Tammy Wynette, the “Heroine of Heartbreak” who helped pave the way for modern women in country music, was honored Wednesday, May 3 by the Academy of Country Music with “The Cliffie” Pioneer Award during the 35th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards show presented on CBS Television.
Calling Wynette “a country music icon,” Trisha Yearwood led Patty Loveless, The Judds, Dolly Parton and Martina McBride in a vocal salute to Wynette with a special treatment of her signature song, “Stand By Your Man.”
Wynette is the first posthumous recipient of the Pioneer Award, which has boasted 36 other distinguished winners including Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Sr. and Minnie Pearl. Wynette’s former husband, George Jones, received the award in 1992. Instituted by the Academy in 1968 to recognize “outstanding and unprecedented achievements in the field of country music,” the award was dubbed “The Cliffie” last year in honor of the late Cliffie Stone, a Country Music Hall of Fame member and 1972 recipient of the honor.
Surprisingly, “The Cliffie” Pioneer Award is the first time Wynette has been recognized by the ACM.
One of country music’s rags-to-riches stories, Wynette was born in 1942 and raised in Mississippi. Though her early life was spent working on a farm and as a waitress and beautician, the woman born Virginia Wynette Pugh dreamed of becoming a singing star. After moving to Nashville in 1966, she auditioned for producer Billy Sherrill, who signed her to Epic Records and changed her name to Tammy Wynette. Sherrill and Wynette worked together for more than 30 years, sending 20 songs to the top of the country charts.
At a time when “girl singers” were largely kept in the background, Wynette was one of the first female country singers to explore women’s issues and viewpoints in her recordings. Dealing with familiar themes of loneliness, heartache and love, songs like “I Don’t Wanna Play House” and the famous “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” gave voice to the changing roles of women in the late ’60s and ’70s. She also recorded several successful duets with Jones, including “Two Story House,” “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Golden Ring.”
Wynette died on April 6, 1998, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame later that year.