Tammy Wynette, dubbed the first lady of country, died in her sleep on Monday (April 6) from what is believed to be a blood clot. She was 56. In recent years, she had undergone over 30 operations for bowel disorders.
Born Virginia Wynette Pugh in Mississippi, she rose from humble origins – as a child she picked cotton – to become one of country music’s biggest superstars. While working as a beautician in Birmingham, Alabama, she commuted to Nashville, capital of the country music industry, visiting record companies with her demos before teaming up with producer and songwriter Billy Sherrill and signing to Epic records where she had her first major hits, ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ and ‘Stand By Your Man’, in 1968. Both songs were UK number one hits in 1975.
At a time of major political and social upheaval, Wynette was the soundtrack of the so-called silent majority of conservative middle America. ‘Stand By Your Man’, ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ and ‘The Ways To Love A
Man’ were almost anti-femminist rallying calls. One critic dismissed her records as “music to wash dishes to”. Bob Rafelson, in his film Five Easy Pieces, used her music to signify the values of ignorant white trash America. But there was another side to her. When Hillary Clinton told Time magazine “I’m not some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” during the 1992 Presidential Campaign, Wynette hit back at the insult, saying that she had made it on her own and hadn’t been had anyone to take her to the White House.
Wynette’s personal life was stormy; married five times, including an ill-fated match with fellow country superstar George Jones. She had a history of addiction to painkillers and in 1988 was declared bankrupt.
In 1978 Wynette was kidnapped in Nashville by a masked man, driven away in her car, beaten up and then released. No-one was ever charged with the crime. In 1992 she had an unlikely team up with The KLF for ‘Justified And Ancient’, where she crooned “They’re justified and they’re ancient and they drive an ice cream van.”
Filming the video at Pinewood in November 1991, Wynette told NME “she hadn’t a clue” what she was doing. “I didn’t understand what some of the words meant. I know about ice cream vans, but I’d never heard of a ’99 before. Bill explained it to me and now it makes perfectly good sense. I’m still not sure about justified and ancient though.”