HOT DISH: Visiting With the Stars at Country Music Expo

Hanging Out With Phil Vassar, Trisha Yearwood, Ashton Shepherd, Jewel -- and Others

(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

Thousands of fans attended the recent WFMS radio event in Indianapolis, and some of our finest stars performed. Whiskey Falls opened the 14th annual Country Music Expo this year, and I am here to tell you they woke up the crowd. This was my first time to meet this nice group of guys from the great state of Alabama. Their Midas Records single is “Falling Into You.”

It’s always great to see a dear friend, and a dear friend is what Phil Vassar is. These days, Phil is the only “piano man” left sitting in country music. He’s also one of country music’s best entertainers. I watched him onstage and watched the audience offstage. It was hard to tell who was having the most fun. Phil kept them on the edge of their seats. Backstage, we visited and talked about old times and what’s going on today. We also talked about the future, and the future looks bright for the Lynchburg, Va., native. He’s definitely on the rising side of superstardom with his latest Top 10 single, “Love Is a Beautiful Thing.” Besides, girls can’t get enough of his cuteness.

I felt like I knew Ashton Shepherd before I interviewed her. She’s an Alabama girl who writes and sings like Hank Williams. The first person who compared her to Hank was not me, though, but her father-in-law, a lifetime Hank fan. “I’ve been singing in public since I was 8 years old,” said the dark-haired beauty who is 21, married and has a 2-year-old son. “I’ve got two weeks off the first of May. That’s when I’m gonna plant my tomatoes, butterbeans, snap beans, all my garden stuff. We raise organic vegetables. I want to get a cow to have organic milk.” When she was 16, Ashton said, she pumped gas at a filling station and sold collards on the side of the road. Picking peas, peanuts, beans, tomatoes and guitar is still her way of life. Her MCA single is “Takin’ Off This Pain” from her album, Sounds So Good. Good stuff.

A new threesome is named Lady Antebellum, and so is the title of their just-released album. Their debut hit single is “Love Don’t Live Here.” I knew Hillary Scott and her parents, Lang Scott and Linda Davis, since before she was potty trained, but I had not met her singing-songwriting partners, Charles Kelley and David Haywood. With a Tennessee girl and those two Georgia boys choosing a band name like Lady Antebellum, it will make everyone aware they hail from the South. I cannot help comparing their marvelous vocals and song choices to the Dixie Chicks. They appeared this past week on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Jewel’s daddy is a working cowboy, and she yodels on her debut country album that will be released in June. “I can’t believe I am singing songs that will be played finally on a radio station I listen to — a country station,” Jewel said. When I told the Alaskan-born beauty that I met steel guitarist Ben Keith in the ’70s when he played in Tompall Glaser’s band, she lit up like an electric light. Ben produced an album for Jewel — the one that afforded her a move out of her van and into an apartment with a bed, bathroom and running water. Also, I knew her family lived a pioneering life in our northernmost state without electricity and with an outdoor john, surviving by raising their food and fishing or hunting. They listened to Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn records and had a traveling family band. “It was wonderful until Mama ran off,” remembered Jewel. Her single is “Stronger Woman” and her upcoming album, Perfectly Clear, are on the Valory label.

Jo Dee Messina was the first artist I interviewed in Indianapolis. She was autographing guitars and some other paraphernalia when I approached her. Her Curb single is “I’m Done,” and she says she looks forward to the song’s outcome and the release of her new album. Jo Dee is anxious to hit the road again this summer. Later in the day, she introduced me to her cute husband. “Happily married,” said Jo Dee.

I do love Jack Ingram and his music, and I love to see the excitement while he’s building a solid career. He’s been co-writing with the best in the biz — Jeffrey Steele, Craig Wiseman and other A-team scribes. Not only is Jack one of the cutest dudes to ever cross that ole Red River, he’s a tough act to follow onstage. Opening Martina McBride’s 2008 tour, he says he loves being on the road with such a tremendous talent, along with her daughters, Delaney, Emma and Ava, and hubby (and soundman) John McBride.

Jack is a runner. He runs daily and was running in Washington state with a record label promo exec driving alongside him — at least until she drove off. “Holy crap, I’m lost!” thought Jack when he realized he had no idea where he was. To make things worse, he had no ID, no cell phone and could not recall the name of his hotel or the place he was playing that night. Two hours later, he dragged into the concert venue and played the gig. Jack did not get lost in Indy, but he sure tore up the audience.

Capitol Records good-looker Luke Bryan is just as nice as they come. I was glad to say howdy to him, and we promised to get together in Music City for some sweet tea at Arnold’s or Swett’s — my kind of places. His Capitol single is “Country Man.”

I didn’t get a chance to talk with James Otto, who is a big old teddy bear and nice as they come. I love his Warner Bros. single, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” that’s currently No. 3 on Billboard’s country chart.

Jake Owen — what a doll! RCA’s tall, dark-haired, handsome Jake is pretty enough for Hollywood and a good enough singer to become a major star. Jake’s RCA single is “Something About a Woman.”

One of the all-time great female divas is Trisha Yearwood. What can you add about the Grammy winner except that she’s as nice as they come and is stunningly beautiful? The woman sang with Pavarotti, but she sings these days with hubby Garth Brooks and his three daughters in the kitchen at their home in Oklahoma. She’s likely using recipes from her new cookbook, Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen. Trisha wrote the book with her mom and sister, and the three are on the road promoting it.

When I talked to Trisha in Indy, she mentioned that she left a tub filled with chicken salad for Garth to chow down on while she was on the road. But the woman was born to sing, and no matter how happily married she is, singing is something she needs to do to be fulfilled. Her latest single on the Big Machine label is “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” a track from her Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love album.

I didn’t get a chance to speak with John Rich and Randy Owen in Indy, but they were there.

Thanks to Big Machine’s John Zarling for allowing me to hitch a ride with him to and from Indy. Also thanks to Mo, the guy who drove me through the crowd on a contraption called a “gator.” And as we rode, I could hear fans screaming my name and yelling, “CMT rocks!” The power of television is amazing.

Recapping the CMT Music Awards
As far as I’m concerned, anybody who says the 2008 CMT Music Awards show was anything less than great is looking for something to complain about. The beginning of the show with Trace Adkins, Donald Trump and the presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain — followed by Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus was fun, funny and timely.

The Cyrus twosome was fantastic. I’ve always loved Billy Ray. Just so you know, one of the stagehands for the awards show was in my kitchen the next day when we shot CMT’s Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith. He said the camaraderie between Billy Ray and Miley was incredible. None of this bossy daddy or smarty-mouth teenager stuff. They are what you see: a parent who respects his child and vice versa.

I don’t care what anybody else thinks, the best video of the year was “Online” by Brad Paisley, but it did not win. However, I cannot grieve about that because Trace Adkins, who has always been overlooked at award shows, deserved the male video of the year trophy for “I Got My Game On.” Congratulations to Trace, and here’s hoping for many more awards for this mighty fine artist.

I thought the best performance of the night was Kenny Chesney singing “Never Wanted Nothing More.” Why? I could understand every word he sang. There’s nothing I hate more than a bunch of music drowning out lyrics. Let me add, I thought Brad Paisley and Hank Williams Jr.’s performance was very cool, as well.

She only sang verse and chorus of “Takin’ Off This Pain,” but Ashton Shepherd’s performance was killer-great.

I’m such a fan of Kellie Pickler, and her three wins were well-deserved. “I Wonder” has been a great record for the Albemarle, N.C., native.

CMT’s Katie Cook looked perfect in her sleeveless purple, and Carrie Underwood filled out her purple gown in all the right places. Both girls are beauties.

The new man on Sara Evans arm, her fiancé Jay Barker, looked like he fit as nicely as her gown. When is the wedding?

When Taylor Swift who went home with the biggie — the video of the year award — she had already removed her way-too-high-heeled shoes. That was the smartest thing I saw any female do all night. There was times when I thought Miley would fall flat on her face in the sky-high heels she wore. By the way, I hear Taylor wants to follow in Miley’s footsteps by adding television and movie acting to her career.

Reba’s Going to Do What?
Reba McEntire just may become the Martha Stewart of the Dillard’s department store chain. Reba is kicking up her women’s clothing line to include additional women’s apparel, luggage, linens, towels and maybe even a line of men’s clothing.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Amy’s Very Cherry Cake.