Country History X: Charlie Rich BURNS John Denver

Welcome to Episode #3 of Country History X, which looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time.

In 1975 when Charlie Rich whipped out his lighter, and burned the card announcing John Denver as the 1975 CMA Entertainer of the Year, it was considered to be one of the greatest moments of protest in country music history, if not the greatest. But was it truly his intent to protest John Denver’s win, or something else? This is a deep dive into this momentous moment in country music history.

Editor’s notes:

Country History X primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor. All current episodes will also be available everywhere else soon.

A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.

Episode #1: The George Jones Drug Tapes
Episode #2: John Prine & The Perfect Country & Western Song

Transcript

Almost from the very beginning of the country genre, vehemently and forcefully protesting the incursion of pop and commercial interests into country music has been a critical and common occurrence throughout the music’s history. Country protest songs are so prevalent, they virtually comprise their own subgenre.

Waylon Jennings had a #1 hit with a protest song called “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” in 1975. Country artists such as Dale Watson and Hank Williams III had their careers launched in part due to songs critical of modern country music. Hundreds of protest songs from obscure independent artists to mainstream superstars can be found throughout the country music catalog. Hell, George Strait and Alan Jackson’s rendition of the song “Murder On Music Row” won two CMA Awards, including Song of the Year in 2001—the year after the duo performed the song during primetime television on the CMA Awards stage.

And all of that speaks nothing about the actions some artists have taken in protest, like Alan Jackson stopping his performance of the song “Pop A Top” half way through to launch into the song “Choices” by George Jones after producers shunned George from performing the song himself on the 1999 CMA Awards. With the importance of keeping the roots of country music preserved, protesting the powers that be is a country music pastime.

But no song, no moment of protesting against the wayward track of country music might loom as large in country history as when reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Charlie Rich walked out on the CMA Awards stage in 1975 to announce the new Entertainer of the Year as John Denver, and in the process, whipped out his Zippo lighter, and burned the card that contained John Denver’s name right there on live national television. That moment of protest by the Silver Fox Charlie Rich is one of country music infamy, and is regularly cited in music lore as the richest moment of country protest ever.

But was that really Charlie Rich’s intent, to protest pop-leaning folky John Denver for being selected for country music’s most prestigious award? That’s how country music history has rendered the story. But in truth, the answer may be a bit more complicated than that. This is the full story of Charlie Rich’s burn of John Denver.

Country music was not Charlie Rich’s native genre or original calling. Born in Colt, Arkansas on a cotton farm, he was a jazz, blues, and R&B guy from the beginning, learning blues piano from a black sharecropper who worked on his family’s land named C. J. Allen. When Rich hit high school, he played saxophone in the school band. After going to the University of Arkansas on a football scholarship, an injury had Rich dropping out the next year and enlisting in the Air Force. While stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, Charlie formed a band called The Velvetones that specialized in jazz and blues. With a satin voice and an ear for soulful arrangements from the black influence on his music early on, the lounge was a better fit for Charlie Rich than the honky tonk.

When Charlie Rich left the Air Force in 1956, he moved to West Memphis with his wife and purchased a 500 acre farm. But Charlie Rich just couldn’t leave the music bug behind him. He would write songs when he could, and after the chores were done, take the short ride over the Mississippi River bridge into Memphis, playing jazz and R&B songs in the clubs around town. Similar to most any aspiring musician in Memphis during the 50’s, this eventually led Charlie Rich to darken the door of Sun Records, and the legendary Sam Phillips. But Phillips was unimpressed, and labeled Rich’s work centered around his piano playing and singing as “too jazzy.” Rich was slick and polished. The Sun Records vibe was dirty and sweaty. Legend states that after hearing Charlie Rich, Sam Phillips handed him a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis records and told Rich quote, “Come back when you get that bad.”

