(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.)
Traveling from Nashville to Chattanooga, the hills turn into mountains before you know it while the "See Rock City" signs pop up along the roadside. You'll cross the Georgia state line then the Tennessee state line and then the Georgia state line a second time. Pretty soon the mileage sign says Rossville, Ga.
Lauren Alaina was all of 16 when she and her parents Kristy and J.J. drove from Rossville to Music Town, where auditions for American Idol were happening. Little did they know this was the beginning of a life-changing event for them. Lauren passed the audition with flying colors and was on her way to Hollywood. J.J. had a job, so he stayed home while Kristy flew off to Hollywood with their daughter.
After meeting those fine folks, I cannot imagine just how difficult this must have been. But the fans kept voting, Lauren kept winning and Kristy stayed in Hollywood with their daughter for six months while J.J. held down the fort at home.
I'd never met Lauren until she came to my kitchen for CMT's Southern Fried Flicks. When I walked into my kitchen, Lauren already had the entire room shining. Her smile, her laughter and her Southern drawl was as real as the Georgia clay where she'd raced barefoot as a child. From our first eye contact, her blue eyes, perfect teeth and kindness were so obvious. How could a girl barely 17 be so well put together? Tall, perfectly coiffed and, of course, that million-dollar smile.
I'd prepared curried chicken soup, baked asparagus and crunchy salad with iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, chopped green onions, sugar, almonds and mandarin oranges. Dessert was cherry cobbler. That little girl had two bowls of soup, three salads and cherry cobbler. She was so cute serving her dad and mom the salad.
Her first single, "Like My Mother Does," sold 121,000 copies its first week out. She's appeared and performed on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Live With Regis and Kelly, The Today Show, the Grand Ole Opry and at the CMA Music Festival. In 2011, she toured with the American Idol finalists from Utah to the Philippines. And mama Kristy escorted Lauren every step of the way.
The biggest gift of all came when Lauren was invited to hit the road with Jason Aldean on his My Kinda Party tour that continues until late March. One of the major perks each night is when she gets to perform alongside Jason -- singing Kelly Clarkson's part on "Don't You Wanna Stay." The fans are going nuts!
As for me, I expect Lauren to continue to rise in country music until she reaches the heights of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and sells as many records as Shania Twain.
And a Visit From Sweet Home Alabama Star
I looked up, and standing in my kitchen was another beauty -- Paige Duke, who's making quite a name for herself as the star of the current season of CMT's Sweet Home Alabama. She's a native of Lancaster, S.C., across the state line from North Carolina. And with 22 fellows vying for her affection in the hit series, she told me she actually fell head over heels in love with one of them! Us Carolina girls know love when it stares us down.
The brunette is almost 6 feet tall and thin. She has a sweet Southern smile, a great personality and flawless complexion. Her beauty is the real deal.
I asked Paige if she ever ventured into nearby Charlotte, N.C., where NASCAR lives, breathes and rules.
"All the time," she answered, admitting that Tony Stewart is her favorite driver.
She's so into racing, her visit to my house was a pit stop on her way to the Daytona 500. The former Miss Sprint Cup is a country girl who loves hunting and fishing.
She attended Clemson University's Calhoun Honors College. She majored in animal veterinary sciences and has worked as a veterinary assistant. She won her first Hawaiian Tropic Model Search when she was 18 and was third runner-up in Miss Hawaiian Tropic national finals.
Taylor Swift is so huge, she is featured on the cover of Vogue. That is very huge. She's also on the cover of InCeleb magazine in Japan. She'll be getting more attention from the international media when her tour of Australia and New Zealand begins Friday (March 2).
Taylor has a starring role as the voice of Audrey in the animated film, The Lorax, which hits theaters on Friday. The film, based on the popular Dr. Seuss book, also features the voices of Zac Efron, Betty White, Ed Helms and Danny DeVito.
I thought you'd like to know that Taylor was invited to record executive Clive Davis' private party at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles on the night before the Grammy Awards, but the 22-year-old did not feel like she should party just hours after Whitney Houston's death at the hotel. Taylor politely declined the invitation to one of the biggest music industry events of the year, proving that it's getting harder for her to make a mistake.
Whitney Houston Sings Herself Home
Speaking of Whitney Houston, the marquee in front of the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., flashed "We Will Always Love You" in the hours leading up to the singer's funeral on Feb. 18. Record executive Clive Davis and actor-director Kevin Costner, both great men, spoke words that came from Whiney Houston's heart and through her lips. I know Baptist talk, and they'd learned it from Whitney.
When the six men lifted her casket to their shoulders and began the walk out of the church, the room rang out with Whitney's recording of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." As her vocals rose to heights, those watching the funeral on TV and the Internet around the world wept as the recording turned into the most beautiful, yet saddest, performance I've ever heard.
No two ways about it: Whitney sang herself home.
See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Chili Con Carne.