Huge Scandals That Rocked Country Music

Country music's biggest stars are typically on their best behavior when they take to the stage for award galas like the CMA Awards or the ACMs, singing their big hits and chatting amiably on the red carpet. Yet scenes like that don't always tell the full story. As fans have discovered over the years, their favorite Nashville entertainers sometimes go off the rails and wind up in the pages of supermarket tabloids, waist-deep in scandal while their publicists craft sincere-sounding apologies.

The nature of those scandals have run the gamut, and have occasionally become quite sensational. Take Spade Cooley. A little-remembered name these days, Cooley was once heralded as the "King of Western Swing" until he was sent to prison murdering his wife in 1961.

Granted, country music scandals in recent years have tended to be considerably less homicidal. Yet scandals there have been, and plenty of them. From the years-long backlash endured by a popular female trio to a notorious onstage meltdown that caused a rift between the Grand Ole Opry and a Nashville icon, let's discover the huge scandals that rocked country music.

Married Jason Aldean misbehaved with a former American Idol contestant

Back in 2012, country star Jason Aldean was seen getting very cozy with former American Idol contestant Brittany Kerr when TMZ obtained photos of the pair together at a patio bar on L.A.'s Sunset Strip. Aldean and Kerr, noted the outlet, appeared to be "very flirty ... hugging, touching each other," with Aldean at one point leaning in for a kiss. As TMZ pointed out, what made the photos particularly awkward was that Aldean was very much married at the time; he and his high-school sweetheart, Jessica Ussery, wed in 2001, and were also parents of two children.   

Two days later, Kerr apologized for what she termed "a lapse in judgement on my part." A few months later, People reported that Aldean had filed for divorce. In a statement to the magazine, he admitted it was "a really tough time for my entire family."

Despite the scandal, the whole thing ended happily for Aldean and Kerr when, in March 2015, they were married in a barefoot ceremony on a Mexican beach. According to Us Weekly, the wedding was officiated by Duck Dynasty star — and ordained minister — Willie Robertson.

Shania Twain's shocking spousal switcheroo

Shania Twain's personal and professional lives had been intertwined for years as she collaborated closely with husband Robert "Mutt" Lange, producer of her hit records. It all came crashing down in 2008, when People reported that Lange and Twain had separated. Rumor had it the split was sparked by his alleged affair with their personal assistant (and Twain's best friend), Marie-Anne Thiébaud.

Twain confirmed as much in her 2012 memoir, From This Moment On. When she learned the truth, Twain wrote, she was so devastated she felt "ready to die — to go to bed forever and never wake up." Seeking a shoulder to cry on, she bonded with her former friend's jilted husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, the other victim of their exes' betrayal.

The two grew close, and in 2010, Twain announced their engagement. "I'm in love!" she wrote in a message on her website (via People). "Frédéric Nicolas Thiébaud has been a true gift to me as a compassionate, understanding friend and over time, an amazing love has blossomed from this precious friendship." A few weeks later, People reported, they were married — resulting in the former couples effectively swapping partners.

Renee Zellweger accused Kenny Chesney of 'fraud' in their four-month marriage

Country singer Kenny Chesney and actress Renée Zellweger wed in 2005 after a whirlwind romance that took a lot of people by surprise. An even bigger surprise came just four months later, when the Jerry Maguire star filed to have the marriage annulled, with court documents citing "fraud" as the reason for their split. Eyebrows were raised; with neither Zellweger nor Chesney spelling out exactly what that "fraud" entailed, people jumped to a conclusion: was he gay?

Chesney set the record straight, so to speak, when he affirmed his heterosexuality in a 2007 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper. "Maybe I should have come out and said, 'No, I'm not [gay],' but I didn't want to draw any more attention to it," Chesney told Cooper. "... I didn't have to prove to anybody that I wasn't. I didn't feel like I really did. It's not true. Period."

Chesney explained that the word "fraud" was used because it was "kind of broad, whatever it is, it doesn't specify." Chesney declared, "The only fraud that was committed was me thinking ... that I really understood what it was like to be married." 

'Redneck Woman' singer Gretchen Wilson arrested after airplane ruckus

Gretchen Wilson burst onto the country music scene with her 2004 single, "Redneck Woman," but it was more than a decade later that she wound up getting into a redneck-worthy brush with the law after a 2018 American Airlines flight. According to CNN, when the plane landed, Wilson was reportedly accosted by state troopers who attempted to interview her about her alleged involvement in "an altercation" during the flight.

That didn't go well. During the conversation, the Connecticut State Police told CNN, Wilson allegedly "became belligerent towards the troopers, and caused a disturbance." She was then apparently placed under arrest.

A few months later, Wilson addressed the incident in an interview with Taste of Country. She claimed that "the things that were reported were not at all on base, and actually there was no incident on an airplane." What did occur, Wilson explained, was that "there were some words between the state police and myself, and that's where all of that came from." The country music star insisted that "all of the things that you read online were not true about that," but wouldn't say more because she'd been "instructed not to speak about it."

