Tammy Wynette has gotten something of a bum rap in these enlightened times for the female submissiveness enshrined in her classic country weepers.
But “Stand By Your Man” aside (and really, her plea for understanding and forgiveness is a gesture of generosity that only enhances a woman’s integrity), they simply reflect those mid-'60s-to-mid-'70s times and country-music culture, with the genre’s directness and unguarded emotion.
It’s also true, though, that such exercises as 1966’s “Apartment 9" (I’ll just sit here and hope he comes back)and 1976’s slightly less subservient “ ‘Til I Can Make It on My Own” (I’ve left but I can’t get over you) don’t sit comfortably in the ‘90s. And the absence of balancing sentiments in Wynette’s music does create an incomplete image of the artist.
That’s why seeing her in person is an enlightening experience. The audience at the Crazy Horse Steak House, where she headlined Monday, heard a lot of those hits performed with no irony and no regrets, but they also listened as Wynette told stories of independence and determination--like driving alone to a show early in her career with two toddlers in the back seat and an infant up front, and writing a song on the way.
That song was “When the Grass Grows Over Me,” a 1968 hit not for Wynette but for then-husband George Jones, and Wynette mentioned without complaint that she never did get the songwriting credit. Just one more plot twist in a soap-opera life of hard times, divorce, stardom, illness--even a kidnaping, if all the rest is too conventional.
So the audience on Monday also saw a survivor, a confident, straightforward singer comfortable with her audience and her body of work. Her voice sounded a little husky early in the evening’s first show but as she cleared the cobwebs she built up to a full-throttle wail. At 51, she doesn’t show the rangy suppleness she had as a kid, but she’s doing real singing, not just evoking memories.
It was fine as far as it went, even though her veteran backing band sounded less than sharp. But there was a glaring shortage of material from her most recent albums. And, understandably, she couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn in “Justified and Ancient,” her surreal, genre-busting collaboration with dance-pop group KLF.
It’s too bad there hasn’t been a Tina Turner-style transfiguration in Wynette’s career, a new music that would embrace her experiences and frame them in a contemporary perspective. She certainly has the history--and the voice--for it.