10 Controversial CMA Award Moments

By: Matt Bjorke

Last Updated: November 7, 2011 1:11 PM

For the most part, the Country Music Association Awards show has brought the world lots of joy and entertainment each fall of the past 45 years but like any event of it's scope and magnitutde, the CMA Awards Show has had a few controversial moments. So it is with this in mind that we have gathered 10 moments and events from the 45 years and collected them here in a rundown. Not placed in any particular order, the moments all evoke memories to country music fans everywhere. Without further hyperbole, here's the list, just the opener to our 2011 CMA Awards coverage (Reminder, the show starts at 8/7 Centeral on ABC TV Wednesday, November 9, 2011).

2009 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year – Taylor Swift:

Ever since she arrived on the country music scene, Taylor Swift has drawn the ire of longtime country fans for two main reasons, her youth-centered lyrics and the pop-leaning melodies. The controversy was stirred even more by Carrie Underwood fans after Taylor, riding the high of the music world’s best-selling album for 2008/2009 in Fearless, took home the expected Album of the Year and Music Video of the Year trophies, Swift ended up not only taking the Female Vocalist award but she also took home the Entertainer of the Year award, drawing the ire of those traditionalist fans for stealing away the awards from someone “More deserving.” Carrie Underwood fans practically had a ‘revolt’ online when Taylor took the Female Vocalist award after three years of Carrie dominance.

1975 Charlie Rich Burns Entertainer of the Year Award for 1975.

1975 was John Denver’s year – much like that magical year mentioned above for Taylor Swift - and he was genuinely a massive cross-over success, something that the CMA Awards ceremony has always celebrated, including Rich’s own win in 1973 as Male Vocalist and 1974’s entertainer of the Year award. It was rumored at the time that Rich was protesting John Denver’s win because of his cross-over, folksy pop sound in a stand of solidarity with country traditionalists but how could that be with Charlie Rich having been successful because of his own cross-over success. Charlie Rich later admitted to being high on prescription pain medication and gin-and-tonics that evening.  The results of this night ended up with Rich being black-listed at future CMA events and even lead to the downfall of his career.

1981 Barbara Mandrell first two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year

In the CMA’s 15th year of existence, they broke from tradition and awarded Barbara Mandrell the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year Award for the second time in a row, making her the first double-winner of the award and the first consecutive award winner. From that point forward, the Entertainer of the Year award would become something that became, more often than not, an award awarded consecutively.

2000 Montgomery Gentry Vocal Duo of the Year

The duo category has often been owned for long stretches of time and this time’s no duo had won the category more than brooks and dunn who, owned the category from their start in 1992 all the way through 1999, taking over from the retired Judds four year reign. Then, in 2000, Mongomery Gentry somehow squeaked through and shocked everyone by taking home the award. Brooks & Dunn then took home the award from 2001-2006 before Sugarland came along to take their place as the designated Duo of the Year for the past four years running and may win the award again, if Thompson Square doesn’t somehow get the award again this year.

Faith Hill’s “WHAT?” Moment – 2006

Just like how they made an issue out of Taylor Swift winning the CMA Award for Female Vocalist in 2009, the Carrie fans helped turn Faith Hill’s fun little joke (feigning mock surprise at Miss Underwood’s winning of the Female Vocalist of the Year award in 2006. It’s a moment fans still remember and one that gave Faith and the CMA unwanted and unwarranted attention. Still, it’s hard not to include this little ‘controversy’ (the internet has helped make some of these hasn’t it?).

