Celebrity Lectures: Inside Vince, Randy, Wynonna and Lance

It wasn’t exactly the same as being in the stars’ living room, but it was pretty close. The Country Music Association recently debuted its Celebrity Lecture Series with two separately ticketed sessions at Nashville’s Ryman auditorium. The morning segment featured conversations with Vince Gill, Alabama’s Randy Owen and ‘N Sync heartthrob Lance Bass. It was hosted by CMT’s Katie Cook. Wynonna Judd took the spotlight in the afternoon, with Deana Carter asking the questions. To help make the event suitably intimate, the stars relaxed on sofas placed near the edge of the stage.

Before each session, ticketholders wrote down their questions for the artists. These were then given to the hosts, who also asked their own questions. Generally, the fans were asked to identify themselves when their questions were read, a device that often led to direct conversations with the artists.

Gill set a light-hearted tone for the morning by coming out and crouching behind one of the sofas when he was introduced. “I won’t answer any questions,” he told Cook. “I’m strictly a bouncer for Lance.” Owen, who sat beside Gill, was amiable but sleepy. Even though the Fan Fair crowd was country music oriented, it directed several queries to pop star Bass.

Asked to recall his most memorable experience hosting the CMA Awards show, Gill said he was naked in his dressing room, making a costume change, when someone pounded on the door and yelled, “We need you on stage right now.” Bass told the audience that “some people were a little weirded out” when ‘N Sync appeared with Alabama on the 1999 edition of the show. One fan wanted to know if Gill would revive the celebrity basketball game for charity he used to host at Nashville’s Belmont University. He said the games would probably resume — that they had been suspended only because of a building project at the school.

After thinking the question over for a moment, Owen replied that his favorite Alabama song was “My Home’s in Alabama.” Gill, who wasn’t asked, said “Mine’s ‘Old Flame.’” At Owen’s urging, Gill told his favorite Alabama story. He said he was checking into a hotel at 2 a.m. when he overheard a heated discussion among members of the house band about how they should play their version of Alabama’s hit, “Roll On.” “They were arguing,” Gill said laughing, “over how many times ‘roll on’ should be repeated at the end of the song.”

“Is a song ever finished?” a fan wanted to know. Gill said he thought a song got better by repeated performances. “When you make a record,” he explained, “you haven’t known the song very long.” Owen seemed momentarily confused when asked who his biggest musical influence was. As he struggled for an answer, Gill patiently translated the question for him. “Who … did … you … like … when you were young?” he said ever so slowly. “That’s why he hosts the CMA Awards,” Owen said with a grin. Finally, he answered, quite firmly, that Merle Haggard was his main role model. Owen explained that he wasn’t hearing the questions all that clearly because he’d been singing “in front of the world’s loudest drummer for 30 years.”

“Will you marry my sister?” a girl shouted at Bass. “Is your sister here?” he inquired. Gill was at a loss when a member of the audience asked him for the date he would be playing a certain venue in her area. “I don’t know,” he said flatly. “I live in the moment. I’m not much of a planner. I just ask, ‘When is the bus leaving and which way is it headed?’ so I can plan what Waffle House to stop at.” Owen told a questioner that Alabama will be playing some of its lesser known material during its farewell tour this year, including the wistful “Katy Brought My Guitar Back Today.” He began singing, “Katy brought my guitar back today/I left it there to play when I stayed over.” “That’s the part that disturbs some people,” he said.

Gill said that “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which honors his late brother, was his favorite among the songs he’s written. But he noted that it was one of his least successful singles. [It peaked at No. 14.] “I fought so hard to beg radio to play that song,” he said. “My biggest hope is that it might find its way into a hymnal someday.” Bass assured a questioner that he is on good terms with the other members of ‘N Sync and sees them all frequently. He said the group will have a new album out early next year. Owen observed the best part of being on the road was “playing” and that the worst was “bad food and soft pillows.”

Turning to the importance of fans and Fan Fair to country music, Gill maintained that, even in this age of conglomerate-dominated radio, “the voice of the single person still matters, still carries weight.” He said he had a long affection for Fan Fair, recalling that when he was on the same label as Alabama and just getting started in his country music career, he would stand in the group’s booth and hand out souvenirs for them. “There’s one guy,” he continued, “who comes to Fan Fair every year and gives me a cigar. I don’t smoke. But I look forward to seeing him.”

Owen said he plans to stay in Fort Payne, Ala. — which he called “one of the most beautiful places in the world” — after his group quits touring. But he added that he and his wife might also buy a place on Pawleys Island or in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Gill drew cheers from the crowd when, in response to a question, he explained that he put 17 songs on his new album because he thought it was wrong that prices of CDs keep increasing while the number of songs remains the same. When a fan asked if he knew when Oklahoma — his home territory — became a state, Gill not only answered that question correctly — 1907 — but proceeded to give brief history lesson on why Oklahomans are called “Sooners.”

To round out the session, Cook asked each star what other performer — dead or alive — he would most liked to have collaborated with. “That’s easy,” said Owen, “Elvis Presley.” Gill picked Chet Atkins, and Bass opted for Michael Jackson “as he was in the ‘80s.”

The first part of the afternoon session saw Carter chatting with soap opera stars Peter Reckell and Alison Sweeney (Days Of Our Lives) and Lindsay Korman (Passions). Then came Wynonna. She made her entrance by walking along the stage and touching the outstretched hands. Moving back to the sofa, she beckoned Carter to sit beside her. “Come over here,” she ordered. “I’m starstruck,” said Carter, who meekly did as commanded. “What was your favorite soap opera?” she asked Judd by way of an opener. “As Naomi Judd Turns,” Judd quipped, her first of many affectionate digs at her mother. Judd’s humor, which she made no effort to keep under rein, was mostly self-effacing. Alluding to her current single, “What the World Needs,” she remarked, “Every time I hear it, I get kind of perky. Of course, it’s just three and a half minutes. The rest of the time I’m mean and bitter.”

Judd and Carter agreed that it is contact with their fans that keeps them going. “That’s food to me,” Carter declared. “You need a little more food,” said Judd. “Try Krispy Kreme.” As turbulent as their relationship has been, Judd says she misses working with her mom. “She was in the [recording] studio [with me] the other day, and I cried all the time.” Judd said she’s departed from rhythm and blues for her upcoming album and returned to a more “Appalachian sound.”

Recalling one of her first Fan Fairs as a star, Judd said she and her mother were at their booth when a man came up, took off his prosthetic leg and plumped it on the counter for her to autograph. “I signed it ‘Happy Trails,’” she said. “I was licked one time,” Carter confessed. “He licked all the way up my arm. I couldn’t get away from him. And his wife was videotaping.” “I would have licked him back,” Judd said. She noted that her worst experience on the road occurred when she was in Denver with Clint Black on their Black & Wy tour. She opened the show. When she noticed a man in the audience bidding for her attention, she invited him to join her on stage, aiming to put him in his place. “He started doing this horny man dance,” Judd continued. Then he did a split — and so did his pants. “He wasn’t wearing underwear — it was just Big Jim and the twins.” “Did he freak out?” asked Carter. “No,” said Judd, “he just dangled. I’ll always remember Denver.”

Judd told her audience that she and her movie-star sister Ashley are the best of friends. “I helped raise Ashley. I feel like I own her. If I’d known she was going to be this famous, I would have been nicer to her.”

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