"Tammy [Wynette]'s music faithfully follows the notion that country music is poor folk's psychiatry … a salve for the beleaguered housewife who grits her teeth as destiny dumps its slops on her head."
Those were Newsweek's words, not Hillary Clinton's. But a similar sentiment expressed by the wife of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was enough to inspire Wynette to write the now-famous screed she sent to many news organizations after Mrs. Clinton said, in her "60 Minutes" "duet" with Bill, "You know, I'm not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." Wynette's point was that her biggest hit, 1968's "Stand By Your Man," was not designed to teach that a "good" woman should stand by mutely while her husband slithers in and out of the house to drink, lie, and cheat; it was designed to honor reasonable loyalty to a man facing life's struggle. Intuiting, shamanlike, that her following was mortified by the insult, she thundered that Clinton had offended "all `little women' in the country who `stand by their man' and are potential supporters of Governor Clinton. How dare you!"
Who was right? What was the encoded message of "Stand By Your Man"? Adopting an objective New Criticism approach and focusing only on the text doesn't work -- it can be read either way. But if you look at the bio behind the song, you gain insight.
Professionally, the main man Wynette stood by was her producer, Billy Sherrill. As she writes in her 1979 autobiography, Stand By Your Man, her goals were success, fame, and cash, and, to those ends, she put her faith in Sherrill's marketing and songwriting talents. "I have so much confidence in his taste and judgment that I'd record `Yankee Doodle' if he asked me to," she writes. Indeed. And when it counted -- the late 1960s, when redneck domestic feudalism was still rampant throughout the South, when women there desperately needed Wynette to flap semaphore flags that spelled out Views They Could Use -- she carelessly issued a syrupy anthem to obedience.
"Billy Sherrill and I wrote [it] in about fifteen minutes one afternoon before a recording session," she says in SBYM. When "Stand By Your Man" was released, it drew fire from many feminists who interpreted it as a knee-jerk reaction to their beliefs. Wynette rejects this reading in SBYM. She even claims proto-fem status because she made it in the chauvinistic country-music business without lying down for any potbellied record execs. She deserves credit for that, but the overall claim won't wash. After making it big, she happily became the type of Bewigged, Sequined & Pampered Songbird that Robert Altman skewered in Nashville. Wynette was pleased to tell interviewers all about her counter-countercultural values. "Basically, country people don't think about protesting … I have no desire to be freer than I am," she told Newsweek.
Funny, because at that moment she needed a release from bondage, as well as a crash course in relationship management. At this point in her life she had already been through two bad marriages and was in the midst of a third. (She's now happily married to George Richey, a songwriter.) The former Virginia Wynette Pugh had, at age 17, married a Mississippian named Euple Byrd, who, she says, turned out to be lazy, boring, and good at only one thing: insemination. She fled him in 1966 -- with three kids in tow -- to "make it" in Nashville. There, along with her mentor Sherrill (who changed her name to Tammy Wynette), she met Don Chapel, a country singer, who later lost her heart when he admitted that he had taken buff pictures of her on the sly, then swapped them with pen pals he met in porn magazine classified ads. Admittedly, she can't be blamed for fleeing Chapel, but the way in which she tiddlywinked into the arms of her next husband, George "Possum" Jones, at the very least raises serious questions of judgment. The marriage, which ended in d-i-v-o-r-c-e in 1975, is the best illustration yet of the folly of Stand By Your Man-ism and her reed-thin commitment to it.
Jones, a sheaf-haired country groaner, was raised in the Big Thicket region of Texas, a deep-sticks area where, as one native puts it in Jones's 1984 biography, Ragged But Right, "The ideal sex … is after a man really gives his wife a good beating and she's really crying, completely subdued and huddled in terror." Jones was already notorious for being one of the most debauched and booze-soaked country greats ever. As Wynette tells it in SBYM, her hasty leap from Chapel's frying pan to Jones's fire occurred one night in 1968. Wynette and Chapel were at home squabbling. Jones, a family friend, showed up drunk. While Chapel unwisely mixed Jones another, he resumed insulting Wynette, saying, "Well, you bitch. You're not fit to sleep with anyway."
Jones went off like an ICBM. "All of a sudden [George] was a tornado, wrecking my house," Wynette writes. "He looked straight at Don and said, `You don't talk to her like that.' …
"Don stammered, `Wha-what's it to you? She's my wife!'
"George shot back, `That may be so, but I love her.'" Tammy blurted out that she loved Jones too. Jones scooped up her and the kids and roared off into the night in his Eldorado. "He had rescued me from a husband I didn't love," Wynette coos in SBYM, revealing a dangerous Cinderella Complex, "just like the knight on the white charger saved the captive princess in fairy tales."
Touching. Only problem was that this knight had Skoal stains on his armor, and his steed was a white Pontiac convertible customized by one "Mr. Nudie of Hollywood," who fitted it with hundreds of embedded silver dollars, longhorns on the hood, and rifle mounts over the front-wheel fenders. Jones was a bully, philanderer, drunk, and budding cokehead. The Jones sections of SBYM are a catalog of interpersonal polecattery. One time he came home in an alcoholic rage, found his loaded .30-.30 rifle, and "aimed [it] right at my back" while Tammy fled. "I heard him say, `You may run out on me, baby. But you won't run out on this.'"
Is this Wynette's fault? No. But given the obvious follies of Stand By Your Man-ism as it played out in her life, some minor recognition of these facts might have been nice. She could even have composed an answer-song in the tradition of Kitty Wells, whose first hit, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," was a rebuttal to her husband's ode to the joys of painted-slut bar trash. Suggested title for Wynette's number? "Stand By Your Men (Until It Stops Making Sense)."
Alex Heard is a frequent contributor to The New Republic.