From Johnny Cash to Taylor Swift, The Stars' Most Memorable CMA Moments Across the Decades
On October 20, 1967, Bobbie Gentry -- fresh off of her career-defining smash “Ode To Billy Joe" -- joined fellow hitmaker Sonny James on stage at Nashville Municipal Auditorium to host the first Country Music Association Awards Banquet and Show. They presented 10 trophies in the non-televised ceremony, including Entertainer of the Year to Eddie Arnold, from behind a podium, sheathed in a cloth banner that declared country music is "best liked worldwide."
Fast forward five decades to Nov. 2, 2016, when another co-ed duo, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, will host the 50th edition of the longest-running annual televised music awards show, as the CMA Awards air live on ABC from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
With the Country Music Association preparing its golden anniversary celebration, here's a look at great CMA moments from across the decades:
The CMA Awards made its TV debut with this sophomore effort on Nov. 20, 1968. While the show has aired live every year since then, this premiere, hosted by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, was taped and aired two nights later on NBC’s Kraft Music Hall show. Glen Campbell, riding high with hits like “Gentle on My Mind” and “Wichita Lineman,” took home trophies for Entertainer and Male Vocalist of the Year, but lost album of the year to Johnny Cash for At Folsom Prison.
In a field that included Merle Haggard, Freddie Hart, Charley Pride and Jerry Reed, Loretta Lynn emerged triumphant as the first female to be named Entertainer of the Year. Accepting the award from Minnie Pearl and Chet Atkins, Lynn admitted that her victory was bittersweet since her beloved husband, Doolittle, was not there to celebrate — because he was busy hunting. “I’m real happy, but the only thing I’m kind of sad about is my husband has gone hunting,” she lamented from the podium. “He couldn’t make it back in time to share my happiness.”
In one of the CMA Awards’ more controversial moments, reigning Entertainer of the Year Charlie Rich came onstage to crown his successor, opened the envelope, took out a lighter and set the announcement card ablaze. Then he revealed to a baffled audience that his “good buddy” John Denver was the winner. Appearing via satellite from Australia, Denver had no idea of the preceding shenanigans and gave a lovely, if routine, acceptance speech. (Years later, Rich’s son, Charlie Jr., said the incident was not a statement against Denver’s win but rather a lapse of judgment by his father, fueled by a mix of pain medication and preshow gin and tonics.)
The CMAs introduced an honor dedicated to new talent, the Horizon Award (which was renamed best new artist in 2008). While the first recipient, singer Terri Gibbs, didn’t top her breakthrough hit “Somebody’s Knockin’,” subsequent winners included such future superstars as Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks, Randy Travis, Keith Urban and Taylor Swift.
Three years earlier, Alabama had become the first group to earn the Entertainer of the Year award — and in 1984, the band became the first act to win the award three times, topping Barbara Mandrell’s back-to-back wins in 1980 and 1981. Alabama’s record stood until 1998, when Garth Brooks captured the category for a fourth time — a feat matched by Kenny Chesney in 2008.
Garth Brooks had already snared awards for Video, Single, and Album of the Year by the time he won the biggest prize of the night: the first of his four Entertainer of the Year honors. He thanked his two heroes — “my Georges: George Strait and George Jones” — before he realized, with some hilarity, that he’d left out a rather important George: President George H.W. Bush, who was sitting in the audience with first lady Barbara Bush. A sheepish Brooks quickly added, “No offense, Mr. President!”
There are effusive award winners — and then there’s Deana Carter’s reaction to winning Single of the Year. When her hit “Strawberry Wine” prevailed against stiff competition from George Strait, Tim McGraw & Faith Hill and Pam Tillis, Carter came rocketing out of the wings and leaped into presenter Ricky Skaggs’ arms, wrapping her legs around his waist. Skaggs laughed it off, but backstage Carter apologized, adding that she “certainly didn’t mean to insult his wife like that.”
Less than two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States was still reeling from the tragedy when Alan Jackson used the awards show to debut a song that put into words what many were thinking at the time: “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” a poignant ballad that ran through a gamut of reactions to the attacks before declaring that love is always the answer. At the 2002 awards show, “Where Were You” received the honor for both Song and Single of the Year.
Just two months after his death, Johnny Cash dominated the CMA Awards, posthumously winning Album of the Year for the Rick Rubin-produced American IV: The Man Comes Around, and Single and Music Video of the Year for his poignant remake of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., Sheryl Crow, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Travis Tritt paid musical tributes to The Man in Black throughout the evening, but backstage, Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, succinctly summed up his father’s life, career and legacy: “To the very end, he always stayed true to what he believed was right." He continued: “This is not just about the music. It’s about who he was as a human.”
Years before achieving superstardom, Taylor Swift was a rising country artist — and a high school student. In one of the CMA Awards’ most endearing acceptance speeches, an ebullient Swift accepted the Horizon Award, closing with a classic understatement: “This is definitely the highlight of my senior year!” In 2009, she became the youngest artist to win Entertainer of the Year, and claimed the award again in 2011, making her the only female artist to win that prize more than once.
Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, awards show co-hosts since 2008, truly reached a new level of chemistry. During the opening monologue, Underwood, who was expecting a baby with husband Mike Fisher, confided the gender to Paisley — who revealed it to the audience within minutes. Since the couple was expecting a boy, Paisley blurted out, “You could name him Garth!”