HOT DISH: Country Music’s Race to the Finish

Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts Remain the Frontrunners

(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

Between NASCAR races, the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby, hillbillies always seem to be in a race to the finish. When it comes to country artists, it seems to me that 2006 brought more stats than ever about the number of concert tickets sold, seats filled, CDs sold or weeks at No. 1.

Here it is April, and I can already see signs of “who’s ahead of the rest at doing whatever they do the best.”

Tim McGraw, the first superstar with a new album in the marketplace in 2007, is all over the place singing and talking about his mighty fine CD, Let It Go. He’s getting all the attention a man can muster in television, radio and the print media. First week sales of 325,000 took Tim to No. 1 on both the country and pop albums charts. “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” is No. 1 on the country singles chart.

Tim is so wise. Asked why his 2006 Soul2Soul tour with wife Faith Hill was so successful, being a champion husband, he gave credit to Faith, saying she hadn’t been on the road in a very long time. Their 2007 tour is shaping up to be even bigger than last year’s which raked in an incredible $88 million. Venues in several cities have added a second show to meet ticket demand.

Tim and Faith generated more money in 2006 than their best buddy, Kenny Chesney, but Kenny filled more seats last year than anybody in any musical genre. Like in years past, Kenny’s been out playing his Keg in the Closet shows at bars in college towns, whetting the appetites of the coeds. They know the little man with the big sound will be back before summer turns to fall — and they will be there screaming and clapping for him.

That brings us to Rascal Flatts. In my almost 35 years in Nashville, I’ve never seen an act featured on as many billboards around town — not on the interstates but on busy surface roads where record buyers and Grammy, CMA and ACM award voters travel daily. Each billboard screams a different message in bright red, such as “1 Million Fans at 61 Shows in 2006” or “Meet the Best-Selling Artist of 2006.” Half-page and full-page print ads are running in local newspapers. Buses and trolleys covered with the band’s photo are carrying the Rascal Flatts message all over town. Didn’t those guys have first-week sales of more than 750,000 copies in 2006 with Me and My Gang? In the midst of Tim promoting Let It Go — his first release in three years — Rascal Flatts made news by announcing their new album will be in stores in late September.

Round and round the track they go as they race to the finish. One of these three acts will finish first in one category or another while Keith Urban and Brad Paisley are snipping at their heels.

Jack Ingram’s Sex Appeal
Cindy Spicer, my radio gal in San Diego, asked me, “Who is the sexiest singer in country music?” Without batting an eye, I answered, “Jack Ingram.”

Jack’s new CD This Is It hit the country chart last week at No. 4. I loved having Jack in my kitchen taping CMT’s Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith. Anything I’ve said about Jack and his new CD is a favor to the fans to make them aware of tomorrow’s headliner. He will be that.

Call a Friend
It was great when I said hello and the voice on the other end of the phone was Brad Paisley. Since I haven’t met baby Will, Brad assured me his 7-week-old son is already asking to meet me. He and wife Kim are enjoying parenting, and Brad is readying for his tour that begins the last week of April. Will and Kim will not go on the road with Brad and his band.

The day Brad called, he was on his way to visit his hero, Little Jimmy Dickens, who also happens to be a hero of mine. Hearing from Brad made me feel good. Why don’t you call a friend today?

Billy Joe Shaver and a Pistol
Bottom line: Billy Joe Shaver has no business carrying a gun to a bar in Texas, and he doesn’t need drama to write a hit song.

For all the three-plus decades I’ve been friends with Billy Joe, I never knew him to be armed with a gun. Oh, he did crazy things, like his first day in Music Town when he rode a motorcycle up on songwriter Harlan Howard’s front porch. And at Willie Nelson’s first picnic in Dripping Springs, Texas, when Billy Joe, high from heat or something, decided he was Jesus and went out in the desert to die. No one knew where he was until he showed up in L.A. a week later at a Waylon Jennings concert.

News reports say Billy Joe shot a man in the face outside Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Lorena, Texas. Photos show the saloon to be a trashy, hole-in-the-wall place that Billy Joe should not frequent. “Why was he there?” was my first question.

After the incident, Billy Joe turned himself in and was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and released from jail two hours later after posting a bond of $50,000.

Billy Joe, don’t take your guns to the barroom.

Porter and the Farmer
Porter Wagoner was a just a lad in West Plains, Mo., standing on an uprooted tree singing, when a neighbor asked what he was doing. Smiling his “aw, shucks” smile, young Porter replied, “Pretending I’m singing on the Grand Ole Opry.”

“You’re as close to the Grand Ole Opry as you’re gonna get,” assured the farmer. “You’ll be looking at a mule’s rear end when you’re 65 years old.”

Porter Wagoner is celebrating his 50th year at the Opry this year. He’s had some health issues recently, but he’s back on the show every weekend and has recorded a new album produced by Marty Stuart.

I doubt if anybody, including Porter, remembers the doubtful farmer’s name.

More News
Pushing 80, Patti Page still sings like an angel. She was in Nashville recently to rerecord her 1950 smash, “Tennessee Waltz,” with U.S Sen. (and former Tennessee Gov.) Lamar Alexander playing piano. The session was arranged by Mike Curb, a former politician himself, who assured Patti that Music Row’s A-team of musicians would cover any of Lamar’s errors.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will pay tribute to a true country great with Marty Robbins: Among My Souvenirs, an exhibit opening Aug. 3 and running through June 2008.

Denise Jackson has written a book of memoirs titled It’s About Him: Finding the Love of My Life. Knowing Denise best as Mrs. Alan Jackson, my guess is she has written about her wonderful husband and their life together, and she has also included her spiritual journey.

Anchored in Love: A Tribute to June Carter Cash is set for a June 5 release. Produced by son John Carter Cash, it includes songs written by or associated with the Carter Family and features Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley and Billy Bob Thornton.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: King’s Hawaiian Party Spinach Dip.