When I got older and started listening to her music, though, I found that she was something so much richer and more complex. I came to hear in her voice an unapologetic sense of anguish, disappointment and sometimes even defiance in the face of heartbreak. I heard a performer with a keen sense of tonal calibration and intuitive emotional intelligence — a great storyteller, and a much needed chronicler of often dismissed tales of feminized pain.
Today’s playlist is a celebration of Wynette in all her multifaceted glory. It works well as a companion piece to my article, but it can also be a stand-alone introduction (or reintroduction) to her music. It features a lot of her own biggest hits, but also some tributes from disciples like Reba McEntire, Kellie Pickler and even Del Rey herself. I decided not to include any of Wynette’s many duets with her ex-husband George Jones, not because I don’t love most of them (I do), but because Wynette is so often reduced to her relationship with Jones and I wanted to give her music a chance to stand on its own. It does, however, feature a collaboration with her artistic equals and fellow Honky Tonk Angels, Parton and Lynn. May this playlist inspire singalongs, cry-alongs and good girls to go bad.
1. Tammy Wynette: “Womanhood”
This later hit from the 1978 album “Womanhood” is one of Wynette’s strangest singles and — perhaps not coincidentally — one of my favorites. Here, Wynette embodies a character who has been led into temptation: “I am a Christian, Lord, but I’m a woman too,” she sings amid blustery guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a late ’70s Fleetwood Mac record. “If you are listening, Lord, please show me what to do.” “Womanhood” was penned by the prolific Nashville songwriter Bobby Braddock, and in his memoir he described the song as being “about a girl having a tearful talk with God about losing her virginity.” That Wynette was a woman of 36 embarking upon her fifth marriage when she recorded the song — which would become her final Top 5 hit on the country charts — adds another layer of complexity, pathos and even kitsch. (Listen on YouTube)
2. Tammy Wynette: “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”
Long before Rihanna went bad, there was Tammy. As with many of Wynette’s signature tunes, there is a sense of resignation and even self-abnegation at work here: “I’ll change if it takes that to make you happy,” she tells a whiskey-swilling, bar-dwelling husband as she offers to adopt a lifestyle more like his on this swinging, upbeat number from her 1967 debut. But I also hear a playful defiance in Wynette’s vocal here: She’s throwing a man’s questionable behavior back in his face and subtly pointing out a double standard in the expectations of how men and women are supposed to act. Plus, for once, it sounds like she’s having a blast. (Listen on YouTube)
3. Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn: “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”
In 1993, the pioneering country queens Parton and Lynn teamed up with Wynette for a spirited collaborative album called “Honky Tonk Angels,” named after Kitty Wells’s classic 1952 anthem. Since most of Wynette’s best-known collaborations find her working through heartache with Jones, it’s refreshing to hear her singing with this accomplished (and convincingly hell-raising) group of women. For the love of big hair and shoulder pads, stop what you’re doing and watch this video of them performing it live together. (Listen on YouTube)