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HOT DISH: Merle Haggard and Oprah Winfrey Bond at Kennedy Honors
More News About Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and Others
Hot Dish
Hot Dish
(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.)

Merle Haggard continues to rack up awards and accolades more than 45 years after his first album was released. In December, he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in a class that included Betty White, Barbra Streisand and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But earlier in the month, Merle was honored in Washington, D.C., as part of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors at a special ceremony with President Obama and fellow honorees Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, composer Bill T. Jones and choreographer Jerry Herman. An all-star cast paid tribute to Haggard, including Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley and Kid Rock. The television special aired Tuesday (Dec. 28), and I hope you didn't miss that important show.

Julia Roberts, Barbara Walters, John Travolta, Mavis Staples and Dave Grohl paid tribute to some of the other honorees. Merle says he walked away with a few new friends.

"Oprah and I had some funny things happen," he says. "She leaned over to me one time during the presentation and said, 'We came the farthest.' She sent me some gifts when I got home. There was a six-pack of some of the most expensive champagne I've seen in my life. She's quite a lady."

Merle describes McCartney as not being very funny, but he says the ceremony made him a new fan of the commander in chief.

"He was really nice to us, and he was nice to everybody else," he said of Obama. "It wasn't just a brush-by. He made a special effort to get to know us. I was highly impressed with him. I'm not one to go for the charisma, but I realize that's a talent. ... He has that charisma. I think that's necessary, and I think that when you represent America around the world, you need it. Ronald Reagan had it, and Bill Clinton had it."

Songs Will Continue to Make the Stars in 2011
The new year has arrived, and I don't expect major differences in the music. After all, there's music -- and there's good music. It all depends on your tastes. Look at the groups in country music. You may like Lady Antebellum more than you like Rascal Flatts -- or you may like the Zac Brown Band more than you like Lady Antebellum. It's your call.

The ladies of country's lineup is the best ever in history -- Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, Kellie Pickler, Carrie Underwood, Lee Ann Womack, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Females good enough to compete with the males. Who, pray tell, is your favorite?

Choosing a favorite male is next to impossible with acts like Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Jamey Johnson, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Trace Adkins, George Strait and Alan Jackson. Tell me, can you choose your favorite?

There's a plethora of females and males and groups vying for the gold ring. Who will grab the ring and hold on? What is the glue that holds them tight? Is there a secret? Yes, the secret is the song -- who writes the best one and who sings it.

All three mentioned groups write and sing. Rascal Flatts have been around maybe 10 years and began writing a couple albums ago while Lady Antebellum co-wrote most of their first CD, as did Zac Brown and his band.

Half the females are songwriters. Miranda and Taylor were singer-songwriters from day one. In the beginning, when Carrie won American Idol, she was considered a singer. She did not write her first hit, "Jesus Take the Wheel," but she has begun writing and co-writing. Kellie does some writing, too.

About half the males are bona fide songwriters. Guys like Brad, Keith, Jamey, Toby, Alan and Dierks are singer-songwriters. Listening to their music, like listening to Hank Williams, you pay attention to the message as well as the melody.

Through the years, we've been blessed with powerful lyrics by Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Cindy Walker, Tom T. Hall and others. Harlan, Hank and Cindy were mainstream songwriters. Today's mainstreamers include Craig Wiseman, Paul Overstreet, Don Schlitz and bunch more who make a good living by writing songs. Nashville is a songwriting town. In my opinion, the greatest writers are right here in Music Town. Keep in mind, we need these songwriters. They give us their very hearts and soul in every word and melody they compose.

The difference between a good song and a great song is that it almost always takes a great song to become a hit. A smash. A killer.

The songs from the pen of Kris Kristofferson brought tons of fans to the radio and sold tons of records. In Kris' songs, the subject of sex is portrayed in such a tender manner, a lot of people didn't really realize what he was writing and singing about when the words flowed, "Hold your warm and tender body close to mine ... and make believe you love me one more time."

Kris framed the lyrics in such a manner that the preachers and the mamas and the politicians could not scream that the words were vulgar. Keep in mind, before Kris, a touch or a hug and a few scattered kisses were about all that was implied in any of country music's love songs. (Of course, we always had our share of cheating songs, divorcing songs and drinking songs, but we always loved Jesus by the last line.)

I still remember pulling off the road the first time I heard the great George Jones on the radio singing, "He Stopped Loving Her Today." It's still my all-time favorite song. These days, I'm loving "This Is Country Music" by Brad Paisley. The honesty and truth and completeness in this song is astounding.

Taylor Swift, Jake Gyllenhaal and Gwyneth Paltrow
I read where actress Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a private dinner party for Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal in her home at Primrose Hill in London. Some friend of Taylor's allowed as how she'd always wanted a sister and fell in love with Gwyneth. I honestly thought Kellie Pickler was like Taylor's sister. What do I know? I just keep it country. By the way, some of them said Gwyneth's singing hubby, Chris Martin of Coldplay, introduced the girls.

Michelle Branch Abandons "Exhausting" Country Album
Remember the duo called the Wreckers? They had a No. 1 hit in 2006 with "Leave the Pieces," and everything seemed to be moving in a positive direction until Michelle Branch and partner Jessica Harp suddenly called it quits. Branch has been in London recently, co-writing with a couple of pop producers.

According to Branch, "The last record, the country one, became so exhausting that this one is all about having fun and being creative again and not feeling like I have to write a specific way for a specific genre."

Well, yuk, yuk.

Michelle, please stay pop. Honestly, we have enough great songwriters who enjoy creating for the country genre.

On the other hand, you may be interested in knowing that famed record producer Don Was, who has worked with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, among others, says, "Nashville is one of America's hippest places." Amen, sir. Amen.

More News
Kenny Chesney's "The Boys of Fall" has been certified gold for shipments of 500,000 copies.

Reba has topped the country chart again with "Turn On the Radio."

LeAnn Rimes and actor Eddie Cibrian are engaged, she tweeted.

Underprivileged children in the Nashville area had a Merry Christmas, thanks to Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, NFL alum Ray Carolin and the folks at the Spalding sporting goods company. Trucks arrived at one of Garth's nine concerts in Nashville and delivered 14,000 to be distributed by Toys for Tots.

The great George Strait and redshirtfridays.com have partnered up to make every Friday on his spring tour a red shirt Friday. The Cowboy wants to see a building filled with fans wearing red shirts to honor servicemen and women. Lord knows, we need to honor our true heroes -- the servicemen and women.

Miley Cyrus, busy in New Orleans being a movie star, got a new tattoo on her finger. Not to worry, though. It was a cross tattoo.

See the Hot Dish recipe of the week: Cabbage and Apples.
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