Known as the first lady of country music, Tammy Wynette gained the moniker because she is most widely known in terms of her relationships with men, namely George Jones. (See the Showtime series George & Tammy, for example.) With hits such as “Stand By Your Man” and “Golden Ring,” yes, Tammy Wynette was an icon of American domesticity and femininity. But there were other sides to the first lady of country.
Author Steacy Easton places the complications of Wynette’s music and her biography in sharp-edged relief, exploring how she made her sometimes-tumultuous life into her work, a transformation that was itself art. In their forthcoming book Why Tammy Wynette Matters, Steacy Easton writes:
Wynette’s persona was similar to those of other female twentieth-century performers, on the surface. I think that with [Dolly] Parton, we see her as a dumb blonde made smart. We see her as a Mae West or a Jayne Mansfield, and so by extension we see the persona, and can grasp it. But Wynette was too clever, making her persona hermetic and seamless, rooted in the domestic, so we don’t think about it as a kind of art. That matters.Easton, from Why Tammy Wynette Matters
Easton argues that the struggle to meet expectations of southernness, womanhood, and southern womanhood lends a pathos to her performance of gender. They write, “This makeup has a host of purposes: to save face, to give good face, to face the music and dance, and, in Wynette’s case, to face down grief. To embody all of this requires full high femme armor.” As we eagerly await the May 23rd publication of Steacy’s book, Why Tammy Wynette Matters, we asked them to share some of their favorite Tammy Wynette songs.
“Apartment No. 9,” from Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad (1967)
The saddest song that Tammy ever performed, which means it contests for the saddest song ever performed. Simple in its narrative, where the loss of a lover causes the narrator’s entire existence to collapse—but unlike Skeeter Davis’s end of the world, the existence here is just one apartment, one where:
Loneliness surrounds me without your arms around me
And the sun will never shine in apartment number ninefrom “Apartment No. 9”
“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” from D-I-V-O-R-C-E (1968)
Wynette works best when she is on the right side of mawkish. The conceit here is that Wynette has to spell out the words, to hide what is happening from her four-year-old son, but Wynette is so transparent with her heartbreak that the child must know how miserable she is. The power rests in how the concept fails, and how the feelings overwhelm any tact or good taste.
“Stand By Your Man,” from Stand by Your Man (1969)
The song that, according to Second Hand Songs, has been covered almost two hundred times, and one that was as much a curse as a blessing to Tammy. The conversation has been taken over by bad readings, by polemicists on either side who assume the work is cheap; the ambivalence rests on how prescriptive the work is supposed to be. I think its genius rests somewhere in the space between the utopian wanting of this kind of domesticity and the rueful knowledge that it’s impossible.
“Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” from Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad (1967)
This might be one of Tammy’s most entertaining songs, the rollicking honky-tonk riffs undergirding a song that is mostly spoken. She knows the joke, but the seriousness with which she commits to the idea of turning a suburban house into a roadhouse makes it even funnier; sexier, too, if the listener acknowledges all of the ways that a woman can be “the swingiest swinger you’ve ever had.”
“I Don’t Want to Play House” from Take Me to Your World / I Don’t Wanna Play House (1968)
Part of a trilogy with “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “I Don’t Want to Play House,” the intensity of the emotion is so overwhelming that a less successful performer would make it camp or mire it in mawkish sentimentality. Wynette’s genius is a realism drawn from experience, and also one that foregrounds the feelings of children—it’s still sentimental, but the sentimentality was hard-won.
“My Elusive Dreams” from Let’s Build a World Together (1973)
Wynette recorded this twice—once with David Houston in 1967, which did well (number 1 on the country charts, no. 89 on the Billboard); and once with George Jones in 1973, which sold less well. Figuring out exactly what was autobiographical, what was for the market, and what was done because the song was great is a difficult task for her biographers, but there is something in the Jones version that is smaller and sadder (and it has a killer spoken conclusion). I like to think that it marks a dissatisfaction with the peripatetic touring life.
“Golden Ring” from Golden Ring (1976)
A perfect O Henry story, where a ring is imbued with almost mystical powers, to denote love. It begins in an “old Pawn shop in Chicago,” where two lovers buy a golden ring “with one tiny little stone”; the couple fights, the ring loses its power, and in the last verse, the ring returns to the pawn shop. A taut track, under three minutes, it is Bobby Braddock (the writer) at his most concise and emotionally impactful.