Song of the Year Two Years in a Row 1980/1981 - “He Stopped Loving Her Today”

We’re not talking about how great the Curly Putnam and Bobby Braddock-penned song is. It’s undeniably a great song, perhaps the best country song ever written and recorded and it is – for sure – the signature song of George Jones’ career. But it was odd for many then and still is odd now that this song was so good that it not only got nominated two years in a row but won both of those years. All we can gather from the 1981 win is that there weren’t any songs worth being the “Song of the Year,” yet Willie’s “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,” “Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache” were both hits during the earlier part of that year and songs that still stand up as classics in their own right. So why did this great song get allowed to win both years (no matter if it was a big radio hit for both years, it’s weird to win an award in the same category two years in a row. The crazy thing about this whole controversy is that “Easy Loving” from Freddie Hart won the same award in 1971 and 1972 and “Always On My Mind” won in 1982/1983! The same questions/controversy for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” applies for these songs too.

Horizon Award Changing Name to New Artist of the Year in 2008

Most award shows have Top New Artist, or New Artist of the Year awards (sometimes in multiple categories – like male, female, group/duos). The CMA Awards was different when they started the Horizon Award in 1981 to recognize the best of the best newer talent in the country music world. But unlike other award shows, the category was designed to give new or just-established artists a chance to be recognized for their contributions to country music. This has allowed artists like Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt to win the category award despite being part of the vaunted class of 1989 with 1989 award category winner Clint Black. It was sort of a way to give artists who broke through, but weren’t necessarily new artists a chance to be recognized for their breakthroughs. Alison Krauss and John Michal Montgomery, Jo Dee Messina and Keith Urban were all artists who won this award after being established but not quite stars yet. So when changed to 2008, the criteria for the award should’ve been changed to reflect just new artists, right? It wasn’t.

“The artists are allowed to be nominated if they are “known primarily as a Country artist, who has for the first time demonstrated the most significant creative growth and development in overall chart or sales activity (of a debut or sophomore album), live performance…etc. They cannot be nominated for this award if they previously won Entertainer, Male, Female, Group, Duo, Single of the Year award categories or if they’ve twice been nominated in this category previously.”

So, if the criteria isn’t set for “new artist” only, then why change from the great “Horizon Award” name and move it to “New Artist of the Year” award?

Darius Rucker Wins 2009 “New Artist of the Year” award

Really? Because being a well-known vocalist for a band that’s sold 20 million records is clearly new, right? Darius Rucker may have been new to country music and has gone on to become a Platinum solo artist in country music on the strength of strong radio singles but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t know who he was (They did and some still do think his name is “Hootie”).  Darius Rucker wasn’t even a new solo artist as he released Back To Then, a couple hundred thousand selling solo R&B/soul album in 2002. So he was neither new nor explicitly a country artist when he got nominated and won this award in 2009. Had they left the category “Horizon,” It’d have been ok. Now, it’s just a controversial award that caused some other category nominees. Jamey Johnson, Jake Owen, Randy Houser and 2010’s winner, Zac Brown Band, were the other nominees this year.


“I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow – 2001 CMA Single of the Year; “Hurt” 2003 CMA Single of the Year

“Sorrow,” from the 2001 CMA Album of the Year, and “Hurt,” award posthumously to Cash along with the 2003 CMA Album of the Year. Both weren’t actually big radio hits in the years they won. “Sorrow” hit 35 on the charts and “Hurt” failed to get higher than #56 (but was a #33 Modern Rock chart hit). So, what we have here is the CMA voters nominating ‘singles of the year’ for songs that weren’t all that great of a radio single. Now, there’s nothing that says the awards had to go to the highest charted single, but it’s long been a practice for “Single of the Year” to be given to a single which was at least a Top 20 hit and more often than not, it goes to the one, clear, front-runner for most played song that year. Of which, neither of these songs, great though they are, were.

Reba's Red Dress - 1993

It was the dress that was seen around the world. Already an icon in country music, the Dress made Reba into an overnight A-list celebrity overnight - for more than one reason -  and only cemented her status as an icon who had a flair for the dramatic. Sure Reba's 'girls' were there for all the world to see and the stark dress earned Reba howls from the crowd, but the event sure brought a lot of discussion to the event and to this day finds Reba joking about her cleavage-revealing performance.


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