Charlie Rich “Burns” John Denver at the 1975 CMA Awards

June 7, 2013 - By Trigger  //  Outlaw History  //  58 Comments

charlie-rich-envelope-john-denver-cma-1975There may not be a more notorious moment in the annals of country music lore than when a drunk and disorderly Charlie Rich set fire to the piece of paper announcing John Denver as the Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” for 1975. For years the moment has set the high water mark for the rebuke of the pop world infiltrating country, but we only had our sweet little memories or imaginations to conjure up the actual scene of how the protest took place.

Saving Country Music and many others I’m sure have spent hours trying to procure the actual footage of the Charlie Rich fire trick, with a nervous John Denver looking on via satellite from Australia. I never envisioned that host Glen Campbell would be holding a cigarette while standing at the podium and welcoming Charlie Rich to the stage. Nor did I accurately gauge the degree of Rich’s drunkeness. But fortunately the footage has finally surfaced, and through the miracle of YouTube, we can all re-live this lost moment of country music history again and again.


At the 1974 CMA Awards, a firestorm erupted when Olivia-Newton John was awarded the “Female Vocalist of the Year.” This created a backlash, including many traditional country stars met at the house of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and decided to form “ACE” or the Association of Country Entertainers to attempt to fight the influx of pop stars into the genre. This was the event that set the table for Charlie’s stunt.

As the Country Music Hall of Fame describes the incident:

“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 award goes to my friend, John Denver,” said Rich., who had been drinking gin-and-tonics backstage. At which point he pulled out his Zippo lighter and set fire to the card holding the name of his successor. Rich held the burning card up for the cameras on the nationally televised live show and smiled a big smile of triumph. 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.

However some disagree that the incident was meant as a shot at Charlie Rich. His son, Charlie Rich Jr. explains that it was more a shot at the industry instead of John Denver specifically, and that Rich was simply trying to be funny, and the combination of alcohol and pain medication from a recent accident made the incident that much more dramatic.

Most believe that the move cost Charlie Rich his career. Rich was presenting the award because he was the CMA “Entertainer of the Year” winner in 1974. It was the last CMA Charlie would ever receive, and his career went on a steady decline afterwards, many believe because of the wrath from industry insiders angry about Charlie’s antics.

Aside from the repercussions, and whether Rich had the authority to make such a stand as someone who had crossover radio hits himself, it remains an inspiring and significant moment in country music history, one where an artist had the guts to stand up for the integrity and autonomy of the genre.

How we could use a Charlie Rich right now.

58 Comments to “Charlie Rich “Burns” John Denver at the 1975 CMA Awards”

  • wow, I had imagined it going down pretty differently, I always thought he made it a very obvious “fuck you” to John Denver, but that didn’t seem so bad…

    maybe it was wishful thinking?

    • My thoughts exactly.. He looks like he would’ve done the same to the card that said “Waylon Jennings”.

      • I don’t know, I guess it is up to interpretation. It maybe wasn’t as obvious as I had envisioned it, but I think he gets his point across. Remember, it was 1975, and subtly was a lot more highly regarded than it is today.

        • I see it as him being humorous, not subtly insulting. When Charlie Robison told Music Row to go to hell, he said so in as many words. This seems like an amusing prank and I think he would have done it with any of the contestant’s names. You can read a lot of things into performances of a theatrical nature, but that doesn’t mean those things are there. It’s like people seeing racism where there isn’t any in MY book.

    • Yeah, he was digging for that lighter before he even looked at the paper.

  • It is a really interesting piece of country music history, and we’re glad that someone uploaded the footage! However, there is the ever-present threat of it being pulled off of YouTube for a copyright claim, so it might be worth saving using a YouTube to video file converter web site. Now, if we could find George Jones’s full funeral service instead of just clips…

    • A very drunken Charlie Rich and cigarette smoking Glen Campbell at the podium… who steals away what could have been an incredibly special moment from artist John Denver in front of the entire world… and you call that an inspiring moment country music is proud of?! That is a time when country music should hold their head down in shame. To this day, John Denver’s inspiring music brings peace and hope to millions of people, while reminding us to preserve and respect the land, air, oceans & nature, and cherish love – every single day. The CMA awards ceremony was the wrong time, place and manner to show anger and disagreement at the committee vote, because it was at the expense of an artist… an artist who will be forever treasured and loved until the end of time– John Denver.