But eventually Sam Phillips saw the utility of keeping a piano player like Charlie Rich around since he could hit all the right notes on the first take, and by 1958, Rich was a regular session musician at Sun Studios, appearing on recordings from Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a host of other Sun artists like rockabilly guys Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, and Carl Mann. Hanging around the studio, Charlie Rich also landed songwriting cuts with both Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

All of a sudden, Charlie Rich was a full-time musician, though Sam Phillips still refused to put him on the Sun Records A-Team as a performer, and instead relegated Rich to the Sun Records sub label, the short-lived Phillips International Records. That is where Charlie released his first legitimate single called “Lonely Weekends” in 1960, and lo and behold, the thing became a smash. Sounding eerily similar to Elvis on the recording, the song swelled to #22 on the pop charts, and was eventually Certified Gold.

But Charlie Rich struggled mightily from there, and so did Sun Records, and eventually Charlie left the label in 1963 without scoring another hit, which started a period of Charlie Rich’s career where he would pinball from one label to another, with everyone recognizing his talent, but nobody really understanding what to do with it.

While signed to Smash Records in 1965, Rich landed another successful single called “Mohair Sam” written by country artist Dallas Frazier, but styled with a more rock and R&B attitude. This was the period when Charlie Rich really started to sound like the Charlie Rich we know. But again, the success was short-lived. He released a succession of generally failed singles for Smash Records and then Hi Records. He tried singing blue-eyed soul, and even straightforward country songs, but nothing seemed to fit perfectly. Charlie Rich was an artist without a genre.

That all changed though in 1967 when Rich signed to Epic Records at the behest of producer Billy Sherrill who had been an understudy of Sam Phillips in Memphis. Billy Sherrill is known for being one of the architects of The Nashville Sound, which took a more genteel approach to country music to appeal to middle America and older listeners in the midst of the cultural revolution of the era. Where some more hard country artists struggled to perfect this more Countrypolitan sound, Charlie Rich’s balladeer style and smoothness fit the era perfectly, and Music Row in Nashville saw promise in converting Rich to a Countrypolitan star after doing the same with his old Sun Records compadre Jerry Lee Lewis.

They called Charlie Rich The Silver Fox. Looking at even some of the very earliest promo photos of him during his Sun Records days, silver streaks emanated from Charlie’s sideburns and widow’s peak. By the time he’d converted to a country artist, Rich was pretty much full on grey. But it wasn’t just the premature pigment loss Rich suffered from that resulted in the nickname, it was his ability to charm ladies with his delivery. This was part of the calculus when he stepped into the studio in 1973 to record the song “Behind Closed Doors” with producer Billy Sherrill.

“Behind Closed Doors” wasn’t just Charlie Rich’s big breakout single. Everything about the song had been meticulously planned out to custom fit it to Charlie and the persona they wanted to present to the listening public. Songwriter Kenny O’Dell wrote the song specifically for Rich, with Sherrill tinkering with a few lines to get it dialed in perfectly. Even in 1973, the lyric was a little racy, and some radio stations refused to play it initially, or outright banned it from playlists. But all that mild controversy did was boost the song’s popularity. “Behind Closed Doors” was pure sex, and Billy Sherrill played the public perfectly, while Rich turned in the performance of his career in the piano-driven song.

“Behind Closed Doors” didn’t just hit #1 in country and #15 in pop, the song eventually won both Single of the Year and Song of the Year from both the CMA and ACM Awards. It won the Grammy for Best Country Song, and Best Country Vocal Performance for a Male. Rich also won Best Male Vocalist from the CMAs in 1973, and the album Behind Closed Doors won for Album of the Year.

The song’s success also sparked off a succession of seven #1 singles from the Silver Fox leading into 1974. The songs “The Most Beautiful Girl,” “There Won’t Be Anymore,” “A Very Special Love Song,” and “I Love My Friend,” all fed into Charlie Rich’s massive popularity and persona. He was the biggest star in all of country music, and in 1974, along with winning Album of the Year again, the CMA’s dutifully awarded Charlie Rich with the most important award that exists in country music, the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy.

