HOT TALK: Randy Travis, Johnny Lee Return

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

Randy Revels in Crossover Hit
Still trim, muscular and intense, Randy Travis made a brief stop at the BMI offices in Nashville Wednesday (July 16) to congratulate Doug Johnson and Kim Williams, the writers of his comeback hit, “Three Wooden Crosses.” It is the first song recorded specifically for a Christian music label to achieve No. 1 status on the country charts. The revels were only five minutes from their scheduled conclusion when Travis arrived with his wife and manager, Lib Hatcher-Travis. He wore a black suit, yellow T-shirt and black running shoes. She was decked out in artfully ripped jeans, boots and a white, translucent blouse.

C. Paul Corbin, BMI’s vice president of writer-publisher relations, greeted the couple with the gift of a chocolate pie. He explained to the guests that this was a tradition that started [in 1991] when he and Travis shared this delicacy during a Montana cattle drive that was being filmed as a special for The Nashville Network. “Every time after that,” Corbin said, “a chocolate pie would show up.” “It won’t be wasted,” Travis vowed.
After thanking the songwriters, the singer praised his producer of 17 years, Kyle Lehning. “I can’t imagine [recording] with anyone else,” he said. “I don’t want to, for that matter.”

Before Travis arrived, BMI handed out awards to Johnson, his publisher (Mike Curb Music) and Lehning. There was even the gift of a pen and notebook for Williams, who’s affiliated with BMI’s competitor, ASCAP. It was accompanied by the suggestion that he co-write more hits with BMI songwriters. “Three Wooden Crosses” begins with the line, “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher/Ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.” Williams related that Johnson had already written the first verse when he asked him what he thought of it. “I said I don’t know, but I’ve got to know where they’re going,” he explained. “All we did was get on the bus with them.” Once the song was completed, soon-to-be star Joe Nichols sang the demo for it. Singer Michael Peterson had just finished recording an album when he heard the song. He liked it so much he wanted to add it to his album, but his label nixed it. So he took it to Lehning, who ultimately placed it with Travis.

“He’s like a new kid to be around,” Lehning said of Travis. “He’s really invigorated. It’s sort of like ‘Forever and Ever, Amen’ [which won the 1987 CMA single of the year award]. It’s unusual to have one career record, much less a second one.”

Travis Will Return to Country
Despite his recent tilt toward gospel music, Randy Travis hasn’t abandoned country. Kyle Lehning, his producer, says Travis will soon begin recording a “back to the bars” kind of album, which may be out by the middle of next year. They’ve not settled on a label yet, but it will probably be one within the Warner Bros. family, where Travis got his start and under whose corporate umbrella he now labors. On Nov. 11, Word Records, Travis’s current label, will release two projects on him. One will be an album — as yet untitled — of traditional gospel songs and newer praise and worship music. The other will be a DVD of his July 15 concert in Orlando, Fla., where Travis performed the songs from this album.

Faithful Fans Line Up for Johnny Lee
I think I’ve discovered where all the old urban cowboys and cowgirls have gone. They’ve been at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, sucking back Buds, chain-smoking Winstons and waiting for the second coming of Johnny Lee. Well, the wait is over. Lee was at the fabled Nashville honky-tonk this past Sunday (July 13) to celebrate the release of his double-album, The Thirteenth of July.

Fans — most of them middle-aged or older — lined up by the dozens to greet the singer, chat for a moment and pose with him for snapshots. It took nearly an hour for everyone to get a turn. Except for being a bit beefier, Lee doesn’t appear to have changed much since those glory days of the early 1980s, when he topped the charts with “Lookin’ For Love,” “One in a Million,” “Bet Your Heart on Me,” “The Yellow Rose” (with Lane Brody) and “You Could Have Heard a Heart Break.” He wore the familiar white cowboy hat, jeans, a brown shirt with the tail out, a yellow rose on his lapel, a medallion on a gold chain around his neck — and loafers. Looking serene, he held court at a tall table in the back room at Tootsie’s, a thick stack of publicity photos at his elbow.

Lee didn’t perform, but his new album played throughout the party. Half the album is devoted to his hits and half to new material. The title song, written by Music Row veteran Even Stevens, tells the story of a blind date that turns into lasting love. Stevens wrote two other cuts, including the first single, “Stand by Me.” Lee also covers Bobby Helms’ 1957 rock classic, “My Special Angel,” as well as Lee Ann Womack’s 1998 album cut, “If You’re Ever Down in Dallas.” Lee is still in fine, mellow voice, I’m delighted to report.

Lehning Producing Joy Lynn White Album
Kyle Lehning tells Hot Talk he’s producing an album on Joy Lynn White — purely on speculation and at his own expense. Labels, he says, have already begun inquiring about the project. Joy White (as she was initially billed) first charted in 1992 with “Little Tears” on Columbia Records. Although praised by critics, none of her singles made it into the Top 50. “Wild Love,” her last-charting single from Columbia was issued under the name “Joy Lynn White,” which she has continued to use. In 1997, White began recording for Little Dog Records, but again without conspicuous success. She recorded a duet with Charlie Major, “Right Here Right Now,” for Dead Reckoning in 2000. “I love her music,” says Lehning.

Carl Jackson Sings for Baseball-Themed Charity
Producer and Grammy-winning songwriter Carl Jackson has a cut on the new baseball-themed album, Diamond Cuts: Top of the Sixth. His contribution, “Dreams,” was inspired by his youthful passion for the New York Yankees. Proceeds from Diamond Cuts go to Hungry for Music, an organization that donates musical instruments to children in Washington, D. C. Jackson has just completed producing a Louvin Brothers tribute album for Universal South Records.

Hitting The Books: Gossip, Gospel & Guitars
Former Billboard editor-in-chief Gerry Wood has compiled Tales From Country Music, the kind of behind-the-scenes stories that seldom make the fan magazines. “It covers everyone from the Carter Family to Toby Keith,” Wood says. Naomi Judd, an ace storyteller herself, wrote the foreword. Garrison Keillor, host of A Prairie Home Companion, contributed his moving and amusing eulogy to Chet Atkins to the project. Published by Sports Publishing, the collection is due out in September. For those more attuned to the sacred than the scandalous, there’s Redneck Liberation: Country Music As Theology by David Fillingim, also coming in September, from Mercer University Press. It boasts such tantalizing chapter headings as “The Gospel According to Hank” and “The Apocalypse According to Garth.” Libby Leverett-Crew, daughter of veteran Grand Ole Opry photographer Les Leverett, has written Saturday Nights With Daddy at the Opry. Illustrated with Leverett’s photos, the book “tells the story of growing up with a backstage pass to the entertainment world in Nashville.” Look for it in November from Rutledge Hill Press. Another child of the famous, Cheryl Rogers-Barnett, offers an inside peek at her family in Cowboy Princess: Life With My Parents, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Frank Thompson is her co-author for the book coming in October from Taylor Trade Publishing. Bluegrass enthusiasts will no doubt drool over Philip F. Gura’s C. F. Martin and His Guitars, 1796-1873 from the University of North Carolina Press. It will be in stores in September.

Has beach sand so befouled your laptop that I am doomed to this black silence? Or are you still mad about last weekend? Do let me know. I’m at HotTalk@cmt.com.

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