Tammy Wynette

TrackSingle / Album
Apartment #9Epic 5-10095
I Don't Wanna Play HouseEpic 5-10211
Take Me To Your WorldEpic 5-10269
GoodEpic 5-10269
The Wonders You PerformEpic 5-10687
We Sure Can Love Each OtherEpic 5-10707
'Til I Get It RightEpic 5-10940
I Don't Think About Him No MoreWoman To Woman
'Til I Can Make It On My OwnEpic 8-50196 1976
You Can Be Replaced'‘Til I Can Make It On My Own

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Contributor: Keith Shackleton

I know you love your country music, Topper-people. We’ve had fond recollections of the music of Joe Ely, Gene Clark and The Carter Family over the past few months, and now it’s time to turn our attention to another giant of the genre: Virginia Wynette Pugh, born in Itawamba County, Mississippi, on May 5th, 1942.

Most of what the wide world knows about Tammy Wynette is confined to two tunes … the massive (and in the UK in 1975, inescapable) crossover hits, D-I-V-O-R-C-E and Stand By Your Man, plus the comedy cover versions they inspired. Maybe three tunes, if you count the strange dalliance with art-pop pranksters The KLF, which spawned Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs) in 1991. And these three songs might mean you don’t take Tammy at all seriously which, my dear friends, would be a big mistake because Tammy, in partnership with the legendary producer, Billy Sherrill, recorded some of the finest country songs ever made.

Ballads were her forte. Chirpier country songbirds like Dolly and Loretta had the moxy to really do those twangsome honky tonk tunes justice and gee the audience up, but Tammy’s delivery, standing stock still at the mic or sitting on a darkened stage set, lent itself primarily to the sad songs.

Apartment #9, released in October 1966, was Tammy’s studio debut, and when she sang the opening line, Billy Sherrill knew he had something special. Here’s Tammy, lonely and afraid. The sun never shines now that her lover is gone. Pete Drake’s wonderful pedal steel cries with her.

The country music world sat up and took notice. Apartment #9 went to number 44 on the charts.

Her first solo number one, and third single, I Don’t Wanna Play House (1967), spotlights the bleak side of family life. Tammy’s little girl doesn’t want to play house with the little boy next door, because when mommy played house, it made her cry and daddy left home. In anyone else’s hands, it’d be mawkish, just another reason for us to laugh at a silly country song, but at times Tammy couldn’t face singing it, she felt the emotion so hard. And you can hear that truth, it’s there in the grooves, and because of it, the song is fantastic. We hear Tammy’s real power for the first time, that Stand By Your Man full opening of the throat, accentuating the line, “And then the teardrops made my eyes grow dim”, as if singing it so hard would stop those damn tears in their tracks; I’m not going to cry in front of the kids, I’m not

This is a sound made in country heaven, and it won her a Grammy.

I’ll take both sides of single number four. Take Me To Your World (1967) casts Tammy as the bad girl who waits tables in some scummy bar and pleads with her lover for their old life together. Flip over the 45: in Good, she’s that same girl and we learn a little more. She wants to be good, like she used to be, the good he brought out in her. She let him down, and she’s back working the bar again and this time the realisation hits her; he’s not coming back and she’ll never be good again. It’s a classic, the vocal backing here is just perfect.

Tammy worried about the A-side, that it might be ‘too pop’ to add a string section. She needn’t have. The record went to number one.

And now we come to one of the strangest country songs … hell, one of the strangest songs of any genre I’ve ever heard. It was written by Jerry Chesnut (who wrote T-R-O-U-B-L-E for Elvis and It’s Four In The Morning for Faron Young). Jerry was pitching another of his tunes, a little number entitled A Good Year For The Roses, to Tammy’s then husband, George Jones. George said, “Great, I really want it, got anything else?” Jerry says, “Well, I’ve got this one, I don’t know who’s going to want it, it’s a bit strange.”

Yup, a song that tries to explain the reason why God lets bad things happen, why he lets good people and little children die before their time. Well, Tammy jumped all over the chance to sing it, and Sherrill and the boys laid it down. The Wonders You Perform ‘only’ went to number five in 1970 but it’s an absolute jawdropper.