But trouble was brewing behind-the-scenes, not as much for Charlie Rich, but for the CMA Awards, and country music at large as the confluence of multiple cultural ripples and movements was about to commence with the not even even 10-year-old Country Music Association becoming the centerpiece, and the battleground.

Though The Nashville Sound had become quite lucrative for Music Row’s major labels in Nashville, there was concern that making music mostly for blue hairs was not a sustainable business model moving forward. If country music was going to stay relevant in the changing culture, it was going to need to attract at least some younger audiences, and listeners outside of it’s traditional and increasingly antiquated demographic, a.k.a. Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” if you will. Meanwhile folk-oriented pop stars whose music mostly fit the country radio format were starting to find more favor with the radio DJs who at the time were country’s primary gatekeepers.

When the British-born, and Australian-raised pop-style singer Olivia Newton-John won the 1974 CMA for Female Vocalist of the Year, it sent shockwaves of worry throughout country music’s more traditional-styled artists. Over the seven years previous, only three women had won the Female Vocalist award—Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette three times respectively, and Lynn Anderson in 1971. Now the pop incursion into country had gone too far.

In response, a meeting was convened at the home of Tammy Wynette and George Jones, who were married at the time, and were country music’s major power couple. At that meeting with George and Tammy were Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, Bill Anderson, Porter Wagoner, Conway Twitty, Jim Ed Brown, Dottie West, Brenda Lee, Faron Young, Cal Smith, Hank Snow, Mel Tillis, and others. This was a major cross section of some of country music’s biggest stars at the time, and they were all concerned about the direction of country music. Just imagine a meeting commencing like this in present-day country music, and how much conversation it would stir.

The performers decided to form their own organization called ACE, or the Association of Country Entertainers, whose stated goal was to lobby for the representation of traditional country artists on the CMA Board of Directors and for more balance on country radio’s playlists. Sound like a grievance some country music performers could bring today?

And at the same time, and entirely different storm was brewing in country music. Bobby Bare was the first to break away from Music Row’s Nashville Sound conveyor belt system of music making, which put producers like Billy Sherrill mostly in charge of how the music was recorded, choosing what songs major label artists would sing, and made them work with with session musicians so albums could be cut efficiently. Seeing the freedom Bobby Bare had earned, and the creative freedom afforded to rock artists who wrote their own songs and recorded with their own bands, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others were instigating their own rebellion against the country music oligarchy, soon to be coined the Outlaw movement.

Meanwhile here were the CMA Awards, which had been first established from the fear of rock and pop music eating into country music’s cultural market share, and they were trying to represent everyone’s interests. After all, the CMA’s also had to contend with the ACM Awards, which had been commissioned due to West Coast country artists feeling like they weren’t receiving their fair share of attention by the country music establishment in Nashville. Country music was at the dead center of the crossroads of the culture war, kind of like it’s always been, but it especially was in 1975.

All of this was the setup for the 1975 CMA Awards held on October 13th of that year. With a folky that had come up on pop radio in John Denver up for most of the major awards, and Waylon Jennings with hair on his shoulders looming out in the audience in an untucked tuxedo looking like he was ready to fight everybody, and everyone talking about what had happened in the aftermath of the previous year’s ceremony at George and Tammy’s house, it felt like a tinderbox that only needed a spark to blow. Glen Campbell hosted the show, and since this was 1975, half the time a cigarette was dangling between his fingers during the broadcast. Then the awards started to get handed out.

Dolly Parton won her first of what ended up being two consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year Awards, which few could complain about. Ronnie Millsap won Album of the Year for A Legend in My Time—an award few would quibble with either. But when John Denver won Song of the Year for “Back Home Again,” the tension got ratcheted up yet another notch. Not in attendance, John accepted the award via satellite—a technological marvel for television at that time.

Then came Male Vocalist of the Year, which Waylon Jennings was up for. Take it away Glen Campbell.

