Forget chart action for the moment. Sammy Kershaw feels lucky just to have an album on the shelves. "I had three record deals fall apart on me in a year," he says matter-of-factly. Now, though, he's signed to the independent Category 5 Records, an alliance that recently yielded his new Honky Tonk Boots album, as well as Kershaw's first charted single in three years, "Tennessee Girl."
Kershaw made his national debut on Mercury Records in 1991 via the jaunty "Cadillac Style." Over the next nine years, the man whose rumbling vocal style was routinely compared to that of George Jones would score such hits as "She Don't Know She's Beautiful," "Queen of My Double Wide Trailer," "National Working Woman's Holiday," "Third Rate Romance" and "Love of My Life." In the process, he also netted three platinum and three gold albums.
In 1999, after a torrid, headline-grabbing love affair, Kershaw and fellow country star Lorrie Morgan joined forces for a Top 20 duet, "Maybe Not Tonight." Two years later, the singing partners were married. And despite some notably rocky times, they remain so.
Mercury dropped Kershaw in 2000. "I don't really remember now how that came about," he says. "I think maybe [the label] thought that my run had come to an end with them. So they released me. But I don't have anything bad to say about Mercury -- not one thing about anybody over there. They were always nice to me, good to me. Hell, they gave me a career in this business."
Kershaw and Morgan teamed up again in 2001 for the RCA album, I Finally Found Someone. From it came the Top 40 novelty tune, "He Drinks Tequila." In 2003, Audium Entertainment released Kershaw's I Want My Money Back. It spawned two moderately successful singles, the last of which was "I've Never Been Anywhere." It's been pretty quiet since then.
Honky Tonk Boots reunites him with producer Buddy Cannon, best known these days for his work with Kenny Chesney. Kershaw's album is an amalgam of new songs and previously unreleased cuts, some dating back to the singer's early days at Mercury.
"I always thought they were really good songs and should have been on an album," he explains. "Just before the Category 5 deal came around, Buddy and I went back in the studio and did a few more songs."
Two of those songs are covers: "The Battle," a 1976 hit for Jones, and "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On," Mel McDaniel's career-making smash from 1984.
"Alan Jackson sent a message to me ... that I needed to re-record 'Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On,'" Kershaw recalls. "He said it would be a hit for me. But I kept forgetting about it. So when Buddy and I went back in the studio a few months ago, at the last minute -- when we were about done -- [the song] popped into my head. I don't know why. I mentioned it to Buddy, and he thought it was a good idea. We cut it in about five minutes." Kershaw says he retreaded "The Battle" simply because "it's a great country song."
Honky Tonk Boots is a visceral showcase -- from the carnal rhapsodies of "Tennessee Girl" and "Evangeline" to the wounded-lover laments of "One Step at a Time," "Leavin' Made Easy" and "Cantaloupes on Mars." The title cut and "High Society" both celebrate barstool camaraderie, while "Mama's Got a Tattoo" is a goofy, good-natured tale of patriotism that runs skin deep.
Besides his happiness with the new album, Kershaw is also excited by his keystone performance in Category 5's impending multi-artist tribute to George Jones. Called God's Country, the project is due out in October. Among the other acts participating are Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Lawrence and Jones, himself, who sings the title cut.
"Everybody got to pick their favorite George Jones song [to record]," Kershaw says. "But I didn't get to do the one I picked. They picked one for me and said I had no choice. It's called 'He Stopped Loving Her Today.' I said, 'You all have got to be kidding me! That's career suicide. The greatest country soul singer that ever lived -- and you all are going to pick the biggest song he's ever done in his career for me to re-do! Good Lord! You know the comparisons they're going to make on that.' I was scared. But I did it, and I liked the way it turned out. I loved it, actually." (The Jones song Kershaw asked to do was the rarely heard "You're Still on My Mind.")
Kershaw volunteers no information about his current state of marital affairs but does confirm, when asked, that his marriage is still intact. He says he doesn't know if all the publicity surrounding his relationship with Morgan had an effect on his career.
"I don't really know," he muses. "My music career is different from my personal life. I imagine it helped some and hurt some. ... People are going to think and believe what they want anyway. ... So I try to keep my personal life personal now. I've found that's the best way to do it."
Although he doesn't mention Morgan in his liner notes, Kershaw does apologize profusely to "any and all of the people who I might have hurt directly or indirectly by actions I have taken or choices I have made." His tone is contrite throughout.
"I had to go through a lot of hard truths in the last year," he declares. "But I went through them, and I have nobody to blame but myself. I can't blame accountants, I can't blame management, I can't blame record labels or songwriters, I can't blame my family, my friends. I can't blame anybody but me. I'm the only one who can screw things up, and I'm the only one that can fix them."
Honky Tonk Boots is a good start. And a welcome one.