Tammy Wynette was always the most fragile of the country-music queens. The trademark sob of her voice and the anti-feminist message of her songs conveyed vulnerability and submission, while ongoing health problems and the soap-opera exploits of her private life suggested delicacy and disorder.
As media personalities, most female country stars have represented strength and resilience. From Patsy Cline to Loretta Lynn to Dolly Parton to Reba McEntire, the queens of country music have come across as plenty capable of taking care of themselves.
Wynette, who died April 6 at age 55, appeared as if she needed a hand to guide her and a shoulder to cry on. “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” she sang in a broken whisper of a voice in the opening line of her most famous song, “Stand by Your Man.” While she said she felt blessed to have achieved her dreams, it’s also obvious that life was often hard for her.
Born Virginia Wynette Pugh on May 5, 1942, she was raised by her maternal grandparents on a cotton farm in rural Mississippi. Her father died when she was 9 months old, and her mother moved moved to Memphis to work in a factory. At age 17, she married a construction worker, Euple Byrd. Beset by marital problems, she acquired a beautician’s license and divorced Byrd in 1965while she was pregnant with her third child. That year, at age 23, Wynette moved to Nashville with her children.
Months later, she charged into the office of record producer Billy Sherrill while his secretary was at lunch. The young Wynette told him she wanted a record deal. He asked for a tape. She said she didn’t have one, but she had a guitar and managed to start into a song before Sherrill stopped her. Sherrill heard the famed catch in her voice, he later explained, and it was that distinctive quality that led him to invite her back for a recording session.
Wynette gave Sherrill a perfect foil for his dramatic production style. She didn’t own Patsy Cline’s swelling emotionalism, Connie Smith’s powerful purity, or Loretta Lynn’s sassy twang; instead, her voice was as precious as chipped porcelain. It broke when it reached for high notes, and it seemed to throb with sensitivity. Hers was not country music’s strongest or purest voice; it was, however, among its most soulful and expressive.
Sherrill recognized that. At first, he tried to fit her with the kind of down-home feminine anthems that had been working so well for Loretta Lynn in the mid-’60s; Wynette’s breakthrough single, in fact, was “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” But Sherrill gave the singer a more enduring persona when he came up with her next two hits: “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, was the first of many songs in which Wynette looked at a severed marriage through the eyes of a child. Next came “Stand by Your Man,” the first of many songs in which Wynette pledged to weather her man’s faults and failures.
Sherrill and Wynette wrote “Stand By Your Man” in 20 minutes at the end of a recording session. Sherrill had been carrying around the title “I’ll Stand By You.” He had also been toying with the idea of writing a song that rebutted the feminist movement from the woman’s point of view. As he told author Charles K. Wolfe, “I was so sick of women’s lib.” With Wynette’s help, the tune became one of the most famous country songs of all time.
It also branded Wynette as anti-feminist, an image that drew the ire of the women’s movement in the ’60s and ’70s. That image endured even into the ’90s, when Hillary Clinton told 60 Minutes, “I’m not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”
In truth, Wynette did sing several hard-to-defend anthems that mistakenly equated suffering with strength. In “Too Far Gone,” for instance, a woman tells her husband that he can leave if he wants to, but she’ll be there to take him back. “Good Lovin’ (Makes It Right)” includes such objectionable lines as, “It takes a whole lot of woman to hold it together today, because a lot of other women have a whole lot of time to play.” At their worst, such songs not only suggest that a wife define herself through her husband and her children; they also imply that the most successful wives are masterful manipulators.
But to view Wynette as anti-feminist would be too one-dimensional. Instead, her work represents those traditional, conservative females who resisted the women’s liberation movement because it negated their dream of a fairy-tale home life. At a time when the sexual revolution and women’s lib altered the social landscape, Wynette’s music attracted those who still clung to the increasingly outmoded dreams of lifelong romance and a perfect family.
For some, Wynette’s songs serve as the height of classic country kitschseveral of them have become regular fare for lip-synching drag queens and for alternative-country bands who like to play up the corniness of older country tunes.
But the singer refused to allow herself to become part of the joke. She fired off a public letter to Hillary Clinton, saying that the first lady’s comment about “Stand By Your Man” was offensive to the singer and to anyone with a happy marriage. And when the pop-dance band KLF recruited Wynette for a duet in 1992, the singer didn’t put across the kitschy country persona that the band hoped for. Instead, she came across as dignified and packed with musical personalityas she had in most public appearances in the last decade of her life.
Wynette’s voice and manner were perfect for conveying the messages of her songs. In the end, it wasn’t a man that she stood by; singing in a steely tone of resignation, she stood by her ideology, no matter how tarnished it had become. And though she died too young, she at least seemed to have achieved the successful marriage she so often held aloft in her music. She spent the last 20 years of her life standing by George Richey, who was at her side when she passed away while watching television at home. For the rest of history, however, she will stand aloneas one of the most effective and most controversial country singers of her time.
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