Tammy Wynette Biography

Virginia Wynette Pugh, 5 May 1942, Itawamba County, near Tupelo, Mississippi, USA, d. 6 April 1998, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Wynette is primarily known for two songs, ‘Stand By Your Man’ and ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’, but her huge catalogue includes 20 US country number 1 hits, mostly about standing by your man or getting divorced. After her father died when she was 10 months old, she was raised by her mother and grandparents and picked cotton from an early age. When aged 17, she married construction worker Euple Byrd, and trained as a hairdresser. She subsequently made an album with their third child, Tina - George, Tammy And Tina - in 1975. Byrd did not share her ambition of being a country singer, so she left and moved to Nashville. She impressed producer Billy Sherrill and had her first success in 1966 with a Johnny Paycheck song, ‘Apartment No. 9’. She almost topped the US country charts with ‘I Don’t Want To Play House’, in which a child shuns his friends’ game because he senses his parents’ unhappiness. It was the template for numerous songs, including ‘Bedtime Story’, in which Wynette attempts to explain divorce to a three-year-old, and ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ in which she does not.

Her own marriage to guitarist Don Chapel disintegrated after he traded nude photographs of her and, after witnessing an argument, country star George Jones eloped with her. Unaware of the turmoil in Wynette’s own life, American feminists in 1968 condemned Wynette for supporting her husband, right or wrong, in ‘Stand By Your Man’, but she maintained, ‘Sherrill and I didn’t have women’s lib in mind. All we wanted to do was to write a pretty love song’. The way Wynette choked on ‘After all, he’s just a man’ indicated pity rather than support. Having previously recorded a country chart-topper with David Houston (‘My Elusive Dreams’), an artistic collaboration with George Jones was inevitable. Their albums scaled new heights in over-the-top romantic duets, particularly ‘The Ceremony’, which narrates the marriage vows set to music. In an effort to separate Jones from alcohol, she confiscated his car-keys, only to find him riding their electric lawnmower to the nearest bar. ‘The Bottle’ was aimed at Jones as accurately as the real thing. ‘Stand By Your Man’ was used to good effect in Five Easy Pieces (which starred Jack Nicholson), and the record became a UK number 1 on its sixth reissue in 1975. It was followed by a UK Top 20 placing for ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’, but it was Billy Connolly’s parody about his ‘D.O.G.’ that went to the UK number 1 slot.

Wynette also had two bestselling compilations in the UK album charts. By now her marriage to Jones was over and ‘Dear Daughters’ explains the position to them. Jones, in more dramatic fashion, retaliated with ‘The Battle’. Even more difficult to explain to her daughters was her 44-day marriage to estate agent Michael Tomlin. After torrid affairs with Rudy Gatlin (of Larry Gatlin And The Gatlin Brothers) and Burt Reynolds (she saved the actor’s life when he passed out in the bath), she married record producer George Richey, whose own stormy marriage had just ended. In 1978, she was kidnapped outside a Nashville car park and was subjected to an unexplained brutal beating. She also experienced many health problems, including several stomach operations. Throughout the traumas, she continued to record songs about married life, ‘That’s The Way It Could Have Been’, ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own’, ‘(You Make Me Want To Be) A Mother’ and ‘Love Doesn’t Always Come (On The Night That It’s Needed)’. None of these songs found acceptance outside the country market, but ‘Stand By Your Man’ became a standard, with versions ranging from Loretta Lynn (who also took an opposing view in ‘The Pill’), Billie Jo Spears and Tina Turner, to two male performers, David Allan Coe and Lyle Lovett. Her autobiography was made into a television movie in 1981. In 1986, Wynette entered the Betty Ford clinic for drug dependency and, true to form, followed it with a single, ‘Alive And Well’. She played in a daytime soap, Capital, in 1987, although its drama was light relief when compared to her own life. Her stage show included a lengthy walkabout to sing ‘Stand By Your Man’ to individual members of the audience. Her standing in the rock world increased when she was co-opted by the KLF to appear on ‘Justified And Ancient’, which became a Top 3 UK hit in 1991. Her duet album, Higher Ground, was more imaginatively produced than other later albums.

Wynette’s turbulent time with Jones was well documented, so much so that they were the most famous couple in the history of country music. The announcement that they were working together again came as a pleasant surprise to their many followers. Their previous reconciliation at the end of 1979 had merely been an attempt to help Jones save his washed-up career. One, released in 1995, was felt by many to be the best of their career; the good feeling conveyed by tracks such as ‘Solid As A Rock’ was the result of their having chosen to sing together for purely musical reasons. There was no longer any emotional baggage, nor any resurrection needed - perhaps for the first time in their lives, they were motivated purely by the enjoyment of making music together. One of Wynette’s last appearances was as a guest singer on a cover version of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’, released in 1997 to promote BBC Radio and Television. She died from heart failure owing to an enlarged heart in April 1998. Later in the year she was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.