      • Was John Denver that much more of a ‘Pop’ artist than Charlie Rich? Charlie Rich had some huge pop hits at this point in his career. At the time I was more of a fan of Charlie Rich than John Denver, but technically, John Denver’s style was far more country. Of course a lot of pop was more country than country in the 70’s. Today, Taylor Swift is no longer a country act, but they still call her country. The Avett Brothers are more country. It was largely the same way in the 70’s. John Prine, Mike Nesmith, Gram Parsons, even early Jimmy Buffett, and yes John Denver were making fine country albums.

  • That didn’t seem nearly like someone “taking a stand” as someone who was simply drunk and a loose cannon in the moment. He also remarked that the award went to “my friend” John Denver. Still, thanks for posting it. Everyone looked nervous, especially Conway Twitty.

    • I think you all need to understand context. I’ll say this: I guarantee nobody in that room thought that Rich was attempting to be humorous only, and would have burned the envelope no matter whose name was in it.

      At the 1974 CMA Awards, a firestorm erupted when Olivia-Newton John was awarded the “Female Vocalist of the Year.” This created a backlash, including many traditional country stars met at the house of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and decided to form “ACE” or the Association of Country Entertainers to attempt to fight the influx of pop stars into the genre. This was the event that set the table for Charlie’s stunt.

      As the Country Music Hall of Fame describes the incident:

      “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 award goes to my friend, John Denver,” said Rich., who had been drinking gin-and-tonics backstage. At which point he pulled out his Zippo lighter and set fire to the card holding the name of his successor. Rich held the burning card up for the cameras on the nationally televised live show and smiled a big smile of triumph. 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.

      • I can’t see him burning it if it said Waylon’s name, but his son’s article is worth a look anyway. http://www.charlierichjr.com/controversy/the_envelope_burning/

        • I believe I’m going to have to go with his son on this one.

        • Good find! I’ve added the link and a summary of the information above. So just like Fox News, we’ll report, and you can decide ;)

          However I’m not convinced that this still wasn’t a shot at Denver, or at least the industry. Charlie Rich Jr. himself in the blog says as one of the reasons he believes Charlie did it:

          “Dad was burnt out on the “business” of music. Not music, but the pencil pushing unfairness of the industry valuing profit at the expense of artistic integrity…. Many will tell you that my father was ready to get out of the music business even before he made it big. The years on the road, the honky tonks, the politics of the business had already taken a toll on him. He loved music, but hated the music business.”

          The crux of the Charlie Rich Jr. post seems to be trying to explain why Charlie did what he did in the context that his father received a bad wrap from it and it tarnished his career thereafter. I swear I read an interview with Charlie, or maybe someone else’s recount of the incident, where Charlie felt bad for attacking Denver, and either directly admitted to it, or ostensibly admitted to it, but maybe I’m wrong. I will see if I can find that interview and post it here if I do.

          Furthermore, I don’t think there was any wiggle room with anyone at the awards show what Charlie’s intentions were, whether they were his true intentions or not. If they were not his intentions, he sure didn’t do anything at the time to revise the sentiment. Maybe he did years later recounting stories to Charlie Rich Jr., or when he tried to approach Denver, but that may have just as much been from regret as wanting to set the record straight. I don’t know.

          But hey, all of this is excellent information, and the reason the video being unearthed is so important. If Rich in fact wasn’t attacking Denver, then we have a LOT of history revising to do.

          As you can read in that Charlie Rich Jr. piece, Jr. believed the incident kept the Country Music Hall of Fame (which is mostly run by the CMA, by the way) from showing proper respects to his father. Since he wrote that, the Hall of Fame HAS stepped up and given Charlie a display (that is why Jr. strikes out his disdain for the HOF not showing respect at the bottom, which seems to be the crux of the reason the piece was written in the first place).

          The quote I posted from the Country Music Hall of Fame about the incident comes from the museum’s companion book “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” The words in that book mostly mirror the exact info in the museum itself, found on the displays. I may be wrong, but I believe the burning incident is displayed at the Hall of Fame right now as part of the Charlie Rich display. Either way, I have read accounts of it in numerous country history books. I just read about it in Waylon’s biography in which he interprets it as a shot at Denver. And so if it indeed ISN’T a shot at Denver, then we have a lot of ink to re-write, in a lot of important places. And IF it isn’t true, then we SHOULD re-write that ink, because it is more important to get the information right than to tell it wrong just because it makes a better story.

