When looking at the historical timeline of country music, many times it is big events that set the wheels of change in motion, for the good and the bad. Whether it is intrusion of pop or rap into country, or the ill-treatment of country music greats, here are some of the most embarrassing moments in country music history.
Shuttering of the Country Music Mother Church
The Grand Ole Opry needed a bigger home and the move was inevitable, but the result was the complete shuttering Ryman Auditorium, also known as the Country Music Mother Church, for 20 years. Aside from being opened by special permission to shoot videos for folks like Jason & The Scorchers, John Hartford, and for parts of the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, the venue was abandoned between 1974 and 1994, also allowing the surrounding lower Broadway area to be overrun with strip clubs and dirty bookstores. It wasn’t until Emmylou Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman that a renewed interest in the historic venue was sparked, eventually leading to its restoration and re-opening.
Garth Brooks Goes Flying Over Texas Stadium
In 1993 at the old Texas Stadium in Irving, TX, Garth Brooks does a video shoot and decides to pull a Sandy Duncan and go flying over the crowd suspended with wires. Though it was a one-off demonstration, it illustrated Garth’s influence of turning country into more of a commercial, arena-rock presentation.
Jessica Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry
You already forgot that reality star Jessica Simpson had a stint trying to be a country performer, didn’t you? Her career lasted weeks, but that was long enough for the Opry to decide to give her an opportunity to be on the sainted Opry stage on September 6th, 2008, while many other more worthy performers still wait indefinitely in the wings for the distinguished Opry opportunity.
Unfinished Hank Williams Songs Turned Into Lost Notebooks Album
Publisher Sony ATV cashed in on a collection of lyric sheets left behind by Hank Williams—some unfinished, and all without music—by doling them out surreptitiously to Bob Dylan, and a bevy of undeserving artists including Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, to finish and record. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams raised the ire of many, including Hank’s daughter and Williams estate executor Jett Williams who said about the project, “It was like ‘here are some lyrics’ instead of trying to think, “If Hank Williams was sitting here with me and it’s got his musical footprints all over it.” You would think that when you heard the song being sung by the artist, that it would have some kind of (Hank) feel to it, which I’m not feeling it myself.”
DeFord Bailey Fired from the Grand Ole Opry
Harmonica player and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and was an official member from 1927 to 1941 when a dispute with BMI-ASCAP wouldn’t allow him to perform his most famous songs on the radio. Instead of standing behind one of their founding performers, the Opry fired DeFord. This ended his performance career and DeFord shined shoes for the rest of his life to make a living. DeFord did not play the Opry again until 1974 when he appeared on an “Old Timers’ Show.”
Jason Aldean Performs “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris on CMT Awards
“History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage in June of 2011 when country music saw its first rap performance on an awards show, and the first live mainstream collaboration with a rap artist. This event and “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 would open the country rap flood gates.
Olivia Newton-John and John Denver Winning CMA Awards
Olivia Newton-John’s CMA for “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1974, and John Denver’s CMA for “Entertainer of the Year” in 1975 symbolized the historic intrusion of pop into the country format in the mid-70′s. The trend was staved off the next year when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ushered in the Outlaw movement in country.
Taylor Swift Wins First CMA for Entertainer of the Year
The date 11/11 was not good luck for country music in 2009, when Taylor Swift took home her first Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” award along with three other trophies on the night. Teen pop had now taken center stage in country music.
Induction of Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, & Darius Rucker Into The Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry had already been wanting to appeal to a younger, more youthful crowd, but in recent years they have ratcheted it up another notch, completely ignoring older country stars worthy of induction for pop country’s latest trends.
“Struggle” Turns Waylon Songs Into Rap
It was bad enough when rap infiltrated country music. Now it has gone back in time to overwrite the songs of country greats that have passed on. Waylon Jennings’ grandson-in-law nicknamed “Struggle” (his real name is Will Harness, and his real grandfather is Duane Eddy) took 7 Waylon Jennings songs, and rehashed them into rap songs in an album entitled I Am Struggle released in May of 2013. It was an unprecedented intrusion of rap into country music’s past, perpetrated by one of the few people who could get the blessing of the Waylon estate to do so. (read more)
Stonewall Jackson Stonewalled by the Grand Ole Opry
After having his performances on the Grand Ole Opry cut back so much that he lost his health benefits, Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry claiming age discrimination against Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. Stonewall claimed the Opry breached a long-standing code that if stars performed a set number of dates each year, even when they could make more money playing tour dates, they would always have a place to play at the Opry even in their older age. The lawsuit was eventually settled in court, and though the specific details of it were never revealed, Stonewall was happy with the outcome, and his performance schedule increased afterward.
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gains
In 1999, a bored Garth Brooks created a fictional dark pop character from Australia called Chris Gaines and released an album called The Life of Chris Gains. It gained Garth one Top 5 hit, “Lost In You,” but Brooks’ Chris Gaines idea met with very heavy criticism and confusion from fans, and after only a few weeks, Chris Gains rode off into the sunset and Garth Brooks re-appeared before a planned movie The Lamb could go into production.
