“I make the case in this book that Tammy Wynette matters because of the depth of her art, the formal qualities of her singing, and her ability to make melodramatic genius out of the mess of her life. However, I also argue that crafted presentation, work that is considered silly, such as costumes or hair or home décor, is another way of making life into art”. This is from the author’s introduction to their book and, effectively, sums it up in a nutshell. That there is so much more about this book that looks to somehow clarify the enigma that was Tammy Wynette, is what makes it a fascinating read.
Tammy Wynette is one of those artists who’s always going to divide audiences but you can’t deny the strength of her talent. Even though much of her output was mired in mawkish ‘countrypolitan’ arrangements, the quality of her voice and the power of her delivery always shone through. The dichotomy of Wynette’s public persona is neatly summed up in her two best-known songs, ‘Stand By Your Man’ and ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E’, on one hand, fawning and compliant, on the other, feisty and no-nonsense. Easton argues that the key to Wynnette is better found in one of her earliest performances, with the Bobby Austin/Johnny Paycheck song, ‘Apartment No. 9’. The struggle to meet Southern expectations of womanhood, certainly as it was at the time, and the isolation and loneliness that can accompany it, offers a better insight into the driving forces of Wynette’s life, as an artist, woman, and mother.
Easton’s arguments are compelling. The author points out that, though much has, supposedly, been written about Wynette, very little of it is really about her. The books and the articles always dwell on the husbands, the children, the difficulties of Wynette’s marriages, the many problems of her domestic life without ever really talking about the woman and the talent she had, but this was an artist who topped the Country Music charts no less than 20 times in the course of her career. In fact, reading Easton’s book you start to understand how Wynette may well have used the perceptions of her and her position as an icon of domestic femininity in a quite subversive way, and that she was far less of a victim than she herself often encouraged people to believe.
What Easton’s book encourages you to question is how much of Tammy Wynette’s life was as it appeared and how much of it was artistic manipulation and the careful crafting of image and expectation. How much of it was down to her ambition and intention to succeed in a world where women rarely succeeded on their own terms? Wynette herself said of her early career, “I had begun to realize I was working in a man’s world, and most of them looked down on women in the business”. Wynette was someone who was not prepared to be looked down on and took steps to ensure she controlled the imagery she marketed. The more you read this book the more you get drawn into Easton’s questioning of the common perception of this artist and start to wonder if she was far more in control of the narrative of her life than ever seemed apparent at the time. Much has been made, in other writings about Wynette, of the fact that she kept her beautician’s licence in case her music career ended and she had to fall back on her old profession, but was this really the case or just another example of Wynette’s careful management of her image? The licence itself showed that she was a woman who had experienced working outside of the rarified atmosphere of Nashville, but it also underlined the association of her in a high femme role. Everything about Tammy Wynette was always framed around glamour and femininity and the role of a woman in a man’s world. Easton shows that, while that was almost certainly how Wynette saw herself, she also saw how best to make that role work for her. The domestic failures, the infamous fighting in her on/off relationship with George Jones, her other marriages, the mysterious ‘kidnapping’, all served to keep her in the public eye and all served to showcase a woman who was both a victim and someone who rose above that role to show the strength of womanhood – that she, effectively, weaponised her femininity, and to good effect, is something Easton offers as an interpretation of this fascinating musician.
The author, Steacy Easton, identifies as non-binary and they have written this book with the full disclosure that they don’t naturally identify with many of the heterosexual images that are associated with Wynette. The author states, in their conclusion, “I think Wynette matters to me because I want to know how straight people live, how their rituals are constructed, and how their lives take shape”. In analysing Wynette as an example of a woman making her way in a man’s world and using her femininity, in its many forms, to hold her position, this writer successfully shines a spotlight on just how strong and well-defined Wynette was as a performer and artist.
Easton has written a book that makes us re-visit Wynette as a musician and re-evaluate the contribution she made to americana music. Reading this book made me take a look at a selection of the artist’s performances over the course of her career and much of what Easton says becomes apparent when you start looking for it. Wynette did create a persona that played extensively with her role as a woman and an icon of southern states femininity and her abilities as an artist are often undervalued because she appeared to play a role that many misinterpreted. Her career was dominated by the success of ‘Stand by Your Man’ and what many thought it represented but you only have to look at her career record; the gold and platinum discs, the many awards, the successful songwriting to see that this is an artist long overdue a more sympathetic re-assessment.
Wynette was only 56 when she died and you wonder what she might have done had she had the longevity of contemporaries like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Reading this book made me take a look at the video for one of her last recordings, The KLF’s wonderfully subversive ‘Justified & Ancient’. You can see she is someone who is very much in on the joke and looks to be loving every minute of it. She has a look that says “you thought you knew me – so what do you think of this?!”. Read this book; it’s unlike anything else you might have read about this artist and it will change your perception of who you think Tammy Wynette was. This was a life lived as art.
“Why Tammy Wynette Matters” is published on May 23rd and distributed in the UK by Combined Academic Publishers. Readers can order through their local bookstores, who can order copies through CAP, or readers can purchase directly through CAP here