As hard as it is to admit, even the most successful artists have fallow periods; international success is wonderful, but the peaks can’t last forever. There comes a point when an artist’s records stop selling at the same level of years prior, and their audience provides them with a steady base that allows them to sell records but not necessarily gaining new fans along the way.
This was true of Tammy Wynette, as she, like many vintage country performers, struggled with the changing sound and production style of 1980s-era country music. Gone were the twangy guitars, the lushly-arranged backing and harmonies, replaced with slick, computerized—and often bowdlerized—musical accompaniment that sounded cold and impersonal thanks to digital production methods and cold, anodyne melodies. Furthermore, if a country artist didn’t play this game, it almost certainly meant that radio would shut them out.
Even though Wynette couldn’t escape this fate, she was too talented of an artist to let this fact hold her back. Morello’s latest Wynette twofer collects two of Wynette’s final albums, 1985’s Sometimes When We Touch and 1987’s Higher Ground. Both albums would be moderately successful; the former would be her final top 40 album, while the latter would bubble under at 43, and both are fine examples of Wynette making the most out of a dreadful Nashville sound.
Sometimes When We Touch’s title song is indeed a cover of the Dan Hill hit, and it’s an excellent number, a duet with songwriter and Exile member Mark Gray. The countryfing of this otherwise noxious little pop number works quite well, and would in fact prove to be Wynette’s final top ten Country chart hit. The rest of the album is equally good; the songs tend to be about a woman scorned, broken-hearted, and wronged. Sometimes it works; “If It Ain’t Love” and “Breaking Away” are powerful little numbers, and the single “You Can Lead A Heart To Love (But You Can’t Make It Fall)” is an upbeat number that was also a minor hit. But the maudlin moments of “It’s Hard To Be A Dreamer (When I Used To Be The Dream)” and “Every Time You Touch Her (Think Of Me)” are somewhat forgettable, and feel like Wynette trying to imitate her better moments.
Higher Ground, released in 1987, fares much, much better. Instead of the slick modern country production, producer Steve Buckingham decided to go for a roots-minded sound, reuniting Wynette with the traditional country sound that made her great in the first place. From the first moment of “Your Love,” which features Ricky Skaggs on harmonies, Higher Ground just sounds so right. The entire record features a catalog of talented country performers who wanted to help the legend regain her throne, with names such as Emmylou Harris (“Beneath A Painted Sky”), Paul Overstreet (“There’s No Heart So Strong”), Vern Gosdin (“Some Things Will Never Change”), Vince Gill (“I Wasn’t Meant To Live My Life Alone”), Rodney Crowell (“There’s No Heart So Strong”), and The Statler Brothers. (“Higher Ground”).
This impressive list of names not only adds star power to Higher Ground, but they help Wynette produce what’s easily her last truly great record; it’s hard not to tear up on “Beneath A Painted Sky” or on the pure, innocent heartbreak of “Talking To Myself Again,” while the gospel joy of “Higher Ground” and the jaunty ‘Tempted” reintroduce Wynette to the passion of her career’s earlier hits. All in all, Higher Ground feels like what should have been a strong comeback record from a true country legend. Sadly, things didn’t quite work that way; the records that followed would almost render these two highlights moot, as she soon found herself back in the routine of lousy, sub-par country production and weak material.
And yet, Tammy Wynette would soon come out of these professional doldrums, but not in the way one would expect. In 1991, she would bizarrely agree to be the vocalist for The KLF’s remix of “Justified And Ancient” which would become an international hit. Following that, she would soon be mocked by the feminist movement thanks to Hillary Clinton’s statement in 1992, when she stated, “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” The resulting feuding would lead to a Clinton apology and a performance at the White House. She would also appear as part of a trio called Honky Tonk Angels with fellow Country queens Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, with a self-titled record that would become a top ten hit on the Billboard country charts. Furthermore, Wynette would soon take the role as Tilly Hill on King Of The Hill, but this quiet comeback was sadly brought to an end when she passed away suddenly in 1998, the result of a blood clot. It wasn’t unsurprising; Wynette’s health had been poor for well over a decade, but the loss was painful; she was a true country legend. Even though her last records didn’t do her legacy justice, these two albums most certainly proved that Wynette had lost none of her power in spite of the mediocrity of the musical world around her
Categories: Album Reviews