The age-old feud between the various factions of country music has escalated sharply after the Country Music Association (CMA) ignored the passing of three great artists at its annual awards bash in Nashville.
Legendary singer-songwriter John Prine and country-outlaw heroes Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker were snubbed during the traditional tributes segment to recently-deceased artists at the annual CMA Awards on November 11. Those lost stars who were recognised included Charlie Daniels, Kenny Rogers, Joe Diffie and Mac Davies.
The decision to recognise artists like Daniels and Rogers, who represented the more traditional strand of country music, and ignore those – like Prine – regarded as being in the alternative strand of the genre, only further illustrates the long-simmering divisions within country music.
There was an immediate back-lash by several country artists, led by popular performers, husband and wife Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.
Isbell tweeted the following day: “Due to Country Music’s failure to mention John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver at the CMA’s last night, Amanda Shires and I have decided to return our membership cards. I doubt anybody will care, but we cared a lot about our heroes.”
Like many of the younger Nashville musicians, Isbell and Shires had a close association with Prine and had led the tributes to the revered songwriter who died at 73 of the coronavirus in April. Shires had also played fiddle for Shaver early in her career.
Walker, 78, who wrote the crossover blockbuster “Mr Bojangles,” and 81-year-old Shaver, whose work was popularised by country music legend Waylon Jennings, died within a week of one another in late October. So their sudden passing may have come after the CMA had already designed their tribute segment. But there can be no excuse for ignoring Prine’s passing much earlier in the year.
Another artist infuriated by the snub was Sturgill Simpson, a long-standing collaborator with Prine and an artist on the rise in Nashville following the release of his popular and critically-acclaimed bluegrass album Cuttin Grass Vol 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions). The genre-rework album was actually recorded at Prine’s old studio in Nashville and at the time of its release, Simpson paid an emotional tribute to his old friend:
“I cannot imagine a better final chapter to the legacy of what was my favorite studio on Earth. I am grateful beyond words for the time I was given with John and the love and wisdom he gave to me.”
So it was probably no surprise that Simpson let rip on learning that John had been ignored by the CMA. “Two seconds. That’s all it would have took, literally two syllables. John Prine. That’s it nope,” he said in a video of himself watching the awards. He added in a caption to the since-deleted Instagram post: “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 … I just wanted to see if they would say his name but nope.”
On the same night of the CMA Awards, Prine’s record label Oh Boy was more restrained in its criticism with a tweet which said: “We’re disappointed John won’t be part of the CMA award show tonight. Country music was both the inspiration and foundation for his songwriting and performing. While there may be a number of artists who have had more commercial success than John, there are very few who achieved more artistically.”
The CMA has yet to comment on the issue.
The CMA Awards were already mired in controversy. The event was criticised for taking place at all during a raging pandemic, especially indoors. Some artists had to withdraw after testing positive for Covid-19 and many attendees did not wear masks.
Eric Church was named Entertainer of the Year at the event.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation