Author’s Note: I wrote this article about Tammy Wynette when she was named Country Music’s Female Entertainer of the Year. She grew up at Tremont in Itawamba County, and I knew her mother, stepfather and grandparents well. I did not know Tammy Wynette, but I did remember Wynette Pugh. This is my story and her story as written by me for the January-February 1969 Issue of See Tupelo Magazine, the publication which launched the Bristow-Miles era of my career.
My story: When a person breaks the system and rises from ordinary stature to become famous and well known in any area there are always those who “remember when.”
In the case of Tammy Wynette, I don’t remember her. But I do have fond memories of Wynette Pugh when she was a high school junior and senior at Tremont High School.
First of all, I remember that while I was still a student at the University of Mississippi, I was contracted for making pictures for the Tremont High School annual and Mrs. Mary Jo Jamieson. Wynette Pugh was a member of the school’s Who’s Who. I remember making a picture in which she and her classmate, Doug Horn, were holding the first camera I ever bought, a low-priced device made in Japan which I used to cover some of the most significant news events of the late 50s and early 60s.
I remember that in 1959 she was Miss Tremont High School. By then I was a reporter for the Tupelo Daily Journal. When someone said Tammy Wynette, Wynette Pugh Byrd or Russell, these names did not seem to fit until some associates explained to me that she had been declared the Outstanding Female Vocalist with D-I-V-O-R-C-E. I still thought Roy Acuff was “King of Country Music,” and I had heard of Loretta Lynn; not Tammy Wynette, however.
Mildred Lee, her mother, was quoted by me in the article as saying, “It’s awful hard for the family to really get to visit with Tammy.” Her husband at the time was George Jones, a super star in his own right.
Her grammar school principal at Oakland in Itawamba County, T. L. Burch, said that “Wynette was head strong.” That meant she probably caused him some problems. “A definite leader of the other girls,” he said.
Her story: “There’s a song in my heart,” so said the writing underneath the high school senior portrait of Wynette Pugh, better known to millions of country music fans as Tammy Wynette. She’s a hometown girl who’s the “hottest” name going in her field right now.
A lot of folks know about Tammy Wynette, but unfortunately not too many have yet connected her with the girl around Tremont, located on U.S. 78 about 30 miles east of Tupelo and almost on the Mississippi-Alabama Line. She always had a singing group as a youngster. She was on her way to entertain other friends, sing on the radio or perform for school or civic functions.
With a rising star record in “Stand By Your Man,” she had six straight hits beginning with “Apartment Number 9.” Then came “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” “I don’t Wanna Play House,” “Take Me To Your World,” and then the really big “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
Tammy caught the magic ring in a little over two years. She had been trying to make ends meet like many of her contemporaries in the Appalachia foothills of Northeast Mississippi and Northwest Alabama. She had two small daughters when a third one was born prematurely. A large hospital bill was run up because of several months’ confinement for the baby.
Tammy’s father, William Hollis Pugh, died when Wynette was only eight months old. He had been a singer, played on radio stations in Alabama and was a frequent musician for the “box suppers” which were used as fund raisers for the small rural schools. Her mother, the former Mildred Russell, married Foy Lee when her daughter was five years old. They lived at the time of this article near Mildred’s father, T. C. Russell, who used to take Wynette to sacred harp singings around the region.
Tammy grew up on the farm of her Grandfather Russell. She chopped and picked cotton. “They made her sound like (talking about the Nashville Country Music Press) she was ‘real hard up’,” her mother said. “While we didn’t have a lot of money, she never wanted for anything.”
People who knew Mr. Russell and Foy Lee knew that they were astute businessmen.
Mr. Burch, the principal, was quoted by Wynette as saying that one day the school children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. “I said that I wanted to be an actress or a singer,” Tammy said. The other kids laughed. Mr. Burch said, “Well, don’t you laugh at her. She could very well be that if she sets her mind to it. You can be anything you want to be if you try hard enough.”
“The idea of becoming an actor or a singer,” Tammy explained, “to a country child, someone who has been born and raised in the country, sounds so farfetched and such a glamorous life that you just wouldn’t even think of it.”
But think of it, she did! For a time, her family lived in Memphis. She got to personally know the Blackwood Brothers, whose gospel music quartet was a great attraction.
Mr. Burch remembered that one morning when he got to school, Wynette and a bunch of her girlfriends were around the old pot-bellied stove used for heat crying. “I asked what the matter was,” he said. “They said some famous entertainers had died.” Mr. Burch knew who they were referring to. It was R. W. Blackwood and Bill Lyle, who had been killed in a plane crash.
Mr. Burch also remembered a music teacher from whom Wynette took lessons as saying, “You can just rake music off that girl.”
Tammy Wynette kept her roots attached to Itawamba County soil as long as her grandfather and grandmother lived.
“I can’t get used to her being called ‘Tammy’,” Mrs. Lee said. “The people in Nashville didn’t even want her to keep the Wynette part of her name.”
Like most of the families in the Tremont area, Tammy’s folks said they loved the “Grand Ole Opry” radio shows. Tammy got her professional start when she became a part of the Country Boy Eddie Show in Birmingham. On her first trip to Nashville, she was disappointed. Then Epic Records’ Billy Sherrill agreed to record her if she could find a suitable piece. She did, and the rest became Cinderella.
Tammy suffered greatly from health problems, operations, prescription drug abuse, various accidents and finally died at much too young an age.
But as I wrote, “It wasn’t all that far from Bounds X Roads in Itawamba County to Nashville and the top of country music.” Wynette Pugh was and remains an inspiration for young “wannabees” in acting, singing and just about every field of popular acceptance.
Bill Miles resides in Fulton and has worn many hats during his career. He has always considered “journalist” as his preferred identification. He was a newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and owner. He taught journalism part-time at Itawamba Community College and for Ole Miss. He started owned and sold magazine operations targeting regional and local audiences in Northeast Mississippi and Alabama. He was founding partner for the first advertising and public relations firm Bristow-Miles Associates, Inc. of Tupelo in the mid-1960s. In 1996 voters in Itawamba and Monroe Counties elected him out of a field of six candidates to represent District 21 in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He was re-elected without opposition and served 12 years. He was Chairman of the influential Committee on Transportation and a key member of the Appropriations Committee under Speaker Billy McCoy. Today, he says, he writes a column for newspapers he likes when “the ink flows in his veins.”