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Now just appreciate, even though Waylon Jennings had commenced his country music career as a mild-mannered quote unquote “folk country” artist under-the-thumb of famous producer Chet Atkins, in 1975, Waylon Jennings was in full rebellion against The Nashville Sound and the entire Music Row system of music making. Waylon’s protest song “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” was one of the hottest songs on radio at that moment.

That meant there was legitimate concern as Waylon Jennings sauntered up to the podium that he may say or do anything. The stories swirling around town about the debauchery and troublemaking Waylon and the other Outlaws partook in at the renegade recording studio called Hillbilly Central owned by Tompall Glaser, they were already legendary, and Waylon’s stomach for pleasantries was minimal. After all, this was a dude who would eventually skip his own Hall of Fame induction. But in the end, Waylon Jennings was polite in his CMA victory. Curt, and a little sarcastic, but polite.

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And then came the most important moment of the evening, the handing out of the Entertainer of the Year award. As was often the custom, the reigning Entertainer of the Year Charlie Rich was to be the one to hand the award out. Hanging out backstage before the award and reportedly drinking heavily, The Silver Fox sauntered up to the podium, clearly sauced. After somewhat clumsily unsheathing the card announcing the winner from the envelope, and dealing with the paper refuse with icky fingers like one might handle a dirty diaper, Rich surprised everyone by whipping out the lighter from his pocket, and lighting the card on fire as he announced the winner.

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To fully appreciate how history judged this moment in both the short and long term, you have to contemplate where everybody’s mind was heading into the 1975 CMA Awards. The whole insurrection at the George Jones and Tammy Wynette house that some two dozen artists attended—and the thought that artists such as John Denver had no business even being considered for the awards, let alone winning them—is what led to the conclusion that Charlie Rich was protesting John Denver’s win. And this is how the moment has been written down in many of country music’s historical accounts.

In the definitive country history book from the Hall of Fame in Nashville called Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the moment is recounted as quote, “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.” Unquote.

And for years, that’s how the story stood. Some pointed out that Charlie Rich wasn’t exactly a country traditionalist himself. Hell, he’d started in jazz, blues, and R&B, and spent much of his early career resisting record labels and producers trying to push him in a more country direction. Others pointed out that perhaps Charlie was just drunk, and didn’t really have a point in mind at all when he lit the card on fire. It’s also important to point out that Charlie Rich was not in attendance at the infamous meeting at the George Jones and Tammy Wynette house the previous year with all the traditional country entertainers angry at the CMAs. Charlie Rich had come up in different genres himself, so how could he have any grievance with John Denver winning an award?

But there was another gathering that Charlie Rich had attended previous to the 1975 CMAs. It was one of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnics held down in Texas where all of Willie Nelson’s emerging Outlaw buddies, including Waylon Jennings, had held court. In Waylon’s biography when he recalls the 1975 CMA Awards, he makes specific reference to Charlie Rich’s card burning, and recalls hanging out with Charlie at Willie’s picnic in the golf cart of University of Texas football coach Darryl Royal, with Charlie Rich drunk and quote, “Just wailing” unquote. Perhaps Charlie Rich was radicalized while down in Texas hanging with the Outlaws.

But the main reason few really questioned the account of why Charlie Rich burned the John Denver envelope is because there’s no record of Charlie Rich himself ever disputing it. What we do know is the incident marked the apex of Charlie Rich’s popularity in country. Though many folks back then and today hail Charlie Rich as a hero for his antics, not everyone saw it that way in real time. Being so clearly inebriated on live television revolted others, and it made a sympathetic character out of John Denver.

Charlie Rich’s current single at the time called “Since I Feel For You” stalled at #10 on the charts after previously Rich had scored eight consecutive Top 5’s. The next year his label issued a Greatest Hits album, which is often the sign of a career entering its final stages. Though the short version of the card burning story loves to state that Rich never recovered afterwards, this isn’t entirely true. In 1977, Charlie Rich earned his eighth #1 song with the track “Rollin’ With The Flow,” and then in 1978, had another #1 with the promotional single “On My Knees” with Janie Fricke. Rich’s career did trail off pretty significantly after 1980, but that may have just as much been the natural career arc for a Countrypolitan performer as it was any trouble Charlie made for himself at the 1975 CMAs.

