HOT TALK: Cook Out, Hanson for Lunch

(HOT TALK is a weekly column by longtime contributing writer and former Billboard country music editor Edward Morris.)

Elizabeth Cook Leaves Label
Warner Bros. Records confirms that country traditionalist Elizabeth Cook is no longer on the label. A favorite with music critics and a frequent guest performer on the Grand Ole Opry, Cook has thus far been unable to ignite a larger audience. Her first single, “Stupid Things,” failed to chart, and her debut album, Hey Y’All, Nielsen Soundscan reports, has sold only 3,800 copies since being released in August. First signed to Atlantic Records, Cook was moved to Warner Bros. following the closure of Atlantic’s Nashville division. Bill Mayne, Cook’s manager, says the parting from Warner Bros. was amicable and made at Cook’s request.

Toby Keith Sideman Ready to Record on His Own
Scott Emerick, Toby Keith ’s bandana-wearing guitarist and co-writer, has signed to DreamWorks Records. He’ll start recording his first solo album this month with Keith and DreamWorks chief James Stroud serving as his producers. Among Emerick’s co-penned hits: Sawyer Brown ’s “I Don’t Believe in Goodbye” and Keith’s “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight.”

Jennifer Hanson Says A Beautiful Hello
Last week, Capitol Records treated music reporters to a free lunch and a close look at its bright new hope, Jennifer Hanson. She may well fill the gap left at the label a few months back when Cyndi Thomson decided she was through with recording. While the two singer-songwriters are worlds apart in musical subject matter and style, Hanson, like Thomson, is strikingly attractive and engagingly self-possessed. Here’s hoping she likes the work better.

Accompanied on guitars and vocals by her husband, Mark Nesler , and A. J. Masters, Hanson performed three songs for the gathering, including her first single, “Beautiful Goodbye.” Then she beckoned the crowd into the control room of the recording studio where the luncheon was being held to listen to three more cuts from the actual album. Live or recorded, Hanson’s music makes gold of the annoying, disappointing and heartbreaking experiences most of us turn to lead. Instead of declaiming, it permits us to listen in.

Besides co-writing nine of its songs, Hanson, a studio novice, co-produced the self-titled album with fellow first-timer Greg Droman. Although he is exultant about the results, Capitol president Mike Dungan admitted that he and other record company execs are reluctant these days to yield so much artistic control to an untested act. “The costs are so high,” he said, “that it’s taken the gunslinger out of us.” Sounds like he won this showdown.

Marty Stuart Signs With Sony
Marty Stuart has joined the Sony Music camp but has yet to be assigned to a specific Sony label. The move puts him in the same stable as his one-time recording and touring buddy, Travis Tritt . Their 1991 duet, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” scored a No. 2 and helped fuel their successful No Hats tour the following year. Stuart produced all but two tracks on the recent Sony/Columbia album, Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs Of Johnny Cash.

Southern Pacific Ponders Comeback
Southern Pacific, one of country music’s high profile bands from the late ‘80s, may be going back into business. It is reportedly scouting out potential new members. Between 1985 and 1990, the group charted 14 singles, including the Top 5’s “New Shade of Blue,” “Honey I Dare You” and “Any Way the Wind Blows” (from the Clint Eastwood-Bernadette Peters flick, Pink Cadillac). The core band members were John McFee and Keith Knudsen (both formerly of the Doobie Brothers), Stu Cook (Creedence Clearwater Revival) and Kurt Howell. Jim Ed Norman, head of Warner Bros. Records, the band’s original label, confirms that there’s something in the wind. In an e-mail to Hot Talk, Norman says, “Recently, John McFee was in town. John, Kurt Howell and I got together for a visit. Whenever two or more of the SoPac crowd are gathered together, there is Southern Pacific also [Norman is a preacher’s son] and always talk of a reunion. . . . While I’m unable to offer names of band members, and while there are no scheduled singles or album, I will offer that the conversation was more lively than usual and that the energy and optimism for some sort of reunited aggregation was high.” I think this means they’re coming back.

Jeannie Kendall at Folk Conference, Grand Ole Opry
Jeannie Kendall, surviving half of the Grammy-winning duo, the Kendalls , will preview songs from her upcoming Rounder Records album during the Folk Alliance conference in Nashville, Feb. 6-9. She will sing on the Rounder showcase Feb. 6 and on the Keith Case & Associates’ showcase Feb. 8. Neither event is open to the public. However, Kendall will also make an appearance on the Friday night Grand Ole Opry Feb. 7. Kendall sang with her father, Royce, from 1969 until his death in 1998. Their biggest hit came in 1976 with the Grammy-winning “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away.” It topped the country charts for four weeks. The new album, Jeannie Kendall, is due out Feb. 25. It contains two tracks with her father, plus songs with Alan Jackson , Ricky Skaggs , Rhonda Vincent , Alison Krauss & Union Station, Allison Moorer and Mountain Heart’s Steve Gulley. Jackson duets with Kendall on “Timeless and True Love,” a 1988 hit for the McCarters .

A Toast to the Best Country Album Ever
Because my preferences don’t generally cluster in clumps of that exact size, I’ve resisted doing any Top 10 lists of last year’s best songs and albums. But this is as good a time as any for me to rhapsodize about the best country album ever made. While we’re waiting for the drum roll to subside, I’ll tell you that the album was recorded by a woman, contained not a single upbeat song and dealt with such weepy topics as separation, abandonment, murder, missed chances, neglect, emotional estrangement and mercy killing. No, silly, I’m not talking about LeAnn Rimes Sings the Old Testament. The masterpiece I speak of is Reba McEntire ’s For My Broken Heart.

The album was recorded in 1991, not long after McEntire lost almost all her band members in a plane crash. “It seems your current emotional status determines what music you’d like to hear,” the bereaved singer wrote in her liner notes. “That’s what happened on the song selection for this album.” Since McEntire was co-producing the project with Tony Brown, she was able to indulge her most somber feelings. But you don’t have to know any of this background to be swept up in the grief and suffering that permeates each song. Four of the 10 selections became hits and need not be revisited here. They are the title cut, “Is There Life Out There,” “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and “The Greatest Man I Never Knew.”

All the other songs are just as moving. “He’s in Dallas” takes us into the mind of a betrayed, frightened and ashamed young woman who’s riding the Greyhound home with her fatherless baby. “All Dressed Up (With Nowhere To Go)” seats us beside an old lady in a nursing home who dresses in her Sunday best and waits all day for the family that never comes. “Buying Her Roses” is the anguished lament of a wife who did everything for job and family — but not enough for her husband. “I Wouldn’t Go That Far” is a woman’s quietly bitter denunciation of the caution that kept her true love at arm’s length — and ultimately shoved him away. “Bobby,” which McEntire co-wrote with Don Schlitz, is the story of a man imprisoned for killing his suffering wife and repudiated by a son who’s too young to recognize the love behind the deed. “If I Had Only Known” closes the album with that universal cry against the finality of time and our blindness to the joys around us. The songs are unguardedly sentimental, a risk only country music is still willing to take in our ironic age.

McEntire is at her dramatic peak in For My Broken Heart, giving each wise lyric the precise emotional shading it deserves. Merle Haggard never probed deeper, and Hank Williams never sang sadder. This is perfection.

My eyes, ears and lines are open. E-mail your news and views to

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to