Virginia Wynette Pugh was born on 5 May 1942 on a cotton farm in Itawamba County to musician William Hollis Pugh and Mildred Faye Pugh. William Pugh died when his daughter was less than a year old, and his widow left Tammy in the care of her grandparents while working in a defense plant during World War II. In addition to picking cotton, Pugh had music lessons, played her father’s instruments, and sang in a trio on a gospel radio show. A month before her high school graduation she married Euple Byrd, and she gave birth to two daughters within three years. Because her husband, a construction worker, was frequently unemployed, she held a variety of jobs, including working as a waitress, a bartender, and a receptionist, before enrolling in cosmetology school in Tupelo. After receiving her beautician’s license she moved with her family to Birmingham, Alabama, where her marriage ended around the time of the birth of her third daughter. She spent a year working and traveling back and forth to Nashville in hopes of starting a country music career; unsuccessful, she moved to the city anyway in 1966.
She soon met producer-songwriter Billy Sherrill of Epic Records, who signed her and changed her name to Tammy Wynette. Her first single, “Apartment #9” (1966), received airplay, and her next song, “Your Good Girl’s Going to Go Bad” (1967), reached the Top 10. Her third single, “I Don’t Want to Play House” (1967) became the first in a string of six straight Wynette releases that topped the country charts: “Take Me to Your World” (1967), “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (1968), “Stand by Your Man” (1968), “Singing My Song” (1969), and “The Way to Love a Man” (1969). Her next eleven albums also reached No. 1, and within four years, Wynette won two Grammy Awards and three Female Vocalist of the Year awards from the Country Music Association.
After a brief second marriage Wynette married George Jones and had a fourth daughter, Georgette. The extraordinarily popular couple, who divorced in 1975, recorded a series of duets, including “(We’re Not) The Jet Set” (1974), “Golden Ring” (1976), and “Two Story House” (1980). In 1978, after another short marriage, Wynette wed her fifth husband, George Richey, who served as her manager for much of the next decade. In 1979 Wynette published her autobiography, Stand by Your Man, and two years later ABC broadcast a movie adapted from her book.
Despite her public success, Wynette’s life included private difficulties, including abuse, death threats, bankruptcy, and health issues, which included an addiction to painkillers for which she sought treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1986. She nevertheless continued to tour and record, ultimately releasing twenty No. 1 songs and selling more than three million records and earning the title First Lady of Country Music. Wynette’s soulful ballads are powerful and raw, with complex lyrics that often have ambivalent meanings. She sang about the difficulties of inequalities within marriage, the heartache of divorce and its effect on children, and the struggles of motherhood.
Wynette died suddenly on 6 April 1998. Her nationally televised funeral was held at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and later in 1998 she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
- Jackie Daly, Tammy Wynette: A Daughter Recalls Her Mother’s Tragic Life and Death (2000)
- Kenneth E. Morris, Popular Music and Society 16 (1992)
- Tammy Wynette website, www.tammywynette.com