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Remembering Tammy Wynette

Remembering Tammy Wynette — Country music’s stalwart first lady lived the hard life of her bittersweet songs.

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Remembering Tammy Wynette

No matter what lyric she sang, Tammy Wynette’s voice carried a racking sob. It might be a plea for love, for fidelity, for forgiveness — for a happiness so pure it broke her heart. But that throaty cry was what millions found moving in the music of Wynette, who died April 6 at age 55 — the victim, according to preliminary reports, of complications from a blood clot to the lungs.

Born Virginia Wynette Pugh on a cotton farm in Itawamba County, Miss., Wynette spent her youth picking cotton, working as a beautician, a waitress, and a shoe-factory employee before heading to Nashville and coming to the attention of legendary producer Billy Sherrill. He recognized that while her voice was more limited — more pinched and tense — than those of the great female country singers who had preceded her, Wynette’s tone could express intense sorrow and suffering.

Out of this insight sprang such hits as ”Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” (note she didn’t start out a noble masochist) and, in 1968, the back-to-back songs that defined her image, ”D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and ”Stand By Your Man,” a pledge to blind faithfulness that flew in the face of incipient feminism. The latter tune (rereleased as a single a week before Wynette’s death to mark its 30th anniversary) was used as arch irony in the 1970 Jack Nicholson film Five Easy Pieces and invoked disparagingly by Hillary Clinton during a 1992 60 Minutes interview, in which the nation’s First Lady averred, in a pre-Lewinsky era, that she was ”not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”

Wynette herself stood by five husbands, most notably the great country crooner George Jones, with whom she recorded numerous hit duets. Their tumultuous 1969 marriage and 1975 divorce (which she blamed on ”my naggin’ and his nippin”’) became the stuff of country-music legend — as did a 1978 kidnapping, a romance with Burt Reynolds, and an addiction to painkillers.

Wynette was a bridge between old-style country and a younger generation that includes Lorrie Morgan, Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker, and Pam Tillis. As Tillis remembers: ”The first time I heard her sing live, I was just a kid. She hit that high F in ‘Stand by Your Man,’ and I just fell out of my chair. I thought, Man, that chick is wailin’! I saw Marty Stuart the other day, and he said, ‘Pam, the Nashville you and I grew up in isn’t there anymore.’ And he’s right. Tammy was a landmark — one of those people we navigate by.” —

(Additional reporting by Alanna Nash)

Essential discs

Like most veteran country singers, Tammy Wynette did her greatest work in her hit singles. The finest collection of these:

Anniversary: 20 Years of Hits (Sony, which includes everything from her first hit (”Apartment #9”) to some of her finest duets with George Jones (”Two Story House,” ”We’re Gonna Hold On,” ”Golden Ring”). Beware Sony’s Tears of Fire: The 25th Anniversary Collection, a bloated three-CD anthology padded out with dross.

Other notable CDs include

Take Me To Your World, a fine 1968 album about pain and longing rereleased this year by Koch Records.

We Love to Sing About Jesus, a spine-tingling gathering of hymns recorded over the years with Jones, recently reissued on Razor & Tie Records.