HOT TALK: Music Row Gets More Political, McGraw Returning to Studio

Billy Bob Thornton Slings a Humorous Birthday Message to a Country Hall of Fame Member

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

Music Row Democrats Come Out Swinging
“We should have come to the defense of the Dixie Chicks,” producer and songwriter Don Cook told the first public meeting of Music Row Democrats, a new political-action group organized by some of the most prominent figures in the country music business. More than 100 attended a get-acquainted luncheon Thursday (Jan. 8) at Nashville’s trendy Sunset Grill. Cook, who has produced and written hits for such superstars as Alabama and Brooks & Dunn, confessed that he himself had remained essentially silent while the Chicks were flayed — both locally and nationally — for speaking out against President Bush and the then-impending war with Iraq.

Tim DuBois, senior partner of Universal South Records, said he thought it was about time people realized “you can be a patriot and a Christian and a Democrat.” He conceded that the Republicans have done a good job of cowing their opponents into silence. The meeting, he explained, was to enable the people involved to get to know each other and to begin forming a plan of action. At this point, he said, the group intends to take stock of all the Democratic contenders for president rather than endorse any particular one of them. He did, however, allow local representatives for Dennis Kucinich, Wesley Clark and John Edwards to introduce themselves and announce upcoming events.

Almost everyone who spoke at the informal gathering — including two Tennessee organizers for the Democrats — said they were surprised and delighted by the size of the turnout, which was generated in a matter of days by e-mails and word-of-mouth. DuBois personally took up a collection from the attendees to help fund the group while other organizers collected e-mail addresses.

Among those attending were Raul Malo, lead singer of the Mavericks; Mike Dungan, president and CEO of Capitol Records/Nashville; talent managers Bob Titley and Denise Stiff; producers Kyle Lehning, Wally Wilson and Paul Worley; songwriters Bobby Braddock, Wood Newton, Rick Carnes and Robert Ellis Orrall; Rundi Ream, southern regional director of the Songwriters Guild of America; Bart Herbison, executive director of Nashville Songwriters Association International; musicians David Hungate, April Barrows, Bruce Bouton and Billy Block; entertainment consultant and business manager Kerry O’Neil; Fletcher Foster, senior vice president of marketing for Capitol Records Nashville; food writer Kay West; author-critic Robert K. Oermann; songwriter and novelist Michael Kosser; and publicist Jim Havey.

Tim McGraw Back in Studio This Month
Tim McGraw and producer Byron Gallimore will return to the Allaire Studios in Shokan, N.Y., later this month to begin work on a new album. McGraw will again be recording with his own band, the Dancehall Doctors.

Tim O’Brien, John Hiatt to Play Sundance
Two of Music City’s most respected singer-songwriters — Tim O’Brien and John Hiatt — will perform at the annual ASCAP showcase at the Plan B, the Nightclub in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival taking place Jan. 16-23. O’Brien performs on Jan. 17 and Hiatt on Jan. 20. Other acts scheduled are Shawn Colvin, Edie Brickell, Sweet Pea Atkinson & the Was (Not Was) Quintet, Joe Jackson, the All-American Rejects, Joseph Arthur, Jon Brion, John Doe, Ricky Fante, Goapele, Jason Mraz, Fernando Osorio, Clem Snide and Dan Wilson.

Soap Star Goes Country
You don’t see it mentioned on Blue County’s Web site nor touted in publicity for the Curb Records duet, but member Scott Reeves used to be a major soap opera star. From 1991 to 2001, he played Ryan McNeil on The Young and the Restless. Currently, Blue County (whose other member is Aaron Benward) is climbing the charts with the single “Good Little Girls.” They’ll be playing Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon on Jan. 30.

Joe Diffie Bows First Single Since 2002
Joe Diffie returned to the chart wars last week with a new single, “Tougher Than Nails,” on Broken Bow Records. A spokeswoman for the label says that Diffie’s album — which was originally expected to be out this past year and which is still untitled — may finally see the light of day during the third quarter of 2004. Diffie’s last single to chart was “This Pretender” in early 2002 while he was still on Monument.

Restless Heart Pause Album
Restless Heart return to the studio Feb. 2 to resume recording its first album for Audium Records. “They cut part of it right before Christmas,” reports the group’s manager, Bill Simmons. “Then they went on a USO tour.” One of their producers, Mac McAnally, has absented himself from the project temporarily to produce an album for Jimmy Buffett. (The other producer is Kyle Lehning.) Simmons says the new Restless Heart collection will contain all new material. The band, which now includes all the original members, plans to do around 30 concert dates this year.

