In the hours after country music legend Charley Pride died of COVID-19 complications on Dec. 12, fans were devastated. And then they started asking questions.
About a month earlier, the 86-year-old singer attended the Country Music Association Awards, where he received a lifetime achievement award. But many viewers were shocked to see the ceremony taking place indoors, in front of nearly 100 people, the majority of whom were not wearing masks on camera. Following the news of Pride’s death, a flood of social media posts — including some from high-profile country stars — wondered whether his attendance or travel from his home in Texas to the show in Nashville led to his illness.
It is unclear where and when Pride contracted the novel coronavirus. The CMA released a statement saying it “followed strict testing protocols outlined by the city health department and union” and that Pride — whose family said he was hospitalized in late November — tested negative before coming to the show, again upon landing in Nashville, and multiple times when he got home. Pride’s manager, Kevin Bailey, echoed this to the Dallas Morning-News and praised the CMA for “taking every precaution,” and added that anyone saying otherwise is “crusading to stir up some mud.”
And yet it’s hard to imagine country music’s year in the pandemic ending on a worse note. The genre has made a slew of unflattering headlines over the past 10 months, from Chase Rice’s not-socially-distanced summer concert to Morgan Wallen being dropped as the “Saturday Night Live” musical guest after violating the show’s coronavirus protocols. Then there was the strange tone of the CMA Awards, the format’s biggest night in the national spotlight to celebrate music known for capturing real life and “three chords and the truth,” trying to project an image of cheerful normalcy in a tragedy-filled year.
It’s a lightning-rod topic that almost no one wants to talk about publicly — but behind the scenes in Nashville, according to industry veterans, it’s a subject nearly everyone has talked about. One common term used to describe these types of incidents is “tone deaf”; there’s anger, fear, and a lot of questions. Among the questions that come up among people in the industry: Given that nearly every other awards show went largely virtual this year, why did the CMA Awards have to be in person, especially with virus cases spiking in Tennessee? Why do country stars keep showing up on social media attending maskless indoor gatherings or traveling? What message is it sending to their fans?
“I think the thing that angers me the most is they’re purporting to represent a working-class art form . . . but what I see is nothing but ‘me, me, me,’ " said roots musician Rhiannon Giddens, who tweeted about her grief and frustration after Pride’s death. “It just hits me so hard. The excesses of the commercial country music industry are not my thing, and that’s fine — but this year, it’s just really hard to see all of that.”
While country stars are hardly the only celebrities to use their wealth and resources to host events and travel (the Kardashians and their private island, anyone?), they have received their share of criticism for pandemic activities. Cole Swindell recently posted an Instagram photo of a group of Nashville singers including Wallen, Kenny Chesney, Luke Combs, and Jake Owen (and, for some reason, former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning) with their arms around each other at a bar. While it mostly earned delighted reactions, the comments were also peppered with “Come on boys mask up” and “Not a mask among them” and “Is this an ad to catch covid for the holidays?” The response sparked arguments among fans.
In October, Wallen made national headlines when “SNL” dropped him as a musical guest after TikTok videos surfaced that showed him partying maskless with students at the University of Alabama. (He was later rebooked.) Shortly after, Jason Aldean encountered some backlash over a no-masks family photo at Disney World. “Chill out lady. They are in our pocket. We took them off for 5 seconds to take the pic,” Aldean wrote to one critic, before deleting the picture.
A similar dynamic occurred in mid-December when Thomas Rhett and his wife, Lauren Akins, posted photos of a group trip to Mexico, and some fans were not thrilled: “Wish I could be happy for you but the rest of us are not traveling to try to keep covid at bay.” Afterward, Rhett said he was taking a break from Instagram because of the negativity.
The potential of being publicly shamed is a powerful influence. Country singers saw the outcry in June when Rice and Chris Janson held concerts the same weekend and shared Instagram pictures of people packed together with no masks. The intense reaction, some said, seemed to discourage other singers from attempting to hold concerts.
The pandemic has decimated the live touring industry, and performers are understandably anxious about their futures and providing for their band and crew members. While musicians are all eager to get back on the road, in November, many country singers let their frustrations show on social media when pictures of people celebrating President-elect Joe Biden’s victory started to go viral.
