April 20, 1998 12:00 PM

In 1964, Wynette Byrd enrolled at the American Beauty College in Birmingham, Ala. Just 22, Byrd—three months pregnant, trying to raise two young daughters and recently separated from her husband—had the fantastic notion of someday becoming a country-music singer. The other beauticians thought the little girl from Mississippi wouldn’t last much longer than a perm, if she ever even made it to Nashville. “She used to sing, and I kidded her about it,” says Nancy Frascatore, a fellow student who now runs Nancy’s Gifts & Beauty Salon in Birmingham. “She was lousy then. Real twangy. I never in a million years thought that girl would amount to anything.”

But amount she did. As Tammy Wynette, the country-music giant who died unexpectedly last week at age 55 in a mansion once owned by Hank Williams Sr., she fulfilled her most outlandish dreams. With teary anthems including “Stand by Your Man” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Wynette became a hardscrabble-to-sequins Nashville sensation, singing from the depths of an unhappy heart while living the outsize life of a superstar. During her reign as First Lady of Country, she sold more than 30 million records, buoyed by 39 Top 10 country hits and 3 Country Music Association Awards. She even wed her girlhood idol, honky-tonk heartbreaker George Jones.

Still, even at the height of her fame, Wynette was equally renowned for battling her way through decades of physical and emotional crises. There were four failed marriages, dark periods of depression, and an addiction to painkillers born of chronic medical ailments that, according to some estimates, resulted in at least 17 major surgeries, including a hysterectomy and more than a dozen stomach and intestinal operations. But her death, when it came, was mercifully serene. On the night of April 6, she developed a blood clot in her lungs after dozing off while watching TV in the sitting area of her kitchen. “She deserved an easy death,” says Evelyn Shriver, who was her publicist for the past decade. “She had a tough life.”

Before the end, Wynette had finally found some measure of peace at home. She had been happily married for 20 years to her fifth husband, George Richey, her manager since 1981. “George was her world, and she was his,” says Norro Wilson, who coproduced her last record, One, a reunion album with Jones. “Richey has been so upset by this he can barely talk.” And though her touring and her troubles often disrupted family life, she treasured her daughters (Gwendolyn Ignaczak, 36, Jacquelyn Daly, 35, and Tina Jones, 32, from her first marriage, to Euple Byrd; and Tamala Georgette Smith, 27, from her marriage to Jones), as well as step-daughter Deirdre Richardson, 34, and stepson Kelly, 32, Richey’s children. “We have arguments like all mamas and kids,” said the grandmother of seven, “but heavens yes, I’m close to my girls.”

Yet the toll from her illnesses was increasingly apparent, and she hated seeing herself on television, according to Shriver. Some saw her death as a blessing. “We know she had tremendous pain,” says Hank Williams Jr., who a few years ago witnessed the frail star being assisted offstage at a Nashville concert. “I said, ‘That woman is really ill, and she’s got to be really tough.’ ”

Through it all, Wynette never showed the public her physical suffering. A month ago she performed in Tampa and was even scheduled for a TNN concert next month with Melissa Etheridge and Trisha Yearwood. Nor did she ever object to the tour buses that parked by her property’s gates. “I’ll be concerned,” she said, “when they no longer stop.” Wynette, says singer Brenda Lee, “had a very special bond with the everyday people, and they in turn loved her.” On the day of her funeral, scheduled for April 9, a public memorial was to be held at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Wynette shrewdly put all her pathos into her powerful voice. “The way she got into a song, with such fragility,” says singer Ricky Skaggs, “you could tell there was hurt there.” But Wynette always regarded her voice as just average. “I’m not the best singer in the world,” she liked to say, “just the loudest.”

The world was certainly hearing her loud and clear by 1968, when she sang a ballad beginning “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, giving all your love to just one man.” “Stand by Your Man,” which Wynette cowrote with her first producer, Billy Sherrill, has since been sung by everyone from Lyle Lovett to Alvin and the Chipmunks. It has just as often been derided as an anthem of co-dependence, out of place in a feminist age. Wynette—who demanded and received an apology from Hillary Clinton when the future First Lady made what Wynette took to be a patronizing remark about the song during a famous 1992 60 Minutes interview—always insisted she was misunderstood. “The song doesn’t say anything at all about being a doormat,” she told PEOPLE late last year. “Don’t let him walk on you. Heavens no! I’m a firm believer in equal rights. You can do anything a man can do mentally. Physically you can’t. But don’t ever let them tell you you can’t.”

There was no better example of such determination than that of Wynette herself, who grew up in rural poverty in Itawamba County, Miss., raised for the most part by grandparents. Her father, William Hollice Pugh, died of a brain tumor when she was only 9 months old. Her mother, Mildred Faye, went off to Memphis for a wartime factory job and later remarried, but Wynette never got along with her stepfather and made music her escape. She claimed she could dimly remember sitting on her father’s lap at the piano, and before he died, she said, “He made my mother promise him over and over again that she would encourage me to take an interest in music.” She learned to play accordion, guitar, piano and flute and loved to perform.

