Obituary: Tammy Wynette

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TAMMY WYNETTE was once dubbed by a French critic "an American Edith Piaf". The blond-haired country singer enjoyed a semi-notorious personal life, which often appeared to merge with her professional singing career: she was married five times and kidnapped in 1978.

Best known for her song "Stand By Your Man", she unwittingly found herself part of the 1992 US presidential campaign after Hillary Clinton stressed that her support for her husband was more substantial than that expressed in the lyrics of Wynette's song. She told an interviewer, "I'm not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." The remark outraged country music fans and Hillary Clinton ended up apologising. Wynette later appeared at a Clinton fund-raising eent.

Described as "the fabric of legends, but cut from soft cloth", she was regarded as one of the most successful female vocalists in the history of country music. Her record sales made her the first female artist in country music to sell a million albums. She had a career total of over 30 million records; 35 No 1 singles, 11 No 1 albums and over a hundred million dollars in sales.

She was born Virginia Wynette Pugh, in 1942, near Tupelo, Mississippi. Her father, William Hollis Pugh, was a musician (he played guitar in particular) who died when she was eight months old. Sudden widowhood forced her mother to work in an aircraft factory, in Birmingham, Alabama. She was brought up by her grandparents on their farm. As a child she sang in her local church whilst helping out with the farm duties: chopping and picking cotton with the other agricultural workers. She was paid the standard rate of pay by her grandfather, which instilled in her a sense of independence from an early age.

Her mother returned to the farm when the Second World War ended. The young Tammy had started to sing alongside her grandmother in church. They sang a particular type of religious music, a harmony called Sacred Harp - a technique which involved singing notes instead of words. As Tammy acquired a taste, and clearly showed an aptitude for music, her mother allowed her to experiment with her late father's collection of musical instruments. William Pugh had played on a wide range of instruments, including the bass fiddle, accordion and mandolin. She reluctantly arranged for Tammy to take formal music lessons (she did not want her daughter to take up music seriously).

Despite a strong conviction that a musical career was what she wanted, Tammy married before finishing high school and moved to Tupelo with her husband, Euple Byrd. She gave birth to a baby daughter. Shortly afterwards she learnt hairdressing and worked as a beautician; a stint as a receptionist for a chiropractor followed. She was to have two further children with Bird, but, before she gave birth to her third, another daughter, the marriage broke up. The child was premature and developed spinal meningitis. During this period of her daughter's illness, Tammy nursed her back to health, but she had run up large debts because of being unable to work. It was the need to raise extra money which prompted her to return to her interest in becoming a professional singer.

She sang in a number of different southern night-clubs, and was fortunate to be hired by WBRC-TV in Birmingham, on the Country Boy Eddie Show. She began to establish a small following and to co-write songs with Fred Lehner for one of the local Birmingham radio stations - WYAM. She won several appearances on one of Porter Wagoner's syndicated television shows. This gave her the necessary confidence to audition for recording companies. In Nashville, Tennessee, she auditioned for United Artists and Hickory and Kapp (expecting to be offered a contract), but after several months nobody had contacted her.

In 1966 she returned to Nashville, where she met the Epic Records producer Billy Sherrill, who signed her immediately. A few days later he had her recording "Apartment Number Nine", a song he had been having trouble leasing. The record became one of the top hits of 1967. This was followed up with "Your Good Girl's Gonna be Bad", "I Don't Wanna Play House", "D- I-V-O-R-C-E" and "Elusive Dream", which she sang with David Houston. Her success was almost overnight and within three years she had won a Grammy award and she was twice named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year.

Most of her songs were specifically written for her by Billy Sherrill with Glen Sutton, but later she teamed up with Sherrill as a co-writer and together they wrote the biggest-selling country music song ever - "Stand By Your Man".

The singer Patty Smythe once said that Wynette's voice came "from an emotionally honest place that everyone can relate to". She was often touted as a singer who spoke directly to (and on behalf) of women; however, not all women were prepared to accept the claim that she addressed the trials of womanhood. Some feminist observers have maintained that the sympathies of several of her songs were regressive.

Tammy Wynette's recordings continued to be popular, many of her themes being, in fact, more complex than she was given credit for. Although Sherrill's quasi-Phil-Spector production bore an unmistakable hallmark which was not always to the songs' best advantage, some critics declared that they were in danger of becoming formula-ridden. While "Almost Persuaded" received acclaim, her cover of "Gentle On My Mind" was considered by some to be somewhat audacious and "over the top".

Between 1968 and 1975 she was married to the country star George Jones (once described as "the last pure country singer"). Their relationship was a much-publicised emotional rollercoaster ride. Their life and performance blurred into one when Jones joined Wynette on the Epic label: their duet "We're Gonna Hold On" gave him his first No 1 hit since 1967. The partnership produced some of Tammy Wynette's most interesting songs, many of which were written specifically for the couple. Curiously, they documented the progress of their relationship in song till "Golden Ring" and "Near You", released in 1976 - the year Wynette remarried.

During the Eighties Tammy Wynette appeared in the television soap opera Washington, but she did not take this career direction any further, although her 1979 autobiography, Stand By Your Man, was filmed in 1982. She gave performances for three US presidents and on 10 June 1991 she was given the sought-after "Living Legend Award" from Music City News and TNN. Towards the end of her career, Wynette recorded duets with many acclaimed vocalists such as Emmylou Harris, Ricky Van Shelton and Vern Gosdin. In 1992 she was the featured vocalist on the KLF hit "Justified and Ancient". Randy Travis, with whom she undertook a standing-room-only tour of Europe, said of her: "Lots of entertainers have recorded a few good songs - but Tammy's many hits will be around long after the others are forgotten."

In 1978, Wynette was mysteriously abducted at a shopping centre in Nashville, driven 80 miles in her car, beaten and released by a masked assailant. No one was ever arrested for the crime. In 1988 she petitioned for bankruptcy following the failure of two shopping centres in Florida in which she had invested.

In recent years she suffered from ill-health but still pursued a recording and touring schedule. She recorded the album Honky Tonk Angels with her fellow country singers Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in 1993. She toured with the US vocalist Kenny Rogers in England last year, when she claimed her health had been improving. Wynette was still for many the undisputed "first lady" of country music.

Laurence Staig

Virginia Wynette Pugh (Tammy Wynette), singer: born Itawamba County, Mississippi 5 May 1942; married 1959 Euple Bird (three daughters; marriage dissolved 1965), 1967 Don Chapel (marriage dissolved 1968), 1968 George Jones (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1975), 1976 Michael Tomlin (marriage dissolved 1976), 1978 George Richey; died Nashville, Tennessee 6 April 1998.