Tammy Wynette's on the road again. " 1990 is going to be 1968 all over, so here we go! There's gold in this here body," insists the First Lady of Country Music. She's referring to the dream year of her career, the year she had two whopping No. 1 records—"Standby Your Man" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Now, as her customized tour bus careers across a stretch of rural interstate, Wynette is thriving on a hectic schedule of 142 concert dates this year. "Performers either hate the road or it gets into their blood like a fever," Tammy has said. "I took to it immediately—You experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but even at the worst of times, it still has a hold on you." It's also the only way for the small, surprisingly fragile blond bombshell—who has recently released an album, Heart over Mind, and has a new single, "What Goes with Blue?"—to reclaim her place on the charts. "I'm still here," she says gamely. "I'm not strong but I'm a survivor."

In 24 years Wynette has carved one of the most spectacular careers in country music—with 52 albums, 21 No. 1 singles, $100 million in record sales and three Grammys. Before her time, female performers rarely headlined country shows; they opened for other acts or sang backup. Wynette, with her gut-wrenching, women-done-wrong anthems, helped to change all that. Then in the late '70s she went into a slump from which she's still trying to recover. Raising the mini-blinds of her bus as it rolls by cotton fields much like the ones she worked as a child, the Mississippi-born country girl ponders those lost years. "It was part my fault. I got content with my position in country music, and I didn't go looking for material or songwriters," she says. "Also, I was anxious for my health to get better. But now I'm sure trying to get back on top."

At the Country Music Association Awards in October, she displayed her new climbing form. Having shed her down-home duds and big, lacquered hair for a more sophisticated look, Tammy seemed confident and carefree—hardly like a woman on intimate terms with calamity. Yet she hasn't been called country music's Queen of Heartbreak for nothing. Almost from the beginning, hers has been a life touched by melodrama.

She was born Wynette Virginia Pugh on May 5, 1942, outside of Tupelo, Miss. Her father, Hollice, died of a brain tumor just nine months later, and her mother, Mildred Lee, temporarily moved to Memphis to work in an aircraft factory, leaving her only child in the care of her cotton-farmer parents. When the war was over, she returned—with a new husband, Foy Lee. As a girl, Wynette indulged her twin passions of music and basketball. Despite being only 5'3", she made the high school all-state team two years in a row. Something of a Virginia ham as well, she missed no opportunity to show off her musical gifts: a uniquely breathy voice and a respectable command of piano, organ, accordion, guitar and flute. Music fantasies were her escape from the reality of picking cotton during the summer harvest till her fingers bled. "The only thing that got me through was daydreaming," says Wynette, who could pick 180 lbs. a day.

As a teenager, Wynette often locked horns with her strict mother and stepfather. One bone of contention with him was her basketball uniform—to prevent her undies from showing, she had to play in long pants until her mother finally agreed to elasticize the legs of the regulation shorts. Her mother also disapproved of Euple Byrd, 24, the construction worker Wynette dated during her senior year. Her mother ordered her to drop Byrd; instead, Tammy ran off with him, forfeiting her high school diploma. Their marriage was the first of many rash decisions Wynette was to make about men.

Married life wasn't what the dreamy songs on the radio and her own fantasies in the fields had promised. In quick succession, two daughters, Gwendolyn and Jackie, arrived. At the time Wynette and Byrd, who was often unemployed, were living in an abandoned log cabin with cardboard insulation and an open fireplace for a stove. By 1964 the young mother, suffering from a kidney infection, exhaustion and depression, could barely crawl out of bed. After a nervous collapse, she was hospitalized and given 12 electroshock treatments. "They were horrible, but they helped me," Wynette says. To add to her distress, she discovered she was pregnant and begged her doctor not to tell Euple. When she came out of her depression, she began divorce proceedings.

But the melodrama continued. On her own now, Wynette gave birth to daughter Tina, a gravely ill preemie weighing 1½ lbs., who then contracted spinal meningitis. Miraculously, she recovered. Within a year Wynette gathered up her girls and headed for Nashville to follow her dream. Making the rounds of record companies, she'd sometimes leave the kids alone in the car while she knocked on doors.

Finally one opened. Billy Sherrill of Epic Records handed her a guitar and asked her to sing simply because she looked so pitiful sitting in his waiting room. "I thought she had a real unique style—like a little teardrop every now and then appears," he says. A few days later he had a song for her to record ("Apartment No. 9," which made the Top 20), and a new name as well—"Tammy," because she reminded him of the bayou girl in the Debbie Reynolds movie. And so Tammy Wynette was born.

But that was not the end of her bad luck and bad judgment. Hubby No. 2, Don Chapel, a part-time songwriter and night clerk at Wynette's motel, may have seemed like a good prospect to a country-bred single mother new to Nashville; however, Wynette recalls the marriage bitterly. Chapel horned in on her career and tried to exploit it—by demanding, for example, "that CBS record his daughter," Wynette recalls. Worse, as she states in her book, Standby Your Man, he swapped nude pictures of her with men whose names he found in porno magazines. "It was a sickening, low-down thing to do," she wrote. In 1968, after two years together, she left him for country-music superstar George Jones, but not before the two rivals enjoyed an old-fashioned punch-out.

