Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” is one of the most well-known recordings in the English language. It was also a plastic explosive detonated at a sea change moment in United States politics and culture. Look around. We’re still picking up the pieces.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
In addition to The Main Library and the Season 2 Library, these books were used for this episode:
Transcript of Episode
Martin Luther was not the first person of the Modern Age to diagnose or denounce the corruption that had overtaken the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages but he was certainly the most effective. And, while he may have never nailed his 95 Theses to the front door of a church as some grand, dramatic statement, the persistence and provocative nature of the legend is a testament to the historical impact of one Augustinian friar submitting a point-by-point refutation of incorrect yet commonplace beliefs, teachings and practices plaguing Western European Christianity in the year 1517. Luther always claimed he never set out to question the integrity and authority of the pope or other higher clergy. His intent was to question and remedy what he perceived as bottom-up misunderstandings of fundamental doctrine by organizing a scripturally-based argument with which he was most confident any honorable pope would agree. Because for the pope to disagree with Luther’s scripturally-based argument would mean there was not, in fact, a bottom-up misunderstanding. It would have to be a top-down problem, a product of Church leadership having been infiltrated nearly a thousand years earlier by the noble families of Europe, who cynically and godlessly employed the assets and institutions of Roman Catholicism primarily toward amassing more wealth, prestige and political power for themselves instead of administering spiritual and humanitarian aid to the masses. In my opinion, it seems fairly evident Martin Luther (a professor of philosophy, very well-educated for his time) used subtext to convey all of this to every informed person able to read between the lines of The 95 Theses, a comprehensively scathing attack on practices and attitudes surrounding the Church’s sale of plenary indulgences.
Martin Luther did this because, two years earlier, Pope Leo X was deep in debt after burning through every cent in the papal treasury to fund his own extravagant lifestyle and his noble family’s various wars. Basically, Pope Leo lived like a king and, like many kings, he went broke doing it. After borrowing as much money as he could from anyone who would lend it, he turned to selling jewels and furniture from the Vatican. When he needed money to continue rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica (what is now the largest church in the world), Leo funded construction by selling indulgences, spiritual VIP passes believed to bring you and yours straight to heaven’s gate without having to wait for your souls to be distilled of sin in purgatory. Pope Leo invented none of these ideas. Concepts of purgatory predate Christianity and the Church sold various indulgences for hundreds of years prior to this point. In fact, Leo didn’t even create a new indulgence to rebuild St. Peter’s. It was introduced by his predecessor and all Leo did was bring it back. But he also placed an eight year moratorium on any other indulgence being sold by the church. So if you wanted an indulgence, this was the only one available and Pope Leo made it very clear to priests how much he really, really wanted their congregations to buy this indulgence, which led to sermons resembling sales pitches more than gospel, as if heaven simply had a cover charge. As wealth and worldly power was the priority above, so it became below. Martin Luther had never been a fan of indulgences. But when he noticed members of his flock were no longer coming to hear him read from scripture, no longer coming to confess their sins, then found out it was because they’d bought some piece of paper from another priest who told them it was the only one-way ticket to heaven they’d ever need, Luther sat down and began writing.
Conveniently, this single issue laid bare what he believed were several major discrepancies between contemporary Roman Catholicism and its claimed source material. In The 95 Theses, he asked the Church to please make sure everyone understood official doctrine aligned with scripture on topics like forgiveness of sin being the sole domain of God, not the pope. He asked the Church to make sure everyone understood the removal of souls from purgatory was left to the discretion of God, not the pope. Luther was entirely sure the Church agreed salvation is not earned or purchased from the pope but received from God; the fate of one’s eternal soul is determined, not by earthly acts of kindness, service and charity (especially any type of financial donation, no matter how large), but solely through repentance and faith in Christ crucified, which would naturally inspire such benevolent acts. This last idea, most of all, held central to Luther’s theology: our souls can never be saved by good behavior, how we spend our money or who we are when others are watching, only by our private relationships with God. In order to drive his point home, Luther ended The 95 Theses by asking what he was supposed to tell poor members of his congregation when they asked why the pope, a man born into one of the richest families to ever exist, needed money from peasants and the working class to build some big, fancy church when there were so many suffering people in the world who could be clothed, fed and sheltered with that money. Formatting these allegations as an earnest attempt to clear up popular misunderstanding of official doctrine forced his Church superiors to process the document through proper channels, exposing its contents in semi-public theological debates rather than burying the matter by having Luther excommunicated, declared a heretic and burned at the stake, as would have been the immediate response were he to directly state his grievances. A few years later, after the full implications of this document were unpacked in those debates (and widely read throughout all of Europe, thanks to the printing press and spread of literacy), Martin Luther was excommunicated, declared a heretic and he would’ve been burned at the stake except for how many people agreed with what he said and helped keep him alive by hiding or sheltering him from the Church.
Luther and his followers (called Lutherans) were declared outlaws. His writings and ideas were made illegal in Catholic territories, like France, Spain, most of the Italian peninsula and the Holy Roman Empire (which was basically Germany). Everyone who protested the Church’s response to Luther became known as Protestant, soon the umbrella term for all schismatic groups of Christians who stood in opposition to Roman Catholicism, even if some of those denominations also stood in opposition to each other. If this sounds like the beginning of a war, well, it was actually the beginning of dozens of wars and these religious divisions were instantly mapped onto preexisting political conflicts. Noble families tired of watching better jobs, marriages and kingdoms go to houses positioned closer to the papacy now had an alternative to playing the long game of thrones. Instead of working or buying their own way up the ranks of the Church, they could become Protestant, fight for the new team and be rewarded with positions of greater power in the new regime. Because prior to separation of Church and State, the various noble families of Europe vied for control of the Church in order to wield its power over citizens’ lives and afterlives as tools of the State (aka the governments of territories ruled by each house). In the 8th century AD, such political maneuvering with Church assets brought into existence the Papal States of Italy, a sovereign governmental entity (like any other republic or city-state) but ruled by the sitting pope. This is one reason why Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince regards the papacy as if it were simply another throne in Europe. It was.
A Prince by Any Other Name
Because of what his name came to represent, it’s important to understand Machiavelli did not invent duplicitous political strategy in service of tyranny. All he did (intentionally or not) was leak the playbook. The Prince is simply Machiavelli documenting and analyzing what he’d witnessed during his career in government, including the backstabbing and murderous methods of Cesare Borgia, whose father ruled as Pope Alexander VI while Machiavelli was stationed at Cesare’s court, where he observed first-hand the young prince’s treacherous dealings. After Pope Alexander died in 1503 and the papacy fell to a rival family, Machiavelli observed as Cesare lost the backing of the Church, then his throne, then his life.
The ideology in The Prince is nearly always reduced to a version of “the end justifies any means.” In other words, this is not pretend time and there are no rules in a fight for one’s life. To Machiavelli’s intended recipient, a prince (which is to say, any person with any path to any throne), the fight for one’s life is synonymous with the fight to maintain one’s way of life, the fight to maintain the State and one’s power over it, the fight for the throne. This is the end which justifies any means, reflected in the literal translation of Machiavelli’s original title, Of Principalities, the territories ruled by princes. And “the end justifies any means” is a fair interpretation of the ideology in The Prince but incomplete without noting the degree to which its success hinges on a prince’s ability to privately exploit and betray his public persona, that of an honorable man and chivalrous knight. Indeed, a prince must even be prepared to sacrifice this public reputation should loss of the throne be his only alternative. Machiavelli advises it is best for a prince to be simultaneously loved and feared by his people but, if a choice must be made, it is better to be feared than loved.
Reading these words may have caused a few lesser houses to realize they’d been fighting with one chivalrous hand tied behind their backs but, again, Machiavelli birthed none of this centuries-old game theory. All he did was write it down, using the common tongue rather than Latin to draft an easily understood manuscript which was immediately copied, circulated throughout Europe and studied by all interested parties beginning in 1513, the year a voting council of high ranking clergy chose Giovanni de Medici to become Pope Leo X, Bishop of Rome, Sovereign of the Papal States, etc., etc. One reason Pope Leo burned through the Vatican’s massive wealth in only two years – freely spending money on parties and worldly pleasures, funding his family members’ various wars, giving cash to friends, charities, artists, honestly pretty much anyone who asked – is because he was more interested in being loved than feared, which is also probably why he tried to clear up Martin Luther’s apparent confusion over plenary indulgences instead of having Luther executed before his Protestant Reformation could shuffle the deck of noble house alliances in Europe.