One things for sure though, Charlie Rich never received any more CMA Awards after the incident. That door was shut. And so was the door for artists that were decidedly outside of the country music fold like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John. You might point to some future winners as being more pop than country, especially when you get to the 90’s and 2000’s with Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Maren Morris, but for some two or three decades afterwards depending on your perspective, decidedly pop artists were shut out of the CMAs entirely, especially ones whose home was not a country record label. No matter the purpose behind Charlie Rich’s envelope burning, the moment appeared to hit home, resonate, and influence voting and nominations at the CMAs for the decades to come.

Charlie Rich would pass away in 1995 at the age of 62, with the official account of why he burned the John Denver Entertainer of the Year card going unchallenged, except in the minds of a few skeptics. But years later, Charlie Rich’s son, Charlie Rich Jr. would publicly challenge the official telling of the story.

On Rich Jr.’s website, he states quote:

“For those of you that assume Charlie thought John wasn’t country enough, I’m sorry but I disagree. If you feel that way fine, but that wasn’t my father’s general point of view. Anybody that knows much about the history of my father will know that it wasn’t in his mind set to judge someone for not being ‘country enough,’ ‘blues enough,’ or ‘anything enough.’ It went against his philosophy. He started out as a rockabilly, then did R&B for several years, then he migrated to jazz, and finally to country. For years people said my father wasn’t country enough. In fact, a few well known country artists at the time tried to start their own awards show, primarily because they thought ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and Charlie Rich just weren’t traditional country. So, let me make it clear, I don’t believe my father burned that envelope because of that.” Unquote.

For the record, it’s unclear if the 1974 traditional country insurrection at the George Jones and Tammy Wynette house after the CMA Awards also included concern for Charlie Rich’s wins, but perhaps that was the case. Charlie Rich Jr. then goes on to explain his hypotheses about what did happen with the card burning, saying that his father did it simply to be funny.

He also divulges specific details about his father’s state of mind and intoxication at the time, saying quote:

“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.” Unquote.

Charlie Rich Jr. also says that months after the incident when his father and mother were in Aspen, Colorado on vacation, they tried to look up John Denver so they could explain the situation. Unfortunately, John Denver wasn’t in town at the time. Charlie’s son says he doesn’t know if Charlie ever spoke to John Denver about the incident, but says that he tried on at least that one occasion. “I think my father’s gotten a bad rap on this one,” Charlie Rich Jr. says.

Perhaps this is a little bit of campaigning by Charlie Rich’s son in an effort to rehabilitate his father’s legacy. But to some, the envelope burning is seen as Charlie Rich’s crowning achievement.

Knowing what Charlie Rich’s true intentions were when he whipped out his lighter might be like knowing the amount of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop. The world may never know. Hell, he may not have even known, or even remembered the incident at all since he was so schnockered at the time. Charlie Rich could have very well been the central character in one of country music’s most notorious moments while in the midst of a full-on blackout. Maybe that’s why he never made an effort to dispute the story. Or maybe he was just too embarrassed to broach it again. And remember, this all was much before the time of journalists interviewing performers every other day, or performers using social media to set records straight or apologize.

But regardless of his motivations or intentions, Charlie Rich was the author of a rich and momentous event in country music that undoubtedly resonated deeply and influenced the music in significant ways. After all, we’re sitting here still discussing the moment decades later, enthralled as ever by it. Was it a protest? Was it just a joke? Maybe it was both. But undoubtedly, it was one of the most entertaining and arresting moments in country music history, and how lame would it be if it never happened?

The Silver Fox left an indelible mark on country, with his music, and his lighter.


Sources

Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America

CharlieRichJr.com – The Envelope Burning

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