When you think about celebrities not accepting an award, Marlon Brando declining his Best Actor Oscar for his work in The Godfather (1972), and sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to protest Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans instead, is probably what comes to mind. Music awards shows have had similarly strange controversies, like when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech on behalf of Beyoncé at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Twenty years ago, Garth Brooks had his own brush with awards show infamy at the 1996 American Music Awards.
Inaugurated in 1973, Dick Clark created the American Music Awards for ABC after the network lost the rights to broadcast the Grammys. For many years, including in 1996, AMA nominees were determined by record sales and radio play. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the winners were selected “by the vote of a ‘scientifically’ selected cross-section of 20,000 music fans.” And those fans determined that Brooks was their Favorite Country Male Artist (for the fifth year in a row), and that his greatest hits compilation, The Hits, was their Favorite Country Album. Brooks happily accepted the accolades. But when he was announced as Favorite Artist of the Year—beating out Boyz II Men, Green Day, Hootie & The Blowfish, and TLC for the night's biggest award—Brooks wouldn’t allow it.
Backstage, Brooks explained the reasoning behind his refusal: "It wasn't fair for me to walk away with that award," he said. "Maybe a year or two ago when we had a really good year. But I've been around [the country] talking to retailers ... and every one of them credits Hootie [& the Blowfish] for keeping them alive in 1995 and I couldn't agree more. So I thought that's who should've won." CNN filled in the ellipses, quoting Brooks as saying he couldn’t accept the award, “just out of the love of the fellow musicians. I think we're all one.”
Boyz II Men’s manager claimed the group was “blown away” by what Brooks had done, calling it “courageous.” Meanwhile, Dick Clark was not only not offended, he deemed it “a stroke of genius” and sent Brooks a note telling him they'd put his statue in the archive.
When Billboard interviewed Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker in 2014 on the 20th anniversary of the album Cracked Rear View, Rucker said Brooks’ speech on January 29, 1996 still gave him chills. He also intimated that choosing to not play at the ceremony may have had something to do with his group not getting the award.
“It had been an amazing two years at that time, and we told the American Music Awards that we had played so many award shows that we weren’t going to play that show. We didn’t know if it was political, but Garth said it best. The retailers told him that we had helped keep the doors open. We were selling records, and bringing people in to buy other records ... That was an amazing moment for us that someone that big and legendary would see what we were doing as that cool and wouldn’t accept that award because he thought we deserved it. That was one of the biggest moments in our career.”
While Brooks did perform at the ceremony with a (literally) tear-jerking performance of “The Change” in remembrance of the Oklahoma City bombing, it should be noted that the Eagles—who, like Brooks, also won three AMAs that night—did not perform at the Shrine Auditorium either. Eagles bass player Timothy B. Schmit was the only member of the band in attendance; his bandmates were "out of town."
The American Music Awards now do their voting less “scientifically.” For the most recent awards ceremony last November, anyone with a Facebook account was allowed to vote on the AMA's official website, or via Facebook. Fans could also tweet in votes during a one-month window that closed nine days before the ceremony.
More than 15 years after that memorable night at the AMAs, Brooks was still fighting the good fight on behalf of his fellow musicians. In 2012, he yet again attempted to reject a major achievement when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; believing that Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, and Randy Travis all deserved induction before he did, Brooks politely tried to decline the honor. Brooks was told by the committee it was not possible for him to pass up the opportunity.
“I know this is going to sound bad, but you asked, okay? So my first thing was is I called the guys up and I say, ‘Look, I don’t think I deserve this at this time, you know. Is it possible to turn this thing down and wait?’ And they said, ‘No, it’s not possible to turn it down.’ I said, ‘Well I tried, okay, we’re in!’ I’m trying to enjoy the day. And at the same time, all you can think about are the people that need to be in here that aren’t in here yet. So now it’s every Hall of Fame member’s job to make sure that we push and push to make sure all those people get in here, and eventually they will. And they should have been here before Garth Brooks.”