HOT TALK: Hanging With Hank, Resurrecting Conway

Alison Krauss, Norah Jones, James Taylor on Cold Mountain Soundtrack

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

Bocephus Draws a Crowd
In spite of a pitch black night and a chilly rain, hundreds of music industry folk scurried to Nashville’s BMI building Wednesday (Nov. 12) to greet Hank Williams Jr. and revel with him on the release of his new album, I’m One of You. With a lighted cigar in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, Williams made it plain that he wasn’t about to be humble, the standard Music Row pose. When BMI’s Paul Corbin presented him an award and a monogrammed jacket, Williams leaned into the microphone and said, “You know how much I care for these things, baby. Zero.” In quieter tones, he told the celebrants that he had just visited a house in Franklin [Tenn.] that his famous father once lived in. “I haven’t been on that front porch since 1956,” he marveled.

Doug Johnson, who produced Williams’ album, explained that he had a lot riding on it. “If this works,” he explained, “they’ll paint a water tower in south Georgia for me. If it doesn’t, I’m done.” Mike Curb, the head of Williams’ record label and a friend for 33 years, asserted, “I’ve never heard so many singles on an album. Every single quality a superstar should have, this man has.” Despite his rough approach, Williams stayed until the end of the party, posing for pictures with anyone who asked. And so many did. Spotted in the admiring crowd were singer-songwriters Paul Overstreet, Lisa Brokop, Frank Myers and Jeffrey Steele.

Jack White, Alison Krauss, Norah Jones, James Taylor Top Cold Mountain CD
Columbia/DMZ records have revealed a tentative list of the artists and songs that will be on its soundtrack album to Cold Mountain. Curiosity has been running high about the project because T Bone Burnett, the mastermind behind the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, is producing it. Cold Mountain, the album, is due out Dec. 16, while Cold Mountain, the movie, is set to open on Christmas Day. Barring last-minute changes, this is the track listing: “Wayfaring Stranger,” Jack White; “Songbird,” the Reeltime Travelers; “I Wish My Baby Was Born,” Tim Eriksen, Riley Baugus, Tim O’Brien; “The Scarlet Tide,” Alison Krauss; “The Cuckoo,” Tim Ericksen, Riley Baugus; “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” Jack White; “Ah, May the Red Rose Live Always,” Norah Jones; “Ruby With the Eyes That Sparkle,” Dirk Powell, Stuart Duncan; “Then You Will Be My Ain True Love,” Alison Krauss; “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over,” Jack White, Riley Baugus, Brendan Gleason.

Also, “Am I Born to Die,” Tim Eriksen; “Catastrophe,” Dirk Powell, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan; “Lady Margaret,” Cassie Franklin; “Spike Driver Blues,” Tim Eriksen, Riley Baugus; “Never Far Away,” Jack White; “All the Pretty Little Horses,” Hazel Dickens; “Great High Mountain,” Jack White, Cassie Franklin, Tim Eriksen; “Idumea,” Sacred Harp Singers; “Anthem,” “Ada and Inman,” “Ada Plays,” “Love Theme,” Gabriel Yared; “Anywhere the Wind Blows,” James Taylor; and “I’m Going Home,” Sacred Harp Singers.

Toasting “Tough Little Boys”
Harley Allen and Don Sampson, the guys who wrote Gary Allan’s “Tough Little Boys” surely felt the love last Wednesday (Nov. 12) as their performance rights organizations threw each of them a party. BMI hosted a cafeteria-style luncheon for Allen, while ASCAP rolled out the midafternoon beer and snacks for Sampson. Each man attended the other’s blowout, and Allan was there both times to express his thanks for another No. 1 single. Reflecting on the song’s message, BMI’s Joyce Rice told the crowd, “It shows that no matter how tough you are, your kids can break your heart.” Allen’s proud daughters, Katelyn and Maggie, frolicked about, taking it all in.

Barry Coburn, Allen’s publisher at Ten Ten Music, explained what it was like to work with the songwriter responsible for such other weepers as “The Little Girl” (for John Michael Montgomery) and “Between the Devil and Me” (for Alan Jackson). “Sometimes he’ll come in and say, ‘Can I sit down and play you something?’ And more often than not, it will bring tears to your eyes.” Luke Lewis, head of UMG Nashville, for whose MCA label Allan records, said of the song, “People didn’t just want to hear it, they wanted to own it. And a lot of them didn’t steal it [by downloading].” Looking around a crowd that included Keith Urban, Country Music Association chief Ed Benson, Country Radio Broadcasters executive director Ed Salamon and producers Mark Wright and Carl Jackson, Allen joked, “I haven’t seen this many of my friends in one place since my last intervention.”

At the ASCAP celebration a couple of hours later, the spotlight shifted to Sampson. Many of his fellow songwriters were there to cheer him on, among them Jim Brown (“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”) and Wynn Varble (“Have You Forgotten?”). But Sampson’s biggest fans were clearly his daughters, Emma and Maddie. Holding the roving microphone after the adults had accepted their awards and had their say, Emma enthused, “I’m so glad dad’s song is No. 1 because he’s really good at writing songs. I love him so much.” Added Maddie, “My dad writes so many good songs.” Not to be topped by such youthful effusions, Allen chimed in, “I really like Don’s songs. They are very good. . . . I don’t care what nobody says, son, you’ve still got it.”

Kelly Lang Re-Emerges With Twitty Tribute
While much of Music Row remains enthralled with the legacy of Johnny Cash, Kelly Lang is determined to spark the same degree of appreciation for the great Conway Twitty, who died suddenly just over 10 years ago. You may remember Lang as a three-time winner of Star Search and as a regular performer on TNN’s Nashville Now and Music City Tonight. Lang’s love for Twitty and his art goes a long way back. Her father, Velton Lang, was Twitty’s road manager for 25 years. One of her earliest memories, she says, is of sitting at the side of the stage and watching the rock-turned-country singer work his vocal magic.

