September 2, 2016
Ever heard the term “No good deed goes unpunished?” That was the first thing to enter my mind after reading talented and acclaimed singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson’s criticism of the Academy of Country Music (ACM) and its decision to create the Merle Haggard Spirit Award, presented at this week’s “ACM Honors” show in Nashville.
In an irritable and wide-ranging Facebook post that had harsh words for Music Row, the ACM, CMA, Garden & Gun magazine (#Random), and basically the entire Country music establishment, Simpson – who I truly believe has sincere intentions while speaking up for Haggard in an effort to prevent perceived exploitation of him – said in part: “I want to go on record and say I find it utterly disgusting the way everybody on Music Row is coming up with any reason they can to hitch their wagon to [Haggard’s] name while knowing full and damn well what he thought about them.” Simpson was referring to an earlier assertion in the post that, “In the last chapter of his career and his life, Nashville wouldn't call, play, or touch him. He felt forgotten and tossed aside. I always got a sense that he wanted one last hit … one last proper victory lap of his own, and we all know he deserved it. Yet it never came. And now he's gone.”
But his most strident thoughts were directed at the ACM, as Simpson addressed the newly-created Spirit Award: “If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard, they should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they've been pumping down rural America's throat for the last 30 years along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit, and start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music.”
Man, that’s a lot to process, and my first thought after seeing that statement is: Sturgill ... dude you’re 38. Isn’t it a little soon to be so bitter? But hey, I love Sturgill Simpson’s music, his attitude, and his willingness to be brutally honest. I also concur with him – to some degree – about Country awards shows, something I’ve written about in this space. But I think his ire towards the ACM specifically, while well-intentioned, is off the mark and unfair.
Merle Haggard and the ACM have a long history together that dates back to the inaugural Awards ceremony in 1965 when he won three ACMs. He was the organization’s first-ever Entertainer of the Year in 1970 and is a five-time Male Vocalist of the Year honoree. For years, Haggard held a record for most-ever ACM wins. As a California-based organization, the ACM was created in an effort to further the exposure and acceptance for West Coast-based artists – like Haggard and his fellow Bakersfield sound architect, Buck Owens. Both had challenges gaining approval early on with the Nashville community, something that was equal parts geographic and stylistic, musically speaking.
I know Simpson knows all this, too, as he acknowledged in a later update to his post. But he also said the deep-rooted connection between Haggard and the ACMs was not relevant to his original point about the too-late tributes and recognition for icons like Haggard: “All of these organizations don't walk it like they talk it,” claimed Simpson, calling out the ACM, “because they are simply the latest in a long line of organizations that have done the same since Merle's death, and even before.”
I just don’t think the ACM is guilty of that. In fact, I believe they DO “walk it like they talk it,” in Simpson’s words, with a long and storied history of showing sincere respect for iconic artists over the years, with Artist of the Decade awards and nationally televised special tributes to past legends. They’re not the latest in a long line of organizations doing this – they were maybe at the front of the line in taking actions to honor and celebrate the greats of our format.
According to Simpson, “One needs only to look glancingly at the majority of the music that they, along with the CMAs, predominantly choose to recognize and promote at their award shows.”
That’s not fair, either. Whether it’s the CMAs or the ACMs – or ANY music awards show – the music recognized is of its time and representative of what’s happening in the format that year, that instant. A lot of the music now considered legendary, classic, and oh-so-much better than current Country was also looked at “glancingly” (again, Simpson’s word) in its moment, once upon a time. Not everybody loved Buck Owens’ electric guitar driven sound at first; the format once struggled with lush string arrangements on Country records; Urban Cowboy was considered the “Bro-Country” of its day. Alabama was deemed too Pop sounding for a while, and years before, so was Glen Campbell; today, they’re both in the Country Music Hall of Fame. All of these uncomfortable – and, for many – unacceptable shifts in the sound of Country music ultimately helped grow it. Time will tell if the likes of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, and Blake Shelton will one day be thought of as icons for this format. But like it or not, they’re the face of it in 2016.
Another note about Haggard, and a comment Simpson made about the last chapter of his career and life. It’s true that mainstream Country radio hadn’t played new Merle Haggard music since the early to late 90s. But you can’t argue that Haggard did not enjoy a rare, lengthy, successful career arc as it relates to radio airplay, unsurpassed by anybody except George Strait. Haggard was first heard on radio in 1963 and continued to be played into the 90s. He had 38 #1 singles and at least 10 #1 albums along the way, thanks to radio support. Even after Simpson’s example of “Kern River” – which peaked at #10 in 1985, in spite of his label head not being a fan – a story which Haggard shared in hilarious fashion when presented with the CRB Artist Career Achievement Award in 2009, and no, it was not a gratuitous nor exploitive move – Haggard went on to log five more top 10 singles, including a #1 for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star” in 1987.
And he remained a prolific, creative, and outspoken artist up to the day of his passing. Haggard continued to make music that was consistent and true to his already established legacy; music that was critically lauded, if not commercially embraced. Similarly, so does former Beatle Paul McCartney. Like Simpson, I wish Haggard was still alive, too. None of us could know how Haggard would have reacted to the ACM naming an award after him. I have to believe his family gave the organization its blessing. And I also know that when the CRB honored Haggard in 2009 with its Artist Career Achievement Award, which I mentioned earlier, he was touched by that gesture, if not humbly reluctant about receiving it. He showed up, gave a warm and entertaining speech, and stayed through the entire night, an evening which also recognized Country Radio Hall of Fame inductees.
You may be surprised to hear this, but I hope Simpson continues speaking his mind in addition to making great music. Because doing both is the exact kind of spirit that embodies what Merle Haggard was all about – and I’m all about keeping Haggard’s spirit alive, even though he isn’t. It’s clear that Sturgill Simpson has been greatly inspired by Merle Haggard, both musically and beyond. I also think it would be a shame if Simpson was blackballed, as he fears will happen, but I don’t get a sense of that. Yes, many are aware of his existence, and I for one would love to hear Simpson’s music on mainstream Country radio, as I believe it would contribute to the solution, not the problem that he believes exists with the format. I still believe he’s too harsh in his attack on ACM and its creation of an award in Haggard’s name. And I believe Simpson is also wrong about it being “too late” for Country music. This format – and even this town – have a respectable history of self-correction when it’s most needed. And one more thing, Sturgill, if you’re reading this – though you’re not nominated for a CMA Award this year (#Unfortunate), I hope you’d reconsider performing if they or the ACM ever ask. It might be the best FU possible – better than moving – and, I bet the Hag would even approve.