It wasn’t too long before Tammy’s success was eclipsing that of the failing Jones, who was falling further into addiction and mental illness (Keith will return to George in a future Toppermost … Ed.). It was a traumatic time for her – not that you’d have noticed musically. Between 1971 and 1973 she hit the top of the charts five times, and number two twice. We Sure Can Love Each Other serves as an encouragement to Jones, a quiet statement of intent which also acknowledges their failings.

‘Til I Get It Right (1972) is a gem, and such a simple song. Tammy will keep on falling in love until one day it’ll work out for her; if practise makes perfect, she’s “near ‘bout as perfect as I’ll ever be in my life”. It might be hipper to wave the flag more excitedly for other popular female singers – Karen Carpenter, say, she always gets good press and rightly so – but to put her above Tammy, on this evidence? It’s a brave man who’d make that call.

I Don’t Think About Him No More is an album track from 1974, a brilliant Mickey Newbury composition. “Seldom if ever does he cross my mind, yesterday’s gone and it’s better forgotten …”, it sounds like Tammy’s convinced herself, alright. Ol’ George is not far from getting his marching orders and they were fighting like wildcats by this time. Sherrill lets the arrangement breathe and Tammy just sinks into the mood. The words barely escape her lips, thoughts like “poison red berries that cling to the mind”.

We’ll close the show here with two tracks from a post-breakup album from 1976. Tammy pleads with her ex to go easy on her if she can’t let go quite yet on the title track, ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own. It’s Tammy’s favourite of all her songs, saying everything there is to say about the pain she’s going through. But does she really mean ‘I won’t be able to make it on my own’? I think she might.

There’s another fine song on the album which might give us a clue: You Can Be Replaced. Ouch, that’s tellin’ him, Tammy, but wait, you’re saying he can be replaced, not by another better man, but by … loneliness? Aw, so that’s how you feel. We understand.

Tammy still made good records once she and Jones had gone their separate ways, songs like Love Doesn’t Always Come (On The Night That You Need It) from Womanhood in 1978 (best Tammy album cover ever – see above), but once she parted company with Sherrill too, the hits became really thin on the ground. Strangely, as her star fell, the down and out Jones rose to prominence once more.

Tammy had severe health problems though the majority of her career. Despite those, she continued to perform to the end, but ultimately those problems and addiction to prescription drugs brought about her untimely death in 1998, aged 55. Alas, I’ve already kept you too long here, and there’s not room for enlarging on her early life, her interaction with Jones emotionally and musically, the hullabaloo over Stand By Your Man, her other marriages, the family squabbles following her death – it’s a heck of a tale, one to match any rock and roll memoir. Now that I’ve read that story, I’m going to listen to more of Tammy Wynette’s music (there’s so much of it, with and without George), and if you’re as interested as I am, these ten songs are a great starting point.

 

The official Tammy Wynette site

Tammy Wynette biography (iTunes)

Keith also points out that the 1987 BBC TV Arena documentary, Stand By Your Dream, is on youtube in four parts, part one here.

TopperPost #255

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 18, 2014

    Great list on a fine singer…

    As a curiosity, there is an excellent largely instrumental cover version of ‘Your Good Girls Gonna Go Bad ‘ on Jonathan Richman’s excellent cd, Jonathan Goes Country

  2. David Lewis
    Nov 3, 2014

    Naturally reading Keith’s excellent George Jones list brought me back here. And I’m going to stand up for Justified and Ancient. Yes it’s bizarre. And yes Tammy was an even stranger choice for lead. But she sells it with a conviction that is really astonishing. There’s no way she understood what the lords of mu mu land were doing in ice cream trucks: who does? But when she sings it it’s as if EDM is the most natural thing in the world to her. Particularly given the KLF were one of the most cynical acts to have appeared (though they did burn £1000000)… Nonetheless an excellent selection.

    • Keith Shackleton
      Nov 5, 2014

      Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, Yello and Shirley Bassey, plus Stand By The JAMs.. all good.

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