HOT TALK: Shelton Has Last Laugh, Wariner Gets Chills, Brooks Sings Along

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

For Blake Shelton, Charting Well Is the Best Revenge
Everybody loves you when you’ve got a hit — even if they didn’t make the road to getting one any easier. In 2001, Blake Shelton was one of several Warner Bros. Record acts that showcased at the Ryman Auditorium for people attending the Country Radio Seminar. As he sang his heart out in a brief set that included his soon-to-be breakthrough, “Austin,” the visiting disc jockeys and programmers milled rudely at the back of the hall and in the aisles, talked loudly among themselves and generally made it impossible for those really interested in music to hear what was going on. Fast forward to last Wednesday (Feb. 19) and the CRS cocktail party at the Nashville Convention Center: Shelton stood unmoving at the back of the room as waves of radio people washed up at his feet and asked him to pose with them for pictures. And, you know what, with Shelton’s “The Baby” nestled at No. 1, they seemed to be hanging on every word he said. One can only hope he savored the moment for all the wrong reasons.

Garth Brooks Perches With Royal Wade Kimes for “Night Birds”
Starved for Garth ? Well, there’s a single out now that features Da Man in a duet with Royal Wade Kimes. The song, “Night Birds,” is from Kimes’ album, Dyin’ Breed, released last September on Wonderment Records. Die-hard Garthophiles will remember that Kimes and Brooks co-wrote the raucous “We Bury the Hatchet,” which appeared on Brooks’ third album, Ropin’ the Wind. Kimes tells Hot Talk that their contact was renewed when Brooks called to congratulate him after his Hangin’ Around the Moon won the Will Rogers Award for best western music album from the Academy of Western Artists in 2000. “I told him I wanted to ask him something,” Kimes recalls, “and before I could get the words out, he said, ‘You want me to sing on your record.” That’s exactly what Kimes wanted. “He said, ‘Call me when you’re ready, and I’ll be there in two hours.’” Brooks was as good as his word, swinging in to Nashville’s Tone Chaparral studio as requested to lend both his voice and imprimatur to the project. “He said,” Kimes continues, “’I haven’t heard a song like that in 30 years. This is a cowboy Van Morrison.’”

Recording With Kenny Rogers “Chills” Steve Wariner
Think stars don’t get starstruck? Think again. Steve Wariner tells Hot Talk he pitched a song to Kenny Rogers , and Rogers not only liked the song but also asked him to record it with him. “I was standing there with cold chills,” Wariner says, “thinking, ‘Holy cow! This is Kenny Rogers!’” The song is “I’m Missing You” and is in the running for Rogers’ next album. “I actually wrote it for the We Were Soldiers movie,” Wariner explains, “but it wasn’t one they used.” (Think stars don’t get turned down?) A spokeswoman for Rogers’ label, Dreamcatcher Records, says the album isn’t far enough along yet to decide which of the songs Rogers is recording will make the final cut. But she does note that Rogers has also recorded a duet with Tim McGraw .

They Miss “Billy the Kid”
Although he hasn’t had any music of his own out in ages, handsome Billy Dean can still draw a crowd. With his guitar slung across his back, he was stopped time and again — usually by female admirers — as he edged his way toward the exit after an appearance at the just-concluded Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. The good news is that Dean is now recording an album for H2E Records with producer Chuck Howard. Dean made his first chart appearance in 1990 with “Only Here for a Little While” and followed it with such memorables as “Somewhere in My Broken Heart,” “Only the Wind” and “Billy the Kid.”

Party Mix: The New, the Old & the “Say What?
Blake Shelton’s wasn’t the only familiar face (see above) swimming through the haze at the Country Radio Seminar cocktail party. Several Grand Ole Opry stars stopped by to schmooze, including Jim Ed Brown , Jimmy C. Newman , Billy Walker , Charlie Louvin and Jack Greene . Joe Nichols created a buzz. Also working the room was the group Wild Horses, which was promoting its new album, Frontier Free For All. Taking it all in from the corner of the room was Dr. Charles “Max” E. Million, a newcomer to CRS. He was there, he said, to scout out prospects for a country band he manages. “You’re going to be hearing from them,” he promised. And what might their name be, I asked. “They’re called the Well Hungarians,” he said, with a face not altogether straight. But to prove he wasn’t in the throes of whimsy, he whipped out a three-song demo of their work. And there was the name, big as life. When I listened to the demo later, it sounded pretty good. “I guess you could say I’m the Well Hung manager,” Dr. “Max” E. Million plowed on. And I guess I should have summoned security when he handed me his card.

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?
The cost of making music is going up. A lot. And so is the cost of getting it out to listeners. That’s what a panel of industry insiders told registrants of the Country Radio Seminar Thursday (Feb. 20). According to DreamWorks Records chief James Stroud, the price of recording a country album has escalated from around $140,000 in 1994 to up to $350,000 to $600,000 today. He said he’d produced the first album for Clint Black (in 1989) for around $55,000, while his last album for Black weighed in at $900,000. Larry Pareigis, vice president of national promotion for Sony, estimated it costs his label $1 million to take an artist from signing through the first single. It can, he added, cost $35,000 to $100,000 to buy an album prominent placement in record stores and record sections of mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart for as short a period as a month.

Promoting a single into the Top 30 on the charts can cost another $300,000, he said. Although no names or stations were mentioned, members of the panel and host Lon Helton, of Radio & Records, clearly hinted that “pay-for-play” is a large expense to the record labels. Some programmers demand “gifts,” such as computers, office furniture and possibly even expense-paid honeymoons in return for playing particular records. Pareigis estimated that as many as 15 percent to 20 percent of programmers make special demands. Helton hinted that there are programmers who own merchandise companies and use their leverage to nudge artists and record companies to buy from them.

Out of Prison and Looking Good: Remembering Johnny Paycheck
Not long after Johnny Paycheck was released from prison in 1991, George Jones held a reception for him at his house and invited a few of us reporters to attend. Among the two dozen or so guests were Waylon Jennings , Tom T. Hall and David Allan Coe (who wrote Paycheck’s eternal “Take This Job and Shove It”). “I learned that [prison’s] a terrible place to go to,” Paycheck told his well-wishers, “but it can sure get your priorities straight.” He said he’d used the time behind bars to complete high school and wean himself from cigarettes. To those who had seen him on the skids, Paycheck looked pretty good. There was plenty of color in his face, and he had developed a slight but well-fed paunch. No, he hadn’t tried to play the celebrity while inside. “I didn’t try to be anything but an inmate,” said the singer, who had served nearly two years for shooting a man in an Ohio bar. Still, his name carried weight. “I signed more autographs in there,” he admitted, “than I did out here for a while.”

Paycheck had all the sparkle that long-ago winter morning of a man reborn. In the brief time he’d been out, he’d already formed a band, found a booking agent and recorded a song with Jones called “The Last Outlaw Is Alive and Doing Well.” The song was never released, but the old outlaw did, indeed, do well for a while. He toured, joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1997 and savored the adulation his years of hits had earned. But hard-living finally nailed him. After a long period of hospitalization for emphysema and other ailments, Paycheck cashed out Feb. 19. Facing his friends and the press that day in 1991, Paycheck neither apologized for his transgressions nor whined about his fate. “I have to start over from the bottom,” he said, without a hint of despair or self-pity, “and that’s fine with me.” Whether it was dealing with a bad job, a bad woman or bad choices, life at the bottom was what he knew best.

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