Despite having 40 No. 1 hits during his 27-year country-recording career, Twitty’s music has all but vanished from radio. To help redress this injustice, Lang has just released a self-penned single and an accompanying music video called “Goodbye Darlin’.” The title is a takeoff, of course, on Twitty’s signature hit and show opener, “Hello Darlin’.” Lang’s own recording career has been pretty spotty to date. Because of her talent and television prominence, many labels showed an interest in her; but nothing much came of it. “I got married quite early and had two children,” she says, “and you know how that goes: it kind of takes over your time. I decided to stay home, but it allowed me some time for songwriting.” She posted some of her newly written songs on her Web site, and that caught the attention of Row Records, a relatively new label. Buoyed by the company’s support — and by the assistance of Twitty’s family — Lang recorded and released “Goodbye Darlin’.” The video, which is structured like a dream sequence, features clips of Twitty’s performances and scenes of what was once the Twitty City tourist and residential complex in Hendersonville, Tenn. The album that contains “Goodbye Darlin’” is titled It’s About Time and will be released in January. Lang wrote nine of the album’s 12 songs. “I have a lot to say right now,” she explains.

Ralph Stanley Gets Scottish Bluegrass Award
During Ralph Stanley’s sold-out concert in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 5, the Scottish Bluegrass Music Association presented him its International Ambassador and Master of Bluegrass Music award. The SBA, which is supported by the Scottish Arts Council, conducts a bluegrass-in-the-schools program that features Stanley’s music as part of its curriculum. In addition to the Glasgow show, Stanley and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, performed in Manchester, England, London and Dublin, Ireland.

Steele, Anderson and Richey Preview Songs
On the Friday before Country Music Week kicked off, BMI, the performance rights organization, featured Windswept Pacific songwriters Jeffrey Steele, Al Anderson and Kim Richey at Acoustic Lunch, its monthly showcase for new songs. (All three writers would win BMI songwriting awards the following week, and Steele would be declared BMI’s songwriter of the year.) Hot Talk has been chronicling these showcases to give you an idea of how and which songs make it to radio. Steele previewed “Twenty Years Ago,” which dealt with the evolving tensions between a father and son, “And Then I Did” and “That’s Just the Way We Do It ‘Round Here,” a rollicking account of the ultimate hillbilly party. By the end of this song, the crowd of producers and record label talent scouts was singing along with him. That’s always a good omen.

Richey’s contributions were just as emotionally hard-hitting, albeit delivered in a deceptively sweet and low-key style. “Too Bad” details a clash between lovers, “Maddie’s Kitchen” longed for the warmth and comfort of earlier life and “Cry for Me” tolled the bitter end of a relationship. Anderson had the house rocking and roaring with laughter with his opening tune, “And Then I Woke Up,” in which he dreams he’s the certified cock of the walk. “It would have been perfect for Toby Keith,” he observed, “but he never wakes up. He’ll tell you.” Anderson proceeded with “Thanks,” a recitation of things to be grateful for, and concluded with “Ridin’ on the Backs of Giants,” an appreciation of all those who’ve made our own lives better. I’ll let you know which of these songs are on their way to being recorded — and by whom.

Soapbox: Primetime Lame
Were you as puzzled as I watching ABC-TV’s Primetime Monday special on country music Nov. 10? What, pray tell, was its point, its theme? Was it that country music is thriving? Surviving? Faltering? Stuck in the ’80s? Waiting for Messiah Brooks to return? Your guess has got to be as good as mine, and probably better. I’m stumped. As my jaws tightened like a crescent wrench, the show’s reporters hopped from one tour-guide cliché to another. You know: there was the deferential nod to the Grand Ole Opry, the obligatory shots from the Bluebird Café and yet another gee-whiz, eyes-wide interview with Buddy Jewell of Nashville Star fame. Then, to demonstrate their firm grasp of our deepest cultural underpinnings, the producers offered a probing segment on NASCAR wives and the husbands who exchange monosyllables with them. But wait! There’s more! A fawning profile of new Nashvillian Sheryl Crow (and her country roots); a piece on the rhinestone-besotted costume designer, Manuel; and a story about a 1989 Music Row murder that was only recently solved and settled. That the show did not end with George Jones standing in front of a rehab center, wearing a cross and looking virtuous, I can only attribute to the draconian limitations of time.

Listen, I think the Opry is wonderful and irreplaceable, and I know that you can count on at least one heart-stopping performance just about every time you visit the Bluebird. Jewell is a truly moving singer and songwriter who deserves the adulation that’s lately come his way. But what relevance do these subjects have to the state of country music today? The producers might have noted that the Opry is still in an uphill fight for its life as tickets get harder to sell, and its home radio station bobs like a cork in the turbulent corporate sea. They could have pointed out that, despite all the publicity he’s gotten, Jewell is a long way from proving he’s sparking a back-to-basics trend in country music. After all, his album, out since July, still hasn’t reached the gold-certification level (500,000 shipped copies), which is the minimum threshold of sales success. Again, how does this all fit into the larger picture? The murder of Cash Box‘s chart analyst, Kevin Hughes, did frighten the people then working on Music Row. But it had little to do with the function and integrity of music charts generally. By the time Hughes was killed, Cash Box had become such a cheap parody of its former self that no one at the major record labels took it seriously. So the murder had more to do with the machinations of bottom-feeders than it did about commercial country music. Maybe this was too complex a story for Primetime Monday to understand and tell. But without a context, it’s just another lurid crime report. Rhinestones, racecars and revenge killings — still hillbillies after all these years.

So what’s new with you? I’m waiting 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.