The Unbroken Circle: Tammy Wynette – Misunderstood Survivor

There’s one way writers are supposed to open a piece like this, and that’s to immediately delve into “Stand By Your Man,” the smash hit song that defines Tammy Wynette and her career … and overshadows it, to a large extent.

Released at the same time the women’s liberation movement strengthened in popularity, “Stand By Your Man” was a song that didn’t chastise wayward men, but rather recommended forgiveness for them. Rather than be seen as the ode to womanly domestic strength that Wynette and co-writer Billy Sherrill had intended it to be, it was misunderstood by both sides of the divide as sending a message that acceptance and servitude was a woman’s role in life, and that she was to act as a doormat for a male-dominated society. This also came at a time when other female artists like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn rose to offer a different point of view for women in country music and beyond.

Of course, there’s far more to the conversation than just what’s been outlined thus far, and in order to see where the nuance of the conversation got lost along the way, we need to start from the beginning. Wynette, born Virginia Wynette Pugh in Itawamba County, Mississippi in 1942, grew up, like the aforementioned Parton and Lynn, to a poor, hardscrabble household in the rural South. Her father died of a brain tumor when she was less than a year old, leaving her a recording of himself that would spark her eventual musical interests; her mother went to work in a Memphis defense plant during World War II.

Wynette, then, was raised by her grandparents. She picked cotton and absorbed gospel music, all while she learned how to play her father’s instruments. By age 23, she was a divorced mother of three working as a beautician, singing in her spare time, living in government housing, and making $45 a week. She caught a break opening briefly on tour for Porter Wagoner, and in 1966, she decided to move to Nashville. Unfortunately, one of her first contacts there was with a record executive who promised her he could make her a star, provided she provide him sexual favors; she ran out of his office. Thankfully, she eventually teamed up with Epic Records producer Billy Sherrill, and two weeks after pitching him some songs, Virginia Wynette Pugh became Tammy Wynette, and Sherrill was recording her for the record label.

From there, after a modest debut with a cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Apartment #9,” Wynette’s string of hits began, many often co-written with Sherrill. Not that success outside of the hits was easy to attain, though. Touring was a major issue for female country artists of the era, given that most booking agents wouldn’t work with them because of the “trouble” they caused by their conflicting duties as wives and mothers. In her book Stand By Your Man, she reflected that, “I had begun to realize I was working in a man’s world, and most of them looked down on women in the business … we had to be professional, dignified, prompt and always ladylike. But we also had to be tough enough to stand up for ourselves.”

And therein was the solution, hence why it’s those early hits that established why Wynette belonged in the same conversations as Lynn or Parton. “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” released in 1967, asserted that if her significant other was going to engage in adultery, she’d meet him step-for-step, and even other hits akin to “Stand By Your Man” that engaged with familial themes in “I Don’t Wanna Play House” or “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” looked at the bigger picture – in that fights between two spouses get complicated when there’s children involved, involving a deeper level of nuance that often went overlooked by her critics. And it was all carried by a performer with a clear, expressive tone to her voice that had a natural urgency and ache to it, in turn pulling listeners in to share in or commiserate  with her experience. And with “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” a song about a mother who gently tries to shield her child from the agony of the titular activity, she was singing about her own life, given that her second marriage to songwriter Don Chapel was disintegrating even as the song reached the No. 1 position on the country charts.

Granted, it’s hard to say that “Stand By Your Man” suffered for its common criticisms – it was a No. 1 country and top 20 smash pop hit that also led to the first of three consecutive CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Awards for Wynette, and was included in the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, starring Jack Nicholson. If anything, the hidden message of Wynette’s works that could tie all of them together was that suffering, no matter where it came from or why it happened, could strengthen or inspire a person to find the confidence and clarity they needed to assert their own self-respect.

Perhaps that’s part of the misunderstanding, too, though. Wynette herself felt over the years that her songs had often been misunderstood, as explained in Finding Her Voice. “Singing My Song,” for instance, was a song told from the perspective of the archetypal displaced woman finding that confidence in a way remiscient of “Stand By Your Man,” but it never outright suggests she’s a victim, necessarily – nor does “Stand By Your Man,” for that matter.

“They took it the wrong way,” Wynette told interviewer Joan Dew. “I didn’t sing the song to say, ‘You women stay home and get pregnant and don’t do anything to help yourselves. Be there waiting when he comes home, because a woman needs a man at any cost.’ No, that’s not what I was saying at all … All I wanted to say in the song was, ‘Be understanding. Be supportive.’ ”

Certain artists, like Jeannie C. Riley, who herself had a smash hit breakthrough with the rebellious “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was one such critic of the song. Loretta Lynn, on the other hand, recorded it herself but added, “I think you ought to stand by your man if he’s standin’ by you. If he ain’t standin’ by you, why, move over!” 