          • If he were to have gone by the current red dirt/americana definition of “what country music is and ain’t” he would have had to insult people like Ray Price as much as John Denver, and while we’re at it Sons of the Pioneers, and Bob Wills. There’s more and less sophisticated music that could be called country/americana/all sorts of other things. As a person that likes a wide variety of music, as did Charlie, there’s a reason my record collection is alphabetized, not compartmentalized. Charlie, having busted his ass in multiple genres on his way to real success well into middle age, seems the least likely person in the world to insult a fellow traveler. His and other’s views re:Music Row is a WHOLE DIFFERENT ANIMAL, and I still think it was outside of the scope of the stunt. I know many of us that actually play that have thought, “I should do this. It’ll be funny.” and the joke fell flat. Hell, a misagreement over a joke killed working relationships I had with two fellow Texas writers/pickers UNINTENTIONALLLY. People assumed the worst and fights happened and then the collaborations were gone. I’m going with Charlie Jr STILL. Charlie got his first break as a ROCK ACT. End of story, as far as I’m concerned. He got a bum rap.

          • I don’t think we’ll ever get it right. Charlie’s long gone now and as you’ve said, the only times he seems to have talked about it were in hindsight, not right after. Even if it were completely different, the incident has been cataloged in the anals of history as a pro-traditionalist stance, and is used by many (such as yourself) as a tool to further the cause.

            And this is off topic, but does Waylon ever mention David Allan Coe in his autobiography? I’ve heard that he wasn’t a fan and I’m interested in what he said.

          • In reply to Acca Dacca’s off topic question about whether Waylon mentioned David Alan Coe in his autobiography. Yes, he did, and he made a comment about him that was also in the lyrics to Waylon’s song “Living Legend” (which pokes fun at a lot of industry people). Waylon sang, “Big bad David Alan Coe comes to town to fight the system: double parks on Music Row.”

            Waylon also sang that his song was a joke, and tell anyone who gets offended “his shivagitter’s broke!” Man, I miss Waylon!

          • Country Music Hall of Shame award goes to Charlie Rich, and all those who do not speak up against Rich’s actions, when they could have, and should have… and still have not.

      • Charlie later admitted to voting for Denver himself.

        • Hey, then lets find the quote, get a link to it or an image of it and set the record straight. I wasn’t even born until 1 1/2 years after this incident went down, so I’m not trying to present myself as some authority, I’m just going off what just about every history book and account of the situation says. If they’re wrong, let’s correct it.

  • Wow…definitely not how I pictured it! It seems more like it was just something he did because he was drunk then something against john denver.It was so casual how he did it. I always pictured it like a Kanye West move.

  • The envelope looked like it was opened before Rich announced who the winner was. If you noticed he reached in his pocket before he opened it all the way. He was so drunk or doped

  • Definitely not as spiteful as it was made out to be in “Super Troopers”.

  • C’mon. Completely intentional however powered by “it seemed like a good idea at the time” liquor. These two weren’t friends.

    You’ve got Waylon, Loretta, Conway, Ronnie aaaaaand John Denver. Lighting that on fire was just Charlie returning the fuck you back to the ones awarding sales over talent. Though I would have lit it on fire if Ronnie Milsap had won too.

  • This seems really open to interpretation. To me, it looks like he goes for his lighter before he even get the card upright to read it. Maybe he caught the name as the card was falling out of the envelope, or maybe he knew who the winner was before he read the card, but who knows. My personal interpretation is that he was going to burn it regardless, just for comic relief, based on the timing of when he went for his lighter.

    • Everybody knew who the winners were before they were announced. In Waylon’s biography, he talks extensively about the 1975 CMA’s. He said right when he walked into the door, his manager Neil Reshen told him he’d won Male Vocalist of the Year, and Jessi had not won anything. Charlie may have not known until right before he announced it, but I bet he knew.

  • Whether a prank or a bold statement, whether Rich had any real animosity toward Denver himself or he was simply getting fed up and/or disillusioned with the country-music industry as a whole, I suppose the mere thought of Denver being up against the likes of Waylon and Loretta (let alone winning out over them) might have been enough to push Rich over the edge into doing something outrageous.

    A cool and interesting piece of history, either way (and I love the look on Glen Campbell’s face after Denver’s acceptance speech! :D ) — I can’t imagine any major country stars doing anything like this nowadays. Thanks for sharing this, Trig.