As implied by its name, leaders of the Holy Roman Empire were also “elected” by a council of powerful Church officials. In the imperial election of 1519, one of the seven clergymen who had a vote was the archbishop to whom Martin Luther originally sent The 95 Theses. Though there were other candidates, everyone knew the next Holy Roman Emperor would be either Charles of the House of Habsburg, sitting King of Spain, or Francois of the House of Valois, sitting King of France. Since Charles had more money to bribe the voters and he brought an army with him to where the vote was held, he became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. And he became the brand-new arch-nemesis-for-life of Francois, House of Valois. Because when Charles was made Holy Roman Emperor, it put the House of Habsburg in power of countries bordering France on all sides. Francois did not view this as a “well, let’s wait and see what happens” situation. But he still wanted to be Holy Roman Emperor and he did still consider himself a friend of Pope Leo, so Francois told the Medicis no hard feelings, he’d love to have them on his side if they wanted but he was gonna have to attack Charles either way. Regardless of what Pope Leo privately wanted, he couldn’t possibly ally against Charles without the Holy Roman Empire becoming the Holy Protestant Empire and starting a march toward Rome with an army Pope Leo couldn’t pay anyone to fight. So when the Valois-Habsburg conflict broke out in 1521, Leo had no choice but to side with his Holy Roman Emperor.
Then, a few months into the fighting, Pope Leo got sick and died. But he’d already stacked the Vatican deck to Medici favor, creating dozens of new, top-floor positions and stocking them with loyalists, mostly family, including a cousin of illegitimate birth who required a special papal decree falsely stating the cousin was of legitimate birth the whole time, therefore eligible to become a Cardinal. In 1523, two years after Leo died, that Cardinal cousin became the next Medici pope, Clement VII. Clement and Leo were cousins but they’d been raised as brothers, so ol’ Clem was an active participant and advisor in Leo’s entire papacy. He’d also seen enough of this Valois-vs-Habsburg fight play out to know he really didn’t want Charles to win. Because if the house of Habsburg took power in France, they’d control nearly every major throne in Western Europe except for England and the papacy, Clement’s throne. So as soon as Francois won a significant battle against Charles, Pope Clement took the opportunity to formally switch sides… just in time for Francois to get his ass kicked, captured and put in a prison cell in Spain. Pope Clement had to turn right around, pretend to make up with Charles and keep the act going for an entire year while Francois resisted signing a treaty of surrender. When he did finally surrender, the Habsburgs demanded Francois’ two oldest sons, then seven and eight years old, take their father’s place in the Spanish prison cell, just in case Francois went back on the treaty. Francois agreed, sent for his children, the exchange was made and he was released. As soon as he was able, sons in captivity and everything, Francois went back on the treaty and Pope Clement again betrayed the Holy Roman Emperor to side with the house of Valois.
So Charles decided to stop screwing around. He assembled a huge army of his own men, augmented it with over twice as many German Protestant forces and dispatched the horde toward Rome. On the way there, these troops discovered they’d been sent without money or food, thus providing the incentive for what they did upon arrival in Rome. In short, they sacked the city, which means every terrible thing you think it means, and Pope Clement allowed it to happen for nearly a month while he hid in a castle and resisted surrender. Even after the pope surrendered, Charles made him stay in the castle for another six months while Rome continued to be thoroughly decimated. Sometimes you’ve just gotta prove a point. Pope Clement did eventually manage to escape the castle and Rome but it didn’t really matter. Charles stomped all over Francois again and, at this point, he probably could have gotten away with beheading both of these assholes. But, instead, he asked if they were ready to settle down and let the Habsburgs run everything. Clement and Francois agreed and, for some reason, Charles let them sign another treaty and walk away. Francois had to pay a huge fortune to get his sons back from the Spanish prison but he was allowed to remain King of France. To remind Clement of the benefits in being a friend of the Habsburgs, Charles restored the Medici family to power in Florence by sending an army to lay siege to the city for most of a year, until Florence gave up notions of existing as a republic and submitted to Medici rule. During the nine-month siege, mobs of Florentines periodically gathered outside the walls of a convent where they knew the pope’s niece, Catherine de Medici, was being raised and they yelled for the nuns to send out the “little duchess.” Inside the convent, the ten year old girl listened as the mob yelled about all of the unspeakable things they wanted to do to her.
After Charles gave Florence back to the Medicis, Pope Clement spent the remaining four years of his life doing pretty much whatever the Holy Roman Emperor told him to do, which would get into an entirely separate story about how badly Henry VIII of England wanted a divorce but there are already too many Henrys and too many divorces in this story. Most histories of Pope Clement VII treat him as a man who truly did have good intentions (at least more so than his direct predecessors and successors) but who also inherited untenable positions, then died before there were many opportunities for redemption. One of the last things he did was circle back to his old partner-in-crime Francois with an offer of just a ton of money in the form of a niece’s dowry. Francois thought the price sounded about right for his second-eldest son, Henri. And if this were a chivalric romance novel, Catherine and Henri would fall madly in love based on their similarly traumatic childhoods, hers as the most famous and most hated orphan in Florence while her uncle lay siege to the city and his as a seven year old child whose father traded him into prison only to recklessly endanger his life through further acts of war. But this is not a chivalric romance novel.
You’ll Have Bad Times
“Stand by Your Man” is an anti-feminist anthem, purposefully designed from the ground up, but some journalists, critics and fans are still able to perform the mental gymnastics needed to spin it as some kind of egalitarian, even pro-woman statement. Nearly all of these brain back handsprings are launched from the single lyric, “cuz, after all, he’s just a man.” I’ve witnessed a college professor deliver this line to a room full of college students as if it were a mic drop on 50 years of this song being as misunderstood as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” as if this line were intended as criticism of stereotypically male behavior rather than a hall pass for such men to continue their philandering ways, as it’s simply “in their nature.” And here’s where this episode would have a disclaimer regarding the subjectivity of art and how it’s all open to interpretation, except sometimes it’s not. This song was deliberately written as a middle finger aimed directly at feminists. Billy Sherrill stopped short of titling it “Stand by Your Man, Not Women’s Lib” but it’s what he meant and only a fool or a liar would claim otherwise.
Tammy Wynette always tried to portray the song as something she and Billy threw together in 20 minutes without much thought and then spent the rest of their lives defending. We’ll cover several of her various excuses but none of the explanations she gave were ever an attempt to change her ultimate position, which was (and this is her referring to herself in the third person): “There’s no mistakin’ that Tammy Wynette is not one for Women’s Liberation.” We cannot ignore such a statement or snobbishly presume she could have been “educated” into walking it back. Some of the things she said against feminists were based in popular misconceptions about them being a bunch of bra-burners who hated men, sex, aesthetic beauty and children. She sometimes reduced her problems with feminism to trivial statements like “I wouldn’t want to lose the little courtesies we’ve always been extended, like lighting cigarettes and opening doors… I guess I just enjoy bein’ a woman.” Whether these statements were sincere or strategic, the fact is Tammy Wynette was an adult who understood and fundamentally disagreed with the core tenets of feminism.
It is true she supported and exemplified some feminist ideals. She spoke of how much it bothered her to see women demonized for their sexual behavior while men openly bragged of their own. She’d seen girls kicked out of her high school and saddled with the full responsibility of teen pregnancy while the teen fathers received no punishment and high fives from their friends. She spoke critically of the hero worship male country artists received for behaving badly on tour (drinking, missing shows, destroying hotel rooms, sleeping with fans) while women in the industry had to remain professional or watch their careers end in scandal. There are countless interviews where she gave quotes which can be partially excerpted by fans intent on rewriting the script to paint her as a feminist. For instance, she was always quick to point to herself as an example of a strong-willed, career-minded woman who was the primary breadwinner of the family for nearly her entire adult life. Her daughter Georgette was probably correct in calling Tammy “the first single-mother, career-driven singer to brave Nashville broke and alone and become an almost overnight success.” And some of you are thinking, “Exactly. So, how is this person not a feminist? If she so clearly diagnosed such lack of equality in society and her industry, why and where did she place a line between herself and the Women’s Liberation movement?”