Tammy's marriage to Jones, now 59, produced one child, Georgette (now 20 and a nursing student), 11 duo hit records (three of which reached No. 1) and one country-western amusement facility, Old Plantation Music Park, which was Jones's brainchild. (They sold it after three years.) The union was always stormy. Jones would disappear on drinking binges. On one occasion he returned, intoxicated, to trash their home, and on another he resorted to violence. Yet for five years, until she could bear it no more, they stayed together.

"With George gone, I felt utterly lost and lonely," Tammy has said. But soon Wynette found comfort in the arms of Rudy Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers, who was also a member of her band, and then actor Burt Reynolds. Tammy fell hard for Reynolds, but fearing that it wasn't mutual, she wed husband No. 4, real estate entrepreneur Michael Tomlin, to protect herself. The marriage lasted 44 days, ending, Wynette says, when the groom bilked her of $8,000. "I made a lot of dumb mistakes," she observes, "but thank God I finally got it right."

Mr. Right, in this case, is husband No. 5, manager-songwriter George Richey, whom she married in 1978. He is fiercely protective, hovering over her interviews, warding off unwelcome questions, ordering her chaotic universe. When they get a few days away from their road schedule, the Richeys hole up in their 11-bedroom, 15-bathroom Nashville home, First Lady Acres. Some evenings they'll go out bowling or for dinner with friends like Waylon Jennings and his wife, Jessi Colter. Often they take care of Wynette's four grandchildren by daughter Jackie. "More and more, we enjoy our time alone," says Tammy. "We go to bed at 6, and I watch television until it goes off. Richey's usually asleep by 9."

Yet even with Richey guarding the store, trouble finds Wynette. Just three months after their wedding, she claims she was abducted from her Caddy at gunpoint by a stranger, then beaten and left by the roadside. (No charges were pressed, and some suspected that Wynette staged the incident to revive her career.) Then, in 1988, she became a footnote to the S & L mess when a loan she had co-signed on a Florida shopping center went bad. As a result, the Richeys filed for personal bankruptcy to avoid having their assets seized.

But the most enduring problem for Wynette and her family has been her health. By 1987 she had had more than 17 major surgeries, including an appendectomy, hysterectomy, gallbladder removal and 14 stomach and intestinal operations. She struggled through with prescription painkillers. "When you're bent over double and have to perform in front of thousands of people, you have to take something to relieve it," Wynette says. But by 1986 her addiction to the drugs was severe enough to land her in the Betty Ford Center. While there, she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors removed 25 inches of intestine. In bed for four months, Tammy got hooked on drugs again.

"They tapered me off in the hospital, but sometimes I had severe pain," she says. "I tell my children, 'I never took cocaine, marijuana or speed. I just took something to ease pain.' They blame me, but they've never endured pain. They've never had operation one and didn't know how to sympathize."

Though they went through the family program together at Betty Ford, it appears that miles of misunderstanding still separate mother and daughters, especially Tina and Gwen. "Sometimes they condemn me and make me feel like almost nothing," Tammy says. "They have such strong feelings, due to scars I left unintentionally. Never physical abuse, God, no. Only mental."

"The way I see it," says Jackie Paule, 28, mother to Wynette's four grandchildren, "my mother had a goal—she wanted to be an entertainer. And her family was secondary. She was gone all the time." Paule, a homemaker, claims to be more forgiving than her sisters because, being the only one with children, she wants them "to have a grandmother to spend time with." She says that Gwen, who's married and lives in Nashville, speaks to her mom but "doesn't see her very much."

Wynette's third daughter, Tina, 25, also has an o(T-again, on-again relationship with Tammy, possibly because, she says, "we're pretty much the same as far as our temperaments go." Things have been especially prickly since Tina ran away at 17 and moved in with a friend whose family called the human services department. Wynette refused to go after her because, she explained to a reporter, "every time she gets upset when I'm on the road, she's going to do this same thing." As a result, Tina spent six months first in a halfway house for teenage girls and then in a foster home.

Afterward, Tina—who to this day insists that she didn't run away and that "my mom knew where I was"—reconciled with Wynette long enough to accept a job as one of her backup singers. But unlike Tammy, she found life on the road to be "the pits." Instead, she enrolled at beauty school and now works as a nail sculptress in Brentwood, Tenn., where she lives with her husband, John Wolff, a driver for Ricky Skaggs' band.

Still, Tammy says with no trace of irony, "I feel close to my girls. We have our arguments like all kids and mamas, but heavens, yes, I'm very close to them."

During the past weeks, Wynette and her family have been dealing with another kind of sorrow, gathering at the bedside of Tammy's mother, Mildred, who underwent bypass surgery late in August and has since suffered a stroke. "My greatest accomplishment," says Tammy, "was being able to support my mom. When I got my first recording check, I said, 'I don't ever want you to work again.' And she never did."

Wynette casts a superstitious eye on the calamities that have befallen her. "Sometimes I think I've had my share," she says, smiling, "and sometimes I think I haven't yet and maybe I'll get more if I say that."

Right now she's just grateful to be on the road and filling halls, large and small. "You have to accept the peaks and valleys," Tammy says. "I'm not ready to retire yet, but someday they're going to say, 'Tammy who?' And then I'll hang it up."

Marjorie Rosen, Jane Sanderson in Nashville

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sanderson.