  • mostly i was just left feeling bad for conway twitty

  • It’s not really pertinent to the discussion at hand, but if you look closely at Glen Campbell’s right hand as he’s introducing Rich, there’s a cigarette in it–just another illustration of how much times have changed.

  • After reading the first section on Wikipedia regarding John Denver, pop star or not, he sounded like a good guy. If this was the worst of the pop stars of that time, then I’m fine with that. I’m going to check out some of his releases.

    • That’s the thing. This was nearly 40 years ago, and country music has changed so much, it is hard to understand how John Denver could have been regarded as a pop star, but those were the times. Of course today we’d love to have someone like John Denver be the hottest thing in country music instead of Taylor Swift. But in 1975, John Denver was Taylor Swift. That’s how good they had it back then, and that’s how bad we have it now.

      • I definitely agree!

  • I’ve said it before. I’ve always considered John Denver a folk singer, real environmentalist type. He was always a class act. Him winning was nothing similar to Olivia Newton John winning, because she was without a doubt a pop singer. Folk and country are very similar and in my opinion Denver was a folk singer, with all the songs about nature and the outdoors. What we wouldn’t give for John Denver to be the current reigning entertainer of the year!

    • Denver, unlike Newton John and most pure pop stars, could write a song. He was probably more folk than country, and the arrangements on his albums became increasingly new age, but there was some talent underneath it all.

  • A little more perspective: It wasn’t about “country” vs. “pop.” Nobody had a problem with Charlie Rich having pop hits or winning CMA awards, because he was a Nashville artist, with the same producer as George Jones and Tammy Wynette. But Olivia Newton-John and John Denver were NOT based in and did not record in Nashville. And when they won CMA awards it created a “turf war.” The Nashville artists did not want “their” awards going to “outsiders” (non-Nashville artists). It wasn’t about the music. After all, John Denver’s records at the time were pure traditional country compared to some of the other artists on the country charts (like Charlie Rich). It was all about the awards.

    • This would certainly help explain the somewhat dubious membership of people like Barbara Mandrell in ACE. Yet it would be hard to say that this was a view everyone held, either consciously or unconsciously.
      Take Justin Tubb’s perspective:

    • Now, that makes sense. I grew up listening to both Charlie Rich and John Denver (thanks to a fantastic classic country station here), and Rich is pretty much the embodiment of the countrypolitan sound.

  • I had long heard of this incident so I’m glad to see that clip. It really highlights how much has changed in country music, in awards shows, in culture in general, and also how in some ways how much things stay the same. Charlie didn’t seem so malicious as I had believed he would, just maybe a little bit bombed out of his mind. Compared to the antics of modern celebrities, it all looked pretty civil and understated, so much classier than what you might see today. Most of my memories of John Denver were from a few years later when he was a little less hippy dippy than in this clip. I have albums by both Charlie Rich and John Denver and they seem to my ear to have more in common than different by todays standards.

  • I think this is a case of leaving the legend alone… the actual footage doesn’t live up to any hype.

    • I just don’t understand this sentiment, though I’m in no way discounting it because this appears to be the majority thought. But I can’t emphasize enough that it was a different time when subtly meant something. That is the crack on society these days, is that everything is made so obvious. I think it is more badass to be measured and caluculated, than bellicose and overt, no matter what his intentions were. But that’s just my opinion.

  • It’s obvious that the pop influx Rich and the rest of ACE feared became the MO of Music Row. I would argue it started years before with the Nashville Sound and Eddy Arnold. i love the video no matter how futile. Punk hasn’t got shit on country music.

  • Well, here’s a definitive an explanation as there is, from his son:


    • That’s posted up in the body of the article, and someone else posted it in the comments section above. Though I think this sheds some new light on if this truly was a dig at Denver or not, I think we have to understand the context of which that letter was written. It appears Charlie Rich Jr. was making his case that the Hall of Fame had wronged his father, and he blamed the 1975 CMA incident. Subsequently, the HOF has included a Charlie Rich display, and that is why he retracted his statements about the (at the very bottom). I’m still a little perplexed that if Charlie indeed did not mean it to be a shot at Denver, why there isn’t more of a public record on it. Maybe there is and we just need to unearth it. But at the moment, all the history books say the opposite.

