on major network television shows and feature stories appeared in slick publications including such publishing icons as Cosmopolitan and Penthouse.
Tammy and George combined their road shows and had one of the hottest tickets on the country music circuit. In 1971, they started recording duets for Epic Records. That body of material stands as some of the finest duets in the history of country music. “Take Me,” “Golden Ring” and “We’re Gonna Hold On” have all come to define what duet singing is all about — great melodies, great lyrics and lots of edge.
Although the Jones’ harmonized well on records, their marriage hit more than a few sour notes. In 1975, after six years and much to the consternation of their loyal fans, the “first couple” of country music called it quits. Even though the couple were no longer partners in life, they continued to record together through 1980.
On her own again, Wynette had back-to-back No. 1’s in 1976 with the painfully autobiographical “‘Til I Can Make It On My Own” and “You and Me.” Tammy married for the fourth time that same year to a Nashville realtor who left her with a pile of bills to repay. Her private life was in turmoil for the next few years. she was plagued by a series of health problems and bizarre events — home burglaries, death threats against her daughters, fires — which culminated in an even more bizarre kidnapping episode in 1978. Considered an unsolved crime to this day, Wynette was abducted from a Nashville shopping center, driven 80 miles, beaten and then abandoned on a country road.
In spite of it all, however, she managed to keep her recording career intact and her live show on the road. Throughout the end of the decade, she was ever-present on the country charts. In 1978, she married her long-time friend, songwriter and producer George Richey. He had been a co-writer on the songs “You and Me,” “Til I Can Make It On My Own,” “Southern California” and George Jones’ monster hit, “The Grand Tour.” In Richey, she found the stability for which she had long been searching. Tammy closed out the decade by publishing her best-selling autobiography, Stand By Your Man.
With tastes changing in country music, Tammy kept up with the times and charted with great frequency. “Another Chance,” “Sometimes When We Touch” (with Mark Gray) and “Your Love” (with then newcomer Ricky Skaggs) fared well. Her 1988 single with Emmylou Harris, “Beneath a Painted Sky,” resulted in a beautifully scripted music video that received considerable airplay on CMT. In 1986, she appeared on the daytime soap, Capitol, as the good-hearted waitress named Darlene.
In 1991, Wynette was the recipient of the TNN/Music City News Country Awards Living Legend honor. The following year, she appeared on record and video with the British-based pop group KLF on their track, “Justified and Ancient.” The song was a huge hit in Great Britain and introduced the “First Lady of Country Music” to a new generation of fans outside the country arena.
Her 1993 collaboration with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, Honky Tonk Angels, netted her yet another gold album. The trio produced a riveting video of their cover, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” which featured several country artists making cameo appearances.
Tammy, like Dolly and Loretta, dared to be different and was. She dreamed the impossible and discovered dreams do come true. By continuing to carrying a heavy torch despite the difficulty, the load somehow, always became lighter. And by spreading her wings like a true “honky tonk angel”, she learned how to fly.
In 1995, Tammy recorded an album with George Jones titled One, and the two performed together on a limited basis. With a new generation of country singers now being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Wynette’s bronze plaque should deservedly be hanging in the Hall before decade’s end.