(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 shares her recipes at CMT.com.)
At first, my friend and I were oblivious to the young man that scrounged past us and took a window seat on the plane. She and I were talking about country stars' favorite recipes and didn't know he was listening until he said, "I love country music, and I may write a book."
I was on my way West Chester, Pa., to sell copies of my cookbook, Hazel's Hot Dish: Cookin' With Country Stars, during an appearance on QVC. The young man, Thomas Gardner, was on his way to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to visit a buddy who had lost his leg while in Iraq.
Gardner's close cropped hair was covered by a ball cap, and his vest with an American flag and an Alabama state flag and his tattooed arms were dead giveaways. He was an Alabama boy who has been serving his country in Iraq. Home on leave, he was taking time to visit a member of his squadron that he considers a hero.
"He kept standing and shooting after a hidden bomb blew off his left leg above his ankle," explained Gardner. "Hell, he's barely out of his teens. Gotta go see him."
A few minutes later, the 27-year-old sergeant said, "I just do my job. I am responsible for my wife and our 4-year-old daughter and the four wives and seven children of my men."
Gardner watches over his men as they train Iraqis to take care of their nation. Meanwhile, the Jihad and Lord knows what else motivate others to plant bombs and shoots guns in an effort to try to kill them. It's war.
"Hank Williams' music has meant the world to me ever since I was a kid," Gardner said. "I'm no different from any other guy from Alabama in the armed services. I love Hank's music. Hank Jr.'s, too. Hank Jr.'s music is different from his dad's."
I kept thinking the airline company should have offered the Atmore, Ala., native, a big T-bone steak with sides of baked potato, mixed Southern-grown veggies, homemade rolls slathered with butter and a quart of sweet iced tea. Instead, he got a piddling bag of baked cheddar-flavored chips and a soft drink -- like the rest of us. Fairly wretched.
"Alabama, man, what a group," he smiled and shook his head. "The songs they sing make me so proud of home."
"They're in the Country Music Hall of Fame now," I said. "They had a big party for them at the Hall last Sunday. Randy Owen allowed he wished his dad could see their plaque in the same room with Hank's."
"Six months from now -- in November when I come back from my third trip to Iraq -- I am going to the Hall of Fame to see Hank and Alabama's Hall of Fame plaques," he said.
He hesitated a minute, then added, "I'll tell you a dude I like: Toby Keith. Toby is a man's man and a great singer-songwriter. He's been to Iraq, but where we are, it's too dangerous for him to come. I'd like to get to know Toby." He laughed loudly and remarked, "And another guy I like is David Allan Coe. I met him. He will hang out with you. David don't think he's no better than the next man -- and he's country."
As he smiled and stared out the window of the airplane, his blue eyes twinkled as he said, "Boy, country music keeps me going over there."
I cannot get Thomas off my mind. I put him on the prayer chain at church.
Kenny Chesney's Friends in High Places
The very day Kenny Chesney was set to sing at a White House black-tie dinner honoring Australian Prime Minister John Howard, I got an e-mail from Kenny saying he's out on the road doing what he does. Kenny took his mama, Karen, to meet President Bush, and the prez gave Kenny a pair of boots.
Look for Kenny on Good Morning America's summer concert series on June 9. Kenny said somebody told him it's not summer until his tour comes to town. Go get 'em, Kenny. See you July 8 in Nashville during your stadium show at the Coliseum.
Craig Morgan Did Not Listen
There's nothing worse than a man who does not listen to a woman when she is right. And I was right!
In early April, Craig Morgan showed up at the Country Music Expo in Indianapolis with a broken left wrist he acquired in a motorcycle accident. While racing on a motorcycle, he hit the root of a tree and was thrown headfirst into the tree. In addition to breaking his wrist, he also suffered a concussion.
"Don't do that anymore," I told him. "You've got a wife, a house full of kids and a bevy of good country fans. Do not race that motorcycle. It's too risky."
Well, he didn't listen. He got back on the cycle in Vanleer, Tenn., and again hit the root of a tree, causing him again to careen off the bike. Morgan sustained a plateau fracture of his right tibia but he got right back on the bike and finished the race in fifth place. But unlike the earlier accident, he will now be wheelchair bound for six to eight weeks.
CRAIG! (That's me yelling.)
Dixie Chicks' Future?
Their new album is about to be released and they're planning a summer tour of North America, but who knows what the future really holds for the Dixie Chicks?
I believe there is a higher power who knows, but He is the only one who hasn't given an opinion. The deciding factor is radio. It was country radio who stopped playing their music and is not playing their records much to speak of even now.
Regardless of the outcome, they have made some great music. The girls can outsing and outpick just about anybody. And for those who disagree with their politics, death threats are not the answer.
I wonder if a group called themselves Dixie Roosters -- you know, a male trio -- had made the same remark Natalie Maines made about President Bush to cause this uproar, would they be forever chastised? The music and radio industries are male-run businesses, and I do recall that John Lennon was forgiven for once saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Just wondering.
This 'n' That
I see where newcomer Rockie Lynne recently sang "Red, White and Blue" at the Pentagon. Lynne is a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Will wonders never cease? Bluegrass is getting greener and growing taller. Proof? Alison Krauss is set to produce Alan Jackson's next album due in September. Because neither Alison nor Alan is known to get out and hang out a lot, they first talked about the project last fall while backstage at Carnegie Hall.
Following the 30th anniversary gala for the United Nations Development Fund for Women in New York, Nicole Kidman, who serves on the board, confirmed her engagement to Keith Urban. "He's my fiancé," Kidman said. "I wouldn't be bringing my boyfriend." Kidman's been wearing what looked like a diamond engagement ring since November, but neither she nor Keith would say what it meant. In Music Town, we knew what it meant. We didn't just get to town on a turnip truck.
Billy Ray Cyrus fans will be happy to know that he has a new record deal.
God bless Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who are committed to donate 100 percent of the net proceeds from their July 5 concert in New Orleans to their home states of Louisiana and Mississippi. At that time, the couple will launch their Neighbor's Keeper Foundation to provide help for the needy. They've been helping -- and are gonna help more.
I don't want to hear any complaints from any of you so-called road warriors about your travels. The 87-year-old queen of country music -- Kitty Wells -- and her husband of 69 years -- the 92-year old Johnny Wright -- recently trekked up to Pennsylvania to perform four sold-out concerts.
See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Sausage Pie.