HOT TALK: Vassar’s Music in Movie Preview, Toasting Larry Sparks

Plus, Jim Reeves, Maura O'Connell, Readers' Letters and Historic Sounds

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

Phil Vassar Tune Touts Jersey Girl
A snippet from Phil Vassar’s “American Child” can be heard in the preview for the new Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez comedy, Jersey Girl. The film opened this past Friday. The song is not on the movie soundtrack, however. Released as a single and music video in 2002, “American Child” was co-written by Vassar and Craig Wiseman. A spokesman for EMI, the song’s publisher, says it was licensed for the preview through the company’s New York office.

Country Cream Rises for Larry Sparks’ 40th Year Tribute
Longtime bluegrass fans know who Larry Sparks is, but if you don’t, then suffice it to say that he’s one of the greatest lead vocalists the genre has ever produced. It was he who stepped into Carter Stanley’s place with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys after Carter died in 1966. It was his recording of “John Deere Tractor” that inspired the Judds to cut their own version of the song in 1991. Working with producer Don Rigsby, Rebel Records is preparing a 40th anniversary tribute album to Sparks which will team him with some of the top names in country and bluegrass music. So far, Sparks has recorded with Tom T. Hall, Andy Griggs, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Ralph Stanley. Several other duet partners will record soon. Rebel expects to release the album by late summer.

Maura O’Connell Taps Star Songwriters for New Album
Irish songstress Maura O’Connell tapped into some of Nashville’s best songwriters for her upcoming Sugar Hill collection, Don’t I Know. Among the contributors are Kim Richey, Jim Lauderdale, Tim O’Brien, Pat Alger, Sharon Vaughn, Mindy Smith, Leslie Satcher, Tim Krekel, Troy Verges, Gary Burr, Patty Griffin and Tommy Lee James. The album is due out May 11.

ICMC Panel Celebrates Jim Reeves
The International Country Music Conference has organized a high-octane panel on Jim Reeves for its annual meeting set for May 27-29 at Belmont University in Nashville. One of the most beloved artists in country music, Reeves has also been among its most durable. His records were on the charts every single year between 1953 and 1984, even though he died in 1964. His biggest hits were “He’ll Have to Go,” “Mexican Joe,” “Four Walls,” “I Guess I’m Crazy” and “Billy Bayou.” Reeves was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967. Appearing at a May 28 panel discussion will be Reeves’ guitarist, Leo Jackson; secretary, Joyce Jackson; and singer Ginny Wright, who toured and recorded with Reeves. Conference information is available from Dr. James Akenson at

Country Records in Library of Congress Historic Registry
Three country records are among the 50 the Library of Congress has just announced it will include in its “registry of historic sound.” They are Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys’ “New San Antonio Rose” (1940), Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” (1961) and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968). Others recordings on this year’s list are President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony (1961), which includes a reading by poet Robert Frost; Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” (1931); and the first broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion (July 6, 1974). Although the public can nominate recordings for inclusion in this registry, the final choices are made by an advisory board.

DVD Guides Would-Be Stars
Would-be Kenny Chesneys and Martina McBrides may want to check out a new instructional DVD from Warner Bros. Publications. Titled Performance Vocals: Singing Tips From the Pros, it covers such essentials as breath control, warm-ups, finding appropriate songs for one’s own style and working the stage. The chief instructor is tenor Kenn Hicks, who has coached such luminaries as Sting, Jennifer Lopez and Mary J. Blige. A native of Texas, Hicks admits that “country and western” music isn’t exactly his specialty. But he says he can still appreciate it. To illustrate his techniques, he takes two young singers through their paces. The DVD is from the Hard Rock Academy Performance Series.

“XXX’s and OOO’s” Writer Has New Novel
Novelist Alice Randall, who co-wrote Trisha Yearwood’s 1994 hit, “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” was the subject of a New York Times story last week. The article covered Randall’s speech to a group at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn during which she talked about her upcoming novel, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades. Randall found herself in a literary and legal firestorm in 2001 when the estate of Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind, sued to stop publication of Randall’s parody and first novel, The Wind Done Gone. The suit failed, and the parody became a bestseller. Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, the Times says, “tells the story of a Harvard-educated professor of Russian literature, a black intellectual snob, whose son has gone lowbrow by becoming a professional football player. Worse, he is engaged to a young white Russian √©migr√©, a lap dancer.” Try fitting that into a country song!

Our Readers Write: Hooray for Clay, Cross Purposes
Looks like I’ve made the world safe for gushing about Clay Walker, Several Hot Talk readers wrote to applaud my late-blooming appreciation of the singer. “So glad to hear you’re now a fan,” says Debbie Schumacher, of the Crazy4Clay Gang. “He is a remarkable performer and a very nice and caring man.” Marcia Christopher notes, “I had enjoyed his music on the radio for years, but it wasn’t until I saw a taped concert about four years ago that converted this die-hard fan. I have been fortunate to see him many time in concert since then and just love his shows. His energy and voice are incredible.” Jonathan Strickland agrees: “I wanted to write to second your thoughts on Clay Walker’s AMAZING stage show. I saw him this past Saturday at the Grand Casino in Biloxi, Miss. I can honestly say that I will forever be a Clay Walker fan. … Battling a hoarse voice and an apparent cold, Clay shone like I have never seen many performers do before.” OK. OK. I’m convinced. Thomas Oremus also appreciates the Teflon Texan and adds, “Yes, I do miss [Earl Thomas Conley] too! Can anybody bring him back and give him the freedom to make some more of his thinkin’ man’s country soul?”

On my question of how Mel Gibson’s movie about Christ could inspire an album of songs, most of which were recorded long before the movie was made, Kramer Cusmal fumes, “[A] person with an IQ over 50 would realize that the songs on the CD … were inspired by the actual event, which … took place over 2,000 years ago.” Scholarly distinctions are always welcome here. Then there are the musings of Julian Charlton. Anticipating the inevitable sequel if this album sells, Charlton writes to suggest that Songs Inspired by The Passion of the Christ 2 might embrace such classics as “800 Pound Jesus” (Sawyer Brown), “Dropkick Me Jesus” (Bobby Bare), “John Wayne and Jesus” (Pat Green), “Jesus on the Radio (Daddy on the Phone)” (Tom T. Hall) and … . Well, you know where this is going.

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