Remembering the first lady of country, Tammy Wynette

Joel Bernstein, May 1998

Like most country singers of her generation, Tammy Wynette (who was buried Thursday) came from a background of rural poverty and had to work hard for everything she got.

And like many country stars of her generation, she also lived out too many of her songs - which in her case meant a lot of abusive relationships and broken hearts.

By all accounts, she finally did find a happy marriage. By that time, health problems were making her life difficult in other ways. Wynette underwent numerous operations for a never fully explained stomach problem. She became addicted to painkillers. At some concerts over the last couple of years, she appeared in obvious discomfort, apparently having difficulty even breathing, let alone singing.

Yet it was not for nothing that she became known as "The First Lady Of Country Music." Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn had more chart success, and were certainly great singers in their own right, but as a pure vocalist, Wynette outshone them both.

It is one of her lesser known hits that epitomizes her greatness most of all. "The Wonders You Perform" reached Number Five in 1970, but it wasn't even included on her box set. The blatantly religious lyrics (no, there's nothing new about Christian Country) were enough to make a non-believer gag. But the greatest of all Tammy Wynette vocal performances could leave even a hardened atheist spellbound.

Wynette's life would seem to be made for a TV movie. (In fact, it was: Annette O'Toole starred in the 1981 adaptation of Wynette's autobiography.) Her sharecropper/musician father died when she was eight months old. Her interest in music was fueled by the instruments he left behind, her one link to the father she never knew.

By the time she headed to Nashville at age 23, she had three young daughters and a broken marriage. Too unsophisticated to even make a demo tape, Wynette knocked on doors all over town, only to be told time and time again that the label had no need for another "girl singer." (Incredibly, this quota system on female vocalists still exists at some labels even today).

Finally, she encountered Billy Sherrill at the right time. Looking for a suitable name (she had been going by her married name Wynette Byrd) he decided she looked like Debbie Reynolds in the movie "Tammy."Her first single, Johnny Paycheck's "Apartment #9", was a curious choice, because the version by Bakersfield singer Bobby Austin was already in the Top 30 at the time. Despite that handicap, Wynette's version actually got to Number 44.

It would be a long time before she ever charted that low again. Her next record, "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," reached number three. It would actually be a while before she ever charted that low again, either. Her final tally was 16 solo Number one records, plus three with George Jones and one with David Houston.

Her signature song, of course, was "Stand By Your Man", which also reached Number 19 on the pop charts. This song remains one of the most misunderstood of hits. Its key line, "but if you love him..." is overlooked by many who interpret the song as advocating total subservience. Wynette's own life proves that she was quite capable of getting away from bad relationships herself. (And regardless of the song's interpretation, the absurdity of Hillary Clinton criticizing "Stand By Your Man" was obvious to many observers long before Monica Lewinsky appeared on the scene.).

In 1975, for reasons unknown, "Stand By Your Man" was rereleased in England, where it had never been a hit. This time it went to number one on the pop charts there, and her second-biggest U.S. hit. "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." then followed by going to number 12. This made her a beloved singer in that country, and in the early 90s, she was asked by a British dance-pop group, The KLF, to sing on one of their records. The song, "Justified and Ancient", had lyrics she couldn't possibly have understood. Yet, Wynette - long gone from the country charts by that time - delivered her usual magnificent performance. The record became an international hit, and even reached Number 11 in the U.S., becoming her biggest pop record in this country.

It's a shame that many people only know Tammy Wynette for one or a few songs. Even many of today's country fans have never heard much of her work. She had an enormous number of great recordings. All her hits and her early albums are available on CD and everyone should own them. Singers this great don't come along very often.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •