As the CMA Awards began their second decade in 1977, it proved to be a big night for a Houston, Texas musician who had become one of the biggest Rock stars of the late 1960s and early 1970s as lead singer of The First Edition. However, by 1975, the band had broken up – and Kenny Rogers was left to ponder a solo musical trek. He wound up signing with United Artists, and with the help of producer Larry Butler, wound up topping the charts with “Lucille,” a barroom song of temptation that never quite came to pass. The Roger Bowling / Hal Bynum composition also took home Song of the Year honors, ensuing that Rogers was on the right musical track. Crystal Gayle, younger sister of Loretta Lynn, walked away with the prize for Female Vocalist of the Year, while Ronnie Milsap was the night’s big winner – netting Album of the Year for his Ronnie Milsap Live album, Male Vocalist, and Entertainer of the Year.
In 1974, Dolly Parton made headlines when she announced that she was leaving the Porter Wagoner Show to go on her own. Many in Nashville doubted whether she could take her career to the next level, but as the 1970s continued, she did just that. Her “Here You Come Again” single – ironically one that she didn’t write – topped the charts for five weeks at the end of 1977, laying the ground work for what became her biggest career plateau to that point – in spite of an ill-timed “wardrobe malfunction.”
In another moving story from the night, the Oak Ridge Boys proved Johnny Cash right. As the group was trying hard to make the segue from Gospel to Country in the mid-1970’s, there were times that they weren’t too sure of their decision. One night on the road as they were opening for Cash, “The Man In Black” looked at them and told them he knew they were thinking about quitting. Do that, he said, and the world would never know the magic that you possess. That was enough to keep The Oaks going, and by 1978 they had topped the chart for the first time with “I’ll Be True To You,” which led to their being named Vocal Group of the Year. However, before they accepted the award, The Oaks went and grabbed the show’s host in a bear hug. His name? Johnny Cash.
1979 was a big year for Kenny Rogers, who took home three awards during the CBS festivities, but the night was notable for another triple winner who had been paying his dues in town for years – Charlie Daniels. A longtime studio musician for Columbia, his guitar playing caught the ear of Bob Dylan, who invited him to play on three of his albums. Though the North Carolina native was hard to pigeon-hole, having as much influence in the Rock world as Country, it seemed – 1979 became his year, thanks to a song called “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” which won for Single of the Year. His playing was also recognized, with wins as Instrumentalist of the Year and Instrumental Group of the Year with his band. The night also proved to be one worth the wait for Willie Nelson – who after two decades and leaving Nashville for the artistic freedom of Austin in the early 1970s – took home the top prize of Entertainer of the Year.
Having made her chart debut in 1969, Barbara Mandrell had slowly been building her career throughout the 1970s, peaking with the 1979 Female Vocalist of the Year trophy, thanks to such hits as “Sleeping Single In A Double Bed” and “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right).” Or, so it seemed she had peaked. The dawning of a new decade brought with it a new career opportunity – the chance to host her very own network variety series on NBC. The vivacious performer decided to keep the show in the family, by inviting her sisters Louise and Irlene for a two-year run on Saturday nights. To say it raised her profile was an understatement, as she became known as one of America’s most-beloved recording artists. Though the show itself didn’t debut until after the CMA broadcast in October, it was very tough to deny Mandrell’s advancing career, as she wound up becoming only the third female winner of the big prize – Entertainer of the Year. And, a couple of Silver Anniversaries were noted. Johnny Cash – who made his chart debut in 1955 – was announced as the youngest inductee of the Country Music Hall of Fame – and George Jones, who broke onto the scene the same year – was finally given his due as Male Vocalist of the Year – thanks in large part to the Single and Song of the Year winner, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
While there were new artists on the scene in 1981 like Alabama – who did win Instrumental Group and Vocal Group of the Year from the CMA Awards – there seemed to be a little bit of a repeat flavor on the show that year. George Jones repeated his long-overdue win as Male Vocalist of the Year, and his “He Stopped Loving Her Today” classic netted Curly Putman and Bobby Braddock the trophy for Song of the Year for the second year in a row. But, there was some more history to be made – Barbara Mandrell became the first artist – male or female – to ever be named the Entertainer of the Year twice.
