Tammy Wynette spent the better part of the late 1970s and 1980s seeing her commercial fortunes begin to wane. Actress Annette O’Toole portrayed Wynette in a television movie, Stand By Your Man, in May 1981. Her singles were routinely charting top twenty during this time and she returned to the top ten when her cover of Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch,” a duet with Mark Grey, peaked at #6 in 1985.
Our coverage resumes in 1987, which found mainstream country deep in the throngs of a traditional renaissance. Wynette followed suit accordingly with Higher Ground, her twenty-eighth album, produced by Steve Buckingham. While any momentum she may’ve gained from her previous album had cooled, it didn’t stop Epic from pushing ahead with three singles from the set.
The dobro drenched “Your Love,” a mid-tempo ballad featuring Ricky Skaggs hit #12. The neo-traditional “Talkin’ To Myself Again,” with an assist from The O’Kanes, peaked at #16. Both are very good although not memorable enough to stand out amongst iconic hits from the era.
They hit the artistic jackpot with final single “Beneath A Painted Sky,” which found Wynette in perfect harmony with Emmylou Harris. The somewhat kooky lyric details the true love of a daddy to his little girl:
There never was a little girl more wanted than me
I had all the love a child could ever want or need
Daddy gave me everything he could afford to buy
An’ on the ceilin’ in my room, he painted me a sky
Beneath the painted sky, that’s where I want to be
A place to go when this old world gets the best of me
A place where dreams come true
And no one ever says ‘goodbye’
Oh, I wish that I could live again, beneath the painted sky
The remainder of the album finds Wynette assisted by a plethora of country’s finest. Gene Watson provides harmony on “Tempted” while Vince Gill, in one of his earliest solo performances, lends his signature falsetto to “I Wasn’t Meant to live my Life Alone.” Ricky Van Shelton, among others, helps liven up the proceedings with the jovial “A Slow Burning Fire.” The Gatlin Brothers are the perfect accompaniment to the title track, a song that feels tailored to their trademark style.
Higher Ground, as a whole, is a gorgeous album. Wynette is still at her peak and the arrangements haven’t aged in the least. I would’ve liked songs that were more memorable, though, or even packed more of a punch. Despite her status as an icon, it’s easy to see how this album fell under the radar – her contemporaries were releasing stronger music that was easier to get noticed. But this is an album that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s well worth checking out.
This is a great and highly underrated album with an impressive roster of guest artists. “There’s No Heart So Strong” is one of my favorites.