This fall marks the 50th Anniversary of the Country Music Association Awards. Over the next few weeks, Sounds Like Nashville will be operating as your very own personal time machine – looking back at five decades of memories of a yearly television event that Country Music fans eagerly look forward to each year. But….it wasn’t always that way, as this look at the first ten years of the CMA Awards reflects.
1967 – Don’t go looking on YouTube for any video of the very first awards presentation. It doesn’t exist. The first awards were presented at a Music City banquet. Sonny James – one of the most bankable stars in the business – served as co-host of the event alongside of crossover queen Bobbie Gentry, known for her smash hit “Ode To Billie Joe.” As far the awards go themselves, Loretta Lynn was honored as the first winner of the Female Vocalist trophy, and Eddy Arnold was named Entertainer of the Year – one year after being inducted as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the only time that ever happened.
But, the night belonged to a male vocalist from East Tennessee that was still working his day job at the beginning of the year. Jack Greene had topped the charts with the classic “There Goes My Everything,” but was hesitant to leave his job playing drums for Ernest Tubb. “The Texas Troubadour” nudged his band member into the solo spotlight, and by years’ end, he notched awards for Single and Album of the Year, as well as becoming the very first Male Vocalist winner.
1968: NBC filmed the Second Annual CMA Awards for inclusion on The Kraft Music Hall series, and the night provided a pair of emotional moments. Bob Wills was introduced as a member of the Hall of Fame, and took his hat off to the Ryman Auditorium audience – a rarity. Hosted by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the evening’s most touching moment was a salute to Country star Red Foley – who passed away the month before – from his son-in-law Pat Boone. The evening’s big winner? Glen Campbell – who took the Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year prize.
1969: Nobody was any hotter in music (period) than “The Man In Black,” and the awards selection this year proved this. Including the top prize of Entertainer of the Year, Johnny Cash would earn five wins – a mark that would stand for almost a quarter-decade. For artists not named Cash, it was a repeat win for Tammy Wynette as Female Vocalist of the Year. Still a part of The Kraft Music Hall, Tennessee Ernie Ford took over the hosting duties for the first of three straight years!
1970: For the second straight year, one artist dominated the awards. But, this time, it was Merle Haggard. The Oklahoma native walked away with Single and Album honors for “Okie From Muskogee,” and also won for Male Vocalist and Entertainer. In an award presentation that reflected the ongoing changes in Country Music, Kris Kristofferson won the Song of the Year award for “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” a number one for Cash.
1971: Change continued to be in the air throughout the Ryman. Another Kristofferson song, the very-forward “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” earned a Single of the Year trophy for Sammi Smith. Charley Pride became the first Black performer to win the top prize, as well as earning a trophy for Male Vocalist. One of the most-remembered performances that evening came from one of Nashville’s most beloved entertainers, the 1971 CMA Instrumentalist of the Year, Jerry Reed.
1972: The CMA Awards began an over three-decade relationship with CBS this year, with one of the network’s biggest stars, Glen Campbell, taking over hosting duties. The Statler Brothers won the first of their nine Vocal Group of the Year trophies, and Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn began a four-year run as Vocal Duo of the Year. It was a big night for the “Coal Miners’ Daughter,” who also won the award for Female Vocalist of the Year, and Entertainer – becoming the first woman to do so. As her acceptance speech reflected, the only negative was that “Mooney,” her husband – wasn’t in the audience!
1973: Johnny Cash, the CMA’s big winner just four years later, served as host of the CBS broadcast. Roy Clark won for Entertainer of the Year, and Patsy Cline – who played several shows with Clark in the Washington are pre-stardom – was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But, the night belonged to veteran performer Charlie Rich, whose “Behind Closed Doors” earned Single and Album honors, and helped to net him Male Vocalist honors. Still, it would not be his most memorable CMA Awards night.
1974: Just a few years after Jack Greene dominated the very first CMA Awards, his former co-band member in The Texas Troubadours, Cal Smith, had his big night in the sun. “Country Bumpkin,” which became one of the favorite songs of Garth Brooks, nabbed honors for Single of the Year. Roy Acuff presented the Female Vocalist trophy that year to “Oliver” Newton-John, a distinction that didn’t sit too well with the traditional Country crowd. The biggest emotional moment of the night was the presentation of Instrumentalist of the Year to Buck Owens & The Buckaroos sideman Don Rich, who died in a motorcycle accident over the previous summer.
1975: In some ways, the CMA was making up for lost ground in the mid 1970’s. Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton, both of whom had been in Nashville for over a decade, were recognized as Male and Female Vocalists, respectively. But, there were still some hurt feelings over artists like The Eagles, Olivia Newton-John, and John Denver being accepted by Country Radio. Denver’s “Back Home Again” deservedly won the award for Song of the Year, and the reigning Entertainer of the Year, Charlie Rich, was on tap to present the 1975 honor. Forty years later, something seems off when watching this presentation – you can draw your own conclusions. Some have said that Rich was following a change of medication. But, seeing how “The Silver Fox” was never part of the ultra-traditional crowd, it still doesn’t make a lot of sense!
1976: While Mel Tillis earned the top award as Entertainer of the Year, it was the year of the “Outlaws.” The iconic album. Wanted: The Outlaws, that united the talents of Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, won the Album prize, while Jennings and Nelson won Single Record of the Year for “Good Hearted Woman,” as well as the Vocal Duo of the Year.
Next week, Dolly Parton gets vindicated for going on her own, a couple of Rock stars go Country, and one of the format’s legends eerily foreshadows impending tragedy…..as our look at the 50 Years of the CMA Awards continues!