Despite his considerable mainstream success, enigmatic alt-country star Sturgill Simpson has always found himself outside the tight-knit circle of the country music establishment, which celebrated its biggest night in 2020-adjusted fashion at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards on Wednesday.
The awards show, hosted by Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker, featured star-studded tributes to various country stars we lost this year including Charlie Daniels, Kenny Rogers, Mac Davis, and Joe Diffie, as well as spots by non-country artists like Justin Bieber and Charlie Puth. To Sturgill Simpson’s disgust, however, not a word was spared for country-folk legend and beloved Nashville-via-Chicago songwriter John Prine, who died in April after being hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms.
“Two seconds,” a vexed Simpson lamented in a video clip posted to Instagram in which the CMA Awards broadcast is playing on a screen behind him. “That’s all it would’ve took. Two seconds. Literally, two syllables. John. Prine. That’s it… nope.” He continued, pointing over his shoulder at Rucker’s performance of his painfully clichéd new song, “Beers and Sunshine”, “All the time in the world for this s–t.”
He doubled down on the sentiment in the post’s caption, noting, “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. No time for Buddha…and I promise you they were asked to include him so a ‘nope, no time’ decision was made by somebody..on Veterans Day no less.” Prine, who served in the U.S. Army prior to pursuing music, was never nominated for a CMA Award during his decades-long career.
The John Prine snub was far from the only CMA Awards issue to prompt tensions among the media and the general public. Unlike other recent awards shows in Nashville like the Americana Honors & Awards (canceled) and the ACM Awards (virtual), the CMA Awards pushed to move forward with an in-person event. While the show moved from its usual home at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN to the more intimate Music City Center across the street, organizers still generated backlash for hosting the in-person ceremony in the midst of the biggest spike in new COVID-19 cases we’ve experienced thus far, both in Tennessee and the nation as a whole. In the lead-up to the event, scheduled performers Lee Brice and Tyler Hubbard (Florida Georgia Line) dropped out of the lineup after testing positive for COVID-19.
Further compounding the pre-show tensions, the Associated Press officially pulled out of its planned coverage of the show due to restrictions imposed by organizers on still photographs of people in the audience, impeding its ability to “tell the full story of the event.” Read the AP‘s statement about pulling its coverage of the 2020 CMA Awards here.
As Sturgill Simpson added in his post about Prine’s CMA Awards snub, “Good on ya AP! Its time for this hegemonic horse s–t ship to sink and for that to happen the music press needs to ask and demand answers to the hard questions instead of depending on those of us outside the box for the ‘tasty quote machine’ answers.”
Prior to the AP pulling out its coverage, the CMA had already caught flack for its messaging regarding politics—or, more accurately, the absence of politics—at the ceremony. As the AP noted, “The Country Music Association also faced criticism for a social media post it made declaring the show to be ‘a no drama zone,’ apparently encouraging artists to remain apolitical” as Donald Trump continues to contest the results of last week’s election, which saw the President lose his re-election bid to Joe Biden. The Country Music Association later reversed course and said it would “welcome every artist’s right to express themselves.”
Added Simpson, in a jab at the right-leaning country establishment, “If the guitars look worn folks its not from playing…it’s from all the freshly scratched off rebel flag stickers.”
Sturgill Simpson ended his social media rebuke of the 2020 CMA awards with a mic-drop, tacking on a second image—a screenshot of the iTunes Top Country Albums chart with his recently-released bluegrass record, Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions), in the #1 slot. Much like Prine, Simpson has never been nominated for a CMA Award despite his mainstream success.
Sturgill Simpson has plenty of experience with calling out the Country Music Association. In 2017, when his “Best Country Album” Grammy-winning LP, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, failed to net him any recognition at the CMA Awards, Simpson turned up outside the arena—with his Grammy statuette—for a busking session during the show.
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[UPDATE 11/13/20]: Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires also voiced their distaste toward the CMA on behalf of the country legends not mentioned at the event on Wednesday including Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Billy Joe Shaver. In a tweet on Thursday evening, Isbell explained that the omissions had prompted him and wife/bandmate Shires to return their CMA Lifetime Member cards. “I doubt anyone will care,” Isbell said, “but we cared a lot about our heroes.”
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. pic.twitter.com/UmplzD0Z7p
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) November 13, 2020
Steven Van Zandt, the longtime E Street Band member and lauded actor also weighed in, retweeting Isbell’s tweet with the caption, “S–t like that is exactly why I started the Outlaw Country Format SXM channel 60 sixteen years ago.”