Remember When: Alan Jackson Protests on Behalf of His Idol at the CMA Awards

Alan Jackson has a long history of protesting at country music awards shows. It started back in 1994 at the ACM Awards (which, incidentally, he was co-hosting!) when he changed out of his tuxedo into jeans and a Hank Williams t-shirt to make a point about the value of traditional country music. The same night, Jackson was told to “perform” a prerecorded track. He told his drummer not to bother taking his drumsticks with him onstage. The result was—for those who noticed the gentleman right behind Jackson was, comically, playing air drums—a painfully obvious reveal that the performance was not live. 

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In more recent history, Jackson has continued to be vocal about his views, even walking out of a performance by The Chicks and Beyoncé at the 2016 CMA Awards because he didn’t support pop singers being featured in country music. 

His most famous protest, however, was at the 1999 CMAs, and it wasn’t on his own behalf. Instead, Jackson was protesting for his friend and idol, George Jones. So what happened that night, and what was Jackson’s protest all about? 

The 1999 CMAs 

In 1999, Jackson was invited to perform at the CMAs, and organizers specifically wanted him to perform his hit single “Pop a Top.” However, they’d also approached country legend George Jones, whose song “Choices” had been nominated for Country Music Single of the Year. There was a caveat: he would only have one minute to sing his hit song, necessitating an abridged version. On the other hand, younger musicians were allotted up to four minutes for their sets. 

Jones considered the time slot an insult and opted not to attend the awards ceremony. Instead, he watched from home as Alan Jackson took his place. But Jackson wasn’t about to let anyone forget that the night should have been about Jones. 

“I thought it was stupid that the CMA wouldn’t let George do his whole song,” Jackson later told The Washington Post. “George wasn’t some new artist nominated for single of the year. He’s a living legend who’s been making records for 40 years.”

Jackson took the stage to perform “Pop a Top.” But partway through the song, the country singer stopped abruptly and began to play “Choices,” which had received Jones’s nomination. As soon as the song ended, Jackson left the stage without a word. What he was trying to communicate couldn’t be clearer: there was a lack of respect toward the titans of modern country, who had made the genre what it was. And he wasn’t having it.

[RELATED: 5 Deep Cuts from Alan Jackson]

The Reaction

CMA organizers did not comment on Jackson’s wordless protest. But the reaction from witnesses in the audience, and at home, was significant. Jackson received a standing ovation as he left the stage, and some attendees later expressed support for him and Jones. And Jones, who was watching the broadcast from his home, was deeply touched. 

“Alan sings traditional country music, and I admire him for that,” he told the Post. “What he did meant more to me than I could ever say. I was watching the show, and when he began singing ‘Choices’… it moved Nancy and me both to tears. He made a huge statement on my behalf and on behalf of traditional country music and didn’t worry about what the consequences might be.”

But for Jackson, the protest was twofold. Part of it was in defense of a man who was a personal hero. He said Jones had shaped his music career when he first broke into country music. But another significant part was that he believed traditional country music was being unjustly pushed off the scene by modern, more pop-influenced songs. 

“I’ve always been committed to traditional country,” he continued in his comments to the Post. “I’ve always tried to make good records, genuine honest records people can relate to and tap a foot to. I’ve tried to make the kinds of records that George, Merle, and the other singers I pay tribute to on my albums have made.”

Despite his protest—and the ongoing changes country music’s endured over the years—Jackson’s career never suffered. Three years later, he was nominated for a record-breaking 10 awards at the 2002 CMAs. And in 2017, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the genre. 

Photo by Leah Puttkammer/FilmMagic

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