HOT TALK: Billy Waxes Poetic, Patsy on Hold

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

Billy Gilman Returns With Album Based on Heartsongs Poems
14-year-old Billy Gilman ’s next album will be made up of songs created from the bestselling Heartsongs poems of 12-year-old Mattie Stepanek. Stepanek, who suffers from mitochondrial myopathy, has become a high-profile spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through his books and public appearances. Scheduled to be out this spring, but still untitled, Gilman’s album is being produced by David Malloy. Some of Nashville’s top songwriters, including Malloy, Bruce Roberts and James Slater, were brought in to transform Stepanek’s verses into songs.

Getting In A Grammy Mood
Beautiful food. Delicious people. Hugging of epidemic proportions. It was all there at last week’s party for the Nashville-based Grammy nominees. Among those squinting into the TV cameras and noshing at the elegant buffet (sometimes simultaneously) were Brad Paisley , Ira Dean of Trick Pony , Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band , Riders in the Sky , Matraca Berg, Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys , singer/songwriter/actor Jim Lauderdale , bluegrass yeoman Roland White, polka queen Lynnmarie and all the bright young members of Bering Strait. The soiree was held, as usual, at Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel with the John Birdsong jazz trio providing the music. And the winner was: the baked Brie.

Republicans Vote for Lee Ann Womack
Lee Ann Womack dazzled the bigwigs at the recent Republican Party leadership conference in West Virginia. The most touching moment of her four-song set came when she sang “If I Had Only Known” as a tribute to the crew of the Columbia space shuttle. “It was an instant standing ovation,” reports producer and Universal South Records co-chairman Tony Brown, who played piano for the occasion. Womack didn’t know of the song, Brown says, until he suggested it to her. The Craig Morris-Jana Stanfield song came from Reba McEntire ’s 1991 album, For My Broken Heart, which Brown co-produced, and was included in that album as a memorial to members of McEntire’s band killed in a plane crash. At the end of Womack’s set, the crowd roared for more. She complied by graciously yielding the spotlight to Bering Strait member Ilya Toshinsky, who wrapped up the show with a blazing guitar romp through Albert Lee’s “Country Boy.”

Hal Ketchum Readies New Album
After a recording lull of nearly two years, Hal Ketchum returns March 25 with The King of Love, his eighth album for Curb Records. In a departure from custom, Ketchum produced the new album himself and wrote or co-wrote 14 of the 15 songs. Tim O’Brien (of Hot Rize fame) and Jonell Mosser provide his backing vocals, and Guy Clark duets with him on one selection. The singer says he’s been busy writing, touring and painting since working his last album. A dozen of his paintings are now on display at the Amado Pena Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M.

Charlie Daniels: Long-Haired Polka Boy
Ever the musical ambassador, Charlie Daniels recently recorded two tunes for polka king Jimmy Sturr’s next album. His contributions are “I’m Walkin’ Polka” and “Night Train to Memphis Polka.”

Since You Asked: Black, McCready Still Looking
Clint Black and Mindy McCready are still searching for record deals — separately, of course — according to their management companies. A spokesman for Black’s manager says the artist is “in discussion with a few labels but hasn’t signed anything yet.” Black is scheduled to play several dates this year and will produce the album for the winner of a national talent contest. That album will be on Columbia Records. McCready’s manager says he has no activity to report on her. She continues to be available for bookings.

Disinclined: Patsy Package on MCA’s Back Burner
Once again, MCA Records has pushed back the release date of its Patsy Cline tribute, Remembering Patsy. Originally set for release last fall and then moved to this spring, it now appears that the collection won’t be out until this fall or even later. MCA has given no reason for the delay, but it may have something to do with the fact that the project is a holdover from the previous administration and, thus, not an urgency for the present one. Whenever the project surfaces, it should sparkle, with Cline covers by Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Martina McBride , Norah Jones, K.D. Lang , Amy Grant, Patty Griffin and others.

Ex-Publicist Writing Book on Bull Pen Lounge
Last week, I mentioned Linda Fricks’ history and cookbook about the Stock-Yard Restaurant. Now comes the news that retired music biz publicist Mike Hyland is writing a history of the Bull Pen Lounge, the Stock-Yard’s downstairs bar and showroom. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Bull Pen was a primo party spot for people in the entertainment industry. It attracted not just country artists but movie and sports stars as well. Hyland is collecting quotes, reminiscences and anecdotes from those who frequented the lounge and will combine them with the pictures he’s amassed.

Going First Class: Hanging on the Walls of Fame
It’s not exactly the Country Music Hall of Fame, but it’s a start. Several post offices in Nashville now display autographed photos of the stars who buy their stamps and mail their packages there. In the Green Hills station, the wall behind the counter boasts inscribed pictures from Dolly Parton , Amy Grant, Ricky Skaggs , Brooks & Dunn , Emmylou Harris , Kathy Mattea , Sonny James and dozens of lesser lights. There’s an even more impressive showing at the Acklen Station outpost in Hillsboro Village, just a few steps from the famed Pancake Pantry where Garth Brooks sometimes holds court. Here photos, new and faded, cover two walls. There’s a very perky and big-haired Reba McEntire, from her early MCA days, and a fresh-faced Faith Hill beaming, “God bless you.” Surrounding them are the visages of Tracy Lawrence , Jo-El Sonnier, Ray Stevens , Billy Dean , Stonewall Jackson , Chet Atkins , Trace Adkins and some whose fame appears to have peaked pretty much at this level. “Thanks & God bless,” Brooks says on his black & white 8 x 10. Writes Tanya Tucker on her mug shot, “I finally made it on the post office wall.”

Here’s to Me: A Torrent of Tributes
Another day, another tribute album. Or so it seems. What was once a delightful jogging of our musical memories has degenerated into an occasion for sarcasm and eye-rolling, even when the tribute is heartfelt. At last count, Amazon.com listed 1,375 tribute titles, a great many of them country. Believe it or not, there are albums either out or on the way that salute LeAnn Rimes and the Dixie Chicks . Honest. We’re running out of performers to piggyback on. What happens when there are no big names left? Will we then move on to a lower but still salable tier of regard? Perhaps something like A Curt Nod to Dave & Sugar or Vaguely Remembered: The Music of the Chipmunks. Or we may just slice and dice the albums we already have into an endless anthology series. We could call it Wring Out: The Very Best of the Country Tribute Tracks.

Keep smiling, keep in touch and keep a civil tongue in your head. I’m always on call at HotTalk@cmt.com.