HOT DISH: A Question About the Women of Country

Why Isn't Nashville Creating More Female Superstars?

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at CMT.com.)

As far back as 1935, Patsy Montana was yodeling and singing her million-selling hit, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Patsy continued to book shows into the 1990s.

The Carter Family trio — with Sara, Maybelle and A.P. — preceded Montana when they recorded the historic Bristol session in 1927. They played mostly schoolhouses in the mountainous area near where they lived near the border of Virginia and Tennessee. Hattie Stoneman worked with husband Ernest “Pop” Stoneman to make records from 1926 until 1934.

Kitty Wells became country music’s first female superstar because of her 1952 hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Kitty was — and still is — married to Johnnie Wright, half of the popular duo Johnnie & Jack. They mostly performed package shows in schoolhouses using the same band. Last year Kitty, Johnnie and family members toured a few days in Canada. Retired, they still keep their bus parked in the driveway of their home near where I live north of Nashville.

I see where the great Loretta Lynn recently performed in Knoxville, Tenn., her first show of 2006. The 71-year-old member of the Country Music Hall of Fame was one of the female giants of country music who had the star power to headline night after night. Loretta innocently became leader of the feminist movement by writing songs about her life, including “You Ain’t Woman Enough” (for some nervy broad who flirted with her man) and “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’” (for her husband, Mooney Lynn). With her homemade songs and country girl outfits, there was no female country star bigger than Loretta. She would regularly sell out shows in Vegas.

Barbara Mandrell filled seats with her Broadway-styled performance, designer gowns and Hollywood makeup. A tear in her voice and a series of charttopping hits allowed the late Tammy Wynette to fill halls as a single act and with her then-husband, George Jones.

Dolly Parton hit a hillbilly homerun that went all the way to Hollywood and then back to the hills where she built her Dollywood theme park. Dolly still performs and still fills 10,000-seat halls. Headliner Reba McEntire has done it all — changing outfits, recording hits, doing a Broadway show in New York and starring in her own TV sitcom. The latest is that she’ll be filling in for a vacationing Barry Manilow during a 28-show run at the Las Vegas Hilton.

The Judds and the Dixie Chicks were huge ticket sellers, but Shania Twain may be the last female country artist around who can compete with male stars in filling large arenas on a regular basis.

What’s happened to the women? We’ve got fine singers, but where are the superstars? Is there even one who has created enough interest for Hollywood to come calling to do a life story? I think not.

Martina McBride does real well, as does Faith Hill, who’s currently co-headlining a tour with hubby Tim McGraw. Sara Evans is opening shows for Brad Paisley. Emmylou Harris, who turned country back toward traditional music in the late ’70s and early ’80s, usually tours with a partner she’s done a project with, such as Elvis Costello and now Mark Knopler. Alison Krauss & Union Station work as much as Alison wants to.

One of country’s greatest voices, Trisha Yearwood, moved to Oklahoma, married Garth Brooks and has toured less. Patty Loveless’ pure mountain vocals still kill me, but she still usually opens shows whenever she performs. I understand Gretchen Wilson is headlining and filling some — but not all — venues. I’d hoped Gretchen would have ‘em hanging from the rafters. Will Carrie Underwood have the power? I hope.

While male artists like Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and Toby Keith sell out major arenas, I wonder if there’s a female country artist besides Shania who can sell out Madison Square Garden in New York. Are record labels flexing their musical muscles to create female superstars? Or are they recording sappy songs and throwing ‘em out to see what sticks? Are they signing really talented women? Not all the time. No, not all the time.

Kenny Cares
Two — and sometimes more — songwriters contributing to one hit song increases the amount of No. 1 parties taking place on Nashville’s Music Row. Some stars don’t care enough to show up when songwriters are honored, but Kenny Chesney is an exception to the rule. Busy with his tour, Kenny flew in to celebrate and to honor songwriters Rivers Rutherford and David Lee Murphy for his most recent No. 1 single, “Living in Fast Forward.” Celebrants filled ASCAP, where Kenny, wearing a tight T-shirt, painted-on jeans and a baseball cap pulled over his baby blues, worked the crowd. Record producer Buddy Cannon, co-manager Clint Higham and Craig Wiseman (co-writer of Kenny’s current hit, “Summertime”) were smiling and sipping drinks. Terri Clark was in the crowd and arrived topless — that’s without her hat, silly. ASCAP VP Connie Bradley hosted the event and made no bones about the fact Kenny is her favorite act.

It’s no wonder Kenny is so hot. When he performs, Kenny gives his best. When songwriters are honored, he flies in for the celebrating. He’s nice and kind to everyone, and Kenny is never uppity. Kenny cares. Some don’t.

Saving Shania’s Digs
Fans of Shania Twain are saving the paneling, barstools, tables and chairs from the Maple Leaf Hotel and Bar in Timmins, Ontario, before the building meets up with a wrecking ball. A group of her fans want to preserve the artifacts from the place that gave Shania her start as a singer for future display in the Shania Twain Center that’s set for completion soon.

Last Flatt Says, “I Do”
Token Rascal Flatts bachelor Joe Don Rooney and Playboy Playmate of the Year 2005 Tiffany Fallon repeated marriage vows on the beach in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in front of family and friends. All three members of the group sang during the ceremony that took place April 23. The band’s No. 1 album on both country and pop charts and a No. 1 single is almost as hot as the strapless gown the bride wore.

Bonnie Owens
Every time I saw Bonnie Owens, she smiled and her eyes sparkled. This special lady married Buck Owens at 17, and they had two sons, Buddy and Michael. After they divorced, Bonnie married Merle Haggard, who claims she gave up her career to sing with him. Buck loved her until he died, and I’m sure Merle still loves Bonnie. She died April 24 in Bakersfield, Calif., after battling Alzheimer’s disease. She was 76.

Bits and Pieces
I see where The Daily Telegraph in Australia reports Keith Urban earned more than $20 million last year. Skinny Nicole Kidman’s take was $22.3 million. Poor little things. Keith has been recording in Music City’s Blackbird Studio, owned by Martina and John McBride. John McBride knows his audio. He was soundman for Garth Brooks and saw to it that Martina sounded great, too.

Mindy McCready named her baby born March 25 Zander Ryan.

Dierks Bentley refers to his Opry membership as his ultimate backstage pass. Dierks used to work across the way and would sneak backstage. Good guy, Dierks, unlike lots of stars, does not sleep in the “king’s room” in the back of his tour bus. He sleeps in a bunk like his band and crew.

Rave reviews reached me for Brooks & Dunn’s sold-out show in Edmonton, Alberta, where Ronnie Dunn’s flawless vocals were a hot topic. Kix Brooks’ singing, as a sexy video ran, was compared to Big & Rich! Lordy me.

Kenny Chesney’s back-to-back shows were sellouts in Pensacola, Fla. Kenny Chesney Day was declared, and he was presented with a Blue Angels flight.

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill enjoyed back-to-back sellouts in Columbus, Ohio. The couple did a non-stop show that lasted for two and a-half hours.

People magazine listed Julie Roberts’ new single, “Men and Mascara,” as a hot download.

Smokey Bones Barbecue and Grill ran a survey asking, “What celebrity couple would you like to invite to your backyard?” Bill and Hilary Clinton were No. 1, but second place was a standoff. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill tied with George W and Laura Bush.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Barbecue.