HOT TALK: Rhonda’s Cleavage, Eddy’s Exhibit and That Old Devil Radio

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

Rhonda Vincent: Too Hot for Bluegrass?
Is Rhonda Vincent too hot for bluegrass? Recent publicity photos of the 40-year-old diva (who turns 41 in July) have shown glimpses of her navel and adjacent regions. So it was only natural that Vincent’s friskier image would come up during a panel discussion titled “Country Music and Gender” at the recent International Country Music Conference in Nashville. “You don’t show cleavage in bluegrass,” asserted panelist Murphy Henry, a banjo player and magazine columnist who’s now writing a book on women in bluegrass for the University of Illinois Press. Henry seemed more perplexed than outraged by Vincent’s bountiful display of skin.

Writer and college prof Beverly Keel said the thrust in country music is for women singers who are as trim and glamorous as models. Citing Shania Twain and Faith Hill as examples, Keel wondered, “Will middle class working women relate to these glamour figures?” She noted that “there’s already pressure on Jamie O’Neal to lose weight from a baby she hasn’t had yet.” Keel said that men in country music aren’t subjected to the same standards of physical perfection women are. “Giving these women those extra hoops to jump through, what will it do to their music?” she asked.

Lisa Brokop Readies Another Album
Canadian songstress Lisa Brokop recorded some truly impressive music for Patriot/Capitol Records during the mid-1990s, but she never quite caught on at radio. And she fared no better during her brief tenure later on at Columbia. Happily, though, for those of us who cherished such gems as “One of Those Nights,” “She Can’t Save Him” and “How Do I Let Go,” Brokop is having another go at it. This time she’s on Curb Records. Her producer for the new collection is songwriter Kim Patton-Johnston (“Elisabeth,” “Beautiful Goodbye”) who tells Hot Talk, “We are working toward a single in August or September and have recorded about half the album.” Guest artists on the project will include the wildly talented Jim Lauderdale, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and, teases Patton-Johnston, “a couple of more surprises.”

Welcome to His World: Eddy Arnold Exhibit Opens
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum unveiled its Eddy Arnold exhibit Thursday night (June 5) to a select group of Music Row insiders. The genial Arnold and his wife, Sally, were there for the opening, as were such notables as Jimmy Dean, Phil Everly, Merle Kilgore, Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Cindy Walker and two former governors of Tennessee. Walker, who co-wrote “You Don’t Know Me” with Arnold, told the celebrants a story about the star’s mischievous streak. She said that Arnold was mowing his lawn one day when a lady came by and mistook him for a handyman. “Oh, hello there,” said the woman. “I just moved to town, and I have a lawn about this size. How much would you charge to mow it?” Arnold paused for a moment, Walker recounted, and then replied, “Well, the lady here lets me sleep with her.”

“Most of the time, people tell stories on you that aren’t true,” said Arnold, when it came his time to speak. “That one is.” Choking back tears, he continued, “I want you to know that I’ve had a good life. I hate to say it, but it’s coming to the end. I’m now 85, and I stay home all the time. I go to my office. I answer the mail — I still get mail from all over the world. … It’s nice of all of you to come here and honor me. … All of you are here to see my relics, all of the things I’ve collected over 60 years. There’s nothing great about it. It was just attached to me.”

Arnold’s story about the difficulty of getting his first record deal sounded amazingly contemporary. He said he auditioned for several labels and all of them turned him down, including Columbia, the one he aspired to most. It had a full roster to promote and, thus, no room for a newcomer. Finally, a Chicago music publisher recommended the young singer to Victor Records in New York. “It wasn’t RCA Victor,” Arnold emphasized. ‘It was Victor.” It would become RCA Victor later on, however, and Arnold would stay with the label virtually for the rest of his career. Before he could make his first record, he said, “The musicians went on strike and stayed on strike for about a year and a half. I thought my life had passed me by.” Years later, after Arnold had established himself as a bestselling recording artist, the head of Columbia Records invited him to lunch. “He said, ‘I did you a favor one time,’” Arnold recalled. “I asked him what it was, and he said, ‘I didn’t sign you.’”

