Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… April 6, 1998: Tammy Wynette, Country Legend and Unlikely KLF Collaborator, Dies

'They called me up in Tennessee, they said, Tammy, stand by the JAMs…'

tammy wynette klf
Source: YouTube / KLF

Tammy Wynette's 1991 collaboration with the KLF would be as bizarre as it was brilliant.

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Tammy Wynette was one of country music’s grand dames. Along with Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, she brought a much-needed female perspective to the mostly-macho genre – and she did it in style.

After signing with Epic Records in 1966 aged just 24, she scored a U.S. Hot Country No. 3 hit with her second release, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”, before seeing out the year with three No. 1’s, “My Elusive Dreams” (which also broke into the Hot 100), “I Don’t Wanna Play House”, and “Take Me To Your World”. The following year she stepped up from “hot newcomer” to fully-fledged country star with two singles that would not only become her signature tunes, but all-time classics: “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand By Your Man”, which also broke through to No. 19 in the Hot 100 and topped the British charts.

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tammy wynette ronald reagan
Source: mega

Tammy Wynette became one of country music's most successful stars, seen here singing to President Ronald Reagan.

Over the following decades, she would amass 20 Billboard country No. 1s, two Grammy Awards, three Country Music Association awards, two Academy of Country Music awards, be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, sell some 30 million records worldwide, and acquire the title “The First Lady of Country Music”.

Rolling Stone ranked her at No. 16 on their 2017 list of the 100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time, and four years after that, “Stand By Your Man” was placed at No. 473 on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

When she died, on April 6, 1998, aged just 55, the country music world mourned one of its greats. And so, strangely, did a generation of ravers.

Despite her stellar 30-year career, it was Tammy Wynette’s final Billboard Top 20 hit that once again made her a household name. And if it remains one of the most unlikely, and downright strangest, records ever made, it is also one of the most brilliant.

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“Justified & Ancient”, her straight-out-of-leftfield collaboration with British art-rave pop-agitators the KLF, was released in November of 1991, and became an international hit, making No. 2 in the U.K., No. 11 in the Hot 100, and hitting No. 1 in 18 other countries around the world.

Against a typically KLF-ish barrage of infectious dance grooves, shouted slogans, blasts of rap and a guitar sample stolen from Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”, Wynette’s distinctive, soaring, crystal-clear voice cuts through, an oasis of calm in the madness, seemingly singing at about half the tempo of the music around her, and apparently serenely oblivious of the absurdity of the whole thing as she intoned, with all the passion and sincerity that had spellbound audiences for 25 years, “Allll bound for Mu Mu Land”.

If getting the First Lady of Country to sing the lines: “They’re justified and they’re ancient, and they drive an ice cream van,” seemed incomprehensible (or outrageous) to many, for those familiar with the KLF’s uniquely skewed vision it (almost) made perfect sense.

Formed by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond in 1987 as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, they had enjoyed a 1988 smash as The Timelords with the “novelty” track “Doctorin’ the Tardis” – essentially a mash up of the Doctor Who theme, the Sweet’s “Blockbuster” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part Two)” – before appearing to deliberately mock the hand that fed them by writing a book called The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way).

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Drummond and Cauty’s trolling of the music industry took on a whole new level with their next project. As the KLF (“also known as the The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, furthermore known as the JAMs” as the lyrics to “Last Train to Trancentral” had it) they became the biggest selling singles act in the world in 1991 thanks to a devastating string of rave/rock crossover hits that began with “What Time is Love?”, included “3 a.m. Eternal”, “Last Train to Trancentral”, “It’s Grim Up North” (in which Drummond read a list of northern English towns and cities against a driving techno beat, before the whole thing descended into an orchestral rendition of “Jerusalem”), and, finally, “Justified & Ancient”, with Wynette.

If the KLF’s career had been shaped by their bizarre and often antagonistic artistic vision, it had also been equally defined by their razor-sharp knack for making banging pop songs. With “Justified & Ancient” they took that combination to a new level.

“Justified & Ancient” had first been written four years earlier for their debut album 1987 (What the F--k is Going On) – which they had subsequently been forced to destroy thanks to their extensive use of unauthorized samples – and in 1991 they decided to revisit the track.

“Jimmy and I were working in the studio on what was going to be our new single and it wasn't working out,” Drummond later remembered. “And we were getting a bit desperate. Jimmy turns to me and says, ‘Look Bill, I know what this track needs. It needs Tammy Wynette.’”

tammy wynette
Source: Youtube

The KLF literally called Tammy Wynette up in Tennessee.

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And so what did they do? They got on the phone, somehow tracked down the First Lady of Country Music, and within minutes had been routed to her private line in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We played it down the phone to her,” Drummond said. “And she agreed straight away. I have no idea why she agreed so readily. I actually did go through the lyrics with her. She's used to singing about heartbreak, you know? And she started interrogating me about what the lyrics were about – what’s this about? What's that? And what is Mu Mu Land? But she just accepted: these are the lyrics; this is what I'm singing. She didn't really know what an ice cream van was either.

“We were using her authenticity, whereas everything about us wasn't authentic. Her gravitas, her legend, all of those things that come with the name Tammy Wynette. And she was using the fact that we were major worldwide hitmakers and it'd been a long time since she had a crossover hit.”

The phone call itself is immortalized in the lyric: “They called me up in Tennessee, they said, Tammy, stand by the JAMs” – and if Wynette had any suspicion that the British men were poking fun at her previous biggest hit, she didn’t show it.

“I fell for the track the moment I heard it,” she later told Entertainment Weekly. ”It had a perfect melody, but I didn’t really understand what they were talking about.”

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The insanity is ramped up still further in the video – which again, Tammy took within her stride.

”I was perched 50 feet in the air dressed as a queen, with a bunch of Zulu dancers around me, Japanese girls with long blond wigs, and of course Bill and Jimmy,” she said. ”Like my husband says, they seem to be doing everything wrong but it’s turning out right. It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done outside of country music.”

The song peaked at No. 2 in the British charts – and was only held off the top spot by the rerelease of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

“It was beautiful. I know it sounds corny, but it was,” Drummond said. “It was probably the best record we ever made. And we thought, we're well on course for the Christmas number one… and then Freddie Mercury goes and dies.”

“Justified & Ancient” would also be the KLF’s last proper single release. A month after its chart peak, at a BRIT Awards ceremony in which they picked up the gong for Best British Group, the KLF announced they were “quitting the music business”. (What happened after that is a whole long story for another day.)

The song would also be Tammy Wynette’s last hit – and for the First Lady of Country Music, her most unlikely. In 2008, the Greatest Hits compilation, Stand by Your Man: The Best of Tammy Wynette, was released. The third track on the album, after "Stand By Your Man" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E", is "Justified & Ancient". One can't help wondering how much that would have tickled her.


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