“Knew we were waiting on the election since March when this [expletive]show started,” Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley wrote on Instagram under a picture of crowds gathered in Washington, adding, “Time to go back to work AMERICA. Booking shows ASAP.” Other Nashville singers shared similar thoughts (“So this means we can play shows again right?” wrote Mitchell Tenpenny; Wallen added: “The hypocrisy is unreal”), though others criticized them for equating outdoor, largely masked gatherings in response to a contentious election with country music concerts.
“Perhaps most egregious, the nonchalant calls to restart live shows generally fail to consider or acknowledge the fans,” Joe Hudak and Jon Freeman wrote in Rolling Stone. “We’ve all been thrown into economic crisis because of the pandemic — millions have lost jobs, with music crews especially hard hit — and yet artists clamoring to return to the road in a traditional manner . . . suggests they’re not taking into account their fans’ finances or their very health and safety.”
On the other hand, lots of singers have dutifully followed protocols and are patiently waiting for the days when they can tour safely. Earlier this year, the Academy of Country Music Awards and CMT Music Awards went ahead with mostly virtual shows, as artists performed outside or in remote locations, and accepted trophies via video. Then in October, the CMA Awards announced that the show would “mark the first time the biggest names in country music will come together — safely, all in one room — this year.”
Things got off to a rocky start when the show promoted itself on Twitter as a “no drama zone,” which briefly stirred controversy as some took it as a warning to artists to not discuss current events. Then, five acts (Lee Brice, Florida Georgia Line, Lady A, Rascal Flatts, and Jenee Fleenor) had to drop out after testing positive for the virus or being exposed to someone who had tested positive. After the telecast, executive producer Robert Deaton and CMA chief executive Sarah Trahern ran through the long list of protocols they followed to hold the show inside the Music City Center. Deaton told Variety the reasoning behind the in-person ceremony was to have it properly reflect the CMA brand.
“We knew we could not do a Zoom show; we could not do a living room show. We could not do that and have it represent the CMAs, which is ‘country music’s biggest night,’ " he said.
Still, news coverage of the awards was nearly overshadowed by headlines about all the positive tests before the telecast, as well as the lack of mention of COVID-19 and the absence of masks — which some considered a missed opportunity to send a powerful message to country music’s fan base. (In the Variety interview, the producers later compared it to a restaurant, and said that anyone not seated or singing had to wear a mask; and added that they provided plastic shields for artists who didn’t want to wear face coverings because of hair and makeup.)
The optics took another dive with Pride's death, as fans vividly remembered him, four weeks earlier, accepting his Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award with an emotional speech and performing onstage with Jimmie Allen. People instantly started speculating. "I don't want to jump to conclusions because no family statement has been made. But if this was a result of the CMAs being indoors, we should all be outraged," country artist Maren Morris, who was of the many stars in attendance, said in a now-deleted tweet. Mickey Guyton and Brandi Carlile concurred, as did Giddens.
“There’s this big country gathering, and who’s the one that dies? The Black guy. It’s just so cosmically unfair,” Giddens said. “So it’s just kind of like, of course we’ll never know [how it happened] — but it doesn’t seem like it even needed to be a question.”
That’s the other issue that has come up repeatedly in conversations with Nashville insiders, even as many declined to speak publicly. (Nobody wants to tick off the CMAs, one said, as others noted the high-profile organization’s power and board members’ influence in town.) Charley Pride was a groundbreaking legend, one of the genre’s first Black stars. He had 30 songs reach No. 1 on the country charts. He could have received the award, which was instituted in 2012, well before 2020. Presenting him with the award in the year of racial reckoning appeared to be a way for the CMAs to recognize the serious lack of diversity in the genre. In doing so, Pride was faced with the choice of whether he should travel for the show — and as CMA defenders have pointed out, he did make the decision to go. But, behind the scenes, many feel he should have never been asked to make that choice.
“The thing that breaks my heart the most is that Charley Pride has been trained for decades about the way country music works -— first and foremost, it’s loyalty to country music,” said a longtime Nashville industry insider, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “If you’re presented with an opportunity and turn it down, or request something be changed, you’re unlikely to get that opportunity again.
“You smile and be a good soldier. And if you say no? Country music moves on,” the insider said. “The moment you say, ‘I don’t want to do it that way,’ they’ll find someone else who will do it that way.”