  • There is nothing inspiring about this unforunate moment in country music history. It reveals an inebriated, bigoted and closed mind, self-destructing in front of a national audience. It’s no wonder why his career sewered after this. Completely disrespectful, and inappropriate. With “friends” like these, who needs enemies? And I’m not even a fan of John Denver’s music!

  • Add another voter to the “that seems way less clear than legend makes it seem” tally. He’s clearly hammered, he clearly reaches for his lighter before even attempting to read the card, and the audience reaction is more amusement than shock. It seems to me that his antiquated subtly was lost on even those in attendance, given the laughter.

    I understand Trigg’s arguments that he knew in advance, etc. But – to use some legal terminology – requires us to assume some facts not in evidence. Could be. Might not. We’ll never know. Either way, having finally seen it, this is certainly more ambiguous than I thought it was.

  • Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t think he was trying to put anyone down.

    I think he was just extremely fucked up.

    Hey, it happens.

  • I think the video shows what a mess country music was at that point in time in general. Aside from Denver’s win you have candidates that look like they are in line for a Liberace look alike contest. This kinda goes to show that country has always been in need of some level of salvation. Not sure this nightmare was worth revisiting other than it does serve the need to remain vigilant and to support artists who at aren’t corrupted by money and narcissism.

  • In this interesting 1992 interview, Charlie Rich explains that he hadn’t intended to make any statement by burning the piece of paper. He says he had nothing against John Denver. He says things were hectic backstage, and that “I guess my anxiety/panic disorder kicked in or something.” He also speculates that his actions may have been a way to propel himself into doing something other than country music. The part about this incident starts about seventeen minutes into the interview.

  • Oops, I forgot to prvide the link! Here it is: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129612715

    • Thanks for the link! I’m planning to do a follow up story on this at some point presenting the case that it was NOT about Denver.

  • This isn’t really the point of the article, but doesn’t John Denver just seem like the nicest guy in the world? Haha, I love John Denver’s music, but I can see where at the time he wouldn’t be liked not just for his music, but because he didn’t fit the profile for alpha-male country types like Waylon, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Merle, etc. He looked more like a hippie than a country singer, which I think is also the reason Gram Parsons got so much backlash from country music, despite the fact that his music was quite country.

  • Hey, Trig, on the subject of pop influences infiltrating country, what do YOU think of John Denver?

    • I enjoy a few John Denver tunes. I also understand how in 1975 how he could be seen as a pop derivative of American roots music, watering down the real thing to appeal to the masses. You go beyond the prime cuts of a John Denver Greatest its album, and the material starts to get pretty thin. Then again, you can also say this about The Band, and they are cherished way beyond their contributions.I don’t think Denver was a bad guy, and certainly can’t be blamed if the CMA wanted to foist their award on him. Is he supposed to refuse it?

      At the same time I enjoy this moment in country music history, however the truth behind it may be evolving in this very comments section. Whether it is true or not, it is the type of spirit that we need to save country music.

      • I agree with you that Denver does not have a great catalog; and I see you acknowledged Rich is far form a traditionalist. That said, I think it is worth comparing the most popular songs by the two artists the year they won.

        For Denver, it was Thank God I’m a Country Boy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUcW9pE47as
        For Rich it was Behind Closed Doors. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hnk6mPmRhY

        Rich does not seem to be in a great place to criticize Denver for not being country enough (assuming that’s what he was doing)

  • This story that’s been going around for years about Charlie Rich burning the card as a protest against or an insult of John Denver is just complete, unadulterated hooey.

    Rich was just putting on a performance–ENTERTAINING!–and notwithstanding his inebriation, it WAS fairly entertaining. The burning of the card was just Rich treating it with mock seriousness, like it was some top-secret communication that he was entrusted with. It’s straight out of Mission Impossible.

    No, I can’t “prove” I’m right, but just watch the tape again. You’ll see that Rich takes out the lighter preparing to burn the card BEFORE he looks at the card and sees that it says John Denver.

  • To me, it’s just a drunk joke–that he has mangled the envelope getting it open, so he plays on the fear that he has lost the name of the winner by taking it to the extreme and setting it on fire. Notice the delay as it burns? He is milking the moment. He’s trying to be funny–in that weird drunken state where we think we are much funnier than we really are–not hurtful. It’s a farce.
    Watch it again with that in mind and tell me I’m wrong.


  • John and Charlie would be arm and arm in today’s country music.

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