Alabama had taken the Country Music scene by storm in 1982. They were riding a crest of number one records that began in 1980 with “Tennessee River” and kept going for seven years straight. Their albums were selling in numbers that nobody – except Kenny Rogers – had ever sold before, and with songs like “Take Me Down” and “Mountain Music,” they were adding a Southern Rock flavor to the format that kept them atop the singles and album charts. It also helped them to fare well at the 15th Annual CMA Awards as well, repeating as Instrumental Group of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year. They also made history in becoming the first group to take home the Entertainer of the Year prize – one they wouldn’t let go of for a few years. In what ended up being the most poignant moment of the night, Eddy Arnold announced the name of Marty Robbins as the newest member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Having just made a major comeback with the one-two punch of “Some Memories Just Won’t Die” and “Tie Your Dream To Mine,” Robbins was savoring the moment when he said he felt there were others that deserved the honor more. But, he reasoned, he had a feeling it wasn’t going to happen again – ‘So, I’m gonna take it tonight,” he said. Sadly, his words proved to be true. Within two months, the artist behind such hits as “El Paso” died from a heart attack, but he did get to enjoy one last golden moment before riding off into the sunset.
One of the pre-stardom jobs for Florida native John Anderson was working on the construction of the Grand Ole Opry House, which opened in 1974. Almost a decade later, Anderson stood front and center on the stage of the venue in accepting the CMA Awards for Horizon Award, and Single Record of the Year for “Swingin.” It’s not that far from the roof of the Opry House to the stage, and he made his victory lap complete on the CBS telecast in 1983. Lee Greenwood and Janie Fricke were recognized as Male and Female Vocalists of the Year, respectively, and Alabama added another Entertainer of the Year trophy to the ever-growing mantle in Fort Payne. Perhaps the most notable performance that year on the show was from Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, who dazzled the crowd with – their current single at the time – “Islands In The Stream.”
It was a mix of old and new at the 18th Annual CMA Awards. The Statler Brothers won their ninth – and final – Vocal Group trophy, while Chet Atkins was celebrated as Instrumentalist of the Year. Willie Nelson – always a proponent of duets – won for his “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” single with international superstar Julio Iglesias. But, the three biggest awards of 1984 proved to be quite noteworthy. The Judds, a mother-daughter duo from the hills of Kentucky, won the Horizon Award, Reba McEntire was presented her first Female Vocalist trophy by the Statlers – whom she had opened shows for years – giving one of the most emotional speeches of CMA history in the process, and Alabama notched an unprecedented third Entertainer of the Year prize.
Hank Williams, Jr. had been recording for over twenty years when he was finally called to the CMA winners’ podium to accept the Video of the Year honor for his star-studded clip for “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” in October 1985. Williams was quick to remind CMA voters that “I make a little audio, too.” They would keep that in mind for later telecasts. Another first-time winner was Texan George Strait, who collected the first of his Male Vocalist awards, as well as Album of the Year for his traditional-slanted Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind? Speaking of tradition, nobody had done any more to make the sounds of yesterday any cooler than Cordell, Kentucky – born Ricky Skaggs. He had taken hits from the catalogs of Carl Butler, Mel Tillis, Ray Price, and Flatt & Scruggs, gave them a new attitude, and made them fresh for a new generation during the early 1980s. Skaggs was celebrated for his efforts by becoming the first Male Vocalist in five years to win Entertainer of the Year – a victory for fans of Traditional Country everywhere!
There were two schools of thought about the 20th Annual CMA Awards in October 1986. Despite a New York Times headline lamenting the end of Traditional Country music, most of the winners that year were sporting a back-to-basics sound. George Strait and Reba McEntire repeated as Male and Female Vocalist of the Year, as did The Judds in the Vocal Group of the Year. Randy Travis, a newcomer on Warner Brothers, won the Horizon Award, while “On The Other Hand,” his first number one record – won Song of the Year for Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet. There were a trio of veteran winners, as well. George Jones notched a victory for Video of the Year for “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” Ronnie Milsap for Album of the Year (Lost In The Fifties Tonight) and Marie Osmond – who notched her first Country hit some thirteen years prior with “Paper Roses” while just a teenager – carried home her first CMA for Vocal Duet with Dan Seals. Throw in a win for Reba McEntire as Entertainer of the Year, and one would think that all Country fans would be happy…….Wrong!
It seemed that the 20th Annual CMA Awards was not without a little controversy as performances from artists from outside the format – such as Lionel Richie, Anita Pointer, and Amy Grant were featured. However, it was not the first time the CMA Awards would reach outside the mainstream realm – nor would it be the last!
(Next week, Hank Williams, Jr. wins big, Reba wears….Red!… and CMA’s, meet Garth Brooks – as our five-part series on the history of the CMA Awards continues!)