When I was growing up on Route One, our social life centered around church and school activities. I greatly enjoyed both. Seems there was something going on at those two places all the time. Church activities especially took up a lot of our time. Of course, there was the usual Sunday School and Church on Sunday morning and Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) each Sunday night. The fourth Sunday night of each month we had a congregational singing. People came from other churches in and around the community to take part. Once the singing began, it was hard to find a stopping place. If you have ever been to a Sunday night singing you know what I mean. There is one thing that those who love gospel music have in common, once they start singing, one song leads to another until voices begin to give out and piano players hands are tired. Those were the days!
Not every fourth Sunday night, but several times a year, there was a duet that came to sing for us and everyone enjoyed them so much. They were from the Mt. Olive/Providence/Rara Avis area and my, my, how they could sing. The two girls who made up that duet were Linda Loden and Wynette Pugh. Sometimes if Imogene Patterson was at the singing, she would make it a trio and sing with them. We all loved it when they came to share their talent with us. Little did we know that one of those girls would become the First Lady of Country Music and one of the most popular country singers of our time (or any other time).
Time marched on from those Sunday night singings and in the 1960s Wynette Pugh went to Nashville, knocked on the doors of the powers that be in country music, and sang her songs for anyone who would listen. It paid off. Wynette Pugh became Tammy Wynette and the rest, as they say, is history. It is hard for me to pick out a favorite Tammy Wynette song. I like them all, but I think “Stand By Your Man” is the one that is totally and completely her song. I have heard other very talented country singers attempt to sing it, but once you’ve heard Tammy sing that song, everyone else pales in comparison. They should let it alone. Only Tammy can do that one.
I shall never forget the day that Ruble and I were watching the 5 o’clock news. We were living in Prattville at the time. I wasn’t paying too much attention until the newsman said that an Alabama recording artist had performed at the Grand Ole’ Opry and that she had two hit records on the chart. “Tammy Wynette from Red Bay, Alabama,” he said. I could not imagine who he was talking about, but I was reasonably sure I would know of her even if I did not know her personally. It never occurred to me it was Wynette Pugh. First of all, the name threw me and second of all, she was born in Itawamba County. The newsman had said she was from Red Bay. I went to the phone and called my uncle who grew up with me and asked him who it was. Do you remember Wynette Pugh? He asked. “That is the now famous Tammy Wynette!”
I turned to Ruble and said, “Tammy Wynette sang at Shottsville Church many times!” I remembered that she did spend a lot of time in Red Bay and, as she told me years later, “When you grow up in the middle of the country like you and I did, we can call any town we want to our hometown.” She said that to me when she came back to Red Bay to do one of the concerts she did to benefit Red Bay School. I had just begun working at The Red Bay News part time and Rubye Del Harden asked me to interview Tammy about the concert and her ties to Itawamba County and Red Bay. I called her mother, Mildred, who lived just across from Bay Tree Park, and asked her to have Tammy call me when she got to town. Mildred replied, “Why don’t you just come and spend the day with us after she gets here. You and Tammy can talk, and I’ll fix lunch for us.” I happily accepted the invitation.
That day will always be one of my most pleasant memories. First of all, I was amazed at how Tammy wanted to be just “home folk.” She asked me about everyone she could think of from Red Bay to Tremont, to Fulton, and beyond. She called names she remembered, and I was amazed at how close she still felt to the people and places of which she was once so much a part. She invited Ruble and me to come backstage with her at the break during her performance she did for Red Bay School. We have a picture of the three of us and we are all wearing happy smiles. Tammy was one of the most gracious people I have ever known.
Michelle had been her Alabama Fan Club Rep when she was in high school. The day Michelle came home from the hospital following a six-weeks stay after she had the cerebral hemorrhage, Tammy had the most beautiful basket of flowers waiting for her.
One other “Tammy memory” includes our youngest daughter. Dawn and some of her friends were gathered in our living room one night making all the noise that you would expect from a group of teenagers. The phone rang and Dawn answered it. I heard her say, “Yes Ma’am, just a moment,” and then she turned to me, those big blue eyes even bigger than usual and said, “Mama, it’s Tammy Wynette!”
I knew Tammy was going to call me that night, but I had forgotten to spread the word. Silence fell over the happy group in our living room and it was the talk of the school the next day. Whether she was called Wynette or Tammy, she was one of the friendliest, most generous, sincere people I have ever met. I wish she could be here with us to celebrate her 75th birthday. We will all remember her and celebrate her beautiful voice that she shared with the world.
LaVale Mills is Publisher Emeritus of The Red Bay News.