LeAnn Rimes' adulterous affair with actor Eddie Cibrian

LeAnn Rimes was 13 when her debut single, "Blue," hit the country charts in 1996. As an adult, she branched out into acting, and starred in a 2009 made-for-TV movie opposite actor Eddie Cibrian. Rimes and Cibrian — both married — had a torrid affair on the set, which was not well-received by Cibrian's wife, Brandi Glanville (then still a few years away from joining the The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

Cibrian dismissed reports of infidelity as "a fabricated story." Those denials stopped when he filed for divorce a few months later; Rimes likewise separated from her husband. Glanville's bitterness fueled a long-running feud, with Rimes branded a "home wrecker." She was not fond of that label. "I'm like, can someone come up with anything like more, I don't know, original?" Rimes griped in a TV interview.

Rimes and Cibrian married in 2011. The following year, she checked into a treatment facility to deal with "anxiety and stress," her rep told People. By 2013, Rimes confessed to Us Weekly that her "whole life has been out there for everyone to judge," adding, "Going away was something I really needed to do."

The Chicks shunned after damning Dubya diss

Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire, collectively known as The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), watched their career go down in flames after Texas native Maines shared her opinion of then-President George W. Bush during a 2003 concert in London. "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," she said, reported The Guardian.

While the British media barely batted an eye, back in the U.S. all hell broke loose. As Rolling Stone reported, radio stations yanked The Chicks' music from playlists — in fact, a Colorado station suspended two disc jockeys for ignoring the ban and playing their music. Meanwhile, the women received death threats. It got to the point, per Billboard, that hundreds of fans in Louisiana used a 33,000-pound tractor to destroy Chicks CDs and merchandise. Maines issued an apology/explanation, admitting her remarks were "disrespectful," but it did little to quell the backlash.

Public sentiment eventually shifted. As The New York Times noted, all seemed to be forgiven in 2007 when the group "swept all five of the Grammy categories in which it was nominated" — including album, song, and record of the year.

Johnny Cash banned from Grand Ole Opry after furious onstage rampage

When Johnny Cash passed away in 2003 at age 71, he was regarded as a trailblazing elder statesman of country music. In his younger days, however, the "Walk the Line" singer had developed quite the reputation for hell-raising — something that once barred him from Nashville's most important stage.

Cash, recalled Rolling Stone, had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for nearly a decade when he performed at the Opry's home, Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium, in 1965. This was a particularly turbulent period for Cash, who had been arrested for public drunkenness just five months earlier. Becoming annoyed with a "faulty microphone," he exploded with rage and smashed out all the footlights. This led to him being banned from performing at the Opry.

As Cash told 60 Minutes, "The night I broke all the lights on the stage with the microphone stand, they said they couldn't use me anymore. So I left and used that as an excuse to really get wild and wound up in the hospital with my third time I broke my nose." As Rolling Stone noted, Cash was eventually allowed to return to the Opry.

Charlie Rich's fiery award show diss of John Denver

During the 1970s, bespectacled singer-songwriter John Denver became a ubiquitous presence on radio, straddling the country and folk-rock genres, but certainly wasn't categorized as a traditional country singer. 

That may have been behind an infamous incident that occurred at the 1975 CMA Awards, when silver-haired Nashville star Charlie Rich presented the award for entertainer of the year (since Rich was the previous year's winner, tradition dictated he present the award to that year's honoree). In video from the ceremony, Rich is seen onstage, fumbling with the envelope as he rips it open and examines the card with theatrical disgust. He drops the paper, picks it up, and then retrieves a lighter from his pocket and, with a smirk, proceeds to set it on fire. "My friend, Mr. John Denver," he drawls, glaring at the camera while holding the burning paper aloft.

Denver is then seen, grinning widely as he accepts the award via satellite from another location; a helpful onscreen graphic points out that Denver has "no clue what just happened." That little stunt, noted History, led Rich to be permanently blacklisted from the CMAs.

Hank Williams Jr. compared Obama to Hitler

When it comes to politics, Hank Williams Jr. has made no secret of leaning heavily to the right. That was unmistakably clear when he made a 2011 appearance on Fox & Friends. Discussing Democratic President Barack Obama's then-recent golf game with Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, Williams made a derisive comparison. "Come on, come on," he sneered. "It'd be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu," referring to the infamous Nazi dictator and the then-prime minister of Israel. 

You'd better believe there was backlash. As CNN reported, ABC pulled the singer's theme song for Monday Night Football from that week's game. In addition, Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and director of the Anti-Defamation League, demanded that Williams apologize "to Holocaust survivors, their families, and the brave American soldiers who gave of themselves to fight the Nazi menace during World War II."