Matraca Berg Will Record Again
Matraca Berg tells Hot Talk she will record an album this year although she wouldn’t say what label might release it. One of Nashville’s top songwriters (“Strawberry Wine,” “I’m That Kind of Girl”), Berg recorded for RCA Records in 1990-91, then for short-lived Rising Tide in 1997-98. For the past several years, she has pretty much confined herself to writing. She and her husband, Nitty Gritty Dirt Bandsman Jeff Hanna, were among the dozens of artists who came to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum last week to pay tribute to Earl Scruggs.

Thornton Has His Say on Scruggs
Last week’s celebration of Earl Scruggs’ 80th birthday was a fairly solemn occasion, but actor Billy Bob Thornton had the crowd in stitches with his audio greeting — which he delivered in the voice of the character he played in Sling Blade. Here’s what he said:

“My name’s Karl Childers. Here while back, I run into an ol’ boy named Earl Scruggs. He’s a banjo picker from somewhere down around Tennessee somewhere. And they told me he’s the ol’ boy that done that tune they done on that Beverly Hillbillies TV show and played that thing about lookin’ for the gold and whatnot. Next thing you know they’s movie pools and swimmin’ stars and such like that. I’ve heard the song ye done there from Beverly Hillbillies. I liked it quite a bit, yessir. I listen to it from time to time, that song, yessir.

“I ended up talkin’ to him a little bit. Met his wife, Louise, and that bunch. He has two boys. His boys’ names was Randy and Gary. They tell me they make records — country and western records. So they asked me if I wanted to come down there with ’em and make a little ol’ country and western record that a boy named John Cash done called “A Rang of Far.’ I said, ’Well, I ain’t much of a singer, but I’ll come in there and he’p ya out if you want me to, yessir.’ So I went down there, went to a little ol’ place called the Ocean Way Studio — recording studio — down there. It’s on Music Ridge or somethin’ down there like that. Come to find out that recording studio was in an ol’ church house, yessir, where some boy froze his wife — some boy named Tony Alamo.

“I come in there, oh, about 8:30 in the mornin’. I hadn’t slept too much the night before because some of that bunch down there in Nashville they got me out there to drinkin’ beer with ’em, and I ain’t one to drink no beer. I try follerin’ the Bible close as I can. The way it turned out, I drank me one or two of ’em, and they made me want some more of ’em. Every one I drunk, made me want another one. That’s the way it works, yessir. We ended up stayin’ up until ’bout the time the sun come up. Then them boys got in there — Randy Scruggs and his bunch. Some ol’ boy named Harry playin’ on the drum. They had a big ol’ thing that had a bunch of knobs on it they got started. Put me in a little ol’ bitty room, the rest of ’em in a big ol’ room, yessir. They throwed a microphone right up there again me and I got in singin’ on it. We done that song, ’The Rang of Far.’ They had to put a little ol’ piece of paper out in front of me to show me the words I’s singin’. They played me a thing that John Cash had done before so’s I could see how it went. Then they kicked it off, and I done it. They told me they liked it. I don’t if they did or not or they’re tryin’ to be nice or whatnot. But, anyhow, here’s how it went.

[Here “Karl” growls out both verses and two choruses of the song.]

“Was that what ya’ll was a-wantin’? Seems to me like they was a-writin’ about somethin’ sexual. I believe there was somethin’ up underneath what they was really sayin’. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I believe it was somethin’ about goin’ into a rang of far, meanin’ some sort of a woman or whatnot. I had a little run in about that here ’while back and ended up killin’ an ol’ boy for it. Hit him in the head with a lawn-mower blade, just plumb near cut his head off. Of course, I called the ambulance — hearse — or whatever they come get ’em with. I said, ’Yessir, I done it.’ But I believe he was a-goin’ against what’s natural for people. My mother taught me a lot of things. Some of ’em I believed, some of ’em I didn’t. But I reckon right there at that time I believed it, ’cause I cut that ol’ boy plumb to pieces. Yessir. Maybe that’s what a rang of far is. I don’t know.

“Anyhow, it sure was a real good time to meet Earl Scruggs and Louise Scruggs and them boys, Gary and Randy, them record-producin’ boys and all that bunch down in Nashville, Tennessee. We had a pretty good time down there. That was the first time I’ve ever drank a beer. Made me feel kinda funny. Like I wanted to drive.”

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