HOT TALK: Stegall Produces New Albums for Jackson, O’Neal

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

Keith Stegall Updates Alan Jackson, Jamie O’Neal Projects
Producer Keith Stegall tells Hot Talk that former Mercury Records star Jamie O’Neal (“There Is No Arizona”) is closing in on a new record deal. He had been working with O’Neal on the follow-up collection to her gold-certified debut album, Shiver, when the label gave her the axe. He adds that he’ll be going into the studio with Alan Jackson in January to commence another album for the Tall One. He’s also working on freshman projects with newcomers Catherine Britt and Brice Long for RCA and Whitney Duncan for Capitol. A stellar singer and songwriter himself, Stegall’s 1996 album, Passages — with its doleful, experience-stained stories and reflections — was a highwater mark in country music. Alas, it never found the audience it deserved. But copies are still out there — and very much worth hunting down.

Happy Hour for “Five O’Clock” Writer

BMI toasted songwriter Don Rollins last Wednesday (Oct. 8) on its magnificent rooftop perch by dispensing gallons of hurricanes, the tropical, rum-based drink he and co-writer Jim Brown prescribe repeatedly in “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” The Alan Jackson-Jimmy Buffett single has just spent eight weeks at the top of the charts. In accepting a trophy for his achievement — which is also his first major cut — Rollins thanked his family “who didn’t say a thing when I quit my $50,000-a-year teaching job to move up here to . . . do what?” Caught up in the spirit of the moment, I chugged a hurricane and found it rather disappointing since it enabled me to fly only for very short distances. And it certainly didn’t make it any clearer to me how it can be “only half-past twelve,” as the song says, i.e. 12:30, and yet be “five o’clock somewhere.” Wouldn’t it be 5:30 somewhere?

A Doll Named “Bocephus”
There is something profoundly unsettling about walking into a drugstore to buy a newspaper and coming face to face with a glaring Hank Williams Jr. doll. Yet there it was — 19-inches of pure hillbilly attitude in black hat, black shades, black suit and bright red boots. I paused to wince before inching up to the creature to try to fathom its more subtle charms. The box that held it said, “Sings and dances to ’Family Tradition’ and ’Born to Boogie.’ Head turns from side to side. Mouth moves to the words. Swings hips and arms to the music.” And all for $21.99. Not a bad deal, I thought, since this promised more animation than we’ve come to demand from the real Bocephus. But could it honestly claim to capture the singer’s essence if it didn’t also leer at women and shoot deer? I took a step backward and then another, thinking that distance might magnify its appeal. Suddenly, I was outside the drugstore again and wondering who the genius was who decided Hank Jr. would make a better action figure than Faith Hill. You know, “Sings and dances to ’Let’s Go to Vegas.’ Head turns, mouth moves, hips and arms swing to the music.” For that, I’d go $22.99 — and I’d buy several.

B. J. Tries R & B
After transforming such ditties as “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love” and “New Looks From an Old Lover” into pop and country classics, B. J. Thomas is taking a turn at rhythm and blues. Thomas is currently putting an album together in Nashville with producer Chips Moman. One of the cuts, I’m told, is a cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1965 hit, “Ain’t That Peculiar.” No decision yet on which label will release the album.

Top Songwriters Praised and Warned
Hundreds of songwriters, their publishers and friends flocked to the spacious parking platform outside the offices of the Nashville Songwriters Association International last Tuesday (Oct. 7) to celebrate all the locally written songs that have gone No. 1 since the beginning of this new century. Since there were more than 80 of them, I won’t burst the seams of this column by listing them all. But it’s a good bet that a lot of these tunes will be around forever. Among the famous faces in the crowd were Lynn Anderson, Dobie Gray, Skip Ewing, Rob Crosby and Scotty Emerick.

NSAI executive director Bart Herbison reported on some of the problems songwriters face because of their songs are illegally downloaded. He projected that overall record sales will be down 30 percent from what they were in 2000. Country sales, he explained, may be a little less anemic, but not much. Over the past 10 years, the number of professional songwriters has been reduced by two-thirds, he estimated. He later told Hot Talk that one of the five major publishers in Nashville– he would not specify which — has cut its songwriting staff from 219 to 54 within the past three years. “That’s due to three reasons,” he said. “One is the deregulation of radio. … We are down from over 5,000 country stations six or seven years ago to under 2,000 today. And the playlists are much shorter. Forty- and sixty-song playlists [of the past] are literally down to six in morning and afternoon [drive time] in some of the major markets. And the last thing is corporate mergers [in which] big publishing companies buy up smaller ones and let many of their writers and most of their staff go.” When these market perils are combined with the cost of illegal downloading, he added, the world is significantly harder for songwriters –who earn most of their income from their songs being played on radio (performance fees) or recorded and sold on CDs (mechanical fees).

On the up side, Herbison continued, he’s helped form a songwriters caucus in the U. S. House of Representatives and is close to forming another in the Senate. One of the first goals in doing this is to give capital gains tax protection to songwriters who sell their catalogs of songs, a benefit already enjoyed by publishers. A longer range goal, he said, is to introduce legislation that will shield songwriters from lawsuits that frivolously claim the writers have stolen someone else’s song. To drive home the point that songs are property, Chris Wallin and Craig Monday sang to loud applause their recently composed battle cry, “This Song Ain’t Free.” It tells of the hardships writers endure and compares their songs to items on a grocery store shelf that customers have to pay for to use.

Just Another Night at the Opry
The Grand Ole Opry’s 78th birthday celebration Saturday night (Oct. 11) was pretty much like any other night at the Opry. Glorious. Musicians and visitors backstage scarfed down two huge layer cakes well before the final notes sounded. Some carried away pieces as souvenirs. Vince Gill modestly held court in the next-to-stage dressing room that was Roy Acuff’s domain until his death. And, like Acuff, Gill kept the door open to his fans and fellow musicians. It was the first performance at the Opry for 18-year-old Todd Meade. The southeastern Virginia native is the new fiddler for Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys. Before going to work for Stanley, he had played only in a local band. His folks were in the audience to snapshot the big event. Also roaming backstage was famed singer, picker and folk-music collector, Mike Seeger. He’s in town, he told Hot Talk, to play autoharp on several Carter Family songs Stanley is recording for his second DMZ/Columbia album. Seeger was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a group that did much to popularize Southern string-band and bluegrass music from the late 1950s onward. T. Graham Brown spent most of the evening in the wings, talking to a procession of admirers. One of the most interesting songs he performed was a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1977 hit, “Middle Age Crazy.” While Martina McBride was turning heads on stage, her husband, John, sat outside the stage door talking to a rapt listener about sound equipment. See what I mean? Just another night.

Bring the CMAs to New York, Reader Implores
Reader Roz Rousian was underwhelmed by my argument that the CMA award show should remain in Nashville instead of moving to New York City for the 2005 ceremonies, as has been proposed. “[H]aving the CMAs here in New York would be great,” she avers. “There is not one country music station left in New York anymore, and it’s terrible because there are still a lot of country fans here who are being completely left out [and who are] having to sit through awful soft [music] stations to listen to even a bit of what they think is country! So let the awards come to New York, and maybe some of these idiots will put country music back here and maybe realize there is an audience left for [it].”

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