The full quotes always end with Tammy saying the success, fame and financial independence left her miserable when she didn’t have a man to share it with and subjugate herself to. As so many others have done, Georgette expressed dismay over the “misguided decisions” her mother made “because of the need to have a strong man in her life at all times.” Tammy was consistently open about her emotional dependence on men, point-blank stating she didn’t think she could be happy without a strong man (or at least the illusion of one) to place above herself in the home. In her words: “I was raised to believe in marriage as a woman’s greatest fulfillment and I guess deep down that’s what I still believe.” This is the philosophy of “Stand by Your Man” and anyone who wants to retcon Tammy Wynette as a feminist has so much more than a few quotes and this one song standing in their way. Most of her biggest hits reword this message over and over: a woman is worthless without a man and when your man cheats on you, then the fault is either yours or the other woman’s, not his; you just have to forgive him and do whatever it takes to bring him back home or else you’ll go to bed alone at night and/or raise a child on your own. It’s crucial to recognize this was not a philosophy cynically adopted in order to sell records through the persona of Tammy Wynette. It’s who Virginia Wynette Pugh was every day of her adult life and accepting this is the only way we can ever understand her.
Go Home While You Still Can
What’s often called the “second wave” of feminist activism extended from the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and, by 1965, came to dominate enough of America’s cultural conversation for Billy Sherrill to decide he oughtta write a song for everyone who thought these ladies should shut up and go home: “I wanted it to be a song for the truly liberated woman, one who is secure enough in her identity to enjoy it.” Billy’s first idea for a title, “I’ll Stand by You, Please Stand by Me,” was directly lifted from the Ben E. King mega-hit “Stand by Me.” Billy also consistently claimed to’ve stolen the melody from Johann Strauss II. [While I don’t believe he ever named the individual composition, I’m fairly confident the truth is more like he built an original melody by deconstructing a brief moment in the “Wine, Woman and Song” waltz from 1869.] Tammy Wynette may have only spent 20 minutes thinking about the song before she cut it but Billy Sherrill worked on it for three years, never finishing it until August of 1968, when one of Tammy’s recording sessions committed the ultimate sin of boring him, which meant they didn’t have a hit. He sent the studio musicians out on a break, took Tammy upstairs to his office and showed her the song. She helped finish it by adding two lines, then they went back downstairs to make a record. It was only after the session Tammy became concerned about what they’d done, not because of the lyrics but because she thought the finished product came out sounding more R&B than country, especially after Billy Sherrill removed Pete Drake’s pedal steel guitar intro and had Jerry Kennedy come in to play a simple little electric guitar line to kick off the song. Tammy also wasn’t sure about her high note at the song’s climax because it reminded her of a squealing pig.
When she took it home and played it for George Jones, he wasn’t so sure about it either. But that’s because they were both thinking of it as a country record, not a record that was about to sell more copies than any country single by a woman ever had. When sales passed 1 million units, Epic’s marketing copy began referring to her as The First Lady of country music. The record hit #1 country, #19 on the pop chart and won most of the awards for which it was eligible, including her second Grammy. The CMA named her Female Vocalist of the Year for the next three years in a row. “Stand by Your Man” is one of the most recognizable and enduring recordings in the history of popular music. It’s been covered by everyone from Tina Turner to Lemmy & Wendy O. Williams to Alvin & The Chipmunks to Jake & Elwood Blues. You’ve heard it significantly placed in movies like Goldeneye, My Cousin Vinny and The Crying Game. Some of those covers and placements were genuinely reverent. Others were ironic references to the controversy this song has generated and/or become associated with since the day it was released.
The consciously provoked feminist backlash was instant and has proven as everlasting as the record itself. The song’s defenders often resort to what-about-ism by pretending to wonder where the difference lies between this and something like “Piece of My Heart,” popularized by Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & The Holding Company. Why do feminists get so angry about one but not the other? Well, obviously, “Piece of My Heart” is a testimonial, in which a narrator shares a personal story. “Stand by Your Man” is a dogmatic instruction manual. Tammy often claimed to not understand why her song made so many people so upset. However, like a lot of her creative truths, the things she said while defending “Stand by Your Man” had a way of revealing just how much she did know why everyone was mad. Most of her excuses for the song can be reduced to the notion she only intended to suggest women try being understanding and supportive. Like the time she said, “It doesn’t say take abuse or anything like that. It just says ‘if you love him, you’ll forgive him’,” which conservative Christian country singer Jeannie C. Riley found perhaps the most offensive line in the entire song because, to her, it very much did imply a woman should take anything her man dishes out, offering only love and forgiveness in return. Loretta Lynn recorded “Stand by Your Man” but also once said, “I think you ought to stand by your man if he’s standin’ by you. If he ain’t standin’ by you, why, move over! I think if your man’s doin’ you right, fantastic. But how many men treat their wives right? Think about it.” Over the years, as Tammy collected one divorce after another, she tried to jokingly point to her own personal life as evidence she clearly didn’t believe a woman should stay with a man through emotional or physical abuse. Then, when she died, one close source after another went on the record to disclose the various abuses she suffered in her final and longest-lasting relationship with the man she stood by until the end.
But if she truly felt her intentions with “Stand by Your Man” were misinterpreted or misunderstood, then we can only assume she would have used her following five singles to clarify her message and make sure everyone knew what Tammy Wynette was all about, right? Without exception, each of these songs walks back and forth on the line separating herself from the Women’s Liberation movement, retreading the same thematic ground until it was worn down to a chin-high trench from which Tammy continued tossing lyrical hand grenades. “Singing My Song” takes her back to “swinging,” only this time it’s more real than the idle threat she made in “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and the way the music drops her into the pathetic, broken-spirited delivery of this and only this line informs us an open relationship was definitely not her idea; it’s just what she’s gotta do to keep her man. In “The Ways to Love a Man” she’ll do anything and everything to keep him around because if “one little thing goes wrong, then all at once he’s gone.” In “I’ll See Him Through,” she waits up all night for a man who no longer even bothers with excuses when he finally comes home but, still, she stays. Same story in “He Loves Me All the Way.” While her man stays out all night, she’s home “thinking like a woman,” worried about him cheating but really it’s not so bad because she’s never seen him cheating, plus it’s always awesome when he does decide to have sex with her. “Run Woman Run” bluntly tells younger women to remain in unhappy relationships because of how hard it is to find a man who meets even the lowest of reasonable standards, so you may as well make yourself believe whatever you’ve got is true love.
For all the independent fact-checkers out there, yes, there is one post-Y2K interview in which Billy Sherrill claimed “Stand by Your Man” was written without a single thought of the Women’s Liberation movement or how they would respond to it. I have no idea what compelled him to say this – he very well may have been mocking and trying to delegitimize some cultural tourist of a reporter – but I can guarantee any journalist who allowed Billy Sherrill to drop such a huge, steaming pile of unchecked bullshit in their lap must not have seen a) fifty other Billy Sherrill interviews or b) the August 1970 issue of Billboard magazine in which Epic Records placed a full-page ad reading, “With apologies to the Women’s Liberation movement, we present Tammy Wynette’s next number-one single, ‘Run Woman Run’.” This prediction was correct, by the way. The only single of those just mentioned to not go #1 country hit #2 and they all did so while crystallizing precisely what it was feminists found so infuriating about “Stand by Your Man.” If it’s difficult to believe Tammy was ever surprised by the backlash, that “Run Woman Run” ad makes it downright impossible for her to’ve been surprised at any point following the year 1970. And, as the critics kept coming, she grew more comfortable speaking her mind on Women’s Liberation: “Sometimes I think that the ladies makin’ the most noise are the least liberated. I didn’t have time to go ‘round squawkin’ about some cause because I was too busy workin’.”
