Tammy Wynette's highest-charting hit in the last dozen years of her life was the KLF's "Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMs)," a techno-pop song on which she sang and that represents to this day one of the least likely (and most successful) pop-music collaborations ever. It is, however, as one of country music's greatest female singers that she will be remembered, and 1968 was the year she established her greatness.
"D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "Stand by Your Man," her fourth and fifth (out of an eventual 20) No. 1 country hits, gave poignant voice to a truth that most rock 'n' roll at the time was aggressively denying: that love cannot be a "free," merely sensual exercise in mutually agreed-upon self-satisfaction from which either participant can blithely walk away.
She had sung about the heartbreak of failing marriages before ("Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," "I Don't Wanna Play House") and would again ("'Til I Get It Right," "Kids Say the Darndest Things"). Whether her own marital history (five husbands, two divorces, two annulments) was a case of life imitating art or vice versa is impossible to say. Either way, it's no surprise that she returned to the optimism of "Stand by Your Man" less often-and less persuasively. Even the relatively optimistic heroines of "He Loves Me All the Way" and "We Sure Can Love Each Other" are haunted by the fear that what looks like love might only be the calm before the storm.
The 14 tracks of the just-released compilation, Playlist: The Very Best of Tammy Wynette (Epic/Legacy), serve as a bittersweet reminder of the remarkable capacity of Wynette's voice to embody and to ennoble the emotions about which she sang.