Tammy Wynette didn’t have Loretta Lynn’s tough-gal swagger nor Dolly Parton’s wit and sparkle, but when it came to wringing tears out of country music audiences, she simply had no competition.
Wynette sang knowingly and effectively for the single mother, the neglected wife, the impending divorcee — all of life’s strugglers, among whom she was always one.
She was born Virginia Wynette Pugh on May 5, 1942 in Itawamba County, Miss. Raised by her grandparents, she showed an early affinity for performing, taking music lessons and singing with local gospel groups. Wynette married the first of her five husbands just before graduating from high school.
By the time she moved to Nashville in 1966, she had worked as a beautician and barmaid and was the divorced mother of three children. Fortunately, Billy Sherrill, a producer for Epic Records, recognized not just her talent as a singer and songwriter but also her determination to make something of herself. From her first single — the doleful “Apartment #9” — Sherrill and Wynette aimed her songs straight at the tear ducts.
In 1967, she scored the first two of her eventual 20 No. 1 hits — “My Elusive Dreams” (with David Houston) and “I Don’t Wanna Play House” (a ditty in which a child explains to her playmate that when her mama “played house” with another guy, her daddy “said goodbye.”).
Wynette got a big boost in 1970 when four of her songs — including the soon-to-be-iconic “Stand By Your Man” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” — were featured on the soundtrack to the Jack Nicholson-Karen Black movie, Five Easy Pieces.
With her third husband, George Jones, Wynette charted such durable 1970s hits as “Take Me,” “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Golden Ring.” Although she would chart many more singles throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, she would not ring up any more No. 1s.
Wynette was involved in a dust-up with Hillary Clinton in 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for his first term as president. In response to a question on the TV show 60 Minutes about one of her husband’s alleged affairs, Mrs. Clinton snapped, “You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”
Wynette understandably took umbrage at the slight and fired off a letter of protest to Mrs. Clinton — who promptly apologized to Wynette and country fans generally for her ill-chosen words.Plagued by ill health for years — even as she continued an exhausting touring schedule — Wynette died at her home in Nashville on April 6, 1998. Later that same year, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 1999, “Stand By Your Man” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Article by Edward Morris, a frequent contributor to CMT.com