(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.)
Luke Bryan and his manager, Kerri Edwards, were following directions to a house in Brentwood, Tenn., to join me, my family and the Grascals at last week’s taping for CMT’s Fourth of July programming. When Luke and Kerri arrived, they got out of the car and knocked on the door. A young boy answered the door.
“Is this where they’re shooting TV today?” Kerri asked.
“Mama’s doing something,” the boy replied as he invited them inside.
“Is Hazel Smith here?” Kerri inquired.
The little boy shrugged.
Making himself comfortable, Luke walked over to the piano and began playing some hillbilly boogie when down the steps came a woman still wearing her bathrobe.
It was the wrong house!
The lady of the house later said, “I heard the piano, and I didn’t think my housekeeper could play that well.”
An Abundance of New Female Singers
Blondes were everywhere you’d look at the CMA Music Festival. Three of the beauties — Julianne Hough, Jewel and Jessica Simpson — were already established in other fields of endeavor, but they wanted more from their careers.
Julianne Hough is quite successful as a dancer, having won twice on Dancing With the Stars. Jewel has sold 18 million records in the pop genre. The most famous of the three is Jessica Simpson, a tabloid darling formerly married to Nick Lachey. Jessica is an actress, was a pop singer and has a successful line of clothing, perfume and ladies lingerie.
The three girls share a similar goal. Julianne has danced all over this nation, but her dream was always to become a country singer. Can you imagine Jewel having sold 18 million albums while wanting more than anything for her music to be played on the radio station she listens to — a country radio station. And ever since she appeared in The Dukes of Hazzard flick and sang a duet of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” with Willie Nelson, Jessica had one dream — to sing country songs.
There’s a stable of blondes. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, there’s Carrie Underwood (who is already a superstar), Kellie Pickler (every inch superstar material), Taylor Swift (who has sold more then 3 million albums) and Miranda Lambert (winner of ACM’s album of the year award), along with Julie Roberts, Jennifer Hanson and one token brunette, Ashton Shepherd.
There’s talk about how the blonde girls are beginning to look alike. Worse than that, there have been whispers that some of them seem to sound alike. Singers need their own vocal style — their own voice.
Looking back at female country singers, nobody before or since could belt out a song like Patsy Cline. Nobody, not even her sisters, added Kentucky country to their vocals like Loretta Lynn did. Nobody had a tear in their voice quite like Tammy Wynette. Nobody had that high pristine country, bluegrass and pop tremor like Dolly Parton. You’d recognize the vocals of either of those four women even if you were awakened from a deep sleep while having a bad dream in Russia.
Distinctive female voices have been heard in country music since the 1920s when trailblazers Maybelle and Sarah Carter of the Carter Family began touring, recording and getting radio airplay. In 1935, Patsy Montana’s landmark recording of “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” became the first record by a female to sell 1 million copies. When the Queen of Country Music — Kitty Wells — ascended the throne in 1952 with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” she proved female country singers could succeed in a man’s world.
In 1954, Patsy Cline began her career as a recording artist. Nine years later, her life was cut short when she perished in a plane crash. Never before or since has any female country singer remained a major star 45 years after her passing.
Early 1960’s hitmaker Loretta Lynn made her way to Music City and became one of the all-time classic country music stars. Her awards and accolades are many, but perhaps one of Loretta’s greatest achievements came in 1972 when she became the first female to be named the CMA’s entertainer of the year.
With three kids, divorce papers and her hairdresser license in tow, Wynette Pugh wandered into Columbia Records in 1966 and asked for a record deal. I have often wondered what went through executive Billy Sherrill’s mind that day, but I’ve also been curious about how Ms. Pugh managed to sneak past his secretary. Sherrill changed the singer’s name to Tammy Wynette and produced her recording of a Johnny Paycheck song, “Apartment #9.” The single charted in 1966, and Wynette’s next single, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” reached No. 3 the following year. By the end of 1967, Wynette had claimed two No. 1 singles.
The day after Dolly Parton became the first in her family to graduate from high school, she grabbed a bag filled with clothes and caught a Greyhound bus for Nashville. Three years later, she teamed up with Porter Wagoner on his syndicated TV show — and the rest is history.
In the ’70s, Barbara Mandrell became a superstar with a stage show that included numerous wardrobe changes. She had hit records, headlined tours and starred in her own TV variety show, proving that men were not the only dominating force in country music. Despite the success, Mandrell complained it was much harder for a woman to make it in the business.
Watching her hero from the sidelines, Reba McEntire admitted she wanted to dazzle just like Mandrell. After signing with Mercury Records in 1975, Reba built her career gradually before breaking through in 1982 with her first No. 1 single, “Can’t Even Get the Blues.” That incredible voice came swooping and gliding with golden tones, and she’s been entertaining us ever since on recordings, on TV, in the movies and on the Broadway stage. Reba is a major success story.
An angelic voice splashed in 1974 when Emmylou Harris hit town with her album, Pieces of the Sky. She was country, she was bluegrass and she was pop, but most of all, there was that incredible voice. Emmylou remade country standards, wrote songs and influenced each and every musician who ever played in her band. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year.
As headliners, the Judds put plenty of butts in country music seats while they filled arenas and sang their hits. It’s a shame that had to end, but Wynonna still sings great.
The Dixie Chicks hit at radio and with the public. They filled venues with mainstream country fans until their political incident. I love those girls and their music and wish they’d return.
Through the years, there were hits and misses by huge acts such as Dottie West, Jessi Colter, Tanya Tucker, Skeeter Davis, Brenda Lee, Billie Jo Spears, Melba Montgomery, Jeannie C. Riley, Connie Smith, Jeannie Seely, Crystal Gayle, Anne Murray, Janie Fricke, K.T. Oslin, Pam Tillis and a bevy of others, all stars.
Shania Twain has sold a ton of CDs and entertained an army of fans in concert, and those fans are ready for her to release some new music and start touring again. Alison Krauss, Martina McBride, Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood all belong on the list of great female singers. I’m sure there are others. In the future, I’m sure everyone will recognize the vocals of the dark-haired Ashton Shepherd. She sings like her predecessor, Hank Williams.
In the meantime, we’ve got a plethora of blondes that I’m watching like a hawk watches a chicken. This time last year, who would have thought we’d have all these young beauties singing country music? And who will still be around when Fan Fair is over in 2009?
See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Japanese Fruit Pie.