HOT TALK: Chicks for Christmas? Lawrence Making Comeback?

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

Chicks May Have Live Package for the Holidays
Sony Records may release a live album on the Dixie Chicks before Christmas, possibly a double album and possibly in DVD format. Although he would not give any details, a source at Sony’s New York headquarters confirmed to Hot Talk that the label is in the process of putting a Chicks package together. The group’s manager referred all questions on the matter to Sony/New York, as did Sony’s Nashville division.

Cash Albums Cashing in Big
Last week, there were 19 Johnny Cash titles on Billboard’s Top Country Albums and Top Country Catalog Albums charts. Together, according to Nielsen Soundscan, they sold a grand total 101,008 units for the week.

Lawrence Bows on DreamWorks With “Paint Me a Birmingham”
Tracy Lawrence will make his official debut on DreamWorks Records Oct. 13 with the release of the single, “Paint Me a Birmingham.” If it sounds familiar, it may be because Ken Mellons released the same song on Home Records on Aug. 7 (with Vince Gill singing harmony). Some stations have jumped the gun and are already playing Lawrence’s version. This sounds like a song that could take him back to the top.

Marcel Departs Mercury
Marcel is no longer on Mercury Records, a publicist there confirms. The mono-monikered singer from Michigan made his single debut last summer with “Country Rock Star.” His followup, “Tennessee” (which was accompanied by a music video), failed to chart. Mercury released his album, You, Me and the Windshield, this past May. Marcel continues to date Jessica Andrews, for and with whom he co-wrote the hit “There’s More to Me Than You.”

Phil Vassar Launches Homecoming Concert
The first Phil Vassar homecoming concert, designed to be an annual event, will be held Dec. 27 at the Civic Center Auditorium in Roanoke, Va. It will come as no surprise that the aforesaid Mr. Vassar will headline. Details are still sketchy but I’m told that tickets will go on sale Oct. 11.

Billy Currington Thanks Old Pal for Lunches
Browsing through the liner notes of Billy Currington’s new self-titled album, I came across this intriguing credit: “[To] Matt Thompson for buying my lunch in school when I couldn’t.” So I asked Currington about it. “For years we were really good friends,” he explained. “Like [from] the fifth grade through high school. We never really talked about it, but I never found lunch money on the table on my way to school. That wasn’t because my mom didn’t want to. It was just because she didn’t have it. So we never asked. We just kind of went and fended for ourselves for years at school. It was the borrowing factor so many different times. But [Matt] was the one that would always … come up and ask me, ‘Hey, Billy, you got lunch money today?’ And I was like, ‘To be honest, man, I don’t.’ He’d say, ‘Here’s your buck’ or ‘Here’s your buck-fifty’ — whatever it was. He was blessed to have financially successful parents who helped him out. And, in return, he helped me. I’ve lost touch with him because I think he moved off to Hawaii. Recently, somebody said they’d found [his] phone number and that they were going to send it to me.” I hope the two pals meet again. In a business in which people routinely forget the friends who gave them a boost on their way up, it’s heartwarming to find one who still remembers — and still acknowledges — them. Way to go, Billy! You’re off to an honest start.

Nickel Creek Muses and Celebrates
Chris Thile, Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins — the youthful string wizards who comprise Nickel Creek– ambled into ASCAP’s Nashville headquarters last Wednesday (Sept. 24) to pick up an armload of awards. Their single, “The Smoothie Song,” had gone No. 1 on the Radio & Records Triple A charts, and their second album, This Side, was just certified gold. “You carry the hopes and dreams of a lot of creative kids,” ASCAP’s Dan Keen told the trio as he handed out the trophies. He said their first album, Nickel Creek, will probably hit the platinum mark by year’s end. (A gold designation means that record stores have ordered 500,000 copies of a particular; platinum signifies a million copies ordered.) Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek’s producer, couldn’t attend the celebration but did send them a gift basket.

Before the event started, Thile and the Watkins spoke to reporters on a wide range of subjects. All three conceded that there’s nothing wrong with listening to undemanding “bubble gum” music, even though their own music explores the riskier reaches of bluegrass and jazz. “Ultimately, the problem [when dealing with serious music] is that we’re lazy,” Thile observed. “There’s great music out there being made,” he continued, “and fortunately most people who make great music can make a living [at it].” Asked about the group’s initial aspirations, Sean said, “Our big secret was that we hoped we might sell 100,000 records.” “It was a deep, dark secret,” Thile chimed in.

Sara had a lighter take on the music industry’s obsession with sales numbers. She suggested that a better measurement might be the number of albums that are quickly sold back to used-record stores instead of kept and treasured. She revealed that she is following the lead of her two partners and making a solo record. “Basically, it’s going to be me singing songs that I like,” she said, adding that she didn’t yet consider herself a capable songwriter. “She could release her demos,” Thile said admiringly. “They sound great.”

Being classified as country musicians, as they were early in their career, has done Nickel Creek no damage, they all agreed. “It’s been more helpful than detrimental,” Sean concluded. “[We want] any ear, just any ear,” Thile emphasized. Turning to the death of Johnny Cash, Sean noted, “What’s inspiring to me was that in the last few years of his life, he was so influential.” Added Thile, “Whatever was going on, Cash made it into his own. And that’s what a great artist does.”

All New Recordings for Riders’ Album
Allow me to clear this point up. There will be no previously released cuts on the forthcoming Riders in the Sky double album, which I told you about in last week’s column. It will consist entirely of newly recorded music. However, some of the songs on the album are ones the Riders have recorded before for other labels.

By Their Songs You Shall Know Them
Anyone who’s ever watched a crying drunk shove quarters into a jukebox knows there’s a strong connection between the songs we love and our mental state. Lisa Tucker takes this fact to its logical conclusion in her fine new novel The Song Reader. Her central character, Mary Beth Norris, actually sets up a practice in which she discerns what’s ailing people psychologically by having them tell her about the song lyrics that gnaw at their brains. Some of her clients are haunted by such familiar Music Row tunes as “Lucille” and “Please Come to Boston.” But before you rush out and buy the book, you should know that the “song reading” is a relatively small part of the story, which is told by Norris’ younger sister, Leeann. By the way, Leeann hates “country and western” songs.

Soap Box: New York City?
I am not a country music purist. If Yo Yo Ma wants to play “Louie Louie” on a samisen and sell it as “country music,” he will get no grief from me. After all, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain have paid more of my bills than Uncle Dave Macon ever did. Let record companies sell records, I say, and museums sweep up our history. That being the case, it is with puzzlement rather than rancor that I ask the Country Music Association, “What the hell are you doing? Why would you think of moving the awards show to New York –even for a year? In short, how will this sell more country records?”

In case you haven’t heard, the CMA has hinted that it will stage its 2005 awards show in New York. Practically speaking, this will mean a huge leap in production, transportation and lodging costs — plus enormous personal inconveniences for everyone involved. And to what end? It surely can’t be for ratings. The show will look the same and attract the same viewing audience, whether it’s broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry House or Madison Square Garden. It’s not a big enough event to set the national media twittering. So, is this just a ploy to make Nashville appreciate and subsidize you more, as it was when you suggested you might move Fan Fair out of the Nashville city limits? Tell us the truth, CMA. The real truth. You’re flirting with mutiny.

Cajolery. Calumny. Sycophancy. Bluster. Vituperation. Taunting. Eye-rolling. Bring ‘em on. I am large, I contain multitudes. Reach me 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.