Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” first seared the country charts 30 years ago this month, Elton John sings it on the current Tammy Wynette Remembered (Asylum), and there would seem to be no more relevant song in America today. In 1992, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton declared: “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Not then, maybe, but what about now?
Hitting just before the inaugural women’s liberation conference, Wynette’s single crossed over from country radio to Top 40, and to r&b via Candi Staton’s cover. The song gathered wider notice as the opening theme of 1970’s Five Easy Pieces; when Karen Black tells Jack Nicholson, “I’m gonna play it [‘Stand’] again,” he responds, “You play that thing one more time and I’m gonna melt it down into hairspray.”
Black’s obsequious drawl reinforced the common reception of “Stand by Your Man” as a declaration of female dependence, though Wynette disagreed. She recalled telling Billy Sherrill, while they were writing it: “If I was back home in Mississippi, being a Mississippi farmer’s wife, you’d stand by a man regardless of what happened because you wouldn’t have any reason or hope to do anything better.” In fact, the song’s moral center is elusive, which is how it could move from Five Easy Pieces‘s opening to Lyle Lovett’s voice in the closing theme of The Crying Game, from Tina Turner to David Allan Coe. What does it mean to stand by somebody ” ’cause, after all, he’s just a man”?
Wynette reportedly never quite got over the campaign insult of ’92, but neither it nor developments since can change what she would have wanted the First Lady or anyone else to hear in “Stand by Your Man”–that love is a hard way to go, and forgiving, if dangerous, is not a submissive act.