We are living in an era when Blake Shelton is a member of the Grand Ole Opry, but Hank Williams is not. Nashville is now manufacturing their own safe "outlaws" while continuing to water down our music into easy listening bullshit. So I ask this: what would Charlie Rich do?
Some of you may not know the story, but instead of telling you, I'll let the greatest country singer of all time have the honors (along with some background information):
"Jessi was up for numerous honors at the 1975 Country Music Association awards. I wasn't going to be the one to steal her thunder, knowing how much acceptance means when you're first starting out, and so I went with her, even though I couldn't tolerate the CMA.
They were suspicious of me, as well. "Waylon," they greeted me as I walked in. "You're not here to start trouble, are you?"
Who, ol' Waymore? Just because one year I'd stormed out of the awards and didn't mind telling anyone who would listen why. It was Kris Kristofferson's night; he was a shoo-in for several categories. I had been scheduled to perform "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line." They said they were strapped for time, and they wanted me to cut the song to one verse and chorus. I said, "Why don't I just dance across the stage and grin? Maybe do one line. That'll give you a lot of time."
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 I left....Now they needed me again, because I was up for Best Male Vocalist, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year. As I walked in with Jessi, scratching at my tuxedo, her telling me I should have hit them, Neil came over to me. "You won Male Vocalist," he whispered. "Jessi didn't win anything."
So much for secrecy. If nobody's supposed to know the awards before they opened the envelope, how did the word get around? My heart went out to Jessi, and though my first instinct was to get the hell gone, I thought that maybe by staying I could raise some of the larger problems that faced country music, such as it's close-mindedness and suspicion of change.
When it came time for Best Male Vocalist, Tanya Tucker and Tammy Wynette made a great show of opening the winner's envelope. I tried to be nice in my acceptance speech, thanking everybody for their support, though I knew that block voting and mass trading between between the big companies- we'll give you two hundred votes for your artist if you give your four hundred votes to our writer- probably had more to do with it than anything else.
I was happier watching Charlie Rich get drunk and burn up the Entertainer of the Year award, holding a cigarette lighter up to the envelope, please. They went to grab him, but when Charlie was drunk, it was best to stay out of his way...Oh, yeah. John Denver won Entertainer of the Year. Now that's what I call country."
-- from Waylon: An Autobiography (1996)
So I ask again, on the eve of the ACM Awards, what would Charlie Rich do? What would Waylon do? Surely the shows are more tightly scripted these days, right? They probably have back-up plans to prevent that sort of thing from happening, right? Not necessarily.
Back in 1999, George Jones was told by the ACM that he could only sing one verse of his song "Choices," which was widely regarded as something of a comeback for him and his best song in years. Alan Jackson was slated to perform "Pop a Top." Take a look at what happened:
Watch that again if you want and then check out Alan's performance with George Strait of "Murder on Music Row." Now ask yourself exactly why he is no longer on a major Nashville label. Because in the age of Sugarland and Taylor Swift, he is a danger to the establishment. Sort of ironic in a way.
The problem with the awards shows these days is that there are so few real country singers and even fewer outlaws. Too many of the real country acts are content to stay underground and preach to the choir rather than fight for respect and acceptance in the mainstream country world (I'll have a future article about how the first generation of outlaws did this, including independent labels, banned songs, etc.)
But for now, it looks like it's Jamey Johnson's turn at bat. If you win tonight, Jamey, make Waylon proud.
Now please check out this picture of Waylon's 1975 "citation of merit" and, in particular, his writing on it.