The legendary crooner, who had won Best Entertainer in 1974, was up there to announce the winner of that year’s big prize. But when he arrived at the podium, he took a pause, muttered to himself, and looked lovingly at the trophy in his hand.
“This is the most beautiful thing in the world right here,” he slurred. “Most beautiful thing. Thank you very much.” The audience was silent.
“I know the people who are up for [this award] are suffering right now, the way I did last year,” he empathized, with some nervous chuckles from the crowd. “I mean, suffering, you know, like… gut.”
“The nominees for the country music Entertainer of the Year are John Denver, Waylon Jennings,” he cut himself off and went on a tangent: “The reason I’m talking so correct is ’cause I just got back from London. I’d rather be in Nashville.”
Continuing: “Loretta Lynn. Loretta, would you like to go out tonight?” Nervous laughter. “Ronnie Milsap. First time I saw Ronnie, our bandstand broke. 18-foot bandstand. Bam.” The camera cut to the final nominee and his wife, who shook her head in embarrassment. “And my friend from Arkansas, Mississippi, wherever he wanna be: Mr. Conway Twitty.”
And then after ripping the winner’s slip from its envelope and fumbling with the paper, Rich slowly pulled out a lighter. “The winner is,” he said, lighting the corner of the page, briefly admiring the flame, “my friend, Mr. John Denver.”
Rich was banned from future CMA events. And his career was never the same.
Some say the incident was his bold protest against the infiltration of country music by pop acts like Denver, except there are a few problems with that: Charlie Rich himself was the embodiment of the genre’s expanding boundaries; and other evidence suggests he was just a drunk exhibiting poor judgment.
Rich had won Best Entertainer the year prior for his blockbuster record, Behind Closed Doors, which shook the foundations of country music because of its heavily-orchestrated production, schmaltzy songwriting, and Top 40 appeal. While firmly country in his aesthetics, Rich broke from the outlaws and the hillbillies by incorporating jazz, pop, and rock ’n’ roll elements.
Not exactly the prime candidate for a reactionary revolt against John Denver.
Furthermore, Rich’s own son explained that the singer was on an ill-advised combination of pain medication for a foot injury and one too many gin and tonics backstage that evening.
“I know the last thing my father would have wanted to do was set himself up as judge of another musician,” Charlie Rich Jr., wrote of his elder, who passed in 1995. “He felt badly that people thought it was a statement against John Denver.”
That being said, as a moment on its own, Charlie Rich’s on-stage meltdown serves as a last stand for classic country—before high-gloss crossover artists sterilized the genre; before the “boot in yer ass” jingoists stripped its patriotism of nuance; and before bro-country acts turned its dark, soulful sense of longing into a 24/7 Axe body spray commercial.
After all, tonight’s performers at the 49th annual Country Music Awards include oily bro duo Florida Georgia Line, beer-and-trucks-obsessed Jason Aldean, and… Fall Out Boy(?!?!). Yes, Rich’s drunken moment was tragic on a personal level, but we would only be so lucky to see something as unpredictable and haunting in tonight’s show.