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Tammy Wynette; ‘First Lady of Country’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tammy Wynette, whose twangy, tearful odes to female fidelity and heartbreak included the hit “Stand By Your Man,” died Monday in Nashville. She was 55.

Wynette, who was known as the “First Lady of Country Music,” had a long history of health problems and died at home. The cause of her death was not disclosed.

“Stand By Your Man,” which she co-wrote with producer Billy Sherrill, became her best known--and most controversial--song.

After its release in 1968, feminists criticized the lyrics, which exhorted women to support their man--right or wrong--because “after all, he’s just a man.” Wynette later said she didn’t have “women’s lib” in mind when she wrote the song. All she wanted to do, she said, was “write a pretty love song.”

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Controversy about the song even flared during the 1992 presidential campaign after Hillary Rodham Clinton, emphasizing that she was not supporting her husband blindly, told an interviewer: “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”

Wynette replied angrily that Mrs. Clinton had “offended every true country music fan and every person who has ‘made it on their own’ with no one to take them to a White House.” She added that if she and the Yale-educated Clinton ever met, “I can assure you, in spite of your education, you will find me to be just as bright as yourself.”

Wynette’s humble beginning, her years of substance abuse and her five marriages provided her with material for numerous quintessential country songs.

She was born Virginia Wynette Pugh on a cotton farm near Tupelo, Miss. Her father died when she was 10 months old, and she was raised by her mother and grandparents. She chopped cotton as a girl and married a construction worker when she was 17. She had three children in three years.

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Wynette became a beautician--and up until her death kept her license up to date--but dreamed of becoming a country singer. Her husband was not enthusiastic about her plans, so she left him and pursued her singing career.

She was working as a beautician in Birmingham, Ala., and frequently driving to Nashville in the hopes of getting discovered. Porter Wagoner was impressed with her earthy singing style and the sincerity she brought to each song, and he asked her to sing at his road shows.

She then impressed Sherrill, a well-known Nashville record producer, and he signed her to a record deal. Her first hit was in 1966, with a Johnny Paycheck song, “Apartment No. 9.”

The next year she recorded a No. 1 country hit--"D-i-v-o-r-c-e.”

In the late 1960s, she met country music great George Jones and the two became singing partners, ultimately marrying. It was a tumultuous six-year union, ending in 1975, partly because of Jones’ drinking. Wynette continually tried to temper Jones’ alcohol consumption, on one occasion confiscating his car keys.

She later discovered him riding their lawn mower to a nearby bar.

Wynette, who had a devoted country music following for decades, attracted a mainstream audience after the movie “Five Easy Pieces,” which featured several of her songs.

Wynette was a three-time winner of the Country Music Assn.'s female vocalist of the year award, from 1968 to 1970. She recorded more than 50 albums and sold more than 30 million records.

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Wynette’s hits included “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” “Womanhood,” “Take Me to Your World,” “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” “Singing My Song” and “The Ways to Love a Man.”

In the fall of 1993, she teamed up with fellow country queens Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn to record the album “Honky Tonk Angels.”

She was hospitalized for various ailments dozens of times and disclosed in the late 1970s that she was dependent on painkilling drugs.

In 1978, Wynette was abducted at a Nashville shopping center, driven 80 miles in her luxury car, beaten and released by a masked assailant. No motive was ever determined and no one was ever arrested, but Wynette said a few years later that the man apparently ended up in prison for another crime.

She filed for bankruptcy in 1988 as a result of a sour investment in two Florida shopping centers.

Her five husbands were her high school sweetheart Euple Byrd; singer Don Chapel; Jones; Nashville real estate executive Michael Tomlin, and singer-songwriter George Richey.

Wynette is survived by five daughters and one son.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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