Hear her biggest hits, deeper cuts and tributes from disciples.
For years, I’ve been waiting for the right moment to write about one of my favorite country singers, the great, oft-misunderstood Tammy Wynette.
Throughout this year, Wynette has been materializing in pop culture in all sorts of unexpected ways. First, Jessica Chastain played her — garnering an Emmy nomination — in the Showtime limited series “George & Tammy.” In May, the critic Steacy Easton published a rousing little book called “Why Tammy Wynette Matters,” arguing that Wynette deserves — but has not received — as much modern recognition as her peers Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. And earlier this month, Lana Del Rey made headlines when she performed a slyly reverent cover of “Stand by Your Man” at an Arkansas concert.
At last! I thought, cracking my knuckles. It’s time.
Del Rey’s cover was truly the connection I’d been waiting for. I’ve been thinking for a while about the shared sensibility between Wynette and the millennial-era obsession with “sad girl music,” a sometimes glorified, sometimes bemoaned label affixed to art that finds a deep pathos in the performance of femininity. As I wrote in a piece published earlier on Friday, perhaps this is a newly illuminating context in which to consider Wynette — and an opportunity to take her more seriously.
The first time I can remember hearing Wynette’s name was in the media brouhaha that resulted from Hillary Clinton denigrating her in a 1992 interview, responding to rumors of the soon-to-be-president’s infidelity: “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said. Wynette was rightly offended, and Clinton apologized, but the damage had been done. As a young girl not really understanding all of this but internalizing it anyway, I developed a dim idea that Wynette was controversial.
When I got older and started listening to her music, though, I found that she was something so much richer and more complex. I came to hear in her voice an unapologetic sense of anguish, disappointment and sometimes even defiance in the face of heartbreak. I heard a performer with a keen sense of tonal calibration and intuitive emotional intelligence — a great storyteller, and a much needed chronicler of often dismissed tales of feminized pain.
Today’s playlist is a celebration of Wynette in all her multifaceted glory. It works well as a companion piece to my article, but it can also be a stand-alone introduction (or reintroduction) to her music. It features a lot of her own biggest hits, but also some tributes from disciples like Reba McEntire, Kellie Pickler and even Del Rey herself. I decided not to include any of Wynette’s many duets with her ex-husband George Jones, not because I don’t love most of them (I do), but because Wynette is so often reduced to her relationship with Jones and I wanted to give her music a chance to stand on its own. It does, however, feature a collaboration with her artistic equals and fellow Honky Tonk Angels, Parton and Lynn. May this playlist inspire singalongs, cry-alongs and good girls to go bad.
1. Tammy Wynette: “Womanhood”
This later hit from the 1978 album “Womanhood” is one of Wynette’s strangest singles and — perhaps not coincidentally — one of my favorites. Here, Wynette embodies a character who has been led into temptation: “I am a Christian, Lord, but I’m a woman too,” she sings amid blustery guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a late ’70s Fleetwood Mac record. “If you are listening, Lord, please show me what to do.” “Womanhood” was penned by the prolific Nashville songwriter Bobby Braddock, and in his memoir he described the song as being “about a girl having a tearful talk with God about losing her virginity.” That Wynette was a woman of 36 embarking upon her fifth marriage when she recorded the song — which would become her final Top 5 hit on the country charts — adds another layer of complexity, pathos and even kitsch. (Listen on YouTube)
2. Tammy Wynette: “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”
Long before Rihanna went bad, there was Tammy. As with many of Wynette’s signature tunes, there is a sense of resignation and even self-abnegation at work here: “I’ll change if it takes that to make you happy,” she tells a whiskey-swilling, bar-dwelling husband as she offers to adopt a lifestyle more like his on this swinging, upbeat number from her 1967 debut. But I also hear a playful defiance in Wynette’s vocal here: She’s throwing a man’s questionable behavior back in his face and subtly pointing out a double standard in the expectations of how men and women are supposed to act. Plus, for once, it sounds like she’s having a blast. (Listen on YouTube)
3. Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn: “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”
In 1993, the pioneering country queens Parton and Lynn teamed up with Wynette for a spirited collaborative album called “Honky Tonk Angels,” named after Kitty Wells’s classic 1952 anthem. Since most of Wynette’s best-known collaborations find her working through heartache with Jones, it’s refreshing to hear her singing with this accomplished (and convincingly hell-raising) group of women. For the love of big hair and shoulder pads, stop what you’re doing and watch this video of them performing it live together. (Listen on YouTube)