“Til I Can Make It on My Own” from ‘Til I Can Make It on My Own (1976)
One of Wynette’s great skills is her ability to ramp up a song. This track, beginning relatively quietly in a burnished croon, increases in volume until it transforms into a full belt. A heart-breaking song about emotionally insecure codependence made even more so by how she is in complete control of her instrument.
“Bedtime Story” from Bedtime Story (1972)
An extended metaphor about heartbreak, and perhaps about George, made perverse by her singing the story of a destructive marriage, even as an allegory, to her children as a bedtime story.
“(We’re Not) The Jet Set” (1974)
The funniest that Wynette ever was and one of the sweetest songs in her repertoire. Part of a mid-1970s microgenre that critic Richard Peterson called “Poverty Pride,” a genre that includes Bill Anderson’s “Po Folks” and moves on to Lorretta claiming, “I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter,” along with Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes,” “Roots of My Raising,” and “Mama Tried,” and Dolly’s “Coat of Many Colors” and “Chicken Every Sunday.” The song is about finding comfort and desire in working-class signifiers. Each of these songs could be used as propaganda for an understanding of a South that precludes people of color and reinforces a gender traditionalism. One can see shades of Lee Atwater’s strategies for Nixon in its success. The performative use of a working-class persona by Wynette, while hiding her actual wealth as a political strategy and also being a rollicking good time, mark how ambivalent Wynette was, an ambivalence that seems deliberate.
“Womanhood” from Womanhood (1978)
This song was reportedly retrieved from the trash by the songwriter Braddock’s wife. Its text is about one thing (a young girl deciding to give up her virginity) but is really about something else (a middle-aged woman deciding to have an affair). Wynette’s last true masterpiece, it has what may be my favorite lines of hers:
I am a Christian Lord, but I’m a woman too
If you are listenin’ Lord, please show me what to do
I’ve tried hard to be what mama says is good
As I step into my womanhoodfrom “Womanhood”
The lines are brilliant because they recognize that Wynette is performing gender, that womanhood, whatever that is, whatever baggage it has, may be something that can be stepped into, and perhaps stepped out of.
“Cowboy’s Don’t Shoot Straight Like They Used To” from You Brought Me Back (1981)
This song gains added poignancy if “cowboy,” here, is a symbol not only of the failures of men to be faithful but also of country music itself, a Nashville scene that Wynette (not without cause) felt abandoned her.
“Silver Threads and Golden Needles” from Honky Tonk Angels (1993)
This is a complex song. Recorded by Wynette, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn in a moment when Lynn’s and Parton’s careers were on the rise, and Wynette’s was in the doldrums, it might have been read by less generous critics as a kind of rescue mission. The song was written by Jack Rhodes, one of 625 songs he composed. It was performed by Wanda Jackson, and an early band that Dusty Springfield fronted; then Ronstadt recorded a copy, the arrangement later borrowed and embellished by the English folk singer Sandy Denny. Emmylou Harris sang a version, too—and she, Parton, and Ronstadt most likely recorded it or at least rehearsed it in Los Angeles when they were working on a trio themselves. The Trio’s version is not definitive; it is one version of a song that has been recorded a dozen or more times, part of a canon of interpretations and considerations. It’s a very good version, but it’s reassuring to know that even someone as unique as Wynette sings within a tradition. That the song is new but sounds old, and that it was intended to sound like a folk song but was made into one by many people singing it, is another tradition here.
“Girl Thang” from Without Walls (1994)
A late song, with Wynonna Judd, here mostly because I love how their voices work together—a sung/spoken combo of how exactly to belt, how to make noise. It’s also one of the few songs where Tammy kicks out the trifling men in her life, and refuses to stand for bad treatment.
“Justified and Ancient” from The White Room (1991)
Art school rockers KLF restore Tammy, giving her a global hit and her first major success in decades. There is some question of who is zooming whom here, but there is no question about Wynette’s willingness to be in on the joke, no matter how fraught and pretentious that joke may be.
Steacy Easton has written about country music for NPR, Slate, and the Atlantic. They are a PhD student in critical disability studies at York University.