And, here’s the thing, folks: it wasn’t men putting her records at #1. Sure, guys who appreciated incredible music with lyrics granting them permission to behave like trash bought their fair share of copies. But these records were made for and primarily purchased by other women who felt the same way Tammy did. Everything Billy Sherrill did was strategically manufactured for women because everything he did was informed by market research. If recording “I Don’t Wanna Play House” in June 1967 is any indication, which it likely is, that’s probably when Billy received the first of many reports which dictated the rest of his career. This market study said at least half and maybe as much as 65% of country records were purchased by women between the ages of 22 and 45. It does not matter who conducted this study or what flaws their methods may or may not have had. If it wasn’t true when Billy Sherrill read it, it became true when he started moving millions of units by targeting product at this demographic, millions of whom agreed with country singer and woman, Jean Shepard: “I can’t stand for a woman to come up and say, ‘I can do anything a man can do.’ Maybe mentally she can but I think it’s still kind of a man’s world and, to be frank, I kind of like it that way. I’d never like to see a woman president, for instance. A woman’s too high-strung for that kind of job.” And when you’re looking for all the reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, don’t forget to go all the way back to the infamous 60 Minutes interview in 1992, when the Clintons fielded questions about Bill’s affair with Gennifer Flowers until Hillary eventually decided to try saving her husband’s career by throwing Tammy Wynette under a bus, saying “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standin’ by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Of course, Hillary has since been accused of doing exactly that for the entire duration of her own career. In her memoir, Living History, Hillary described the “fallout” from criticizing Tammy Wynette and “Stand by Your Man” as “instant and brutal.” Tammy herself responded by publishing an open letter in which she challenged Hillary to a public debate, then condemned her insult for having “offended every true country music fan and every person who has made it on their own with no one to take them to a White House.” Hillary tried to ignore the open letter and ride out the storm but it didn’t go away and she finally had to go back on national TV to issue a sort of non-apology, “If she feels like I’ve hurt her feelings, I’m sorry about that.”
All the Hurtin’ Words
But Hillary Clinton did not invent the idea of using Tammy Wynette’s name or songs to represent a stereotype of walked-on and cheated-on woman. Such usage has been standard in our vernacular ever since “Stand by Your Man” came out and is evidently never going to go away. The 1970 hit indie film Five Easy Pieces starred Jack Nicholson as a womanizing fuck-up of a classical pianist, boyfriend to lovestruck dumbass Karen Black, a perfect example of the “Typical Girls” still being mocked by post-punk legends The Slits nearly a decade later. In Five Easy Pieces, Karen Black’s character listens to Tammy Wynette records over and over while wishing Jack Nicholson’s character would become worthy of her adoration and forgiveness. He never does but she keeps givin’ all the love she can, fightin’ to stand by her man right up until the end credits roll. Throughout the film, Nicholson’s character shows nothing but contempt for Karen’s taste in music. His first line in the movie is a threat to melt her copy of “Stand by Your Man” if she plays it one more time. Later, when he laughs at her for singing a Tammy Wynette song, she’s gullible enough to believe it’s a laugh of appreciation.
The song Karen sings is Merle Kilgore’s “When There’s a Fire in Your Heart,” from Tammy’s third LP, D-I-V-O-R-C-E. The title track is something of a sequel to “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” continuing to exploit Tammy’s real-life status as a divorced woman. Both of these divorce songs came out prior to “Stand by Your Man” and both are 100% about commiseration, not redemption. Neither presents Tammy as a woman strong enough to choose independence over a bad relationship. Neither gives her any light at the end of the tunnel. Rather, she internalizes all of the blame for the marriage not working out and lets it eat away at her. She’s so broken without a husband, we know she’d take him back in the middle of the song if he walked in the studio. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” opens with a seven-note riff corresponding to the number of letters in the title, Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar does a little bit o’ crying, then Tammy does a whole lotta spellin’. This song is a great representation of what Emmylou Harris meant when she said Tammy Wynette could “just milk a vowel. She could give so much melody to just, like, one syllable. But it never sounded contrived.” Or, as Roy Blount Jr. put it, “Lord, can’t Tammy sing a letter of the alphabet!”
By this time, songwriter Bobby Braddock had given a few minor hits to The Statler Brothers, Little Jimmy Dickens and his old boss Marty Robbins but “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” was his first #1 record. He originally wrote it as a happy song, with a title spelling out the words “I L-O-V-E Y-O-U.” By his own admission, Bobby Braddock is a pretty weird guy with an unusual sense of humor, so when he decided to change all the lyrics and make it a sad song about divorce, he went ahead and kept the original song’s happy melody. When his demo didn’t get any takers, he brought it to fellow Tree writer Curly Putman and asked what he was doing wrong, at which point Curly moved the melody a little more in-line with the words. Billy Sherrill heard this updated version, knew it was Tammy’s next #1 hit and they cut it as soon as she returned from that first Canadian tour with George Jones. The single came out in April 1968 and, sure enough, went #1.
The day George Jones dropped by Tammy’s house to tell her he was no longer a married man, his pretense for coming over was to hear the latest songs Don Chapel had written. Instead of paying attention to Don’s songs, though, George kept singing the first line of Tammy’s latest hit over and over until she picked up the hint: his D-I-V-O-R-C-E became final today. And maybe Don could have tolerated this attention as he tolerated his wife riding all over Canada on George Jones’ tour bus, as long as he felt his own career stood to benefit. But when Jones’ focus on Tammy actively prevented his listening to Don’s songs, a different picture began to develop in Don’s mind and he no longer saw himself in the frame. When George left their house that day, Don yelled at Tammy over what happened. And she always claimed to be totally caught off guard by Jones’ behavior on this day, just as she always claimed, prior to this, Jones “never so much as touched me, except to shake my hand or pat me on the back.” According to Don Chapel, that’s a load of bullshit. It was only after everything shook out the way it did that he realized why George Jones’ tour manager was always taking Don tour bus shopping or any other random errand: to give George and Tammy time alone. According to her official biographer, Joan Dew, “Tammy loved George Jones, the singer. She idolized him. He was the epitome of the great country music singer. What would anybody do if they had a chance to have an affair with their idol? I’m real doubtful about whether she loved George Jones the man.” Setting aside Joan’s depressing beliefs in the limitations of human fidelity, the implication is clear, she was qualified to make it and the way she frames it all says a lot about the illusions Wynette brought to the relationship. Given everything we know about her circumstances, beliefs and fantasies, Wynette could not have seen George as anything less than her own personal knight in… well, if not shining armor, then at least fancy armor with a few dings she thought could be buffed out by her love.
In reality, Jones was a walking disaster, despite some effort to correct course. His alcoholic father’s emergency hospitalization in 1965 seems to’ve scared him a little bit. His parents celebrated their 50th anniversary that August and both Jones men were sober for the occasion. But the following month, George was arrested for a DUI near his home in Vidor, TX. This, too, seems to’ve served as a wake-up call because soon after the arrest he placed Phase II on pause to throw himself into a huge project, perhaps also a last-ditch attempt to save his marriage to Shirley Jones. Operating under the assumption his drinking was mostly driven by the anxieties and fears of touring, George thought he’d figured out a solution: build his own venue close to home and make money playing concerts there instead of going on the road. He sank thousands of dollars and a lot of his own sweat into constructing this outdoor venue. On July 4th, 1966, he held the grand opening of the George Jones Rhythm Ranch with a big-ticket lineup featuring himself, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard. The place was packed with as many thousands of people as could fit on the property, which would have been a huge payday except George didn’t charge most of those people to get in. At the end of the night, he’d come nowhere near recouping the cost of the land, construction or talent. He disappeared on a drunk for four days and there was never another show booked at the Rhythm Ranch. A little over a year later, he was on tour in Michigan when he again got a phone call about his father’s health. Turns out, nobody had been making payments on the mortgage of the house George bought for his parents, so the bank repossessed it. Stressed over losing his home, George’s father had a stroke and fell into a coma from which he never awoke. Jones flew home in time to witness his dad’s last day of drawing breath. Several sources claim his response to seeing the old man lying there comatose was to destroy the hospital room but Jones said he wouldn’t have done that because it takes fury and hostility to do something like that. Some sources say George’s father was able to quit drinking before the end, others say he just got better at hiding it. They once burned some hedges to clear off a bit of land and were surprised by glass bottles full of alcohol exploding from the heat. His father hid booze in the bushes to sneak drinks. George cried for days after his dad’s funeral, then hit the bottle as hard as ever and this was the state he was in when he came under the spell of Tammy Wynette. Having spent the previous five years woefully fixated upon Melba Montgomery as the magical cure-all for his problems, can we believe he’d do anything other than transfer this obsession to Tammy, especially once she demonstrated willingness to play her part in the fairy tale love story? Simply compare the heartbroken Marine singing “Walk Through This World with Me” in 1967 to George singing the same song about a year-and-a-half later on The Wilburn Brothers Show, sporting a handsome new haircut and a “brand new wife.”