That patience was perhaps tested no better than by Wynette’s third marriage, this one to country singer George Jones, who, ironically enough, was on his third marriage by that point as well. The two had gotten to know each other through performing on the road, and Jones essentially acted as an idol to Wynette as a country singer. She arrived in Nashville with his song lyrics handwritten in a loose-leaf notebook. The fire had burned before their actual marriage, however. One night while playing Jones’ latest hit over and over, Wynette’s second husband, the aforementioned Don Chapel, grew increasingly suspicious and frustrated at her, calling her a “bitch.” Jones, who was present at their house and had been drinking, turned over a dining table and said to him, “You don’t talk to her like that.” Chapel’s response was, “She’s my wife, what the hell business is it of yours?”

Jones’ reply was, “because I’m in love with her.” The incident resulted in Jones and Wynette fleeing her house as well as a lawsuit by Chapel toward both of them that was eventually settled by a technicality, and in the midst of all of that is when she recorded “Stand By Your Man.” She married Jones on February 16, 1969, and in time the two quickly became known as “The President and First Lady of Country Music.” The relationship was not as glamorous as one would expect, however. The marriage lasted six years, and in time both artists ascended to superstardom within the genre. While Jones became even more dependent on cocaine and alcohol, Wynette became dependent on pain pills. One night, hoping to keep him from sneaking off to the bar, she even hid they keys to their not-so-modest collection of cars, forcing him to hot-wire their lawnmower and drive it six miles to the nearest establishment.

Wynette initially filed for divorce in 1973, but withdrew after reconciling with Jones. The two recorded “We’re Gonna Hold On” not long after, its meaning obvious from its title, which rose to the No. 1 position on the charts. The thing is, even in a pre-social media age, fans were well aware of the turbulent relationship between the two, mostly because their duets together rarely reflected a happy couple. Ironically, one of their best ones to capture that tension was recorded a few years after their divorce. “Golden Ring” is one of their most iconic numbers, a song where the titular item finally finds a home as a couple settles down and marries, only to separate by the final verse, leaving that golden ring a “cold, metallic thing,” just as it had started. Wynette’s petition for divorce in 1975 would not be rescinded.

Inevitably, the split of country music’s power couple had initial repercussions for both artists. Wynette would often hear cries of “where’s George?” while out on the road, but she found that strength once again later that year, when she recorded a song she’s described as her favorite of her singles. Arguably her strongest song, “’Til I Can Make It On My Own” was an ode to resilience that spoke to the hardships and societal backlash that came with being a single woman, and yet was framed as a powerful anthem nevertheless.

Unfortunately, things only got darker from there. Her home was burglarized 15 times, her children were threatened, and mysterious fires were set on her tour bus and house. She remarried and quickly divorced again, and she was also frequently hospitalized – for cystic mastitis, inner ear infections, vocal chord nodes, kidney problems, and stomach ailments. In 1978 she was reportedly abducted from a Nashville shopping center, driven 80 miles, beaten, and then dumped on a rural highway; the case was never solved. She found some stability through her fifth husband, George Richey, who was also a frequent co-writer on several of her past songs, including “Til I Can Make It On My Own.” The next several years for Wynette were marked by a 1986 treatment for addiction, a 1988 bankruptcy filing, and a heart attack in 1991, but there were finally some needed breaks along the way, too.

In addition to scoring 20 No. 1 country hits by the end of the 1980s and selling more than 30 million records – on top of winning two Grammys and three CMA Awards – Wynette tried her hand at acting, first through the 1985 movie Stick and then though soap opera Capitol in 1986. Many newer country acts of the late ‘80s and ‘90s cited her as an influence. She even sang alongside Randy Travis for 1990’s “We’re Strangers Again.” An even bigger surprise hit came from a 1992 collaboration with British duo KLF – which yielded an international dance-pop hit in “Justified and Ancient.”

She died of a blood clot at the age of 55, leaving behind a career that was messy and entangled … but also far too misunderstood. She sang about the same issues facing working women that her bolder contemporaries did, just in her own way that allowed the fuller picture to blossom. And though her professional and personal lives were interwoven by fans and critics alike, rarely ever was she a victim; she was a survivor, and her suffering wasn’t endured alone, but with fans who understood what she was really singing about.

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