born virginia wynette pugh, in itawamba county, mississippi, tammy wynette was raised picking cotton in her grandparents' fields. she eloped with euple byrd in 1959, before graduating from high school, in hopes of finding a better life; six years and three children later, wynette was divorced. moving to birmingham, alabama, wynette worked as a beautician during the day, but not before performing daily on a local television program. at just twenty-three years old, she took off for the honky-tonk tinsel town of nashville, tennessee, and started pounding the pavement in search of a career in country-western music. by 1966, divas such as kitty wells, patsy cline and loretta lynn had already acheived enough success to open the doors of the industry to other female performers. unfortunately, the doors had only been opened slightly, permitting just the cream of the country crop to grace the charts with their dulcet tones.
empowered with the strength of determination bred on the farm, wynette did not give up. after barging into the offices of several record producers, tammy finally met the man that would change her name and hand her a mic. former epic records song- writer/producer, billy sherrill, was looking to break into the country music industry and saw a star in the young wynette. borrowing the name of the debbie reynolds movie that inspired tammy's hairdo, wynette and sherrill embarked on a collaborative career that would bring them both undreamt-of success and some forty top ten hits.
wynette's success, though, seems to owe as much to what she represents as to her full-bodied, dramatic voice. in many ways, wynette was the down-and-out, working-class, used-and-abused woman who made up the majority of her fan base. born into poverty, four bad marriages (don chapel: 1967, george jones: 1969 and michael tomlin: 1976) and some thirty hospitalizations had shown wynette hardships to which her fans could relate. unlike many performers, wynette was neither afraid nor embarrased to sing about these hardships. "i had a tough time and singing about [my divorce] was very therapeutic for me," she explained. wynette's repertoire of heartbreak ballads was only enhanced by frequent collaboration with her ex-husband--and the "king of country music"--george jones. it was not, however, her relationship with jones that earned her the title of "first lady of country music," but rather her acheivement of being the first female country star to sell a million units of a single album.
in 1969, wynette solidified her place in the panthaeon of country divas with the hit "stand by your man." the target of feminist criticism, "stand by your man" became tammy's theme song and the title of a movie based on the singer's life. overlooked, however, by her detractors, was wynette's own tough-as-nails will to survive, and what better demonstration of this strength than full disclosure of the pains and hardship she's endured as a working wife and mother? by following her heart, tammy wynette has earned herself two grammy's, three country music association awards and sixteen bmi songwriting honors. her musical catalog--which has sold more than thirty million units--includes twenty number one singles and eleven number one albums.
keeping up with the times, wynette hit the dance floors of the world with her 1992 klf collaboration "justified & ancient." 1992 saw her in the national spotlight again when the wife of then presidential hopeful bill clinton disparaged the singer in comments made to the press regarding her husband's alleged infidelity; ms. clinton later called to apologize to wynette for misrepresenting her esteem for the artist. 1994's without walls paired tammy with such diverse artists as sting, elton john, wynona, smokey robinson, lyle lovett and aaron neville, among others. "i began this project...by writing to all of the people who are on this album. and i really wanted to do it right, by being with each one when we recorded. [we] had a ball together, elton in atlanta and the rest of them here in nashville with me. everybody had a good time and it turned out great," she explained. "this is such an exciting project for me. good lord, i never dreamed that something like this would ever happen in my life."
unfortunately, those words were uttered just four years before tammy's untimely demise at the age of fifty-six. with tammy wynette's death, the music industry has witnessed the passing of yet another diva. her contribution to the music industry will always be apparent, and her strength, courage and honesty will be missed by all who count themselves among her fans. naomi judd summed up the recent loss to the music industry by saying, "tammy was the archetypal country queen, the most distinctive female musical stylist in our history. she was my idol, who become one of my most cherished girlfriends. tammy was one of the most gracious, kind-hearted, humble women i've ever been privileged to know. i was fascinated by tammy the icon and touched by tammy the friend. i'm still in a state of disbelief. it's impossible to even consider our lives without her." ms. wynette is survived by her husband, george richey, five daughters, a son and a legendary body of work.