Charlie Rich Burns Award Card was one of the most fascinating headlines in award show history. Today, people still wonder about why the singer burned the card announcing the winner of CMA Entertainer of the Year as John Denver.
In the early 1970s, Rich, who had a long career of making great music, suddenly found himself with a huge hit album with the 1973 release of Behind Closed Doors. The title track was one of the most popular songs of the time. And it was followed by the equally popular hit, “The Most Beautiful Girl.”
The Country Music Association named him Entertainer of the Year in 1974. But it would be his return to the CMA Awards stage the following year that many would most remember.
The following year on October 13, 1975, Rich returned to the Country Music Association Awards show to pass the torch to the new “Entertainer of the Year.” After Rich announced the nominees, which included a bit of rambling, he opened the envelope. After picking up the dropped announcement of the winner, he set it on fire. After a brief pause, he said the winner’s name, “My friend, Mr. John Denver.”
Then, John Denver appeared via satellite, apparently unaware of what just happened. But when the camera returned to the stage, host Glen Campbell looked a little confused.
Many regarded Rich’s actions as a protest against giving the award to Denver. Some speculated that Rich thought Denver was not “country” enough.
That reasoning does not seem quite right, as Rich himself was not a traditionalist, having started out with rock music at Sun Records. Further, his previous year’s success came from an album with a non-traditional country “Countrypolitan” sound based on a suggestion from producer Billy Sherill.
Rich himself never made a statement that the act was one of protest. If one watches the video as Charlie Rich burns the card, one sees the more logical explanation: Rich was drunk and/or on drugs. His speech sounds slurred, he rambles at times, and he struggles to open the envelope. Further, there does not seem to be much time for reflection between clumsily opening the envelope and pulling out his lighter, as if he planned to do it all along (although maybe he knew the winner ahead of time).
Up for the award were John Denver, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, and Conway Twitty. Denver was more of a pop-country artist, unlike his classic country competitors, and some people didn’t like that he was up for the coveted Entertainer of the Year award,
Rich slowly and awkwardly announced the nominees, during which, he asked Loretta Lynn if she wanted to, “go out tonight.” He ripped open the results envelope, saw the winner’s name, reached into his pocket for a lighter, and lit the card on fire.
A few moments later, he announced that John Denver won the award.
There are speculations that his unusual behavior was caused by the combination of pain medication and gin, while some think he was just trying to get more attention, but no one will ever really know.