In his autobiography, Jones said he never stole Tammy from behind Don Chapel’s back: “That’s a lie. I did it in front of his eyes.” Whether or not his coming to her rescue in Canada had been entirely orchestrated by her, the grand gestures continued. On more than one occasion, George surprised her and her audience by showing up to concerts where he hadn’t been booked and coming out to perform with Tammy. She estimated her first tour bus to be worth $15k-20k but it was hard to be sure because she bought it from Jones, who insisted on taking only $2,000 for it. Maybe he knocked off a grand for every bullet hole. When Don painted the side of the tour bus to read “The Don Chapel and Tammy Wynette Show” (her name second) it served as a daily reminder of the glaring difference between the reality of life with her pretentious husband and how she imagined life could be with her magnanimous hero. The marriage grew resentful and Tammy chose more and more often to ride separately with George instead of joining her husband and band on her own bus.
Now, before Don Chapel makes a spectacularly ungraceful exit from this story, we should recognize he wasn’t without talent as a songwriter. George Jones did record several of his songs and it wouldn’t be right to suggest this was purely compensation for dating the man’s wife. None of this would have happened the way it did if “From Here to the Door” wasn’t a killer song. Don Chapel’s best song was inarguably “When the Grass Grows Over Me,” which meticulously predicts the theme of George Jones’ biggest hit ever a full decade in advance and is, at least on paper, arguably as masterful a presentation of love only death can kill. Tammy later claimed she wrote the song and let Don take the credit but it would take at least a couple minutes to list all the songs she lied about writing and this one has nothing in common with her compositional style. George cut “When the Grass Grows Over Me” in June of 1968. By the time it was released and hit #2 country, he and Tammy were publicly referring to each other as husband and wife. Of course, they were lying. The divorce George flew Tammy to Mexico for ended up not being legal in the States, so they had to bring in the lawyers to try keeping Don from taking everything he could get as compensation for the embarrassment of newspaper headlines reading TAMMY WYNETTE LEAVES HUSBAND FOR GEORGE JONES. As the full story of how this came to happen emerged over the following years, Don Chapel wound up looking the villain and his career was forever destroyed.
If You Love Him, You’ll Forgive Him
The night he lost Tammy for good, Don was already drunk at home and yelling about George Jones trying to steal his wife when who should show up to the house but Jones himself? For the sake of decorum, Don tried to dial back his anger but he was too drunk to keep from muttering an occasional sideways comment in Tammy’s direction. Jones either didn’t register what was happening or chose not to acknowledge it until Don finally called Tammy a bitch, at which point Jones went apeshit, flipped over a dining room table probably twice his size and roared at Don that he shouldn’t insult Tammy. When Don asked what business it was of his, Jones confessed he was in love with Tammy and said he knew she loved him back. She confirmed this was true, so Jones took Tammy and her daughters away from the house. A decade later she wrote in her autobiography, “George and I were to have some rough times but I never regretted leaving with him that night. It was just fantastic. George got me out of a way of life that was unreal. I couldn’t even write how hard it really was. It was rough with Don Chapel. Anything Jones could have done wouldn’t have upset me compared to what I had been through with Chapel.” A storybook romance come true, she thought. By this time, George had purchased a house in Nashville but, the first night, he put Tammy and her daughters up in a hotel because he knew Don would send police to file a report saying Tammy was at George’s house, thus enabling Don to sue George for “alienation of affection,” a.k.a. wife-stealin’. Sure enough, the cops showed up to George’s place, looked around and, after not finding anyone’ wives hiding any closets, they left. The next day, George brought Tammy and her kids to stay in his home. There were very few things in life George Jones loved as much as buying a house and redecorating it, usually in a gaudy, Spanish colonial style. The first night she stayed in his home, Wynette lay on top of the covers of George’s bed with him and looked around at all the paintings of bullfighters on the walls of his plush, velvety bedroom while George’s favorite movie played on TV.
The 1962 film adaptation of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight stars Anthony Quinn as a boxer who’s already had his ticket punched one too many times when Muhammad Ali beats the absolute shit out of him in the opening scene. Afterward, doctors won’t clear him to keep fighting, so he tries to get a job as a kid’s camp counselor. But his snake of a manager, played by Jackie Gleason, owes potentially fatal debts to the mob. At one point in the movie, Gleason diagnoses modern history as the story of the rich getting richer while the poor get drunk. So he pushes alcohol on the ex-boxer to sabotage the camp counselor job, ruining his client’s chances for a better life and manipulating him into becoming a racist American Indian stereotype of a pro wrestler. Wynette was already in love with at least her idea of George Jones but her heart melted when she saw him cry at the movie’s conclusion, Anthony Quinn sacrificing all dignity to go out and perform as “Big Chief.” Wynette spent the night in George’s bed and remembered him being “as gentle and tender and loving” as she’d imagined. The next morning, he took one of his expensive rings off his hand and put it on her finger to formalize their engagement, then gave her the keys to one of his cars. She thought she must be the luckiest girl in the world.
But she wasn’t yet free of Don Chapel, who fell into a breathtaking display of frantic scrambling when biographer Jimmy McDonough asked him about blackmailing Tammy Wynette with nude photos. Don’s response begins with him saying Tammy dreamt up the whole thing, before he says, in those days, everyone took risqué Polaroids – which is all they were, so he couldn’t have had any film negatives with which to blackmail her. But then he says Tammy talked about framing one of the pictures for display and she decided to keep one of the photos in a secret place with a threat to someday, somehow, blackmail Don with a nude photo of herself. Still not done rambling, Don then says Tammy wasn’t even pretty and wraps up his response by calling her “bowlegged.” So, you know, just a calm and rational explanation from a man who was confident he’d done nothing wrong. In Tammy’s version, soon after they were married, Don began aggressively taking pictures of her whenever she was naked and he remembered he had a camera. If she was getting in or out of the shower or doing stretches on the floor of their bedroom while nude, he’d jump in there and grab a shot or two. It made her angry every time but Don would not stop, so she started locking doors before taking off her clothes. Fast forward a few months, a fan at a concert hands an envelope to Tammy. She opens it in the dressing room while on a break between sets and finds a picture of herself, naked, in her bathroom, in her home. She comes unglued on Don but he acts like it’s no big deal, just him and some other guys who trade pictures of their wives through classifieds in the back of nudie magazines. There were other problems in the marriage but this was one thing she couldn’t forgive and never did. As you would expect, Don denies this happened. However, George Jones claimed one of his managers was contacted by Don Chapel, who seemed to think he could get revenge on Tammy for leaving him by shattering George’s opinion of her with the photos. Instead, George’s manager bought and destroyed the film negatives, bringing an end to the whole matter, at least until Tammy told the entire world about it a decade later in her autobiography. It’s worth pointing out George Jones’ account of the situation provided additional details not included in Tammy’s book. Unlike many of his stories, he wasn’t simply repeating or responding to her memories when he shared his side of this. After Tammy’s book came out, Don tried to sue her for somewhere around $30 million, saying he was harassed and humiliated because of what she wrote and that he took the pictures with Tammy’s permission. His lawsuit was quickly dismissed.
Honestly, Don’s career would have been screwed as soon as Tammy left him even without this naked pictures fiasco. For all the favors Mr. Tammy Wynette could cash in around Nashville, ex-Mr. Tammy Wynette could barely get his phone calls returned. When Don and Donna Chapel talked to Huey Long to see about their touring opportunities, Huey said he could no longer be their booking agent because Tammy was one of his top clients and he wanted to make sure she stayed happy with him. There are exactly zero significant recordings of any Don Chapel song written after his divorce from Tammy Wynette. Oh, and it turns out he didn’t even merit an actual divorce. One of George Jones’ guys discovered this Alabama law stating divorcees must get permission from the judge on their case if they wanted to get married again within a year. Since Tammy never got permission from the judge who divorced her from Euple Byrd, she was never legally married to Don Chapel. But she let him keep the house anyway.
