HOT TALK: LeAnn Changes Her Mind

Sherrié Skewers Music Row

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

Rimes Bumps “Weight of Love” to Next Album
“The Weight of Love,” which was rumored to be LeAnn Rimes’ next single, won’t be. Instead, she’ll kick off her Greatest Hits (To Be Continued) album, due out Nov. 18, with “This Love.” Her publicist says Rimes has decided to hold “The Weight of Love” for her next album. The song has stirred a lot of Net chatter lately because Australhunk Keith Urban plays guitar on it.

So Tell Us, Sherrié, What Do You Really Think?
Want to know how mad Nashville can make you-especially if you’re in the music business? Then bend an ear to “This Town Is That Small” on Sherrié Austin’s Streets of Heaven album. Austin co-wrote the lyrical diatribe with her producer, Will Rambeaux. Here’s part of the chorus: “A good fiction is better than fact/They’re masters of the art/Of ’Bless Your Heart’ with a knife in your back.” Could this foul place possibly be Music City? Hot Talk asked Austin. “The politics of a small town are the same no matter where you go,” she began diplomatically. But then she spilled. “Yeah, I was going through a bit of a rough patch at that time. I was slightly p****d. It was a good way to get some stuff off my chest. I was just frustrated with the business, and I felt a whole heck of a lot better when I put it down on paper.” Kinda reminds you of Shel Silverstein’s “Nashville Is Rough on the Living (But She Sure Does Speak Well of the Dead).”

Railroading Josh Turner’s Video
I’m as sympathetic to suicide prevention as the next herbivore, but it seemed to me that Operation Lifesaver was getting a tad hysterical recently when it called for a ban on the playing of Josh Turner’s current music video, “Long Black Train.” In a widely circulated announcement, the organization’s president said, “While Turner’s song speaks of redemption, we are deeply concerned that the video for ’Long Black Train’ showing vulnerable people on the tracks — such as an alcoholic, a pregnant teen and a gambler — may unwittingly serve as an invitation to suicide on the rail.” That sounded to me like Operation Lifesaver was more concerned about keeping the rails clean than altering the suicidal mindset. Sure enough, the organization is a front for the railroad industry and, thus, quite aware that it’s much cheaper to preach safety than it is to build it into their railroads. What next? An assault on “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” by the National Council for the Responsible Use of Rum?

Chely Wright May Flagship New Label
Chely Wright is rumored to be the first signing to the new independent label, Vivaton Records. Sheila Shipley-Biddy, former head of Decca Records, will serve as Vivaton’s senior vice president of promotion and artist development. The label is expected to reveal its plans, staff and roster in January.

Naomi Judd Advises . . .
Need some good advice? Well, you’ll just have to wait until January to get it. That’s when Naomi Judd’s Naomi’s Breakthrough Guide: 20 Choices to Transform Your Life arrives in bookstores. “In this lively and inspirational book,” burbles a Publishers Weekly reviewer, “[Judd] offers a mix of autobiography, medical advice and just plain homespun talk. … [T]his guide is uplifting and one of the more solid of the various ’self-help’ titles from celebrities.” I haven’t read Naomi’s book yet, but the choices that have most transformed my own life were never to stand in direct sunlight and never take seriously an artist who says his latest album is his best album.

Universal Songs on Hold for McGraw, Jackson, Hill
BMI’s Acoustic Lunch has launched another volley of new songs your way. In an earlier column, I cited 12 songs that writers for Universal Music had performed for this monthly gathering of producers and A&R folk. Four of these tunes are now being considered by major label acts. Kostas’ “Happiness,” the most loudly applauded offering, is on hold for Tim McGraw, while his “Runaway Train” has been earmarked for the new DreamWorks duo, Hanna-McEuen (the sons of Nitty Gritty Dirt Bandsmen Jeff Hanna and John McEuen). Matraca Berg’s “Nobody Drinks Alone,” once tapped and then rejected by Lonestar, is on Alan Jackson’s listen-to list. And Stephanie Bentley’s “Dream,” a lovely lullaby inspired by her infant daughter, is in the hopper for Faith Hill.

Ricky Skaggs Shines on New DVD
Do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Ricky Skaggs’ new concert DVD, Soldier of the Cross. I’m not usually drawn to religious music, but the performances here are spellbinding on a purely aesthetic level. Even if you go back to footage of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, you’ll never see and hear bluegrass music more masterfully played than it is here. I’ll even venture the heresy that Skaggs, with his omnivorous musical tastes and relentlessly analytical ear, is a better bandleader than Monroe ever was. And that’s saying something. Of the 11 songs (which were performed before a sold-out house at Nashville’s Gibson Bluegrass Café), the most riveting is “Seven Hillsides,” the musings of an Appalachian preacher who’s overwhelmed by the enormity of his self-chosen mission. Skagg’s 1999 album of the same title won him a Grammy. This DVD is the kind of project for which there ought to be a special prize.

Soapbox: The Calmer Voice of Toby Keith
When I read that Toby Keith had told reporters he was “embarrassed” and “disappointed” with himself for being drawn into the squabble with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, I wanted to leap up and cheer. (However, since I was alone at the time, it would have been an essentially empty gesture.) Keith is right. He’s too smart and too talented to be reduced to a political hand puppet. I don’t know whether the singer is a teddy bear or a wolverine when he’s out of the public eye. But I do know that in every interview and press conference I’ve had with him, he’s been thoughtful, forthright and calm — rare and precious qualities in our business. It was annoying to watch Dan Rather prod him about Maines the other night on 60 Minutes II. You could almost see the singer’s weariness at spending so much time on trifles and so little on his art. There’s no doubt that “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” is a real ass-kicker. But Keith is even better at writing and performing complex and serious lyrics. His grandly delivered “We Were in Love” will remain fresh and emotionally vibrant long after “Courtesy” and the Maines affair have dwindled to a footnote in a pop culture thesis.

The danger in letting yourself become the voice of the people is that you eventually lose your own voice. Waylon Jennings was prodigiously gifted, but he allowed fawning reporters and DJs to provoke him into assailing Music Row politics for decades after he’d already won that battle. Consequently, he spent his declining years sounding bitter and increasingly irrelevant. The same goes for Lee Greenwood. A stunningly effective vocal stylist, Greenwood had Nashville at his feet when he soared into town on the wings of “It Turns Me Inside Out.” But the intoxicating response to “God Bless the U.S.A.” pretty much turned him into Ronald Reagan’s personal jukebox, a comfortable but artistically stifling sinecure from which he’s yet to escape. Keith’s intelligence is his own best counsel.

If you have ever stood alone in a pasture and felt nature’s music washing over you — or if you know someone who has — please contact me at