July/August 2010

Tammy Wynette’s
“Woman to Woman”

The Hard-Boiled Feminist Manifesto
You’ve Never Heard.

by Ken Tucker
Photo of Tammy Wynette courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

At the start of the 1974 single “Woman to Woman,” Tammy Wynette assumes the voice of wise, bitter experience, offering advice to an innocent, naïve woman (a friend? a sister? a daughter?) about the impending depredations of a third woman—an ineluctable temptress, a home-wrecker who’s going to seduce that naïve woman’s husband with malicious ease.

After a quiet acoustic piano intro stating a hushed melody that could pass for the commencement of a religious hymn as easily as it does for the secular revelation it immediately becomes, Wynette strolls into the song. “If you think you got your man in the palm of your hand”—pause; two piano chords; a warning—“you better listen.” She says this with immense sobriety, half singing, half speaking the words. The lesson the narrator wants to impart is that there’s a woman “out there” who is “a whole lot better looking than me and you,” and who can “do things to a man” that the naïve woman cannot even imagine. 

By the second verse, it’s revealed that the naïve woman is married, and most likely younger than Tammy. Wynette tells her that while she’s sitting at home, “thinking how good you turn him on,” her husband’s “golden wedding band” is not going to prevent him from straying. 

Why? Wynette, via the rich fantasy life of the song’s author, producer Billy Sherrill, notes the way the evil woman in this scenario is irresistible for the way she “bounces all over when she walks” and—turning domestic bliss into blissful ignorance—“she’s forgot more about a man than your sweet mama ever told you.” 

The entire song is addressed to the second person: “I’m singing straight to you,” she says. And “you” are the sweet sap about to be made miserable unless you heed Wynette-the-narrator. In effect, the song is addressed to the listener—you are fated to be the screwed-over object of Wynette’s astringent advice. 

I have been haunted by “Woman to Woman” ever since I first saw Tammy Wynette sing it on a cable-TV rerun of Hee Haw a few years ago. I’m into watching Hee Haw’s rich archive of musical performances. Much-derided as a cornpone version of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Hee Haw deserves a lot more credibility, even for its vaudeville sketches (the volcanic comic performances of Gailard Sartain merit their own essay) and especially for its musical guests, who nearly always played it straight.

On this particular episode, cohost Roy Clark comes back from a commercial and says simply, “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Tammy Wynette.” And then a grim-looking Wynette leaning against a prop front-porch railing. She stopped the show dead; no 1970s TV series this side of The Rockford Files could carry the kind of world-weary cynicism that Wynette was selling at this point.[*]

Musically, the song is almost typical of Sherrill’s so-called countrypolitan sound of the period, country pop dominated not by guitars but by piano and a string section, with choral voices swelling up to meet Wynette’s full-throated holler of the phrase “Woman to woman!” at the climax. It sounds just enough like a Tammy Wynette–Billy Sherrill collaboration to fool the unsuspecting into thinking it would be just another product of the Epic Records hit-factory that yielded “Stand By Your Man,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and “I Don’t Wanna Play House.”

But Sherrill, who discovered Wynette and made her a star, crafted an extremely eccentric composition here. It consists of a verse, a bridge, a verse, a different bridge, and then a concluding section that finally gets around to sounding something like a chorus. Wynette alternates sung lines with spoken ones—indeed, the moments in which her narrator wants to be most clear, most blunt, to her friend/daughter/sister are when she talks. (And no, this is not proto-rapping—Sherrill and Wynette don’t bother with rhymes or even fixed rhythms most of the time. Truly, this is one of the least-structured songs in the country canon, and therein lies a source of its great urgency.) It’s only in its final seconds that Wynette utters the title phrase “Woman to woman”—followed immediately by the words “from me, to you,” spoken, not sung, by Wynette with exaggerated emphasis, as though this closing, kiss-off phrase was both a bidding and a chilling curse. 

In 1992, Hillary Clinton would misread and attack Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. A half dozen years later, her husband would seduce and/or be seduced by a woman who “bounce[d] all over when she walks.” Thus, the woman whose music Hillary had derided had already warned her of that exact scenario in 1974. It’s regrettable that the staff of the future First Lady hadn’t done its research and given Hillary a different song list.

“Woman to Woman” was, in a business sense, only a modest hit for Tammy Wynette. It peaked at number four on the country charts during a time when Wynette’s commercial prospects seemed to have peaked. In fact, her string of number one hits nearly stopped after this single: fifteen of them preceded “Woman to Woman,” and she’d only have two more after that, both of the latter negligible tunes that said more about brand loyalty and lack of competition than quality of material.

But “Woman to Woman” is something else: a fierce melodrama in which Wynette and Sherrill present a trio of vivid archetypes: Victim, Victimizer, and the Despairing Woman Who’s Been Both of Them. If Jim Thompson had ever decided to record a single with Patricia Highsmith singing, this would have been their B-side. “Woman to Woman,” unlike so many country songs, isn’t about an act or the aftermath of infidelity; it’s more theoretical. It’s about the inevitability of infidelity, and as such it proves more despairingly doom-struck than a million other cheating songs. I suspect it only made it to number four because the target audience that could have pushed it to the top was left too depressed by it to go out and actually purchase the damn thing. “Woman to Woman” never won a Grammy, of course, but three-plus decades later, Wynette deserves a posthumous honorary Oscar for her performance. It’s her all-female version of Double Indemnity, with Tammy in all three lead roles.

  • * And you can see a different but no less grave and potent performance of the song in the midst of a TV show called Pop! Goes the Country, on the recent DVD Tammy Wynette: Legendary Performances (Shout! Factory). Country never went less pop! than this.

Ken Tucker, editor at large for Entertainment Weekly, has written about music for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and Creem. He is the pop-music critic for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.

Photo of Tammy Wynette courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

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