“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” That’s the opening line of “Stand By Your Man,” one of country music’s best-known songs, released in September 1968, and it’s wisdom the singer knew firsthand. Virginia Wynette Pugh was born in 1942 in Itawamba County, Mississippi. She married at seventeen, and by twenty, was a mother of two. She picked cotton, waited tables, and worked at a shoe factory before going to beauty school to support her family. In 1965, she started making regular trips to Nashville, and within a year decided to move to Music City full time: a risk that paid off when she auditioned for Epic Records producer Billy Sherrill.
Today, we know Pugh as Tammy Wynette, the “First Lady of Country” and one of the best-selling musicians of her time—although she famously maintained that beautician’s license throughout her career, just in case. Her first single, “Apartment No. 9,” charted almost immediately in 1967, and a string of top ten hits like “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” “My Elusive Dreams,” and “I Don’t Wanna Play House” brought a much-needed new perspective to country airwaves. A year later, when she wrote “Stand By Your Man,” Wynette was on divorce number two, with a doomed marriage to George Jones on the horizon. The song wasn’t intended as a social statement or a pass for men to misbehave without consequences. Unfortunately, the songwriters’ intentions didn’t matter to Epic Records, and the label took out a Billboard ad for its big new single—TAMMY WYNETTE’S ANSWER TO WOMEN’S LIB: “STAND BY YOUR MAN,” NEW RELEASE. By November, the song had topped the Hot Country Singles charts.
Fifty years later, the song still takes heat for Epic’s pre-Internet-trolling sales tactic, but its beginnings were far less dramatic. “Stand By Your Man” was written August of 1968, when Wynette joined collaborator and producer Billy Sherrill in the studio for recording session. Hoping to finish their workday with one more track, they sat down to write something new. “I had been carrying around a folded sheet of paper in my wallet with chords and lyrics,” Sherrill told the Wall Street Journal in 2013. “My title was, ‘I’ll Stand By You.’ But it didn’t sound right for Tammy. She needed a twist.” Together, they tweaked the track’s perspective, approaching the concept as a woman-to-woman conversation. “We wrote the song in about twenty minutes,” Wynette said in a 1994 interview. She recorded it that very day. “I remember after the first take,” Sherrill told NPR in 2000, “She said, `God, if this is a hit, I’m going to have to hit that God-awful high note the rest of my life.’”
Wynette had other reservations about the song, too, though not its message. “I didn’t have a lot of faith in my own writing at the time… the song was real different from the rest I’d done,” Wynette told Melody Maker in September 1978, citing its departure from “I Don’t Want to Play House,” which won Wynette a Grammy in 1967, and “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.,” released earlier that same year. “I went home and played it for George [Jones], and he didn’t like it. He didn’t know I’d written it. That kinda got me started off wrong.”
Wynette came around—as did listeners. “Stand By Your Man” became a staple at Wynette’s live shows, and she bit back at critics who questioned its meaning. For Wynette—and scores of fans who continue to cherish the song—the song is about accepting human shortcomings in the one you love. Wynette was known to joke about the song she spent twenty minutes writing and the rest of her life defending, but she got the last laugh.
Over its fifty-year history, “Stand By Your Man” has topped the charts multiple times, appeared in Academy Award-winning films, and been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s also inspired covers that span genre, generation, and even gender—Candi Staton, the Dixie Chicks, Carrie Underwood, and Lyle Lovett are among those who have tried the song on for size. Its meaning may evolve, but “Stand By Your Man” will always stand tall.