If the title of Tammy Wynette’s greatest country hit was out of touch with the times when released in 1969, then such a title and sentiment today, seems almost confrontational. After all the song proposes that regardless of a man's behaviour ...
" ... if you love him, you'll forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand.”
Why would you want to do so, let alone sing about it? Yet, written in just fifteen minutes by Wynette and Billy Sherrill (her then manager), not all the lyrics suggest this is a paean to men but more a recognition of their inevitable failings and consequently the fatalism women in love experience.
“Sometimes it's hard to be a woman Givin' all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times, and he'll have good times Doin' things that you don't understand.”
Whatever your opinion, perhaps Stand By Your Man should not be seen as a piece of advocacy but more a reflection of the singer's own sentiments and desires. For just as country music has long embraced personal struggle and tragedy as its raison d’etre, so the song reflects the ambiguity of Wynette’s own difficult relationships with men.
For Wynette, or Virginia Wynette Pugh, as was her real name, life started with such difficulties. Her father died when she was just nine months old and she was left with her grandparents whilst her mother went off to find employment. It was a harsh existence, picking cotton on her grandparents farm from childhood onwards. As an escape she married at seventeen Eupie Byrd, a man as often out of work as in it. Two children before the age of twenty were followed by separation from her husband when pregnant with her third. Needless to say Wynette struggled as a single parent. That hardship was compounded by her third child, Tina, being premature and spending the first three months of her life in an incubator, before being diagnosed with spinal meningitis.
Faced with having to support three children on her own, Wynette worked as a hairdresser, waitress and barmaid by day, and a country singer by night. If the former jobs just about kept her head above water, the latter rapidly turned her into an overnight star. In 1965 she was playing on a local TV station in Alabama; twelve months later she had her first hit before, just one year further on, she was awarded a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Yet if her musical career was a triumph her personal life was a chapter of disasters. Whether in songs written by others or co-written by herself, her words and music frequently reflected not only her own trials and tribulations but also those which many other women could identify with. She sang about marriage ending in D.I.V.O.R.C.E., about having to be two faced in relationships with ‘Your Good Girl's Going to go Bad’, and husbands failing in employment in ‘My Elusive Dreams’.
Following the early loss of her father and the failure of her teenage marriage, Wynette struggled to sustain successful long term relationships, with four more marriages after her divorce from Byrd. Her next was to Lloyd Franklin Amburgey, a Nashville songwriter, which was annulled after a year, followed by a six year relationship with fellow country star George Jones, which ended in divorce, as did a brief forty-four day marriage to businessman, Michael Tomlin. Finally came a twenty year relationship with her manager George Richey. Even though this marriage was long lasting there were claims of physical abuse including mysterious circumstances surrounding a kidnapping, which some suggested was to hide up physical injuries inflicted by Richey.
Wynette’s struggles not only embraced her marriages but also her health. She had some twenty-six operations during her lifetime, including a hysterectomy in 1970. It was her poor health which led first of all to a dependency on painkillers and eventually her death at the age of fifty-five, recorded as being from a blood clot on the lungs.
Even after death Wynette was scarcely at peace. In 1991 her body was exhumed after three of her daughters alleged that Richey and the family doctor had been responsible for her demise. Although the case was settled out of court, the original cause of death was changed by the coroner from a blood clot to a cardiac arrhythmia. As Wynette wrote in 'It Keeps Slipping my Mind,
“I keep intending to tell you I been lonely much too long And some morning you will wake up and find the note that says I'm gone.”
At the time it was a reflection of her relationships. In the end it may well have been a reflection of her life.
Tammy Wynette died twenty-three years ago on 6th April 1998 in Nashville, Tennessee.
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