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Tammy Wynette’s Thorny and Enduring ‘Stand By Your Man’

On the politics and impact of the country star’s landmark 1969 record

On December 15, 2022
Photo courtesy of Sony Music Archives

The trouble with trying to analyze an album like Stand By Your Man — that is, a collection of songs written by men for women to sing either before or in the early years of the women’s liberation movement — is that the women singing these songs often had limited agency. They worked with powerful producers and even-more-powerful record companies at a time when social norms kept women even further from equal than they are now, and singers with big dreams of stardom had only a few avenues through which they could achieve their goals.

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But the issue with applying this feminist lens to Stand By Your Man, specifically, and attempting to pull progressive messages from its lyrics, is that Tammy Wynette’s personal convictions and life mirrored the album’s professions of devotion to men who didn’t necessarily deserve the women they were with. By the time Wynette — born Virginia Wynette Pugh on May 5, 1942, in the small town Tremont in Itawamba County, Mississippi — released her fourth studio album in January 1969, she was about a month away from her third trip down the aisle, that time with fellow country singer George Jones.

In her late teens, Wynette had left home (and high school) and married Euple Byrd, several years her senior, with whom she had three daughters. Shortly after she and Byrd divorced, Wynette married songwriter Don Chapel; she left him for Jones, with whom she had a fourth daughter. After she divorced Jones in 1975, Wynette spent 44 days married to real estate executive Michael Tomlin, then the two decades until her death in a tumultuous marriage to singer-songwriter George Richey, also Wynette’s manager for a time.

“One side of me needs singing and the life on the road. But I was raised to believe in marriage as a woman’s greatest fulfillment,” Wynette told journalist and author James Neff in 1977. Although Wynette only wrote two of its 11 songs, Stand By Your Man reflects that worldview: Its songs are more heartsick than happily-ever-after, and you’ll only find empowerment in the title track if you squint and tilt your head enough.

On Stand By Your Man, Wynette is often straight-up lovelorn. Each promise in “Forever Yours,” written by Jimmy Peppers, is followed by an aching wish for the same from the object of her affection. “If I Were a Little Girl” — written by Harry Mills, a man — finds her nostalgic for childhood, when she wasn’t “lonesome and hurtin’ and cryin’ over a big boy like you.” In “I’ve Learned,” by Jot Nelson and Nat Russell, she’s simply grown up and sad and lonely again.

Other times, though, Wynette’s level of affection reads like a man’s dream scenario: No matter what he does, she’ll still be there. In Mills’ “It Keeps On Slipping My Mind,” Wynette’s narrator swears she’s ready to call it quits, yet every time — and despite no mention of any changes in the relationship — she just can’t seem to leave. In Curly Putman and Dan Lomax’s “My Arms Stay Open Late,” she’s at home with a baby, waiting all night for her partner to return, and while she knows it’s an unfair situation — “What you do is wrong,” she sings — she decides she won’t “change a thing at all” for fear of losing him.

Three of Stand By Your Man’s four final songs involve children’s brokenhearted pleas (some might call them guilt trips) to brokenhearted mothers. In Liz Anderson and Dick Land’s “Cry, Cry Again,” the narrator has a change of heart after hearing her little girl praying to “have my mommy ask my daddy to come home.” The titular “Joey,” meanwhile, begs, “Oh, Daddy, please ask Mommy / Could you come home to stay?” before Wynette confesses, “Honey, I’ve been thinking how little Joey’s right.” (None other than Wynette’s soon-to-be-ex, Don Chapel, wrote that song.) There’s no such reunion in “Don’t Make Me Go to School” (Gene Crysler), though the child lays it on thick: “Please, may I be absent, Mom / Like Daddy is from home?” she asks.

Knowing Wynette’s troubled history, and with 50-plus years of social change since the recording and release of Stand By Your Man, it’s difficult to hear the album and not want to scream: Tammy, get out of there; you’re so much better than him! But that’s not to say that the album, which ascended to No. 2 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and earned a Country Music Association Album of the Year nomination in 1969, isn’t worth listening to. Wynette’s mournful voice, described by her longtime producer Billy Sherrill as “husky and soulful and tearful and dynamic,” was made for songs like these. Frankly, so were her real-life experiences. “She lived it, you know. She lived every tear everybody ever heard her sing,” Sherrill once said of Wynette, and he assembled talented musicians to match her delivery in lush, Nashville Sound-era style.

Indeed, “Stand By Your Man” — Wynette’s biggest and most enduring hit — in another’s hands is nowhere near as powerful, thought-provoking nor long-lasting. However, as the singer famously said, she and Sherrill spent mere minutes writing it and a lifetime defending it, because a two-minute and 38-second song doesn’t offer much space to delve into the finer points of its writers’ takes on equality and loyalty. Wynette often answered questions about “Stand By Your Man” by explaining, as she did to music journalist Martha Hume in 1984, that while she “was born and raised to believe that you do what your husband thinks is best for you” and enjoyed the benefits of a more traditional dynamic between men and women — that is, the chivalry of well-mannered men — she understood that times change and sympathized with feminists’ cause.

