HOT DISH: Country Music’s Unwanted Stepchildren

Industry Executives' Decisions Not Always in the Artist's Best Interest

(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.)

Edward Morris, a great writer and friend, once wrote that if the Ryman Auditorium was the mother church of country music, then Hazel Smith must be the mother hen. It made me smile that Ed saw that in me. I do act like I own the music makers and the music, and I do protect them with my “tongue fu”! Don’t mess with my people.

Let’s begin with Toby Keith. Was Toby treated like an unwanted stepchild? He went from Mercury Records to Polygram to A&M and then back to Mercury before he became a superstar at the DreamWorks Nashville label. But after DreamWorks closed its record division, Toby was almost forced to go back yet another time to Mercury. Stepchild or not, he was mistreated. Had he not had the wherewithal to start his own label, Show Dog Nashville, when the DreamWorks closing fiasco occurred, Toby could have become just another hillbilly who fell through the cracks and was never heard from again. He’s got it in the road, though. He’s making big money and he’s managed to keep two very important things — his sanity and his song publishing. Those who have done that are few and far between.

So here we are again voting for the CMA Awards. In the first slot is “A” for Trace Adkins. Lord knows, he deserves to be in the running. He’s been on Music Row for 10 years, he’s had hits and has a recognizable voice. He’s a bona fide star, and women love him. My friend, Deborah Honeycutt from Indianapolis, and I think Trace deserves to be nominated for something, but will he? Is this his year?

Last week, I wrote about Sammy Kershaw, a great traditional singer who should be in country fans’ hearts and on the charts, but he isn’t. Some of it is his fault and some is not. I’m not finger-pointing, but someone, somewhere with the company platinum card to pay for dinner and drinks, has failed this man. Stepchild.

Ricky Van Shelton was a killer singer. After he criticized radio, he couldn’t get arrested. Nobody would touch him. So he sold all his stuff and moved back home to Grit, Va. He’s probably in the stands watching NASCAR drivers speed around the Martinsville track. I miss Ricky’s wonderful voice, but he fell through the cracks. Stepchild.

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked why he thought so highly of America, he replied, “A simple way to take the measure of a country is to look at how many want to get in and how many want to get out.” In country music, think about how many people want to get into it and how many people want to leave it. Like our great nation, more people want to get into country music than want to get out.

I began this column because a great singer, Johnny Duncan, died. He lived in Tennessee and was a disc jockey before he was signed to a label. When his star faded, he moved back to the family farm in Texas. I can still hear his voice echo in my ears with songs like “Stranger,” “Thinking of a Rendezvous,” “It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better” and “She Can Put Her Shoes Under My Bed (Anytime).” He gave Music Town and Columbia Records 10 years but eventually reached stepchild status.

Other great Texas acts who make a good living playing music at home but never connected to in Nashville include Joe Ely, Jerry Jeff Walker and Johnny Bush. The clubs in Texas are filled with them, but two of them — Pat Green and Jack Ingram — are beginning to hit big time via Music City.

Many powers in the music industry came to Nashville and hid behind their desks. Some used luck, some had talent, but their decisions have not always been what’s best for the music makers. Besides, when “no” is said, it’s being said to a living human being who left their home and wants to make it in Music City. It’s hard to go back and tell the homefolks you failed, especially when it’s not always true. Maybe they didn’t meet certain criteria, or maybe the powers that be disliked an attitude. Or maybe another girl singer was sweeter to the boss.

From a financial stand point, I realize a record label cannot always give an artist 10 years — like Mike Curb gave Rodney Atkins — but I don’t think it’s right to measure someone’s talent by the yardstick that tells how much you like someone. I won’t go name-calling or accusing. It’s my guess the abusers have reddened eyes and wrinkled faces from lack of sleep. Just like many people end up paying one way or the other when they don’t treat their stepchildren fairly, maybe the wrongdoers in the music industry will meet their Waterloo either here or hereafter.

In the News
I was half asleep when I first heard the news report about Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry being accused of illegally shooting a black bear in a fenced area on a game farm in Minnesota. Troy appeared in federal court in Duluth, Minn., and pleaded not guilty to the charge. In a statement from his attorney, Troy claims he relied on a local guide to obtain proper credentials and thought what he did was legal. He expects to be exonerated.

While lunching with Brian Philips, the main man at CMT, he made me aware the network will honor Reba McEntire in a new two-hour special CMT Giants. If there’s a giant in this biz, it’s Miss Reba. Rolling back the years, I see 33 No. 1 hits, 29 albums, 15 American Music Awards, 12 ACM Awards, seven CMA Awards, two Grammys and the CMT Johnny Cash Visionary Award. She’s held the title of entertainer of the year and top female vocalist from the CMA and ACM. She also stars in Reba, her own network television show, and has her own line of clothing at Dillard’s. At the top of her craft as a country music superstar, the former Okie ranch girl became the toast of Broadway in New York City when she starred in the production of Annie Get Your Gun. She’s definitely a giant.

See this week’s Hot Dish Recipe of the Week: Chicken and Rice Casserole.