Tammy Wynette exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame: A look at the life of a country diva
Tammy Wynette: Stand By Your Man
Country Music Hall of Fame
When Tammy Wynette died in 1996, an era – of the truly glamorous, truly emotionally-chargeded female country superstar – seemed to pass with her. For while Faith Hill rocks major fashion, classic Southern beauty and a set of pipes that was born to sing hard, she is a modern woman who wields neither neither the vulnerability or fragility that were always the yin of Wynette’s yang.
Tammy Wynnette lived it all… right… out… in the open. A high drama romance and marriage to George Jones, the faltering resolve to get through devastating heartbreak, the “Falcon Crest” glamazon looks and – to an extent – liftestyle. She was Deep South Barbie, representing the Total Woman philosophy that was Phyllis Schafly’s bedrock message as the world shifted as women’s “lib” became the new double X chromosome mandate.
But Wynette, who was born dirt poor, share-cropped, single Momma’d, chased a dream no one believed in and became a spangled voice for a generation of women trying to be real about their femininity, while hanging on to a demi-traditional role in the world and wishing for… love… true, deep, abiding love.
The woman who often said, “I may not be the best, but I’m always the loudest” was no doormat – as evidenced by the joke Loretta Lynn – the “Don’t Come A Drinkin’ With Lovin’ on Your Mind” and “Fist City” writing and singing hard country peer – once made: “We lived each other’s songs! I stood by my man – and Tammy got on with her life, getting out of marriages and stuff.”
And that was true: Wynette not only dated (then) uber-hottie Burt Reynolds, but she married her hero in Jones – theirs was a fiery marriage, and ongoing musical collaboration – and ended her life with a longterm husband, songwriter/producer George Richey who acted as her manager. But mostly, Tammy Wynette sang through it all.
“Stand By Your Man,” which caused Hillary Clinton in the midst of the breaking news that her husband was philandering to slight her with the comment “I’m not some little Tammy Wynette, standing by my man at home, baking cookies…” on “60s Minutes” and issuing a subsequent apology, “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Til I Can Make It On My Own,” “You’re Good Girls Gonna Go Bad,” “Golden Ring” (with Jones), “I Believe In Happy Endings.”
The Country Music Hall of Fame recognizes all that as the tip of the cultural import of Virginia Wynette Pugh. – Though their largest gallery space is engaged in the three-generation spanning Hank Williams exhibition, they managed to carve out a gallery to explore the world and meaning of the Grammy-winning songwriter and vocalist who lived her life and music in full.
While not a historic view of her recording history, there are certainly lead sheets, acetates and memorabilia from her songs and recording sessions. For a music wonk, it may not be enough… but for the rest, they’ve focused on a compelling view of the single mother-turned-cultural-forc- too-be- reckoned with. An especially endearing view as becoming a cultural force was the last thing on Wynette’s mind.
Marked by plenty of magazine and newspaper clippings, there are scads of her stage outfits – the vestaments of every woman’s fantasy self – and souvenirs of a life lived in the public eye: letters from Presidents, awards from prisons, the Lalique crystal bowl with cotton balls Wynette picked to remember where she came from, her beautician’s license which she kept current “just in case” and always, ALWAYS the clothes she wore.
It is a monument to a time when women wanted to be their own person, even when they were were defined by their feminine sense. A mixture of core strength, sexiness and stoicism, the notion that while being tender, there was a toughness inherent in the female side of life that was necessary to understand all that would happen within the realm of relativity to the other gender that made Wynette’s music hit such a nerve with fans.
In one of the video segments that punctuate the trip through the artifacts, a “Tonight Show” performance with quirk country/jazzicist Lyle Lovett to mark the release of her box set Tears of Fire shows the vast reach of Wynette’s truth. Though Lovett explores the darkest, at time almost Cormac McCarthy-esque reaches of male/female reality, his joy during “Stand By Your Man” is palpable. Even a Lone Star Leonard Cohen-esque romantic figure can’t help but be beguiled by the charms of the woman with the sob in her voice.
Whether the juxtaposed reality of old school glamour and outsized emotions versus modern dance authority – the KLF’s throbbing “Justified & Ancient” – or the classic elegance that marked her memorial service, carried live from the Ryman Auditorium by CNN, Wynette maintained a currency with her luxe looks, big voice, songs that became standards and unwillingness to follow every trend.
Perhaps it was her romantic notion that love as she believed in it never goes out of style: torn, frayed, banged up, but always a beating heart. It imbued her beauty salon chairs – which were kept in the dressing room of every house she ever owned, weapons in her Tammy-ness – with a vitality, and offerered an alternative to the slick plastic modernity that was cheap and disposable.
As a walk-through testament for why Wurlitzer country never seems to fade, “Tammy Wynnette: Stand By Your Man” is a manifest of one woman’s voyage through an at-times Hellish dream, but one that she wouldn’t have changed for the world. The talismans of a life lived with the admiration of Elton John and working women everywhere embrace the notion that being one of the people is perhaps the most elevated thing a superstar can be – and Wynette was that, and then some.