“[We] didn’t mean to get into all that trouble with women’s lib,” Wynette admitted with a laugh. As she told Hume, “All we were trying to do was write a pretty love song, and we had to write it from a woman’s point of view … We didn’t mean to say, you know, just take anything in the world that he dishes out … You have to know that they’re gonna stand by you, too.”

It’s that small caveat that allows more generous interpretations of the lyrics of “Stand By Your Man” and Wynette’s related commentary to paint her as a sympathetic narrator rather than a preachy one, expressing true understanding about how difficult it is to be a monogamous woman with a partner who doesn’t always hold up his end of the “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health” bargain. From this point of view, there’s frustration and pity — a “What else do you expect?” and a resigned shake of the head — in the chorus’ final line (“’Cause, after all, he’s just a man”) and something valiant and triumphant in the song’s melody: Jerry Kennedy’s loping, instantly recognizable guitar; Pete Drake’s inimitable steel; Buddy Harmon’s quiet, steady drums; and the Jordanaires’ angelic harmonies.

Nonetheless, “Stand By Your Man” drew ire. In 1992, it became the crux of an extremely public feud between Wynette and Hillary Clinton after the future presidential candidate — who, at the time, was supporting her husband, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, in his own quest for the United States presidency — replied to questions about an alleged decade-plus affair her husband was having by saying, “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”

“I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together,” Clinton continued during the 60 Minutes segment. And while the latter portion of Clinton’s statement is similar to Wynette’s own comments about the song not advocating complete and total loyalty, the damage was done: Wynette publicly let Clinton know that she was “embarrass[ed], humiliate[d] and degrade[d]” by Clinton’s comments.

Clinton later clarified that she “didn’t mean to hurt Tammy Wynette as a person” and was a country music fan, but it took an intervention from actor Burt Reynolds to convince Wynette to pick up Clinton’s private apology call, and rumors of a continued rift between the two women persisted for years. “I didn’t deserve it; I didn’t want to be talked about by her like that … I’ve worked for four presidents, and I don’t believe it’s gonna be five,” Wynette told country music broadcaster Ralph Emery in 1994.

Of course, it’s not only Wynette’s comments or listeners’ interpretations that matter here. She co-wrote “Stand By Your Man” with Sherrill, her producer, who had been working on it for at least a year before they quickly pulled together the now-famous version of the song near the end of an August 1968 recording session at Nashville’s Columbia Recording Studio, the last for Stand By Your Man, and recorded it just a few minutes later. And, as the man behind Wynette’s stage name — inspired by a not-necessarily-flattering comparison to Debbie Reynolds’ character in the 1957 movie Tammy and the Bachelor — once told journalist Walter Campbell, “Stand By Your Man” was his favorite Tammy Wynette song because “I personally like what it said.”

“I always wanted to write a song about a woman talking to another woman … and I figured if a woman talked to another woman, what would she tell her?” Sherrill told Florentine Films in 2013, an explanation that makes it harder to hear the song’s lyrics as anything but patronizing. 

And while neither Wynette nor Sherrill ever took individual credit for any of the song’s sentiments or specific lyrics, a note from Sherrill in an expanded reissue of the album from 1999 recounts that he and Wynette “polished off the last verse” for the song, which he told Emery in 1994 was originally titled “I’ll Stand By You, Please Stand By Me.” (Were it not for Ben E. King’s similarly titled 1961 hit “Stand By Me,” perhaps the song could have offered a similarly more equitable distribution of commitment.)

While Wynette did not take issue with the song’s message, she had zero confidence in “Stand By Your Man.” “To me, it did not have a pretty melody … I hated the high notes that I had to hit … I didn’t have confidence in my writing, either,” she told Emery in 1994. Many others did, though: The song entered Billboard’s Country Singles chart at No. 43 in mid-October 1968. It jumped to No. 21 in its second week and hit No. 1 — where it stayed for three weeks — four weeks later, in late November. The song also earned Wynette a No. 1 in the adult contemporary format, and her first and only solo Top 20 pop hit; additionally, it reached No. 1 in Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. 

With “Stand By Your Man,” Wynette also won Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, at the 12th-annual Grammy Awards, and, based partially on the strength of the single, she was named Top Female Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music Awards and won her second of three consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year honors at the Country Music Association Awards. “Stand By Your Man” also earned nominations in the Grammy Awards’ Best Country Song category, for Single Record of the Year at the ACM Awards and for CMA Song of the Year; in 1999, it entered the Grammy Hall of Fame, and in 2010, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.

While “Stand By Your Man” was Wynette’s fifth song to top the country charts, it was her first single (and one of the first country songs by a woman) to sell one million units, prompting her record label to bestow her long-lasting nickname: “the First Lady of Country Music.” As a solo artist, she earned a dozen more No. 1 singles through the mid-1970s, and kept songs on the country chart into the early 1990s. Despite persistent health problems, Wynette continued to perform up to her death on April 6, 1998, at the age of 55.

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Angela Stefano

Angela Stefano is a writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Originally from Buffalo, New York, she has been writing professionally since the age of 14 and, prior to joining the Hall of Fame in November 2021, spent seven years as the editor-in-chief of the website The Boot. Her first concert was Peter, Paul, and Mary (thanks, Mom and Dad), but she tells everyone it was Garth Brooks (actually her second concert).

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