HOT TALK: Reba on a Mountain, Bleak Christmas

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

Reba Bows First Single From New CD Aug. 25
Aug. 25 will be a big day for Reba McEntire fans. That’s when MCA Records releases the first single from her just-completed (but still-untitled) album. The song is “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain,” written by Jerry Salley and Melissa Peirce. “It’s a real country cut,” reports Buddy Cannon, who co-produced McEntire’s album with Norro Wilson. “We had Dan Tyminski [of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ fame] to come in and play some guitar and mandolin on it,” Cannon continues. “On background vocals, we had Sonya Isaacs and Curtis Wright. It’s really good. I think it’s an expected kind of thing for her. It’s just real high energy. I think it’s going to send us off and running.”

The album also features a duet with Vince Gill, “It Just Has to Be This Way,” by Liz Hengber, James Dean Hicks and Anthony Smith. The 12-cut package will be out on Nov. 18. “I tell you, man, it’s a great album,” Cannon enthuses. “It’s one of the highlights of my career.” Coming from a man who’s produced such other cultural phenoms as Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain, Billy Ray Cyrus and Sammy Kershaw, that’s a pretty persuasive endorsement.

Country Labels Play Scrooge With Christmas Releases
I’m dreaming of a slight Christmas. Hot Talk’s survey of new Yule albums has so far turned up only three: Kenny Chesney’s All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan (BNA Records) and John Michael Montgomery’s Mr. Snowman (Warner Bros.), both due out on Oct. 7, and a various artists collection from Lost Highway Records called A Very Special Acoustic Christmas, slated for Oct. 14. Most labels, though, will re-release their sales-proven holiday favorites.

Finally, Patsy Cline — But Still No Neal McCoy
After a year of delays, MCA Records will finally release its all-star tribute to Patsy Cline on Sept. 9. Remembering Patsy Cline features cover versions of the late singer’s hits by Norah Jones, Amy Grant, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Michelle Branch, Lee Ann Womack, K.D. Lang, Terri Clark, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Patti Griffin, Jessi Alexander, Martina McBride and Take 6. The calendar has proven more elastic, however, for Neal McCoy, whose album I’m Your Biggest Fan is still on hold at Warner Bros. after a number of scheduled release dates have come and gone. McCoy introduced the title cut — and blew the crowd away with it — at the 2002 Fan Fair.

Ultimate George Strait Package Set for Early 2004
Having eclipsed the former record-holder, Conway Twitty, George Strait can now boast more No.1 singles than any other country artist in history. To trumpet this achievement, MCA Records will release on Feb. 10, 2004, the ultimate Strait package, 50 #1’s.

Ricky Skaggs: The Toddler Years
The astounding Ricky Skaggs gave one of his best interviews ever during a recent appearance on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. On the show to promote The Three Pickers — a live album, DVD and PBS special he recorded with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson — Skaggs spoke eloquently on a variety of subjects, ranging from the religious practice of foot-washing to the role of tragedy in bluegrass music. He was generous in his praise of those who boosted his early career, particularly his mom and dad, Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe and Emmylou Harris. And he was frank in admitting that one of his main reasons for returning to bluegrass in the 1990s was that he had simply gone out of style as a country artist. Wonder of wonders, he didn’t blame anybody for it.

Fresh Air host Terry Gross seemed fascinated by the fact that Skaggs first played mandolin with Monroe when he was only 6 years old. Skaggs explained that this happened when “the Father of Bluegrass” did a show near his hometown. Neighbors in the audience began shouting for Monroe to let “Little Ricky Skaggs” play a song. Monroe finally called the youngster to the stage and even loaned him his mandolin, whereupon “Little Ricky” regaled the crowd with a spirited version of the Osborne Brothers’ “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man.”

When he looked back on those early years, Gross asked, “Were you good? Were you really good?” Skaggs said his dad had kept reel-to-reel tapes of his childhood performances. “I’ve got a ton of those tapes at home,” he noted. “It’s amazing now, as I go through and listen to them, how well I could play when I was 6, 7, 8 years old. I wasn’t what Chris Thile [of Nickel Creek] was when he was 8, 9 or 10. But mandolin playing hadn’t advanced like it is now. But it’s pretty amazing to hear me and my mom and dad sing harmony together and hear me play the mandolin. I could tell I really had a gift, a precious gift.”

The Three Pickers: Legends of American Music debuts on PBS Monday (July 28). Now that we know the tapes are available, let’s start lobbying for a “Little Ricky Skaggs” album.

