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1975 Entertainer of the Year John Denver found ‘country roads’ not as friendly as the ones he sang of in top-selling single

1975 Entertainer of the Year John Denver found ‘country roads’ not as friendly as the ones he sang of in top-selling single
When Charlie Rich set fire to the card naming John Denver the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year for 1975, he started a blaze that ultimately destroyed his career. (Courtesy CMA Country via Twitter)

Country music has always been, like the country in which it was born, a “melting pot” of musical genres. Take a fresh dose of gospel, mix in a handful of blues, add a few pinches of soul, a few ounces of bluegrass, a spoonful of rockabilly and a dash of jazz, and the result will usually be something that will fall into the country genre.

Then again, when country takes in some of the lost performers who don’t fit perfectly into any other type of music, it sets itself up for hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of the country music melting pot came into full focus in the early 1970s when Charlie Rich took the genre by storm.

A self-described jazz musician who was never accepted by the jazz community, Charlie Rich’s run of success began in 1973 when the title track of his album “Behind Closed Doors” topped the Billboard Country charts and crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100. His follow-up single, “The Most Beautiful Girl,” was even more successful, reaching No. 1 on all Billboard and Canadian RPM charts.

“Behind Closed Doors” pocketed Rich a closet full of awards, including the 1973 Academy of Country Music (ACM) and Country Music Association’s (CMA) Album and Single of the Year, as well as Top Male Vocalist. A year later, “A Very Special Love Song” helped Rich claim Album of the Year honors from the CMA, as well as country music’s top honor, CMA Entertainer of the Year.

In 1975, Rich started the year riding a wave of country music success into all musical genres. He released three albums in ’75, two of which topped the country charts, and produced three Top 5 hits.

Then it happened. In less than two minutes, in the autumn of 1975, Rich — the sly, smooth crooner known as “The Silver Fox” — watched his career go up in flames at the hand of his own Bic lighter.

You see, Rich’s success as a multi-genre musician who had been adopted into the country music scene led others whose style searched for a home to take a similar path.

In the mid-1970s, the most successful of these was John Denver, whose megahits “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” endeared him to country fans if only for their titles. After all, the idea of “country roads” had inspired countless road songs, and even a few trucking songs, in the years leading up to Denver’s classic single.

For Rich, however, neither Denver nor his music were country enough to suit him.

The CMA nominated Denver for Entertainer of the Year in 1975, and as customary, the previous year’s winner — in this case Rich — presented the award. Denver wasn’t present for the nationally broadcast awards ceremony, having been on tour in Australia. But thanks to satellite technology, the audience and the rest of America could see and hear him from an Australian studio. Denver could hear the audio, but he had no video feed. Rich, who’d been waiting back stage for over three hours, was finally introduced.

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From the moment Rich emerged on to the stage, something appeared “off.” He limped toward the microphone, and quickly it became obvious he had been sampling the post-award party’s beverages since the show began. The next few moments are fairly indescribable, so a “screenplay” of Rich’s own slurred words and actions after he reached the podium best tell the story:

Rich first looked down at the award trophy, cradling and staring at it with what can only be described as a “lustful” look in his eyes.

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“This is the most beautiful thing in the world, right here…. Most beautiful thing. Thank you very much.”

The fact that Rich was making a play off the title of his most successful single seemed lost on the audience, which was looking on in bewilderment. Rich then paused for a long, awkward moment.

“I know the people who are up for [this award] are suffering right now, the way I did last year,” he said. “I mean, suffering, you know, like … gut,” he added, punching himself in the stomach. Then he broke into his prepared speech.

“The nominees for the country music Entertainer of the Year are: John Denver, Waylon Jennings …”

Rich again paused, then noted, “The reason I’m talking so correct is ’cause I just got back from London. I’d rather be in Nashville.” He then continued with his presentation.

“… Loretta Lynn. Loretta, would you like to go out tonight?

“Ronnie Milsap. First time I saw Ronnie, our bandstand broke. 18-foot bandstand. Bam,” Rich explained in another tangent.

“And my friend from Arkansas … Mississippi … wherever he wanna be, Mr. Conway Twitty.” (Conway Twitty’s wife looks on in obvious disgust.)

Rich then opened the envelope containing the winner’s name, ruffled the paper for a moment, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a cigarette lighter.

As he said the long-awaited words, “The winner is…,” he lit the corner of the slip of paper on fire and again paused as he watched the flame grow. Finally, he announced, “… my friend, Mr. John Denver!”

From his satellite feed in Australia, Denver looked somewhat shocked that he had won, but considering what the people watching on television had seen, his smile and round-lens glasses made him appear to be a combination of naïve and ignorant. The country music community was shocked at what it had watched transpire.

The CMA blackballed Charlie Rich from all future events, and the blackball carried over to his acceptance as a country musician. Rich had a couple of hits later in the decade, the 1977 single, “Rollin’ with the Flow” the most successful, but his career took a nose-dive from which it never recovered.

Rich’s true intent during his speech that 1975 evening has been debated. Some believe he thumbed his nose at a country music establishment that had turned to crossover artists — but then again, Rich was the primary beneficiary of the movement. Others, including his son, say he was a victim of circumstance.

According to Charlie Rich Jr., a few days before the CMA awards show, his dad had broken his foot, and just making it to the show required a heavy dose of pain medication for the performer. The elder Rich had devised the plan to burn the award slip, expecting to get a lot of laughs. But then, for three hours, Rich sat backstage priming the wet bar. The combination of pain pills, alcohol and an ill-devised plan for a bad joke backfired, his son says. As it turned out, no one thought Rich was funny; rather, they thought he was a surly drunk, insulting another musician.

Of course, a planned insult would require knowing that Denver had won before Rich opened the envelope. If Twitty had won, would Rich have lit the flame that sparked his downfall? You decide.

Until next time, during your travels, take it easy on those country roads. Their ease of navigation can be deceiving.

KrisRutherford

Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.

Avatar for Kris Rutherford
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.
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