But life on her grandparents’ farm, picking up to 180 pounds of cotton a day, was harsh, and she was determined, she said later, “to get away as fast as I could.” (Years later she kept bolls of cotton she had picked as a girl in a crystal vase in her lavish home.) Dropping out of high school at 17, she married construction worker Euple Byrd. The couple lived in a shack without electricity with their infant daughters, and as the six-year marriage unraveled, Wynette suffered her first breakdown and received electroshock treatments. “They were horrible,” she said, “but they helped me.” She and Byrd had already split by the time she gave birth to Tina, who was born with spinal meningitis and barely survived.

Facing $6,000 in medical bills, Wynette began her beauty-school education in Birmingham. “Back then she was like a lot of us,” remembers a fellow beautician, friend Judie Moore. “A divorcee, trying to make a living, wanting to do something besides fix hair. But she took her ambition and went with it.” She got a singing gig on a local a.m. TV program, The Country Boy Eddie Show. “I didn’t pay her but $30 a week,” says guitarist Eddie Burns, who emceed the show. “I told her one time, ‘The way you sing, you ought to go to Nashville.’ One morning she told me that was what she was going to do.”

In 1966 she did—and began trying unsuccessfully to audition for producers. Billy Sherrill, impressed by a voice in which, as he put it, “a little teardrop every now and then appears,” renamed her (“Tammy” came from the Debbie Reynolds film series about a blonde bayou girl) and started recording with her. Tammy’s first single, “Apartment #9,” was an instant hit and was followed by “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” which won her the first of two Grammys.

By the late ’60s she was the hottest country singer in town. Soon after “Stand by Your Man,” Wynette ended her 15-month second marriage to Don Chapel, a part-time songwriter and hotel clerk, and took up with George Jones. “I loved him from the start,” said Wynette, who used to daydream about him back on the farm. After they married in 1969, they became Nashville’s answer to Liz and Dick. “That’s the way people felt about us,” she later recalled. In the studio they were in perfect harmony on such classic duets as “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Near You.” But their home was a battleground. Jones, at the time an alcoholic and cocaine addict, once chased his wife with a rifle. As Wynette later summed it up, “I was naggin’ and he was nippin’.”

After the couple divorced in 1975, Wynette briefly dated Burt Reynolds, then was just as briefly married to Nashville real-estate mogul Michael Tomlin for 44 days. In 1978 she made her final trip to the altar, with Richey (with whom she cowrote her hit “‘Til I Can Make It on My Own”). Said Wynette: “I made a lot of mistakes, but thank God I finally got it right.”

Yet in Tammy Wynette’s world, something always seemed to go wrong. One night in May 1976, three fires were set in her house, causing $150,000 worth of damage. Two years later—in another case that remains a mystery—Wynette was kidnapped from a Nashville shopping mall by a gun-toting assailant who broke her cheekbone before releasing her 80 miles away. (Some regarded the incident as a sick publicity stunt—a charge Wynette angrily denied.) She and Richey filed for bankruptcy in 1988, when a loan she cosigned on a Florida shopping center went bad.

By then, Wynette was a walking case study in medical crises. A series of intestinal operations in the early ’80s often left her doubled over in pain and got her hooked on painkillers. “I never took cocaine or marijuana or even speed,” she said of her addiction, for which she was treated at the Betty Ford Center in 1986. “I just needed something to ease pain, and stupidly I just flat overdid it.” In 1995 she was hospitalized with a near-fatal liver ailment. “I was just that far from being dead,” she recalled. “I had no pain. I wasn’t scared. It was all just very peaceful. I felt like I was floating somewhere.”

Recovering, Wynette hit the road again, trying to stay as hip as was feasible for a country legend. She recorded an album of duets with younger singers like Sting and had a surprising European club hit, “Justified & Ancient,” with the British dance band KLF. But these forays into pop weren’t much of a boost to a recording career slumping in middle age. She felt abandoned by Nashville, says Mike Martinovich, who worked with her as a marketing vice president for Sony Music and Epic Records. “But she was such a lady she would never really talk about it.”

Instead, Wynette, who kept her cosmetology license current into the ’80s, had her famous blonde mane cut into a more contemporary spikey do and kept performing whenever she could. A few years ago, on a visit to Birmingham, she stopped in at old friend Judie Moore’s salon. “She said, ‘I can’t believe you’re still fixing hair,’ ” says Moore. “I said, ‘Well, I never learned to sing.’ ” Through all the pain and the heartache, that was the one thing no one could ever say of Tammy Wynette.

Tom Gliatto

Beverly Keel in Nashville, Kathy Kemp in Birmingham, Jane Sanderson in Memphis, Cindy Dampier, Joanne Fowler and Barbara Sandler in Chicago and Steve Dougherty in New York City

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