I wasn’t paying attention in 1975 when this episode occurred: it was a big year for me. I graduated from law school, took the bar, moved back to Massachusetts and then back to D.C. Most of all, the Red Sox went to the World Series and I had prime seats to see Carlton Fisk hit his immortal homer in the 12th inning of Game 6, waving the ball fair, but barely. The Country Music Awards (CMAs) were nowhere on my radar. They still aren’t: there isn’t a sock drawer in America I wouldn’t rather color-code that watch that show. But on October 13, 1975, 45 years ago to the day, an ethics drama unfolded with many lessons.
Charlie Rich, the soulful country music singer they called the Silver Fox (Even I had heard “Behind Closed Doors”) had been voted Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association of America one year earlier, and thus was chosen to announce that year’s winner of the CMA’s greatest honor at the televised 1975 show. He opened the envelope, appeared to read the name on the slip of paper, and instead of announcing it, Rich reached into his pocket, took out a cigarette lighter and set the slip on fire. While the paper burned, he finally announced that the winner was “my friend Mr. John Denver” Denver was only available to accept the awards via satellite linkup, so he made his acceptance speech with no knowledge of Rich’s gesture.
The audience was horrified, and many country music fans—and obviously John Denver fans— were furious. Charlie Rich was blacklisted from the CMA awards show for the rest of his career. His popularity crashed: from that moment until the end of his career in 1992, Rich had only one more #1 hit in those years, though a couple of songs reached #3 on the country charts. By any standard, his career after flaming John Denver was greatly diminished. Denver, universally regarded as a nice guy, was seen as the victim of a jerk. (The “my friend” seemed like a particularly nasty touch.)
What was going on here? The assumption was that Rich was taking a stand for country traditionalists against pop music turf invaders like Denver and Olivia Newton-John, who had won the Most Promising Female Vocalist award in 1973. To this day, some even see his uncivil attack on Denver as courageous. The Saving Country Music blog opined in 2013: