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Country Music Awards Draw Backlash for Oh So Many Reasons

The late John Prine was one of the few country legends whose deaths were not acknowledged at the 2020 Country Music Awards.EXPAND
The late John Prine was one of the few country legends whose deaths were not acknowledged at the 2020 Country Music Awards.
Mike Brooks

Country music has had a tough year. With Lady Antebellum changing their name to Lady A, losses from COVID shutdowns, the death of country icons and backlash befalling critics of Dolly Parton for her support of the Black Lives Matter movement, 2020 naturally ended with a shit show known as the Country Music Awards.

The CMAs, which aired last Wednesday night, were a nonstop train wreck of controversial events, each of which could prompt many a country song — or albums, and some COVID cases, too — all on their own.

To begin with, the theme of the evening appeared to be “herd immunity.” The ceremony was live and indoors. Most guests were grouped in tables of four, but were not required to wear masks outside of their table and social distance didn’t seem to be strictly enforced.

In addition to receiving criticism for what was deemed a showcase of privilege, the awards show drew fire for its billing of a night of “no drama”— an attempt to keep the event nonpolitical following an endless, contentious election.

The last straw, however, for those criticizing the CMAs, was the ceremony’s failure to acknowledge the passing of three of country music’s most influential names.

Several Texans were honored during the ceremony. Arlington-born Maren Morris took home awards for Single of the Year and Song of the Year for “The Bones,” and an award for Best Female Vocalist, in which she gave a shout out to Black women’s contributions to country music in her speech. Longview’s Miranda Lambert received the Music Video of the Year award for “Bluebird,” and Dallas resident Charley Pride was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

While in memoriam segments were dedicated to Kenny Rogers (with a performance by Little Big Town), Joe Diffie (with a performance by Jon Pardi) and a tribute to Charlie Daniels by Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley and others, absent from the ceremony were nods to folk-country giant John Prine, who died in April, and Texas legends Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker, who died within a week of each other in late October.

Many high-profile country artists are now publicly slamming the CMAs. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires have said that as the result of the omission of Prine, Saver and Walker, they would be returning their lifetime membership cards to the Country Music Association.

“Due to @CountryMusic’s failure to mention John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Billy Joe Shaver at the CMA’s last night, @amandashires and I have decided to return our membership cards. I doubt anybody will care, but we cared a lot about our heroes,” Isbell tweeted on Thursday night. 

Sturgill Simpson took to Instagram to criticize the awards with a post that has since been deleted, presumably in reference to Prine.

“Don’t get it twisted … wouldn’t be caught dead at this tacky ass glitter and botox cake & cock pony show even if my chair had a morphine drip,” Simpson wrote. “I just wanted to see if they would say his name but nope.”

Margo Price slammed the CMA's “no drama” stance and lack of diversity.

“Once again, the CMA’s are censoring/white washing their show but who’s surprised? anyone still participating is a socially unconscious pawn. artists pander woke authenticity when it benefits them and then sit in silence as they collect their plastic trophies. also the music sucks,” she tweeted.

Dallas country artist Kirk Holloway, who has been outspokenly critical about the Nashville music scene, says, “That's the way bigwig Nashville works though and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone at this point. It’s a ‘What can you do for me?’ and ‘How can you make me money?’ kind of town.”

Regardless of his lack of faith in Music City, Holloway is disappointed in the CMAs exclusion of the late country stars.

“It makes me sick to my stomach, but I'm not at all surprised,” Holloway says. “It’s hard to imagine having such a successful career, contributing so much to the country music world, and not having your work and life celebrated. I think that would make anyone uncomfortable. Especially when it would’ve been so easy and taken just a few seconds to mention their names.”

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Holloway believes, however, that none of the country icons would have personally been crushed by the exclusion.

“I find peace knowing that Prine, Walker and Shaver probably didn’t give a damn about the CMAs,” he says. “I would be shocked if any of them bothered to put it on their TVs even once. They all marched to the beat of their own drum and that just doesn't really fit the CMA format.

“John Prine sings about ridiculous things such as counting his toes, getting fired for being scared of bees, and blowing up your TV,” Holloway says. “Jerry Jeff Walker never once let a record company tell him how he was going to sound. ¡Viva Terlingua! sounds like it was recorded live in a Luckenbach dancehall because it was. Billy Joe Shaver famously bullied Waylon Jennings into recording his songs. …

“At the end of the day, I don't care what the Country Music Association says,” Holloway adds. “I know all of those guys were insanely talented. I will keep rocking out to their tunes till the day I die. I’m so thankful they shared their talents with the world.”

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