The Grand Ole Opry’s Refusal to Reinstate Hank Williams
Even though there is a Hank Williams impersonator to greet Opry attendees at the door, the institution has refused to reinstate one of country music’s most legendary icons, and one that made the Opry an internationally-known institution, even in a symbolic gesture. Hank was dismissed from the Opry in 1952 for missing performances and rehearsals due to alcoholism, and was told he could return once he sobered up. Hank never got that opportunity, dying on New Years Eve of that year. A movement called Reinstate Hank looks to reinstate the country star back into the institution.
George Jones “Choices” & Other CMA Performances Cut Short
At the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices.” George refused and boycotted the show, and in response Alan Jackson, while preforming his song “Pop A Top,” cut his own song short, and launched into George’s “Choices.” (read more)
This was actually the second time an artist boycotted the CMA’s. In a much less publicized event, Waylon Jennings refused to perform an abbreviated version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Waylon recalls, “They told me not to get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true and left.”
Next Tuesday, the Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a project pairing Bob Dylan and a list of other popular artists together with unfinished Hank Williams songs, will be released to the public. The project has raised grave concerns in certain circles of country music from people questioning the ethics of taking a dead man’s songs and finishing them, especially when the dead man carries the songwriting and historical weight of Hank Williams. An organization called Stop The Desecration of Hank Williams Songs is planning protests at the Country Music Hall of Fame on Oct. 1st, and again on the release date of Oct. 4th.
What has baffled me from the beginning is with the anticipated controversy this project would stir, why information about its workings and origins have been so difficult to obtain. It was made even worse by an article in The Morton Report, which included easily refutable information.
Saving Country Music has submitted numerous emails, made phone calls, and personally visited the Country Music Hall of Fame trying to get more information about the Lost Notebooks to no avail. The Hall is a partner in the project, as it is being released in conjunction with their ‘Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy’ exhibit. However The Hall is not the originator of the project, and neither is Bob Dylan. The one thing we have received more clarity on since the formal announcement of the album release is the chain of custody of the songs. The idea for the Lost Notebooks project and many of the decisions made for it were done by the owners of the songs, music publisher Sony ATV, who ferried these songs through numerous changes and adventures, from the original owners, Hank Sr.’s publisher Acuff-Rose.
Another entity that has been spared a lot of the controversy, but certainly had a part in the project is Hank Sr.’s estate. We do finally know that the estate endorsed the idea at some point, because Hank Williams Jr. appears in the EPK for the album (see bottom of article). As Hank’s grandson Hank3, who was not asked to participate in the project, said in a recent Saving Country Music interview:
The fans are very upset, and I guess I’ll just let them do my speaking for me. Because I can’t go and say something against Bob Dylan. That’s just not right man. I’d say maybe they need to scope out Hank Jr. a little more…
Something else we’ve learned from a recent New York Times article on the project is that both Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young were approached to be a part of it, and declined. We still do not know what happened to a Willie Nelson song that was part of the project, that Jack White’s spoke about when we very first heard about the Lost Notebooks back in 2007. It also states in the NY Times that Dylan initially called the task “too mighty.” And one of the biggest questions that remains is what happened between the recording of these songs in 2007, and their release in late 2011. That significant hole in the timeline leaves a lot to the imagination of why it took 4 years for the Lost Notebooks to see the light of day.
Completely putting aside the ethics questions for the project itself, I have drafted a list of 10 simple questions about the specifics of the Lost Notebooks that I think country music consumers have a right to be answered before they decide to purchase it.
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- A story published by The Morton Report on August 4th asserts that the idea for the Lost Notebooks project was hatched in March of 2008, months after we know many of the songs for the project were already recorded. When, generally or specifically, in years or months or days, was it decided that the Lost Notebooks project would move ahead, and with Bob Dylan?
- Was the Lost Notebooks project always meant to be in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame’s ‘Family Tradition’ exhibit?
- If the Lost Notebooks project was meant to be released in conjunction with the ‘Family Tradition’ exhibit, either initially or eventually, then why is it not being released until over 1 1/2 years after the exhibit was initially scheduled to end in December of 2009? Why are the songs being released so long after being recorded?
- Were there any lawsuits brought against any entity involved in the Lost Notebooks project? And if so, for what?
- When and/or how was the Hank Williams estate involved in the project?
- Why were neither Hank Williams Jr. or Hank Williams III involved in the recording of the project? Was Hank Jr. asked to contribute to a song?
- Willie Nelson was initially named as contributing a song to the project by Jack White in late 2007. What happened to Willie Nelson’s contribution?
- How many, in total, unfinished Hank Williams songs are there, from how many different primary sources?
- Since there are more unfinished songs than are included in this project, are there plans to do more volumes?
- The liner notes for the Lost Notebooks project state that two of the four lost notebooks were taken from a locked vault. They state: “A police investigation was launched, and ultimately Sony regained possession of the notebooks and the handwritten songs.” But in March of 2007, a judge dropped all charges against Stephen M. Shutts and Francine Boykin for theft of the songs. How then were the two notebooks re-obtained by Sony ATV?
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