At the 1975 Country Music Association awards ceremony in 1975, the final prize of the night, as always, was the most prestigious – The Entertainer of the Year. It was to be presented by the previous year’s winner, Charlie Rich. He was one of the biggest names in country music at the time and had had two huge number one hits on the mainstream pop charts in 1973 with Behind Closed Doors and The Most Beautiful Girl. By the end of the ceremony, Rich would be banned from the awards for the rest of his life.
Rich started out in the standard way, saying ‘The winner is…” but then he ripped open the envelope, paused, reached into his jacket to pull out a lighter, and then set fire to the paper bearing the winner’s name. The stunned audience laughed while Rich himself smirked. It seemed like a terrible and calculated insult and sent shockwaves throughout the tight-knit community.
Over 20 long seconds passed (a lifetime on life television). Rich finally completed his duty and announced the name of the recipient of the 1975 CMA’s highest accolade: “my friend, Mr John Denver.”
Denver himself wasn’t in the audience, but was shown on a live satellite feed from Australia. He, too, looked shocked and then laughed, but most believe he hadn’t actually seen Rich’s antics on the live feed but was simply reacting to his overwhelming win.
Denver was riding high on the 1974 hit Thank God I’m A Country Boy and remains best known for crossover hits like Annie’s Song and Take Me Home Country Roads. However, his win exposed the major divisions appearing in the country music industry.
Waylon Jennings won Best Male Vocalist that year, but spoke scathingly about the politics and wheeler-dealing behind the scenes having too much influence over who won what. But one thing that night did entertain him: “I was happier watching Charlie Rich get drunk and burn up the Entertainer of the Year award, holding a cigarette lighter to the envelope, please.
“They went to grab him, but when Charlie was drunk, it was best to stay out of his way…”
He added, sarcastically: “Oh, yeah. John Denver won Entertainer of the Year. Now that’s what I call country.”
Many believed Rich was taking public and rather ill-advised stand against the infiltration of crossover pop acts onto the country scene. This had come to head the previous year when Olivia Newton-John won Best Female Vocalist over the likes of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Outraged country music legends like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Brenda Lee, Conway Tewitty and Dolly Parton formed the Association of Country Entertainers
The Country Music Hall of Fame said: “As a result of that 1974 flap, a memorable CMA Awards event came the next year, when an obviously well-lubricated Charlie Rich ended his reign as 1974’s Entertainer of the Yeah by announcing the new recipient of the CMA’s top prize… The message to anyone watching seemed clear: in Rich’s eyes, a West Coast neo-folkie like John Denver, who had built his career on pop radio, was not welcome in country music.”
Country music star Wynn Varble: “I don’t know what Charlie Rich is getting upset about John Denver…that’s the pot calling the kettle black.” Rich’s own music was often hard to categorise, spanning country, blues, jazz, soul and rockabilly.
Rich may well also have been angry he had received no nominations in any category in 1975 and had all evening to stew (and drink), since the award he presented came at the end of the long night.
His son Charlie Jr tried to diffuse all the conspiracy theories by claiming that his father was simply very drunk and thought he was being amusing. He blamed a combination of painkillers for a recently broken foot mixed with the alcohol liberally served all night: “I know the last thing my father would have wanted to do was set himself up as judge of another musician. He felt badly that people thought it was a statement against John Denver.”
There may have been support for Rich’s stance among many classic country music performers but the industry response was swift and final. He had crossed the all-powerful labels and the Nashville music and money-making movers and shakers on Music Row. Rich was never nominated for another CMA for the rest of his career.
It wasn’t only Rich who faced a backlash. Host and country legend Glen Campbell faced censure and criticism after he happily reacted to Waylon’s win: ” All I can say, Waylon, is it’s about damn time.”
Such profanity in front of the overwhelmingly conservative Christian audience did not go down well.