Political Controversies Found Wynette and McGraw

Considering the recent media attention surrounding country stars and their political statements, it’s worth remembering that country music’s link to controversy is nothing new. In most cases, however, country artists haven’t sought the added attention. Instead, the controversies somehow managed to find them.

Two prime examples are Tammy Wynette (whose “Stand by Your Man” raised the ire of women’s liberation advocates) and Tim McGraw (whose breakthrough hit “Indian Outlaw” angered many Native Americans and others who claimed that the lyrics were politically incorrect).

The impact of the two songs will be examined on the newest episodes of the CMT series, Controversy. The episode devoted to Tammy Wynette debuts Friday (April 18) at 8 p.m. ET/PT, followed by the premiere of the Tim McGraw episode at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT.

Wynette recorded her 1968 anthem at a time when the feminist movement was becoming a force in mainstream America. Even if Wynette could have predicted the early criticism from women’s liberation advocates, she got a major surprise 24 years later when the song again attracted media attention after a political wife from Arkansas made an offhanded comment during a national television interview.

It only took 20 minutes for Wynette and record producer Billy Sherrill to write “Stand by Your Man,” but the phrase remains a part of the American lexicon. In the Controversy episode, the mood of the late ‘60s is explained by Patricia Ireland, past president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). “There was all this discussion about freedom and liberation,” she explains. “We had sayings going around like, ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ And here’s Tammy Wynette singing ‘Stand by Your Man.’”

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, adds, “This song actually threw down a challenge because when it comes out, clearly all of these traditional notions of male-female relationships and gender definitions were being challenged. To a great extent, if you weren’t going along with the new change, you had to justify why you weren’t.”

Reciting a lyric from the song, Loretta Lynn , laughs and says, “Give him all the love you can. What a lie, what a lie, Tammy. If she was here, I’d say to her, ‘Tammy, why did you lie like that?’”

In 1992, the song gained additional notoriety when presidential candidate Bill Clinton and wife Hillary were interviewed on CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes. The program aired shortly after lounge singer Gennifer Flowers began alleging that she had an affair with Clinton. During the 60 Minutes interview, Hillary Clinton proclaimed, “I’m not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”

Wynette was incensed with the statement. It took an unlikely mediator — actor Burt Reynolds — to convince the singer to talk to Mrs. Clinton, who later issued a public apology. Referring to Hillary Clinton, Lynn notes, “She’s had to eat them words … how many times? Shall we count the ways?”

In the case of “Indian Outlaw,” McGraw recorded it simply because he liked the song and desperately needed a hit. The superstar’s career hadn’t ignited with his first few singles, but he was optimistic about “Indian Outlaw.” Written by Tommy Barnes and Gene Simmons, the 1994 single eventually sold more than 600,000 copies and marked McGraw’s very first visit to the Top 10.

Record producer James Stroud said “Indian Outlaw” struck a chord with the public. “They wanted to hear this song,” he explained. “They wanted to know who this guy was. They wanted to hear this quirky kind of melody and what he had to say. There was no way this record was not going to be a hit record.”

Once McGraw’s single began dominating the airwaves, the song struck a different sort of chord with the Native American community. Country music historian and author Don Cusic noted, “As Native Americans were demanding respect and wanting some dignity, along comes the Washington Redskins and the tomahawk chop, and ‘Indian Outlaw’ which seemed like a slap in the face.”

Vernon Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, was not impressed by the claim that McGraw’s family tree reflects Native American ancestry. Bellecourt said, “How they attempt to justify that Tim McGraw was part Indian. I asked myself right away, ‘I wonder what part?’ Certainly not his brain.” Native American singer-songwriter Bill Miller said, “A song can change people’s hearts. When a song is based on not just a lifestyle — but a culture, a race of man of Native Americans — I think they should be a little more sensitive to that.”

In writing the song, Barnes said he was aiming at satire. “It’s not mean spirited,” he explained. “If I wanted to be controversial, I could have done a lot better than ‘Indian Outlaw,’ but it was just trying to have some fun.”

Barnes also noted, “The day before ‘Indian Outlaw,’ nobody really cared what the leaders of the Indian nations thought about anything. When ‘Indian Outlaw’ came out, then they were asking them, ‘How do you feel about this?’”

McGraw is featured in a new interview for the Controversy episode that includes comments from Jo Dee Messina , Hank Williams Jr. , Brad Paisley and Curb Records president Mike Curb. The Controversy episode focusing on “Stand by Your Man” includes interviews with Toby Keith , Wynonna and Wynette’s husband, George Richey.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.