Terri Clark Tells All (We Really Need to Know)
Reader Tracy Thomas points out — quite correctly– that I failed to mention Terri Clark’s upcoming tome in my recent item on new country music books. Here’s the story: The book is titled Phases & Stages: The Terri Clark Journals and will be out in September from Insomniac Press. Based on the singer’s online journals, the book, according to the promotional copy, “affords an unprecedented insight into the price of the dream [of being a country star], the joy of creation and the thrill of arrival.” Can’t wait to read it.

Your Hit Parade: Vol. III
Once a month, BMI, the performance rights society, sponsors an Acoustic Lunch, during which three accomplished songwriters sing three of their unrecorded songs to producers and record company talent scouts. Last month’s Warner/Chappell session –which spotlighted songwriters D. Vincent Williams, Stephony Smith and Jim Collins — has already yielded results. Songplugger Martha Irwin tells Hot Talk that Williams and Vincent’s co-write, “All at the Same Time,” was immediately put on hold for Trace Adkins. “They tried really, really hard at Capitol [Records] to get Trace to record it,” Irwin says, “but he didn’t. And now it’s on hold for Travis Tritt.” Smith’s “Down in Maury County” is on hold for new Sony Records artist Shelly Fairchild. To Warner/Chappell’s surprise, one of the songs Collins co-wrote (with Dean Dillon) and performed — “I’ve Never Been Anywhere” — had already been recorded by Sammy Kershaw. “We had no idea,” Irwin says. Indeed, this song is Kershaw’s new single for Audium Records.

BMI’s third such showcase, held last Thursday (July 24), featured Leslie Satcher (“I Said a Prayer,” “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues”), Tom Douglas (“Love’s the Only House,” “Something Worth Leaving Behind”) and Casey Beathard (“Right Where I Need to Be,” “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo”) of Sony/ATV/Acuff-Rose Music.

Beathard’s contributions were “Jogging by the Bar,” the ruminations of a one-time party guy who’s transcended the lure of Happy Hour; the self-flagellating “Pretty Damn Good Fool” and “It’s a Good Time to Go Home,” a drink-‘til-you-drop soliloquy. This last song, he acknowledged, had been recorded [by Clint Daniels]. But, he added, since the artist has lost his record deal, it’s a new song again.

Satcher, who said she wrote her three entries the evening before and the morning of the showcase, earned the loudest applause from the luncheoneers with her whimsical “You Don’t Know That Now.” It takes the form of a monologue, uttered by a lady who’s hypnotizing her boyfriend into wanting to perform all manner of domestic chores — including the biggest one, getting married. She said her second song, “For a Long Time,” was a “work in progress,” which it clearly was, being more clever than profound. But “Something Burning Out,” her closing number, with its extended metaphor of objects consuming themselves, sounded like a keeper.

“Wherever I go,” Douglas lamented, “I have to follow Leslie Satcher. That’s the bane of my existence.” His songs tended to be darker than those of his companions. “Holding Out for Houston,” his opening number, told of a devoted wife and her dying husband. While Beathard and Satcher accompanied themselves on guitars, Douglas stuck with the piano. “The trouble with writing songs on piano,” he told the crowd, “is that they sound like they were written for piano. I hear [this next song] as bluegrass.” To be sure, “Everybody’s in Love but Me” was somber enough to be bluegrass. Douglas ended with “Man On a Wire,” a look at people stressed out by hard times. “This is about as up-tempo as I get,” he said.

I’ll let you know soon which of these songs caught on.

Bobbie Cryner Busy Writing
Roger Newcomb wants to know what’s happened to Bobbie Cryner. “[Is] she still in Nashville,” he asks. “Any chance she will ever record again?” Cryner first hit the country charts in 1993 with “Daddy Laid the Blues on Me” on Epic Records. Two years later, she switched to MCA Records, where she had her highest-ranking single, “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better.” At neither label, however, did she ever break into the Top 50 as a singles artist. She fared better as a songwriter, gaining a lot of admiration and attention via such lyrical vehicles as “Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt” for Suzy Bogguss and “Real Live Woman” for Trisha Yearwood. A friend of Cryner’s, who works at SESAC, her performance rights society, assures me that Cryner is still in Nashville and still busy writing “great” songs. He says he doesn’t think she’s looking for another record deal.

Keep those questions coming. It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do. See you at