Williams did issue an apology, declaring he was "sorry" if his "dumb statement ... offended anyone." Admitting his "analogy was extreme," Williams pointed out that he'd "always been very passionate about politics and sports and this time it got the best or worst of me." 

Randy Travis arrested after being found naked and drunk following a car wreck

It's fair to say that 2012 was not a banner year for Randy Travis, given that he was arrested once for public drunkenness and again for allegedly driving under the influence. It was that second arrest, however, that really made headlines. As Associated Press reported (via CBC News), when state troopers arrived on the scene of his drunken crash, Travis was reportedly discovered "naked and combative" while threatening their lives.

Five years later, nearly three hours of police dash-cam footage was released, and it was wild. According to The Dallas Morning News, the nude singer initially appears to make a run for it, telling cops, "I'm as fine as damn dandy." In another part of the video, Travis reportedly tells a trooper, "I pray to God that he will have a cancerous growth that infects his bones and every part of his body." He also seemingly threatens that a trooper will be "a dead man in under 10 minutes."

Travis' failed lawsuit, attempting to block release of that footage, offered an excuse for the incident: He was "discombobulated after an extensive concert touring schedule," while a concussion he suffered during the crash "significantly affected his mental faculties."

Porter Wagoner's legal battle against singing partner Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton got her big break when established Nashville star Porter Wagoner offered her a spot on his syndicated variety show. After several years of increasing success that benefited both of them, Parton decided she wanted to spread her wings and launch a career as a solo artist. "I was trying to get away on my own because I had promised to stay with Porter's show for five years. I had been there for seven," Parton explained in an interview with CMT. "And we fought a lot. We were very much alike. We were both stubborn."

When Parton finally bolted, Wagoner responded with a $3 million lawsuit, claiming she reneged on her recording contract. According to Wagoner, the legal action was nothing personal, just business. "When you get involved in litigation with attorneys, man, they drag you down in the mud," Wagoner, who died in 2007, told UPI. "They make you look like bitter enemies. I have nothing against Dolly. I love the woman." 

The lawsuit was resolved when Parton agreed to make one final duet album with Wagoner, 1980's Porter & Dolly, recorded when Parton was at the height of her fame. 

George Jones' drunken lawn mower joyride

George Jones was as legendary for his iconic country hits as he was for his hard-drinking, tumultuous personal life. His fondness for alcohol, in fact, resulted in his 1980 DUI arrest and led him to miss so many concerts he earned the nickname "No Show Jones."

Booze also played a part in one of Jones' most infamous moments, which he recounted in his autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All. According to the singer, he'd "been drunk for several days" when his wife, Shirley, "hid the keys" for every car they owned so it would be "physically impossible" for Jones to hit the road and buy some booze. 

"But she forgot about the lawn mower," Jones wrote. "I can vaguely remember my anger at not being able to find keys to anything that moved and looking longingly out a window at a light that shone over our property. There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition." Given that the mower's "top speed was five miles per hour," it took Jones 90 minutes to make it to the liquor store, "but get there I did."

Loretta Lynn's controversial hit about birth control was banned from radio

The Oscar-winning biopic, Coal Miner's Daughter, offered a look at the life of country superstar Loretta Lynn, and anyone who's seen the film can attest that she's a force to be reckoned with, on many levels.

Married at 15 (she originally thought she was just 13 until she learned of a snafu with her birth certificate), Lynn was the mother of four children by the time she was 22, and then welcomed twins when she was in her early 30s. She channeled that life experience into what was arguably her most controversial song, 1975's "The Pill." A feminist anthem extolling the virtues of the birth control pill, the song's lyrics were downright scandalous for country music of that era. As People reported at the time, the tune was actually banned by more than 60 radio stations throughout the U.S.

However, this particular controversy wound up making the single all the more successful, reportedly selling 15,000 copies a week. At the time, Lynn dismissed criticism of the song. "If I'd had the pill back when I was havin' babies I'd have taken 'em like popcorn," she told People

Willie Nelson discovered he had a secret family

Willie Nelson has certainly had his share of controversial moments, from smoking a joint on the roof of the White House to that time the IRS seized his properties and slapped a $16.7 million lien on him for unpaid taxes.

In Nelson's 2012 autobiography, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, Nelson revealed a shocking secret: he discovered he had a family he didn't know about, thanks to the unplanned pregnancy of his "old, dear friend, Mary Haney," who never told him he was a daddy. In a quote from the book published by the Express, Nelson wrote that he'd learned she'd "had a child together called Renee." He continued, "It also turns out Renee has a daughter, Noelle, who has a daughter, ­Jordan, who I am happy to now call my great-granddaughter."

According to Nelson, his only regret about his secret family "is that we didn't find out about all these female relatives for so long. I consider them as much a part of ­Willie Nelson and Family as I do my other children." Adding that the families had been discussing spending the holidays together, Nelson marveled, "Ain't that something?"