HOT DISH: Laura Bell Bundy Has More Than Meets the Eye

More Flood Stories From Middle Tennessee

(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 a new prospective entertainer hits town, I check them out. I was introduced to Laura Bell Bundy via her debut video, “Giddy On Up,” which I found to be risqué — risqué in a Shania Twain way. Laura Bell’s midsection was on display as plain as day, and she was dancing sort of suggestively. Of course, the guys liked her as much as they’d liked Shania. The girls stared in wonder.

“Where did she come from?” I wanted to know.

“Broadway,” somebody said, which made me wonder if she’d tried New York first and failed before coming to Tennessee with her flash dance in a plan to take Music Town by storm.

When I learned that Laura Bell would be performing on the ACM Awards, I guess I counted her off as “once Hollywood, always Hollywood” — or “once Broadway, always Broadway.” However, I watched her performance and saw that she did not lip sync like some people predicted she would. The girl sang and danced until she was almost out of breath. Then I got the word from my Southern Fried Flicks producer, Dan Clark, that Laura Bell wanted to visit my kitchen to appear on the show — and, boy, was I surprised big time.

The minute Laura Bell walked into my house, I knew I’d been dead wrong about the Lexington, Ky., native. She’s as warm and friendly as any country girl could be. As I began to get all the goods on her, she told me she began her New York career at Radio City Music Hall when she was 9, performing in a Christmas show. She came back home to Kentucky when she was 14 to attend high school. She ran track and cross country, limiting her stage performances to school productions.

Within two months of her homecoming, her parents separated. She wrote a lot of poetry she would eventually turn into songs. After graduating at age 18, she went back to the Big Apple to attend New York University and run on its track team. But she landed a recurring role on a daytime drama, Guiding Light, from 1999 until 2001, so college was put on hold. It was during this time that Laura Bell and a pal formed a music duo and started singing country songs in clubs around town. From Guiding Light, she ended up in the Broadway productions of Hairspray, Wicked and Legally Blonde: The Musical. She received a Tony Award nomination for Legally Blonde.

Broadway or no Broadway, the banjo and fiddle are on prominent display on Laura Bell’s debut album. And according to her Alabama-born dad, she writes her life in her songs. Her dad knows the guys who make the music down in Muscle Shoals, Ala. She gets her dancing from him, a businessman who’s a great dancer. Her blond beauty comes from her mom, who manages a Victoria’s Secret store. Her mom is quick to say that few country singers can dance while singing like her daughter does. Laura Bell’s parents divorced when she was in high school but later remarried.

Achin’ and Shakin’ is a perfect title for her first album since Laura Bell wrote and essentially recorded two albums on one project. Achin’ is the slow, sad ballad side, and Shakin’ is the get-down-and-boogie fun side she learned while walking barefoot on bluegrass in Kentucky.

Her hero, Reba McEntire, was a country music superstar when she accepted the lead role in the Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun and was still on top when she starred in the hit sitcom, Reba. Reba went from Nashville to New York and to Los Angeles and back to Nashville, where she’s still a hot commodity on the music charts.

Laura Bell’s other hero, Dolly Parton, had No. 1 hits that crossed over to pop. Dolly starred in some major movies and got a small place in the Hollywood hills, but everywhere she went, she took the Great Smoky Mountains with her. She’s the same in Dollywood or Hollywood.

My guess is that Laura Bell knows everything there is to know about Reba and Dolly. And she also knows what made Loretta Lynn and Minnie Pearl tick. Laura Bell is sharp as a tack, and she’s gonna have a huge career.

But what really changed my mind about Laura Bell? Let me tell you.

When she was leaving my house, it was pouring rain and hailing with thunder and lightning as she got ready to hit I-65 for a trip to Lexington. The interstate was closed at Long Hollow Pike and other points near Nashville from the flooding that hit the area just a few days before.

“Must you go to Lexington today?” I asked.

“I was tied up with the ACM’s on Mother’s Day and couldn’t get to Kentucky. And today is Mama’s birthday,” she told me, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Take a left on Old Hickory Boulevard,” I told her. “Follow it to Dickerson Pike, which is 31 West. Stay on 31 West until you run into I-65.”

I wasn’t about to keep a girl from seeing her mama on her birthday.

Small Miracles Emerge Following Opry House Flooding
When Cheryl White called me, I couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying. I knew the Whites were playing the Opry that night, and I knew it was taking place at the Ryman Auditorium.

“Oh, Hazel,” Cheryl said, her voice a-quiver. “We just finished the Opry. I wanted to call you before we performed, but there just wasn’t time. You know, I always left my electric bass in my locker at the Opry.”

She was referring to the Grand Ole Opry House. I didn’t know Cheryl left her bass in a locker there, but I did know that 40 inches of water from the Cumberland River had risen halfway up those lockers during the recent flooding in Middle Tennessee. I knew the pews inside the Opry House were covered with the dark flood water from the river. I, of little faith, expected my friend to say her instrument was ruined.

“When we walked into the Ryman tonight, I heard someone call my name,” Cheryl told me. “I looked around and saw [guitarist] Steve Gibson looking down at me from up the steps. He had an instrument case in his hand. When he opened it, I saw it was my bass guitar. … I could tell it had been in water, but I thought it looked like it was restored. We went onstage, and I played the bass. My bass was the first ‘resurrected’ Opry instrument lifted from the flood and on the Opry stage.” She added with a squeal, “My bass is history, Hazel!”

There was more to Cheryl’s story, though, after she, her father and her sisters were looking at the bass with Gibson.

Little Jimmy Dickens walked up to take a look at the bass and told us that all of his suits — nine of them — were destroyed by the flood,” she said. “He was wearing the only Opry suit he had at home.”

At that instant, up walked Grand Ole Opry manager Pete Fisher who told him, “Jimmy, I’ve got something for you.” Dickens and the Whites watched as Fisher unwrapped the nine suits Dickens thought had gone down the river for good. The 89-year-old Opry legend cried.

More Stories From the Flood
Grand Ole Opry member Jeannie Seely lived near the Opry House, where Pennington Bend Road meets the Cumberland River. Her house, back door to the river, looked like a doll’s house, and she kept the surroundings manicured with flowers all around. Jeannie was happy there. But her house could not withstand the flood. Except for a few 2-by-4′s and piles of soaked furnishings, including sopping wet BMI Awards, all else is gone or unidentifiable. And it’s a shame. Jeannie loved her little doll house.

You may know that Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Vince Gill, Toby Keith, Lorrie Morgan and several others lost their semitrailers and all their road gear that had been stored at a storage complex beside the river. I saw a television report of Lorrie’s first trip to the storage building, and I’ve never seen a sadder girl. She didn’t cry. She just looked on in disbelief. When she opened the closet that held all her stage clothing, she reached to the floor to retrieve a soaking wet silver Bob Mackie gown. There was also the beautiful red floor length gown that she’d wear when she’d sing, “Something in Red.” Dresses, a hundred or more, were ruined by the flood.

Dolly Helps Out Again
Dolly Parton hosted a fundraising weekend on Saturday and Sunday (May 22-23) at Dollywood and her Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., for flood relief efforts. From a cabin to a mansion, Dolly was born helping out others. She has taken care of her daddy’s relatives, her mother’s relatives and all of her kin. There is not one hungry cousin in Sevier County, thanks to Dolly. She’s fed and clothed them all and given all of them jobs at Dollywood.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Grilled Pork Tenderloin.