Tammy Wynette
By: David Smay | Categories: HiLo Heroes


It’s telling that TAMMY WYNETTE (1942–1998) recorded “Stand By Your Man” in Billy Sherrill’s famous Nashville quonset hut while her second husband was standing outside the building with the divorce papers. It’s almost unbearably intimate watching clips of her singing “Golden Ring” with George Jones after they split up, her adoration for him is still so plain. (Jones expressed his adoration in customary whackadoo fashion, once sawing all the heels off Tammy’s shoes so she couldn’t run away.) In a life of high drama that started with her father’s death in her infancy and continued through to the murky circumstances surrounding her own death at age 55, the one indisputably honest thing about Tammy was her voice, an unalloyed conduit of broken love. Hillary Clinton grabbed onto the third rail with both hands when she dismissed “Stand By Your Man,” a political misstep which betrayed a long-standing feminist blind spot to class. Regarding her signature song, Tammy said, “I spent twenty minutes writing it and twenty years defending it.” But she wasn’t the Queen of Country Music for that one song, and it might be the last of her twenty #1 country hits, “Til I Can Make It On My Own,” that stands as her masterpiece. I qualify it with “country” because her very last hit was the worldwide pop smash “Justified and Ancient” with the KLF in 1991, which only looks like a bizarre outlier in her career when it’s really a near perfect encapsulation of all her contrarieties: regal, vulnerable, goofy, lush, haunting, unknowable and intimate.

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David Smay is the co-editor of two books about pop music, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, and Lost in the Grooves. He's also the author of Swordfishtrombones, the 33 1/3 series entry on Tom Waits. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.