By the time Epic released “Stand by Your Man” in September of 1968, Tammy Wynette and George Jones were pretending to be already married. As the song became a record-breaking hit, the media zeroed in on Tammy’s love life and fed it to the flames of controversy. Although it would take far too long to unpack how all the arguments played out, both the song’s defenders and its critics somehow thought her second divorce and remarriage supported their interpretation of the song. No matter which side they took, women in beauty salons were soon reading all the latest gossip about Tammy’s life in the same magazines Tammy used to (and still did) love to read, even though she now knew how glamorous it didn’t feel to be in the pages: “I guess the loss of privacy goes with the territory of being a celebrity but that doesn’t make it any easier to see your personal life splattered all over the papers.” In a near-instant response to the sudden presence of the media in their daily lives, Tammy and George moved from Nashville to Florida. By the time Jones got around to telling his version of the story, his career had been in much better shape than hers for about twenty years, so he makes it seem like he was the big celebrity who needed to get out of town and away from the circus. But, really, Tammy was in the process of becoming one of the most famous women in the world and it’s pretty likely she’d learned enough about her new fiancee to know he should be kept as far away from tabloid reporters as possible.
In the fall of 1968, they took a trip down to Florida for George to show Tammy the vacation home he kept in his divorce. Only, he happened to be renting the house to a couple he knew and it also happened to be raining very hard when they arrived in town. Since he wanted the sun to be out when Tammy saw the house for the first time, they checked into a motel and Jones had his renters come meet them in the bar, where everyone but Tammy pretty quickly got drunk. In his version of the story, this alone was enough to provoke Tammy’s anger and make her start yelling at him. According to her, she had no problem with watching him get drunk except that it was boring. When his friends finally left, she said she took him up to their room, put him to bed and was just getting into bed herself when someone began pounding on the door. Apparently, the husband of the couple decided he wasn’t ready to let the party end just yet and came back to do some more drinking. Tammy jumped out of bed, opened the door and yelled at the guy to get lost but it was too late. Jones was already out of bed, still trashed, half-awake and pissed at Tammy for yelling at his friend. He took a swing at her and missed, then shattered a whiskey bottle against the wall, which is when Tammy ran out of their second-story room, down a set of stairs and off across the parking lot in her bare feet, wearing only a nightgown. Jones tried to give chase but, being drunk and wearing cowboy boots with a pretty tall heel, he tripped near the bottom of the stairs, fell the rest of the way down and landed in a gravel flower bed, breaking his wrist. When Tammy heard him fall, she looked back and saw him lying on the ground but kept running until she made it to another motel next door, where she convinced the overnight front desk clerk to give her a room even though she had no money or ID. A couple hours later, thinking about how Jones hadn’t really been moving when she looked back and saw him on the ground, she decided to go check and see if he was okay. His dead body wasn’t in the parking lot, so she went up to the room and knocked quietly on the door. Right away, George called for her to come in and she found him, now fully awake, sitting up in bed with his broken wrist resting on a pillow. After some half- hearted bickering, Tammy drove him to a hospital, where they put his forearm in a cast. The next morning, the sun was shining bright and George was back to being the man who made her feel like the luckiest little lady in the world. They went to see his house, she loved it and the move to Florida was decided. But his renters still had a few months left on their lease, so Tammy and George went back to Nashville until the house was empty.
Despite the prevailing narrative, this relationship’s problems did not begin and end with substance abuse. Among other issues, by the time of this interim period in Nashville, George had already realized Tammy wanted to be around him more often than he wanted to be around anyone. In his words, “There is such a thing as smothering a person.” When they began living together, his alone time suddenly evaporated. Whether he was going to the store, studio or anywhere in between, Tammy was seemingly incapable of letting him out of her sight. It eventually got to the point where he invented a short-notice business trip then checked himself into a Nashville hotel for three days of solitude. Since Tammy wanted to pick him up from the airport when he “returned,” George took a cab to BNA, then snuck his way into the terminal in order to approach his waiting bride-to-be from the direction of arriving passengers. He timed it all out so he’d come walking up a few minutes after “his plane” had landed. The only problem was Tammy heard the announcement about that flight being delayed a few minutes before George snuck into the terminal, so she’d just settled in for a bit of a wait when he came strolling up with a big smile on his face before “his plane” had even landed. Needless to say, her curiosity over where he’d been for the past several days did not lead to a mature and honest discussion of their respective needs from a partner.
When George went in the studio for Musicor in November of 1968, Tammy went with him. See, she knew how many years George spent obsessing over Melba Montgomery and, well, let’s say it’s not a coincidence George and Melba’s final session happened in late 1966, just prior to Tammy setting her sights on George. But about five months before this late 1968 session, George cut a handful of duets with a new singer named Brenda Carter. When “Milwaukee, Here I Come” nearly went Top 10, Tammy probably decided to make sure George Jones didn’t end up with any new recording partner other than her. Even though it went against her contract with Epic to do so, she jumped on George’s Musicor session and recorded uncredited background vocals on several songs, including what became the title track of his next LP, I’ll Share My World with You. By this time, George’s sessions were regularly led by Bob Moore, who’d by this time worked with and studied under Billy Sherrill for years. Those keeping track of Billy’s growing influence on the direction of the Nashville Sound will notice the piano has evolved from the Floyd Cramer-esque clusters of notes and the busy honky-tonk style previously heard on George Jones records over to the way Billy Sherrill used piano: sudden and distinct single-note runs, often on the bass half of the keyboard. The single came out in March 1969, hit #2 country and probably would have gone #1 if it wasn’t held down by Tammy’s “Stand by Your Man.” And Musicor may not have been able to credit her background vocals on the LP’s jacket but they did go ahead and make the entire album cover a picture of Tammy and George.
Watch the Throne
Jones had allowed his Grand Ole Opry membership to lapse with the rest of his life in the early 1960s, so when the Opry made Tammy a member in January 1969, they also asked George to rejoin. This was around the time Huey Long started booking them as a co-headliner package and their first engagement was a string of dates in February in Atlanta at The Playroom, the same venue where Huey Long first booked Tammy on her own. In his autobiography, Jones reduces the events of this Georgia trip to the shows they performed, the legal marriage they secretly procured and the child Tammy informed him she was carrying. He offers this information in this order, which is the same order this information is offered in Tammy’s book. However, Jones does not respond to or even acknowledge the rest of what Tammy alleges happened as a result of his drinking on this trip. What he does do, three pages later, is state he doesn’t believe he went on “a doozy” of a drunk in 1969 until near the end of the year because he was trying to be good after he broke his wrist in Florida. This is interesting because if it’s a non-direct refutation of Tammy’s Georgia story, which is what it seems to be, then we have to wonder if there’s a reason he didn’t directly refute her story. We have to wonder if doing so would have called into question the official timeline of events and circumstances leading to their marriage, perhaps even to the point of suggesting what they may have been arguing about several months earlier in a Florida motel room. Did George Jones, as Tammy alleges, wait until the second day of their Atlanta gig to disappear for most of a day with the club owner, return drunk enough to accuse her of trying to sleep with his band, shove her in the hallway of their tour bus, abandon her onstage one song into the set, then disappear for several days? Not if he was telling the truth about getting almost all the way through 1969 without going on such a bender. To be absolutely clear, it’s easy to believe Jones could and did do all of these things while on a week-long binge. It’s just that he said he didn’t have a week-long binge in the beginning of 1969. If he was telling the truth, then it means Tammy did not, as she alleges, discover she was pregnant with his child while he was mysteriously gone for several days. And it means she did not keep the pregnancy to herself when Jones returned to drunkenly say he’d decided against marrying her, only to wake up the next morning and surprise her by taking her to the courthouse to get married. So the question becomes when did these things happen and in what order?
