Tammy Wynette, Fully Considered

Non-Binary Music Critic Steacy Easton’s Why Tammy Wynette Matters Offers Up a Dialogue about Song Authorship, a Melodramatic Honky Tonk Angel’s Underconsidered Legacy, and Country Music Canon-making

I realized after finishing Steacy Easton’s Why Tammy Wynette Matters that I might be the book’s target audience. Steeped in the canon of country music’s most notable icons, Tammy Wynette was largely absent from my childhood. Of course I remember “Stand By Your Man,” but Wynette didn’t have a biopic, a theme park, or a Christmas special on any of the big three networks (at least not one that I remember). Of the women country musicians in her cohort, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton were more celebrated.

So to read Why Tammy Wynette Matters was not just to reconsider Wynette, positioned as one of the great unconsidered artists of all time, but an opportunity for me to seriously consider her legacy for the first time. The book invited me into a dialogue between reader and author about widening the definition of song authorship, about persona creation, about fandom, about who is anointed into the country music canon and who exists closer to its margins, and about an acceptance of ambivalence and uncertainty around all of these topics.

An established music critic who has written about gender, sexuality, and country music for Slate, Country Queer, NPR, and Atlantic Online, Easton also has memories of listening to the local country music radio station with their mother on the way to school as a child. Later, Easton first wrote about Tammy Wynette in a high school English class. In the autobiographical final chapter of Why Tammy Wynette Matters, they write, “In my senior year of high school, the teacher gave us an assignment where we had to analyze country music lyrics. She had a list of funny titles and funny lines. It was the first time I had experience with a joke being taken seriously. I presented on Tammy Wynette and ‘Stand By Your Man.’ I had a lot of thoughts: that Hillary Clinton wasn’t fair with her comment, that it was a difficult song, that it would never be my life, that I loved it, and that it was as exotic, as untranslatable, as the Gilberto Gil I had discovered the previous summer. I don’t think Wynette has ever not been exotic for me, and I also don’t think my decades-long opinion that she was treated badly will ever change. She needs to be seriously considered.”

In the same way that Easton’s high school English teacher legitimized country music as a form worthy of serious study, in Why Tammy Wynette Matters, Easton legitimizes the feminine, the domestic, and the melodramatic themes that marked Wynette’s heartbreak hits “Stand By Your Man,” “Apartment #9,” “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” and “Womanhood.” Though Wynette, who died in 1998 at age 55, recorded 33 studio albums during her career and achieved 20 number-one hit songs between 1967 and 1976, her legacy does not endure in the same way as her contemporaries. 

Easton writes, “Wynette has been written about less than George Jones has, though she was equally as talented and successful. She is less visible in popular culture than Lynn or Parton, though she was as influential. She was often difficult and prickly, and it seems significant that the more difficult an artist is, the less she is paid attention to.” Easton argues Wynette is remembered more in relation to her marriage to George Jones, the third of her five husbands and father of one of her four daughters, and to the men who surrounded her, like producer Billy Sherrill, than for her own merits as an artist.

This argument for a reconsideration of Wynette’s work stretches into an argument for a reconsideration of what lands in the country music canon and why. In the chapter titled “Domesticity,” Easton writes, “The dramatic irony of making great art about domestic roles while failing in them is central to understanding why she matters. Country music demands that its musicians perform realness in the same capacity as actually being real. It seems revelatory that Wynette’s most significant work is in the form of melodrama, a heightened form with spikes of exaggerated emotion and deep sentimentality. Melodrama isn’t taken seriously by critics because emotions aren’t taken seriously and because it’s often viewed as a woman’s medium–see soap operas, romantic comedies, and romance novels.”

Though Tammy Wynette Matters was written by a scholar and music critic and published by a university press, the tone reaches beyond the academic and into fandom. Easton refers to Wynette as exotic more than once, compares her work as an interpretive singer to that of Sarah Vaughn (adding, “but we don’t consider honky-tonk singers as interpretive singers”), and takes jabs at Jones for being the less professional and reliable (though more revered) of the Nashville power couple. “No matter how sad ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ is, it must be remembered that she stopped loving him while he was still alive,” Easton writes. “Though I never want to tell other people what country is, for me, the heartbreak songs are the songs that break apart houses, more than the ones that talk about ramblers and rounders. When we say Tammy Wynette matters, it’s another kind of feminism, one that takes seriously the depiction of women’s work, in ways that Jones or fans of Jones haven’t.”

The author of Why Tammy Wynette Matters is a non-binary critic, and being a fan of an artist who famously supported the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace and who was shunned by second-wave feminists comes into question in the book. Easton admits they questioned, especially during the Trump era, supporting artists whose politics are in direct opposition to their safety. But like Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, the book by Claire Dederer that evolved from her Paris Review essay, “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” Easton’s book serves as a dialogue with the reader about fandom of an artist who may be at odds with one’s political or moral beliefs. In Why Tammy Wynette Matters, Easton establishes a comfortable space for ambivalence while also expanding ideas of authorship, legacy, and who belongs in the country music canon. With close readings of Wynette’s performances of her hit songs, a revisiting of the parts of her story skimmed over by biographers (including her children), a recognition of the role of her female friendships, and an examination of Wynette’s personal presentation from her hair to her clothing to her beautician’s license, Easton invites their readers into the fandom.

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