Country Legends We Love: Tammy Wynette
Calling Tammy Wynette a “one-hit wonder” actually undercuts the dynamic musical and cultural impact of her signature song, 1968’s global chart-topper “Stand By Your Man.” It -- as well as Wynette’s three-decade-long career -- entirely occupies the center of the Venn diagram space between steadfast devotion to love, women’s liberation, female empowerment, and profound empathy. Wynette’s ability to succeed instead of succumbing to seemingly insurmountable pressure modernized pop stardom under an ever-judgemental mainstream eye for trailblazing female country stars.
From her incredibly humble beginnings, “The First Lady of Country Music’s” life was defined by embracing, then living through impossible odds.
Tammy Wynette was born Virginia Wynette Pugh in Tremont, Mississippi, on May 5, 1942. Her father, a musician, died of a brain tumor when she was nine months old. Unable to properly care for her daughter as a single parent, Pugh’s mother left her daughter in the care of her grandparents and a teenage aunt who lived in a home in Memphis, Tennessee that lacked indoor toilets and running water.
By 21, she lacked a high school degree but was already a married mother of three (to Euple Byrd, a day laborer). Plus, she worked in a series of odd jobs, including as a waitress, receptionist, a barmaid, in a shoe factory, and as a cosmetologist. However, more than anything, she wanted to pursue a career as a country music singer. In a case of famous last words, before divorcing Byrd in 1966, he noted, “dream on, baby,” regarding her aspirations for singing stardom.
Only two years after divorcing Byrd, Wynette recorded the iconic “Stand By Your Man.” Pugh adopted the stage name “Tammy Wynette” after signing to Epic Records and at the behest of Billy Sherrill, a producer at the label. In her 1979 memoir, Stand by Your Man, Wynette recalls wearing her long, blonde hair in a ponytail, and Sherrill noted that she reminded him of Debbie Reynolds in the film Tammy and the Bachelor. He suggested "Tammy" as a more appealing recording name than Virginia, so she became Tammy Wynette.
1967 Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy winner "I Don't Wanna Play House" was included in an impressive superstar streak to begin her musical career. Between 1966-1969, seven of the newly christened Wynette’s first ten singles released were number-one Billboard Hot Country Songs chart hits. Ironically the two largest -- May 1968’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and September 1968’s “Stand By Your Man” -- were attached to one of her life-to-date’s many bittersweet lowlights.
The May 1968-released “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” is a brilliant master-class in songwriting. The lyrics mimic a parenting trick of spelling out words that young children will not understand, given their lack of developed spelling and comprehension skills. In Bill Malone’s 1981-published Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music, he notes the song’s "painful sincerity.” Malone continues, “...there is no irony here—and if there is a soap opera quality to the dialogue, the content well mirrors both her own life and contemporary experience."
In 1970, “Stand By Your Man” achieved Wynette’s second Grammy win for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in four years. Regarding the song, in later years, Wynette defended it as not a call for women to place themselves second to men, but rather a suggestion that women attempt to overlook their husbands' shortcomings and faults if they genuinely love them. As juxtaposed next to other songs which were anthemic to the women’s liberation movement of the era -- think Aretha Franklin’s 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s 1965 smash “Respect” and Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit “I Am Woman” -- it’s remained impressively both contentious and beloved in the context of female empowerment.
Between 1969-1976, Wynette was married to “The King of Country Music,” George Jones. “The King” and “First Lady”’s marriage was, on the surface, the stuff of country dreams. However, like Johnny Cash, Jones being befallen by the ills of constant touring and its associated hard-partying lifestyle negatively impacted their marriage. This did not stop the couple from releasing seven albums together during their marriage (and two more afterward) that yielded six top-ten Billboard Hot Country Chart singles, including 1973’s “We’re Gonna Hold On” and 1976’s “Near You.”
In a 1975 interview for Melody Maker Magazine, Wynette created an intriguing allegory between her famous hits and infamous marriage. "Y'know, ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ was written right before George and I got married, and I like that song so much because it was something I had experienced," she said. "But so much has been coincidence like that. When I did ‘Stand By Your Man,’ George and I had just gotten married, and I wanted so bad for it to work. I would have done anything for it to have been a lasting marriage."
From 1976 onward, Tammy Wynette did not again achieve a number-one country chart-topping single. However, in artists from Crystal Gale and Reba McEntire to Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and more, the birth of the blend of blue-collar roots and countrypolitan flair that defined four decades of female country stars can be associated with Wynette.
In 1992, then-nascent rave culture adopted Wynette’s bold, sonorous vocal as a chart-topping clarion call via English electronic dance group, the KLF’s ''Justified and Ancient,'' a song that reached number-one worldwide. "I really don't know why they chose me. I was apprehensive at first, but I'm really excited with the way it's all turned out", Wynette said to the UK’s Sun newspaper.
Wynette’s career was a wild existence that saw unprecedented success tempered by unfathomable torment. Wynette was married five times and birthed four daughters. She also had 20 number-one Billboard Hot Country chart singles and 26 major medical procedures performed on her in her lifetime. These included an appendectomy and hysterectomy, plus gallbladder, kidney, throat, and intestinal bypass surgeries. However, until her death from a blood-clotted lung on April 6, 1998, at the age of 55, while sleeping on her couch in her Nashville, Tennessee, home, she was one of country music’s most talented artists and astounding survivors.
“Considering Tammy Wynette simply as a one-dimensional conduit for drama and heartache does a disservice to the nuanced contours of her work, notes journalist Annie Zaleski in a 2020 article for The Boot. As well, in her New York Times obituary, writer Jon Pareles, by describing her voice, also sums up her life’s excellence: “[Wynette’s] voice had a husky center, with melancholy balanced by determination; she sounded like an everywoman with unexpected reserves of strength and affection.”