If Jones was given to saying he didn’t want to marry Tammy when he was blackout drunk, they both agree he got blackout drunk on that earlier trip to Florida. And it’s kind of weird how the friend who starts their motel room argument in Tammy’s version of the Florida story completely vanishes after serving this purpose. Her version has this guy push his way past her to get all the way inside the motel room before Jones wakes up, starts swinging, chases her outside, falls down the stairs and breaks his wrist. This friend could not have missed these events. Nevertheless, as soon as he does the job of starting an argument, Tammy’s story has no more use for him and he disappears from her account of the night. When she looks back while running away, all she sees is Jones lying motionless in the parking lot with a broken wrist. There’s no friend calling down from the second story walkway or crouching over Jones’ body to see if he’s alright. We’re supposed to believe this guy who George knows well enough to rent his vacation home to and invite out for drinks would simply leave him motionless on the ground in a Florida parking lot after sustaining an injury. And while we’re asking questions: isn’t six months a long time to pretend to be married – onstage, in interviews, on television – after you’ve learned there’s absolutely nothing standing in the way of legally following through? No matter what did happen, both George Jones and Tammy Wynette always agreed upon the official timeline: first, whatever his reasons, he finally and suddenly took her to a courthouse to get married; then, a few days later, she told him she was pregnant. Both parties also agree on the fact George was thrilled to hear about the baby, then heartbroken when she lost it.
In March, one month after the courthouse wedding and the month “I’ll Share My World with You” came out, they moved into what was previously George’s vacation home outside of Lakeland, Florida, a suitably-named area with many lakes, approximately halfway between Tampa and Orlando. In 1969, Lakeland was home to just over 40,000 people, roughly 10% the population of Nashville. It was a quiet place and the combined incomes of two country music superstars gave them plenty of time to relax and enjoy it. Even with half of George’s songwriting royalties going to his ex-wife, they were able to tour less often and still bring in money hand over fist by earning two checks at every concert while sharing expenses, like the band, vehicles, lodging, meals, etc. Their new neighbors in Lakeland were Cliff and Maxine Hyder, a married couple who were a bit older than Jones and Tammy. They all spent hours playing the board game Aggravation, which is a variation on the game most Americans would recognize as Parcheesi, Trouble or Sorry! It’s fitting George Jones met this game under the name Aggravation, though, because it’s not so much that he was competitive as it was he couldn’t stand to lose more often than he thought he should. He’d treat every move of every game as if it were gravely important and if this level of effort was still not enough to prevent multiple losses in a row then he’d get mad enough to wait until everyone had left, wait until Tammy had gone to bed, then sneak off and smash the Aggravation board to pieces, which is why they had to own multiple units of the game at all times. This is him sober, by the way. Both Tammy and George say he rarely drank at home their first year in Lakeland and the lighter touring schedule made it easier to avoid the problems of his past.
But then they went back to Nashville for the 1969 DJ Convention and CMA awards. Like an addict leaving rehab then going right back to their apartment across the hall from a drug dealer, Jones picked up where he left off as soon as they hit the city. His side of the story is essentially the same as always: he caught up with some old friends and, before he knew it, he was drunk, which was all it took to send Tammy into a rage. According to her, though, as soon as they checked into the hotel, George said he had some errands to run and disappeared. Since Tammy was nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year for the second year in a row, she had to do her hair and makeup instead of staying with her husband to keep an eye on him. Several hours later, the front desk called to say a young lady was waiting in a car out front to pick up Mr. George Jones. Still telling her version of the story, here, this is what made Tammy mad. She ran out front of the hotel and yelled at the woman in the car about how she wasn’t taking George Jones anywhere. A few minutes after Tammy returned to the hotel room, Jones came tearing in like a repeat of Florida: how dare she say where he could and couldn’t go or who with, embarrassing him in front of his friends, etc. Tammy said he shoved her, causing her face to hit the wall, and she felt her cheek instantly begin to swell and bruise as Jones ran out of the room. She tried and failed to cover the abuse with makeup, then got out a wig which she pulled down low over her face, hoping it would at least cover some of the swelling.
Now, Jimmy McDonough’s 2010 biography does not print a single word about Tammy and George attending the 1969 CMAs and I’ve got to guess it’s because this story is one of her most egregious concoctions. It’s very important, here, to understand how much the archival element of the Internet has changed our concepts of news media’s permanence and, in turn, what events we can and cannot lie about years after the fact. When Tammy Wynette published this story in her 1979 autobiography, she had no clue a few decades of technological advancement would make it so easy for anyone who cared to find high-res photographs taken from multiple angles and with differential lighting of her attending and accepting awards at the 1969 CMAs. It’s true she’s wearing a very bad wig, probably because going into a rage over an attractive young woman trying to take her husband to an industry party left her own hair too messed up too close to showtime to fix. But the wig is not pulled down low around her face to cover swelling and bruising because no part of her face is swollen or bruised. We’re still quite a few episodes away from all of this but Tammy’s book was written while in an abusive relationship which she’d already taken outrageous measures to obscure. Just as we know she appropriated stories to tell as if they were her own, just as we know she consistently portrayed ordinary people as larger-than-life heroes or villains and just as it’s fair to suspect she created false timelines to present a more flattering order of events, it is absolutely fair to suspect Tammy Wynette may have found a way to talk about George Richey throwing her head into a wall by backdating and attributing the abuse to George Jones. George’s book does not acknowledge or respond to Tammy’s allegations of abuse at the 1969 CMAs. Elsewhere in the book, after denying several persistent rumors – like the one where he’s supposed to have snapped the heels of 150 pairs of Tammy’s shoes so she couldn’t walk out on him or the one where’s supposed to have held a gun on her to make her spend a few hours watching him do blow, even though he never tried cocaine until years after they were married – Jones said the truth is Tammy often tried to violently attack him. He is not the only source to say Tammy often tried to violently attack him. He goes on to say he only retaliated once, by slapping her in the face. He doesn’t specify when this happened but, comparing all the available sources, it seems pretty likely to be while they were living in Lakeland, Florida. This would be the time Tammy’s daughters ran over to Cliff and Maxine Hyder’s house to get help stopping a fight between Tammy and Jones. Jones was gone by the time the Hyders arrived and all Tammy would say over and over was she’d hit him first.
In November 1969, a month after the CMAs, Tammy went back in the studio with George to record her most blatant uncredited vocal to date on “Never Grow Cold.” She and George shared writing credit on this one but all they did was put new lyrics over the gospel song “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” which George recorded several years earlier. Where Tammy’s voice was previously blended in with a Nashville-style chorus, here she’s outright harmonizing with George. As there’s no mistaking the voice of Tammy Wynette, Pappy Daily avoided a lawsuit by shelving the session for over a year, until George left Musicor for Epic, possibly giving Pappy the right to issue these recordings as part of the exit terms. Tammy’s not on it but this is the only place it makes sense to mention Jones’ cut of “A Wound Time Can’t Erase” from these same sessions and I would be remiss to skip over it because on each chorus he turns the word “wound” into a seven second, four syllable word, while demonstrating perfect breath and pitch control.
Tammy also went in the studio on her own while in Nashville for the 1969 award season. This is when she recorded the previously-mentioned single “I’ll See Him Through,” a filler version of “I’ll Share My World with You” and a song Billy Sherrill wrote in order to avoid getting sued. Art Linkletter had recently ended a near-thirty year run of his wildly popular Kids Say the Darndest Things TV and radio segment, in which young children were prompted to give unintentionally hilarious responses to questions and topics they didn’t fully understand. Since this had already proven to be a very successful theme for Tammy Wynette, Billy Sherrill decided to repackage such material into a compilation LP titled Kids Say the Darndest Things. Then Epic’s lawyers informed him they could be sued if the tracklist didn’t contain a song of the same title, so Billy and Glenn Sutton wrote one, custom-tailoring the lyrics to Tammy’s universe of long-gone daddies and left-behind mommies. (That’s almost certainly Charlie McCoy showing off his glockenspiel skills all over the track.) When Billy brought the tape to legal, they must have looked further into the matter and decided they could still be sued because this recording was shelved until 1973, when someone finally just called Art Linkletter and asked if they could release the single and LP. He said he didn’t care and the song went to #1 four years after it was recorded, a testament to Billy Sherrill’s skill at crafting timeless art like his hero Owen Bradley.