4. Kellie Pickler: “Where’s Tammy Wynette”
“How ’bout a honky-tonk angel to tell me how this whole thing works,” Pickler sings on this saucy but sincerely sweet track from her 2011 album, “100 Proof,” bridging the gap between Wynette and another generation of female country stars. “Where’s Tammy Wynette when you need her?” (Listen on YouTube)
5. Tammy Wynette: “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”
Not only is this song — which hit No. 1 on the country charts in 1968 and earned Wynette her second Grammy nomination — a quintessential showcase of her ability to draw rich melancholy out of a lyric, it’s also a perfect example of Billy Sherrill’s signature, Wall-of-Sound-on-Music-Row style of production. C-L-A-S-S-I-C. (Listen on YouTube)
6. Tammy Wynette: “Apartment #9”
Wynette’s first proper Nashville recording, and her first of many collaborations with Sherrill, wasn’t a runaway hit when it was first released in 1966, but it’s since become one of her most beloved performances. “Just follow the stairway to this lonely world of mine,” she sings, as the atmosphere is heightened by a weeping pedal steel guitar. Easton, in “Why Tammy Wynette Matters,” calls this one “still the saddest country song ever sung.” (Listen on YouTube)
7. Reba McEntire: “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain”
“This is more than a little smile I’m having to fake,” Reba McEntire sings on this 2019 ballad, released a few years after her divorce from her husband of more than two decades. McEntire brings a grown woman’s grit and a lived-through-it wisdom to this song, which both talks back to Wynette’s music in its own words (“Standing by your man is a broken plan/When he breaks your heart and all your trust with his two cheating hands”) and calls upon her as a kind of patron saint of heartbreak. (Listen on YouTube)
8. Tammy Wynette: “’Til I Can Make It on My Own”
Wynette co-wrote this 1976 hit, one of her greatest torch songs, with Sherrill and her soon-to-be fifth husband, the country songwriter George Richey. Of all her hits, Wynette liked to say that this one — covered later by Kenny Rogers and Dottie West, and, much later, by Martina McBride — meant the most to her. (Listen on YouTube)
9. Tammy Wynette: “I Don’t Wanna Play House”
This heart-wrenching 1967 breakout hit — Wynette’s first country No. 1 as a solo artist, and the performance that earned her first Grammy — is about a mother watching her young daughter playing with a neighborhood boy and overhearing her say something devastating: “I’ve watched Mommy and Daddy, and if that’s the way it’s done/I don’t wanna play house, it makes my Mommy cry. ” The song hits on plenty of the themes that would soon become Wynette’s bread and butter (broken families; lonely women; divorce’s impact on children) and a sudden, thrilling shift into her higher vocal register in the middle of a verse when she sings, “And then the teardrops made my eyes go dim.” (Listen on YouTube)
10. Lana Del Rey featuring Nikki Lane: “Breaking Up Slowly”
Del Rey first hinted at her affinity for Wynette on this duet with the alt-country crooner Nikki Lane, from Del Rey’s 2021 album “Chemtrails Over the Country Club.” “I don’t wanna live with a life of regret,” Lane sings in the second verse. “I don’t wanna end up like Tammy Wynette.” Del Rey, though, takes a more sympathetic view in her verses, on which she seems to be singing from Wynette’s own perspective: “George got arrested out on the lawn/We might be breaking up after this song.” (Listen on YouTube)
11. Tammy Wynette: “Stand by Your Man”
Often imitated but never duplicated, Wynette’s biggest pop hit and most infamous calling card has a stealthy power. Sherrill’s production here is top-notch, and Wynette’s undulating vocal — which seems to swing between private pain and public restraint — is a force of tragic but strangely regal beauty. As Easton writes, “‘Stand by Your Man’ is enough of a porous text that it leaks and stains everything it touches, but its messiness is one of the reasons it’s so important.” (Listen on YouTube)
I’ll even learn to like the taste of whiskey,
The Amplifier Playlist
Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.
“Where’s Tammy Wynette When You Need Her?” track list
Track 1: Tammy Wynette, “Womanhood”
Track 2: Tammy Wynette, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”
Track 3: Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”
Track 4: Kellie Pickler, “Where’s Tammy Wynette”
Track 5: Tammy Wynette, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”
Track 6: Tammy Wynette, “Apartment #9”
Track 7: Reba McEntire, “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain”
Track 8: Tammy Wynette, “’Til I Can Make It on My Own”
Track 9: Tammy Wynette, “I Don’t Wanna Play House”
Track 10: Lana Del Rey featuring Nikki Lane, “Breaking Up Slowly”
Track 11: Tammy Wynette, “Stand by Your Man”
OK, one more: Tammy’s bonkers 1991 collaboration with the KLF, “Justified & Ancient.” I will always stand by the jams.
And if it’s new songs you’re looking for, we’ve got a whopping 13 to recommend on this week’s Playlist, including tracks from Nicki Minaj, Oneohtrix Point Never and a brash Doja Cat single that I am very much digging. Listen here.