HOT DISH: Alan Jackson and Ashton Shepherd Excel With Their New Albums

Musings on Political Downfall -- and Some Great Country Music

(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 hosts CMT’s Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith and shares her recipes at CMT.com.)

When my body gets worn down to a frazzle with the music business and the madness, there’s always something that springs up to make a believer — and I’m talking about a big-time believer — out of me. First, a three-day old-time revival at church kept me from going totally wacky. Then a major news story and some great country music grabbed my attention like a vise, giving me reason to laugh out loud!

First off, I’m not wishing bad things on anybody when they’re down and out, but when you’ve got a man — the governor of the great state of New York — whose sneer and arrogance and finger pointing at others is struck down by the admittance of involvement in a prostitution ring while his wife stands by his side … well, what do you do? You look back over the past few years of his self-inflicted sainthood and you have to say what all us Southern folks say: “Bless his heart.” Eliot Spitzer’s got himself into a mess bigger than all of radio, record labels and music biz executives he targeted during his investigation of record promotion practices. Some of those practices weren’t right, but look who’s wrong now.

Hollywood, go ahead. Make your Spitzer movie. You’ll never be able to put on the screen the events that led up to what happened last week. You cannot make a seemingly perfect man so imperfectly guilty and make it believable. Usually, country songwriters can cut to the chase with such subjects as dying, cheating and drinking. But with Spitzer’s turnaround and resignation, plenty of exclamation points will need to be used.

Alan Jackson’s Good Time Is a Great Time
Alan Jackson absolutely outdid himself with the 71 minutes of music he’s given us on Good Time, his brand new, perfecto album. Listen fans, Alan’s got 17 songs on his 17th CD, and there ain’t a cur in the bunch. I listened and laughed aloud and, yes, I shed a tear or two. Alan always does that to me, but Good Time is so good, I have to say he may be the finest singer-songwriter in music today.

Notice I did not say “country music.” I said “music” — and that’s what I meant. If you can tell me one artist in any music genre that can write ‘em all, sing ‘em and have every song be a killer, then I’ll change my tune. Good Time debuted at No. 1 on the pop and country charts, marking his fourth album to hit both top spots simultaneously during its first week of release. That’s what I call entertainment.

Ain’t nothing on radio better than A.J.’s current hit, “Small Town Southern Man,” and you can quote me on that.

Ashton Shepherd Reminds Me of Hank
Have you ever heard of Coffeeville, Ala.? Me neither. What about Leroy, Ala.? Me neither, but we will. Newcomer Ashton Shepherd was born in Coffeeville, population 360 and lives in Leroy — which doesn’t even list a population.

Good Lord, when I first heard Ashton sing, I about died. Listen close to the way she wraps herself around the lyrics of her first single, “Takin’ Off This Pain,” as she sings, “I’ve got a cold beer in my right hand/In my left I’ve got my wedding band.” And she adds, “You don’t ever even talk to me/I just get to do your laundry.” She wants this man to miss her when she gets gone, and she knows full-well he will.

How did this 21-year-old mom learn to write and sing with such depth? Well, she’s been compared to Loretta Lynn by critics. At 8 years old, she was singing Patsy Cline hits. As great as Loretta wrote songs and sang, and as great as Patsy Cline could sing, that is not what I hear in Ashton Shepherd’s music. I hear Alabama lyrics from an Alabama singer-songwriter who did as much as any country singer to put country music and Nashville on the world map. I hear Hank! It’s the sound from being raised way out in the country in south Alabama — picking peanuts and peas and music, raising what they eat and eating what they raise. I’m laughing aloud with joy.

The Cowboy Rides the Airways
With radio firings all across the country, it makes me smile to see that XM Satellite Radio will launch a new channel dedicated to the music of the Cowboy — King George Strait — to coincide with the release of his 37th album, Troubadour. The Strait Country channel will feature songs from the singer’s vast catalog plus interviews with his friends and close colleagues. The channel will be available from April 1 to May 31.

Country Happenings
Good guy Charlie Daniels is taking Waylon’s boy, Shooter Jennings and .38 Special on the 2008 Volunteer Jam tour. Charlie’s Volunteer Jam originated in 1974, and he’s been jamming ever since. They’ve got four months of shows on the books.

A historic marker has been placed in the studios of WGTV in Athens, Ga., where Whispering Bill Anderson recorded “City Lights” in 1957 when he was 19 years old. The song became a huge hit for Ray Price and was Anderson’s ticket to an illustrious career. BMI’s David Preston presented the legendary singer-songwriter with four of the performance rights organization’s Million-Air awards in recognition of more than 1 million broadcast performances of “A Lot of Things Different,” “Whiskey Lullaby,” “Give It Away” and “City Lights.”

Author Robert Hicks, who wrote The New York Times bestseller, Widow of the South, has compiled an anthology of short stories by Nashville songwriters. Among those featured are Charlie Daniels, Tom T. Hall, Hal Ketchum, Kris Kristofferson, Bob McDill and Hazel Smith. Hazel Smith? For the life of me, I cannot believe I am listed in the same sentence with these award-winning poets and writers.

Willie Nelson’s upcoming One Hell of a Ride is a four-CD, 100-song boxed set that chronicles 50-plus years of recordings from 1954 to 2007.

The Opry’s first family, the wonderful Whites, were just made aware they will be inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame on Aug. 16.

Condolences to Eddy Arnold on the passing of his wife, 87-year-old Sally Arnold. The 89-year-old Eddy has been in a Nashville Hospital recovering from hip surgery. The couple was married 66 years and had two children.

Before the Days of Double Decaf Lattes
My daughter-in-law, Sharon Collie Smith, was sipping Folger’s coffee at work last week when she came across an item on the Internet. It was an item from around 1950 that read:

“Folks, this is my new sponsor, Folger’s Coffee, inviting you to attend Collie’s Coffee Club 9:30 to 10:00 a.m. Monday thru Friday.

“Loads of fun … music … and PLENTY of Folger’s coffee served free.

“Broadcast over KLEE 610.”

Printed 19 years before Sharon was born, the item contained a photo of her dad, Country Music DJ Hall of Fame member Biff Collie. I am told that every house in Houston had the radio tuned to the Biffer back in those days.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Rice Casserole.