Classic CMA Awards Moments, #3: Charlie Rich Sparks Controversy (1975)

#3: Charlie Rich
Traditional vs. Mainstream Country

Presenter Charlie Rich fanned the flames of an ongoing battle between country music’s traditional artists and the pop singers making waves in Nashville when he presented the Entertainer of the Year trophy in 1975.

Rich opened the envelope, read it, and then lit a cigarette lighter and burned the envelope. He announced the winner, “My friend, Mister John Denver.” Though he claimed he had overmedicated, Rich’s presentation appeared to be a strong statement against the pop sensibilities of Denver and his counterparts. Denver, accepting via satellite, was unaware of Rich’s actions, and spoke briefly and humbly about his triumph. Furious, industry insiders never again showed outward support to Rich (he had won five CMA awards in the past). His career cooled considerably after the incident. Even though he continued to produce albums frequently until his semi-retirement in 1981, he never added to his list of five #1 albums.

Neither Denver nor Rich ever received another CMA award. Rich failed to earn another nomination (and was not invited back to the ceremony the next year), and he died at the age of 63 in 1995. Denver was recognized in the Vocal Event of the Year category in 1989, and passed away in an airplane crash in 1997.

Charlie Rich, live performance, “Behind Closed Doors”


  1. I was watching that show that night and was so happy for John Denver and was so upset at Charlie Rich and did not understand why he did that. I really love John Denver’s music.

  2. I agree with you Gloria wholeheartedly; the barbs thrown against John Denver by the country music establishment of that time were truly unfair–particularly from the perspective of today, when his songs seem to be far more “country” than most stuff that gets played on the radio today.

    It also behooves folks to remember that John was one of those artists (including Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris) who came out of the urban folk music movement of the 1960s. For this reason, I think, John was regarded with a lot of suspicion. No matter, of course, because I would match his body of recording and songwriting against those of the “Hot New Country” artists of today.

  3. I’ll go with the overmedicated, or just flat out drunk, because by 1975 there wasn’t much difference between Rich’s music and Denver’s. For these reasons, and by this time I had already bailed on a lot of Pop Music, and focused on that “other stuff”. However I still listened to commercial radio too. Anyway, I thought the Rich episode was funny, especially when they showed Denver, who had no clue what just happened.

  4. LOL @ Leeann…I always thought it hypocritcal of him….esp. since he was the dude that recorded that execrable piece of pop-country crap “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”

  5. I think Rich being overmedicated likely was the explanation because generally Charlie Rich was extremely high-strung and shy. He was also very open-minded about music.

    I seriously doubt that there have any singers more supremely talented than Charlie Rich. The problem for Rich was that he was very hard to pigeonhole and his best records were not necessarily his best selling records. Rich did rockabilly, blues, R&B, jazz and country with equal facility. Rich always cited legendary big band leader Stan Kenton as his primary influence and was, at heart, a bluesman.

    Anyone who would judge Charlie Rich on the basis of the pop-country crap of the early 1970s is judging Rich by the tip of the iceberg alone. Listen to his pre and post 1970s stuff and you will hear music as remarkable and varied as any artist ever recorded

  6. John Denver achieved a level of fame and loving, loyal fans that Rich could only dream about. Denver is popular to this day, Rich is hardly even known. The over medicated excuse for vulgar behavior is just not acceptable. I sure do miss John Denver and listen to his music often.

  7. As someone referred to before, I wish they had “like” buttons on here, you guys (country universe) have the best responses [to naysayers or people who say bad/mean things] on the web that i’ve seen. :))

  8. Does anybody know where I can view the clip? There was one on Youtube but it’s been removed.
    Apparently this incident pretty much killed Rich’s career.Denver was the biggest pop star of 1975 and his fan base has always been pretty loyal.And John’s songs about the beauties of the American West strike me as a lot more country than Rich’s dreary ballads.
    FWIW,Charlie’s son said it was a joke that went wrong.He even showed up at John’s home and tried to apologize,but alas John was away touring.So at least he kinda got that he overstepped the mark.

  9. I LOVE John Denver music, but in opinion he was in NO way “country” I still remember the ’75 incident and I thought it made an awesome statement about the then current country music trend without actually saying anything negative.
    They were both outstanding musical artists, but I feel they belong in different genres– there is no comparison.

  10. John Denver clearly was an outsider, an interloper, insofar as the country music establishment back then went. However, I think he understood the rural way of life that gave rise to the genre in the first place far better than those who slammed him, and far better than those artists today who proclaim themselves “country” without possessing any real understanding of that lifestyle.

  11. Erik, you are right, I think nowadays the ‘small town life’ ideal is what backs most country artists such as Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert as being genuine “country” acts.

    Quite different than when it was back in the 70’s or even 80’s (and maybe even the 90’s?).

  12. I think charlie thought it was just a bit of fun see him smile when he lit the envelope too much has been read into it over the years people take things too seriously seeing things that aren’t there it’s so obvious I can’t believe people still have a problem with it

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