Earlier this month, at a concert in Arkansas, Lana Del Rey covered a song she’d never played live before: Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.”
The performance made headlines, even if most of the accompanying articles held “Stand by Your Man” — an exhaustively debated cultural Rorschach test about badly behaved men and the women who put up with them — and Wynette herself at arm’s length.
People magazine called the original song “polarizing.” The website Stereogum referred to Wynette’s track as “controversial.” Rolling Stone noted that Del Rey “didn’t introduce the song or offer commentary on her intentions,” as if simply paying tribute to Wynette couldn’t have been enough of an intention. That article referred to Wynette’s 1968 hit as “a tune many considered an affront to the feminist movement of the late ’60s,” then linked to the publication’s recently revised list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, on which “Stand by Your Man” ranked No. 473.
It was just another Rorschach test: Even 25 years after her death, nobody knows quite what to make of Tammy Wynette.
Born Virginia Wynette Pugh in 1942, Wynette had a resonantly sad voice and a life story to match. Married at 17; divorced with three children by 23; in and out of disappointing and sometimes abusive relationships (most famously with her frequent duet partner, George Jones); a sufferer of chronic health problems and bizarre, unexplained acts of violence; gone too soon when she died in her sleep in 1998, at age 55.
She was also, perhaps because of these experiences, one of the most wrenching chroniclers of feminized pain that popular music has ever known.
In recent years, Dolly Parton has been canonized into an untouchable pop-cultural saint, and Loretta Lynn, rightly remembered as a feisty country pioneer when she died last year at 90, enjoyed a late-career renaissance collaborating with younger rock and alt-country artists. But Wynette’s legacy has become more complicated, perhaps because her tumultuous life and storied career have too often been conflated with the flattest and most literal reading of her signature song.
Notoriously, when rumors of Bill Clinton’s infidelity surfaced during his 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton told a reporter, “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” But was that ever what Wynette was actually advocating? (For one thing, Wynette was also known for singing one of the most famous songs about divorce.) A recent prestige-TV series and an incisive new book of music criticism offer their own answers, and varied ways to think about Wynette in a modern context.
Late last year, Showtime aired the long-gestating “George & Tammy,” in which Jessica Chastain gives a steely, fearless performance as Wynette. (Her work earned an Emmy nomination, and she’s currently the betting favorite to win.) With Michael Shannon playing a convincingly unhinged, charismatic and ultimately contrite Jones, the series encompasses the six years of the couple’s troubled marriage and decades of their closely entwined careers.
As strong as the lead performances are, the series suffers from small anachronisms and fictitious dramatizations — no, Wynette was not in the studio when Jones finally nailed the vocal take of his heartbreaking late-career weepie “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” at least not physically — and it too often scripts Wynette reciting retrofitted platitudes that overexplain the era’s obvious sexism. (“If a girl singer got drunk like you boys do, they would toss her out of Nashville so fast,” she says to Jones, who is eating a raw potato in an attempt to alleviate a hangover.) But “George & Tammy” is most obviously marred by its answer to the classic music biopic conundrum: to lip-sync (and risk looking unserious) or to sing (and inevitably fall short of the source material)?
Chastain tackles the songs herself, and though her pipes are decent, her performances never quite transcend honky-tonk bar karaoke. Watching the series, you miss the specific and elusive magic of Wynette’s own voice, making clear how easy it is to take for granted. As with the many lackluster and overly literal covers of “Stand by Your Man” that have been recorded over the years, the power of Wynette’s vocals and the emotional intelligence of her interpretations are somehow easier to appreciate in absentia.
And what a voice it was: emotionally weighty but swooping and nimble, downright kaleidoscopic in its melancholy. “The thing about Wynette’s voice,” writes the critic Steacy Easton in a slim but thoughtful new book, “Why Tammy Wynette Matters,” “is that, often, how it catches and breaks, even how it twangs, are marks of domestic melodrama in her performance.”
In prose that occasionally veers toward the academic but mostly stays succinctly readable, Easton effectively makes the case that Wynette is underappreciated and worthy of a serious critical reappraisal. The musician has long had a few strikes working against her. As Clinton’s curt 1992 dismissal attests, the women Wynette sang about and embodied in her songs often seemed at odds with second-wave feminism. She often sang about the sorts of people and situations that aren’t usually championed in a culture that devalues women’s work and doesn’t treat their perspectives seriously. Easton notes, astutely, that Wynette’s songs often depicted “failures of the domestic,” and that “Wynette’s best work is about when the most private failures become public scandals.”
That intuitive toggling between the private and the public gets at why Wynette’s is one of the saddest voices ever put to tape. Its sadness comes not from rawness or feral inhibition, but from the constant, self-conscious mediation between how the singer is feeling and how she must present herself to the world.
It’s that brimming-but-never-spilling-over quality that so many women, mothers and queer people have learned to use as a survival strategy. (Easton, who is trans and nonbinary, provides a refreshing perspective on Wynette and gender: “The idea of putting on your womanhood has a tender resonance,” they write.) It’s knowing exactly how to fold a napkin to dab your mascara so no one knows you’ve been crying. Or, as Reba McEntire sings in an affecting 2019 ballad called “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain,” it’s when “you don’t want him to see you crying, so you’re crying in the rain.” It’s also, in some cases, about the sacrifice of swallowing that pain to protect a child’s feelings — about spelling out “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” rather than explaining what it means.
Despite her cultural association with standing by her man, Wynette actually divorced four times. In Ken Burns’s 2019 documentary “Country Music,” the singer-songwriter Jeannie Seely notes the irony that while Lynn’s songs often embodied the persona of the feisty woman ready to kick her man to the curb, she was the one who stood by her man for his entire life. Seely mused, of Wynette and Lynn, “I always kind of thought they wrote each other’s songs.”
Onstage in Arkansas, a state abutting Wynette’s own Mississippi birthplace, Del Rey put her into yet another modern context — perhaps one that made the most sense yet. I’ve often considered Wynette to be an unrecognized godmother of so-called “sad girl” music, that somewhat nebulous aesthetic that initially flourished on the microblogging website Tumblr, and of which Del Rey has become an unofficial icon. While there’s something explicitly womanly about Wynette’s sadness — “this ain’t no little girl heartache,” McEntire sings in her definition of “Tammy Wynette pain” — Del Rey’s cover brings Wynette’s music to a generation and a type of listener less inclined to dismiss the expression of feminine pain as weakness. As the critic and artist Audrey Wollen once said of her playfully defined “Sad Girl Theory,” “there is an entire lineage of women who consciously disrupted the status quo through enacting their own sorrow.” Which sounds like yet another way of talking about that Tammy Wynette kind of pain.
That type of subversion pervades Wynette’s exquisite and deeply felt performance of “Stand by Your Man,” too — a performance that no one has come close to topping. The Chicks play it too perky; Lyle Lovett’s version is winkingly smarmy; Carla Bruni’s cover … well … exists. Del Rey, though, seems to understand something about the song’s tension and dynamism, its paradoxical earnest irony. But even an eerie A.I. recording speculating what it might sound like if “Del Rey” recorded a “studio version” of “Stand by Your Man” can’t quite fathom the song’s murky depths as well as Wynette could. Again, the voice you miss is distinctly hers.
Maybe I am able to come to it with less baggage than I may have had I lived through the particular culture war it spawned in 1968, but I do not listen to this song — or, for that matter, Wynette’s devastating 1967 breakout hit “I Don’t Want to Play House” — and hear a ringing endorsement of heterosexual monogamy, female submission and male supremacy. I hear a quavering teardrop of a voice acknowledge and sing like she means it, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” And then I hear her issuing one of the most zinging backhanded compliments in the history of patriarchy: “If you love him, oh be proud of him/’cause after all, he’s just a man.”