The 2023 CMA Awards are coming up in a few weeks, and while recent years have been pretty bland, the history of the show is rich with awesome stories and iconic moments that helped shape the genre’s image.
Charlie Rich was born in Colt, Arkansas in 1932 where he was raised on gospel music, eventually going to the University of Arkansas as a music major, although he dropped out after only one semester to join the Air Force.
He went on to make some of the most eclectic country music of his time, bringing in the jazz and R&B influences he picked up while living in Memphis and helping to form the “countrypolitan” sounds of the time that big names like Conway Twitty were abandoning in favor of the “country and western” sound.
His career peaked in the early 1970’s with his first number one in 1973, “Behind Closed Doors,” followed by “The Most Beautiful Girl,” which also took the top spot on the Country charts. Those two hit singles culminated with three CMA Awards in 1973: Best Male Vocalist, Album of the Year, and Single of the Year. He followed that up with 5 more number one’s the next year and took home the 1974 CMA Entertainer of the Year.
But, like many of our country music legends, he started taking to the bottle a little too hard and that’s where things started going downhill.
After a rough 1975 that contained many off stage incidents due to his drinking habits, he wasn’t nominated for any CMA Awards, but was asked to present the Entertainer of the Year. But before he made his way on stage, he started putting down some gin and tonics until he was certifiably hammered…
When the time came, Charlie came out on stage visibly intoxicated, fumbled with the envelope, stumbled through the list of nominees and then did something that ended up being the de facto end of his career.
After clumsily tearing open the envelope, he took out a lighter and lit the card on fire before announcing the winner as “My friend, Mr. John Denver.”
Some took this as a rebellion against the Music Row controlled Nashville sound, however, the more popular theory was he was unhappy with the award going to John Denver, whose sound he considered too pop, and not country.
Kind of ironic that the man who made jazzy, R&B country would criticize another for not being country enough, but booze will make you do funny things…
His son gave his side of the story in a post on his website.
“I’ll tell you why I thought he did it.
Number one, he thought it would be funny.
He set it up by talking about how the potential winners were probably nervous, as he had been the previous year.
Number two, bad judgement.
He had recently broken his foot in a freak accident at his home in Memphis. It sounds funny, but he got his foot caught in an awkward position while getting out of a reclining chair. He cracked several bones in his foot.
So, due to the pain, he took pain medication the night of the show: Bad idea! Secondly, he and another country star got to drinking Gin and Tonics while waiting in the dressing room.
The show was long, so by the time Dad was supposed to go on, the drinks on top of the medication got him buzzed. So, there ya’ go. That’s why I think he did it. Primarily he thought it would be funny.
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.”
Regardless of the true reason, his popularity took a nosedive after this incident and that was pretty much all she wrote on the career of Charlie Rich, who continued to put out music, and while a few songs cracked the Top 10, nothing caught fire (pun intended) like it did in ’74 and ’75.
It’s also safe to say, John Denver wasn’t really hurt by the whole ordeal, plus it gave Waylon Jennings quite a laugh.
According to a short excerpt from his 1988 autobiography, Waylon: An Autobiography, he enjoyed that more than winning Best Male Vocalist:
“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… Oh, yeah. John Denver won Entertainer of the Year. Now that’s what I call country.”
One moment you’re on top of the world. You get drunk at the biggest award show in Country Music and next thing you know you’re a washed up has been still talking about the time you were winning trophies.
Still, you can’t help but wish the industry had a little more of this fire nowadays (pun possibly intended).