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, luckily, he was attending!) when he swapped his tuxedo for jeans and a Hank Williams t-shirt to make a point about the value of traditional country music. That same night, Jackson was told to “play” a recorded song. He told his singer not to bother taking his drums with him on stage. The result was—for those who saw the gentleman behind Jackson, jokingly, playing the air drums—a painfully obvious revelation that the performance was not live.

In recent history, Jackson has continued to speak out about his views, even walking out of The Chicks and Beyoncé’s performance at the 2016 CMA Awards because he did not support pop artists portrayed in country music.

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

1999 CMAs

In 1999, Jackson was invited to perform at the CMAs, and the organizers especially wanted her to perform her hit song “Pop a Top.” However, they also contacted country legend George Jones, whose song “Choices” was nominated for Country Music Single of the Year. There was a caveat: he would only have one minute to sing his hit song, which required an abbreviated version. On the other hand, younger artists were allotted up to four minutes for their sets.

Jones took the moment as an insult and chose not to attend the awards ceremony. Instead, he watched from home as Alan Jackson took his place. But Jackson wouldn’t let anyone forget that the night was supposed to be about Jones.

“I thought it was stupid that CMA wouldn’t let George do his whole song,” Jackson later said The Washington Post. “George wasn’t just another new artist nominated for single of the year. He is a living legend who has been recording for 40 years.”

Jackson took the stage to sing “Pop a Top.” But midway through the song, the country singer abruptly stopped and began playing “Choices,” which had earned Jones a nomination. When the song ended, Jackson left the stage without saying a word. What he was trying to say was not clear: there was a lack of respect for the leaders of today’s world, who made the genre what it was. And he didn’t have it.

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CMA organizers did not comment on Jackson’s wordless protest. But the reaction of the witnesses in the audience, and at home, was remarkable. Jackson was applauded when he left the stage, and others who attended the event later expressed their support for him and Jones. And Jones, who was watching the broadcast from home, was deeply moved.

“Alan sings traditional country music, and I admire him for that,” he said Submit. “What he did meant more to me than I could have said. I was watching the show, and when he started singing ‘Choices’… Nancy and I both had tears in our eyes. He made a big statement on my behalf and on behalf of folk music and he didn’t worry about the consequences.”

But for Jackson, the protest was twofold. Part of it was protecting a man who was a hero. He said Jones launched his music career when he first got into country music. But another important part was that he believed that traditional country music was being unfairly erased from the scene by modern, heavily influenced songs.

“I have always been committed to the country of origin,” he continued in his words to Submit. “I’ve been trying to make good records, honest records that people can understand and sing to. I’ve tried to make the kinds of records that George, Merle, and other artists I respect have made on my albums.”

Despite his protests—and the constant changes country music endured over the years—Jackson’s career did not suffer. Three years later, she 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