May 5, 1942 - April 6, 1998
Although she was born in the small town of Tremont in Itawamba County, Mississippi, Tammy Wynette – the future “First Lady of Country Music” – spent much of her childhood in Red Bay, just across the Alabama state line.
After her father’s death of a brain tumor when she only nine months old, young Virginia Wynette Pugh lived mostly with her maternal grandparents on a farm that spanned both sides of the Alabama-Mississippi border. She often claimed that the state line ran right through their property, joking, “My top half came from Alabama and my bottom half came from Mississippi.”
Amid the drudgery of farm work, young “Nettie” (as she was called by her family and friends) taught herself to play the guitar, served as pianist at the Providence Baptist Church, sang in school programs and dreamed of becoming a star on the Grand Ole Opry.
Shortly before graduating from high school, she married Euple Byrd and gave birth to three children. For a while the Byrds lived in a log cabin with no indoor plumbing and only a wood-burning fireplace for cooking and heat. Since her husband was often unemployed and moved the family around, aspiring singer Virginia Pugh Byrd worked as a waitress.
After the couple split up, she moved to Birmingham, moving in with relatives while she worked as a beautician and hairdresser and sang on WBRC’s popular Country Boy Eddy morning television show. In 1965, she made several trips to Nashville in hopes of signing a record contract. A year later, she moved to Music City and auditioned for Epic Records producer Billy Sherrill, an Alabama native who signed her after an impromptu audition and changed her stage name to the more marketable Tammy Wynette. Beginning with the 1966 single “Apartment #9,” the Wynette-Sherrill team ultimately recorded twenty No. 1 hits.
For the remainder of the 1960s, singer-songwriter Tammy Wynette became the voice of the woman’s viewpoint in country music. The Grammy Award-winning “I Don’t Wanna Play House” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” expressed the agonies of women and children torn apart by family break-ups. The Wynette-Sherrill composition “Stand by Your Man” drew criticism from feminists, but Wynette defended her Grammy Award-winning signature song (which crossed over to the pop Top 20) as an expression of triumph over adversity. Her other hits of the ’60s included “My Elusive Dreams” (a duet with David Houston), “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “Singing My Song.”
Wynette’s winning streak extended into the mid-’70s with hits such as “He Loves Me All the Way,” “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” “Good Lovin’ (Makes It Right)” and “Woman to Woman,” and she co-wrote the top-selling songs “Singing My Song” and “Till I Can Make It on My Own.” During these years her stormy marriage to George Jones (they wed in 1969 and divorced in 1975) riveted audiences as much as the couple’s succession of hit duets, including “The Ceremony” (written by Alabama songwriters Sherrill, Jenny Strickland and Carmol Taylor), “We’re Gonna Hold On” (co-written by Jones and Muscle Shoals songwriter Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery), “Two Story House,” “We’re Not the Jet Set” and “Golden Ring.”
Wynette married songwriter-producer George Richey in 1978. Her 1979 autobiography, Stand by Your Man (which inspired a television movie two years later), revealed her continuing troubles with illness, harassing telephone calls, financial difficulties, break-ins and vandalism at her home, death threats, even abduction.
Still, Wynette survived and continued to record chart hits into the 1990s. Her 1987 album Higher Ground included contributions from neo-country superstars Vince Gill, Ricky Van Shelton, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris. She even teamed with the British pop act KLF to create 1992’s international dance hit “Justified and Ancient,” which hit No. 1 in eighteen different countries and peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Top 100. A year later, Wynette joined forces with two of country music’s fellow female trailblazers, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, for their landmark Honky Tonk Angels album. She and ex-husband Jones enjoyed a musical reunion with the 1995 album, One.
Wynette died in her sleep of a pulmonary blood clot at the age of 55. Fans and music-industry friends honored her with a televised memorial service broadcast from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Her career achievements included 21 No. 1 country hits and three County Music Association awards for female vocalists. “The First Lady of Country Music” was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame shortly after her death.