But still back in the late ‘60s and sticking with Tammy’s go-to narrative technique of following a disastrous argument with the surprise discovery of a pregnancy, her autobiography’s account of the 1969 CMA awards fast-forwards three months to January 1970, when her doctor said she was with child. George responded to the news by sticking to his own go-to behavior, attempting to straighten up and fly right in the months before and after the birth of one of his children. He only backslid into serious binges a couple of times in the year 1970 and their home life was mostly stress-free as he occupied himself with various community and business projects in Lakeland. He would soon terminate an eighteen-year professional alliance with Pappy Daily in order to marry his career to his wife’s. And, of course, despite such great effort, these illusions would fail to hold, as this marriage began crumbling from the inside out ever since it started as a lie.
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe. While you’re on the website, please stop by the SUPPORT page to learn the various ways you may be able to help me continue making this show, even if it’s only recommending it to someone you know. My preferred method of support is Patreon, which was my sole source of income between Season 1 and Season 2 and the only reason I was able to create a second season. If you visit the merch store right now, you will see that nearly everything is sold out but I do have an order in for more stuff, including new color options for some of the t-shirts, so all of that will be coming soon.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Johann Strauss II – Wein, Weib und Gesang, Op. 333 [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Stand by Your Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tina Turner – “Stand by Your Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Motörhead & Wendy O. Williams – “Stand by Your Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Chippette (Alvin & The Chipmunks) w/ Tammy Wynette – “Stand by Your Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lyle Lovett – “Stand by Your Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Big Brother & The Holding Co. – “Piece of My Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Singing My Song” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “The Ways to Love a Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “I’ll See Him Through” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “He Loves Me All the Way” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Run Woman Run” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Slits – “Typical Girls” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “When There’s a Fire in Your Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bobby Braddock – “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (demo) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “When the Grass Grows Over Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Brenda Carter – “Milwaukee, Here I Come” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I’ll Share My World with You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Never Grow Cold” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “A Wound Time Can’t Erase” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tammy Wynette – “Kids Say the Darndest Things” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube (or other sites) may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
Like I said in the previous Liner Notes, I’ve been dreading releasing these Tammy episodes for a long time. There were definitely some people who had the negative reaction I expected from the first one and I assume this one will be even worse. Look, these episodes are forcing me to say a lot of things I really wish I didn’t have to say because it is stressful to navigate these topics, especially in the year 2021, but I’m not going to compromise the integrity of this show by removing difficult questions from my research process or ignoring the truths I uncover, which will often be messy. I know everyone who’s only familiar with the version of the story in Tammy Wynette’s autobiography will not want to hear anything different but when the person who helped Tammy tell that version of the story tells us the truth is something else, then I have to pay attention to that and I have to look for that something else. When research turns up several informed sources all confirming the same alternate version of events, it would be unethical for me to ignore that. It is not fun for me to debunk a woman’s story about being physically abused, especially when I know she really was physically abused, but I am not allowed to promise the truth as far as I can tell it unless I’m prepared to tell it and that’s the promise I make in every episode. I keep my promises. Again, we’re still quite a few episodes away from it but for everyone who refuses to let go of what they think they know about this story, you need to understand we have a great deal of evidence pointing toward the way Tammy Wynette did react when a man did bruise her face and it was exactly the opposite of trying to hide it with a wig and makeup.
When it comes to the history of the song “Stand by Your Man” given in this episode, I will repeat the disclaimer given in previous Liner Notes of this season: you’re reading me explain how and why history unfolded the way it did. I can like something and still recognize what about it made so many people so upset. Me supplying direct quotes from other people is not me telling you I agree with those people wholesale. Me writing about the problem millions of people have had with this song is not me telling you I hate this song. There are examples of me directly stating a song is bad in most episodes of this podcast, so if anyone feels the need to write me a boring email to say I have wrong opinions then please at least go find one of those instances to make sure you’re yelling at me for an opinion I actually have.
There’s one last thing Tammy sometimes said about this song which I should address: “Daddy made all the decisions. A man’s word was law. That’s what bothers me so much when people make fun of ‘Stand by Your Man.’ That’s all I knew.” This is exactly what you’d hear from many women describing their childhoods in the 1940s and 1950s but whenever Tammy talks about the grandparents who raised her without trying to use them as a shield for “Stand by Your Man,” she always talks about Mama being the more dominant adult in the house. It was Mama who laid down the law at home and who made sure to let Daddy know whenever he messed up. Tammy’s relationship with Mildred was exactly the same. Mildred is who she bumped heads with. Mildred is who chastised her. When Tammy explained why she yelled at George Jones about his drinking, she pointed to the behavior of her mother and grandmother, who made her believe that’s the way a wife laid down the law. So it doesn’t really sound like “a man’s word was law” is how she was raised at all.
I wasn’t able to find specific information on this but I do strongly doubt either Francois I or his sons were imprisoned anywhere resembling our modern concepts of a prison or any sort of gen pop situation. They were probably confined to some room of some castle but I would still say such confinement is what constitutes whether or not a room should be called a “cell.”
At the time of most events discussed in this episode’s intro, Roman Catholicism wasn’t called Roman Catholicism but I backdated modern terminology in order to avoid confusion, which is the same reason I used Muhammad Ali’s chosen name instead of calling him by the name everyone knew him as at the time of his appearance in the movie Requiem for a Heavyweight.
The Art Linkletter clip above is actually from a show called Art and The Kids but it’s the exact same bit and format that he used for decades under the name Kids Say the Darndest Things.
The Alvin & The Chipmunks cover of “Stand by Your Man” does have Alvin on an extended intro but the song is actually sung by the Chipette character. Tammy Wynette is also on the recording.
There are, of course, pinball machines shown in the roughneck country bar scene of Blues Brothers.
It would have been a spoiler to say why it was significant for Lyle Lovett’s cover of “Stand by Your Man” to be placed over the end credits of The Crying Game so I didn’t and won’t do it here.
There is some doubt about whether Tammy Wynette was actually “The First Lady” to sell a million units in country music. Some people think Loretta Lynn probably sold a million units before her and before certain tracking systems were put in place. Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” probably sold over a million units even earlier than that. If anyone thinks they saw me say Tammy was the first to sell a million, they didn’t. You saw me say her record label started claiming that and calling her The First Lady, which is what happened.
Speaking of First Ladies, Wynette once told a friend of hers that Hillary Clinton refused to shake her hand when Tammy was the surprise guest at a Clinton fundraiser held at Barbra Streisand’s California home, which I assume is the same California home that resulted in the term Streisand Effect discussed in Season 1.
I turned up a little piece of information while researching in the Country Music Hall of Fame and it does not seem to be widely available online, so if anyone has ever wondered who played pedal steel guitar on “Milwaukee, Here I Come,” that would be Lloyd Green.
As for my other sources, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and Machiavelli’s The Prince were both obviously used for this episode. It’s definitely above my pay grade but I was pretty fascinated to discover that both of these men were basically writing about the same thing at the same time: the difference between a person’s private life and what they project to the outside world. Seems like something a person who’s smarter than me could write a whole book about and I’m surprised nobody has.
My primary sources for all of Season 2 are on the Season 2 library page. Today I’ll talk a little bit about Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Tammy, Tragic Country Queen. The book is essential reading for Tammy Wynette fans who can handle learning the truth but those who can’t will probably wish they’d never read it. As mentioned in the previous episode, Jimmy spent a long time and did a lot of work writing this book. There’s no chance anyone will ever write a more comprehensive biography of Tammy than this one. He also spends a lot of time on George Jones and Billy Sherrill, which I appreciated. I’m sure the letters he periodically writes to Tammy throughout the book would weird out some people but who am I to criticize unconventional storytelling techniques? (Those of you who don’t like the intros in Season 2 will be pleased to learn Jimmy doesn’t talk much about bullfighting or pinball.) There are some chronology problems here and there but I assume that’s a result of him trying to make sense of all the lies he had to sift through while putting the story together. I would also like to make sure and clarify it was not my intention to insinuate any sort of negative opinion toward Jimmy for him not mentioning the photographic proof that Tammy wasn’t trying to hide bruises on her face at the CMA awards because she wasn’t even wearing the type of wig she claims. I totally understand his decision to not discuss that because I didn’t want to discuss it either.
Alright, when the podcast returns, I’ll be covering the period of time when Tammy Wynette and George Jones were married to each other, which is pretty near the center of the labyrinth that is this season, and I think those of you who have been enjoying the intros this time around will be happy with the part of the map I’m showing you at the beginning of the next episode.