Following Arnold’s remarks in the Hall of Fame rotunda, the crowd moved to the exhibit area for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The exhibit, “I’ll Hold You In My Heart: The Eddy Arnold Collection,” is now open to the public.

Dolly, Satchmo & Tricky Dick
Here are more of the tidbits I gleaned from the International Country Music Conference:

Jocelyn Neal, of the University of North Carolina, spoke on how Dolly Parton has “invented and reinvented” herself to triumph in the male-dominated country music world. “Her musical identity has been as calculated as her physical image,” Neal argued. She cited Parton’s 1970 recording of “Mule Skinner Blues” as an example of how the singer carefully chose material that would set her apart from other women artists. Although Parton had scored several Top 10s up to that time via her duets with Porter Wagoner, she had not been nearly as successful with her solo singles. In fact, none of them had risen above the No. 17 spot on the charts. But her “Mule Skinner Blues,” the old Jimmie Rodgers tune usually recorded by men, went all the way to No. 3 and paved the way for a long string of solo hits. Neal pointed out that there were three reasons the song worked so well for Parton: its rhythm emphasized her distinctive interpretation of the lyrics; it identified her with a song that was already well-known; and its yodel parts enabled Parton — and not her musicians — to determine how the song would unfold. Moreover, Neal added, it cast her in a male-associated role, even though she rewrote the lyrics to present herself as a “lady muleskinner.” Turning to Parton’s latest incarnation as a bluegrass singer, Neal said, “The bluegrass is secondary to her assumption of the traditional male singer role.”

Most of us know Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong as a great trumpet player and the singer of “Hello, Dolly.” But he had a strong country music connection as well. Charles K. Wolfe, of Middle Tennessee State University, related that Armstrong had played uncredited on a Jimmie Rodgers record in 1929, had recorded Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” in 1950 and, in 1970, the year before his death, had cut an entire album of country songs, a package titled simply Country & Western. It was Armstrong’s last album, and so little was made of it that few of his discographies even list it. Wolfe said Armstrong had come to Nashville at the time of the recording to appear on Johnny Cash’s ABC-TV series, which was broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium. Among the songs Armstrong cut for the album are “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Wolverton Mountain,” “Running Bear,” “Almost Persuaded,” “Miller’s Cave,” “Crazy Arms,” “Crystal Chandeliers” and a novelty tune, “Why Did Mrs. Murphy Leave Town.” “This album sank like a stone,” Wolfe reported.

Ronnie Pugh, Ernest Tubb’s biographer and a former reference librarian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, regaled conference-goers with an account of country songs written about President Richard Nixon and the “Watergate” scandal that forced him to resign. Most of the songs never made it to the charts — although Tom T. Hall’s “The Monkey That Became President” and Watergate Blues did. Maybe their titles will explain why these songs never earned a place in our memories: “Ike and Dick and Nick” (Nick was Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev), “Say it Again, Spiro” and “Spiro, Spiro, Our Hero” (both about Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s media-hating and ultimately disgraced vice president), “Senator Sam” (about Watergate investigator Senator Sam Ervin), “Henry’s Flying Overseas Again” (about Nixon’s globe-trotting Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger) and “He Played a Yo Yo In Nashville” (about Nixon’s 1974 visit to the Grand Ole Opry). Ah, those were the days.

Don Cusic, of Belmont University, and Jimmie N. Rogers, from the University of Arkansas, both lambasted Clear Channel Communications — the voracious 1,200-station radio chain — for exerting a stranglehold on country music. Cusic noted that it is radio, with all its demands and strictures, that fans should blame for country music’s blandness — not the Nashville record labels that have no choice but to play radio’s game. Rogers ridiculed the radio-inspired trashing of the Dixie Chicks, particularly by the Cumulus Broadcasting chain. “The three young ladies won a battle they did not start,” he said. “They refused to run home and hide in bunkers. They made the decision to fight back. Perhaps they intuitively realized that the opposition was weak and not very bright.”

Hate me, revile me and scandalize my name. But don’t pout. I’m waiting here at Hottalk@cmt.com.