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Iconic music maker Moman . . .

 Versatile ‘Chips’ Moman produced rockabilly, R&B, country hits

     NASHVILLE — A man for all seasons of music, songwriter-producer Chips Moman died June 13 at a hospice in LaGrange, Ga., where he had been battling lung disease. A musical maverick, Moman’s best known for producing hits on Waylon Jennings, Aretha Franklin, B. J. Thomas and, of course, Elvis Presley. Moman copped a 1976 Grammy for his country co-write “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” (with Larry Butler), a #1 for B.J. Thomas. Born June 12, 1937 in LaGrange, he began playing guitar as a youngster. At 14, he ran away from home, hitchhiking to Memphis, where he obtained work on his cousin’s paint crew. While strumming his guitar in a drugstore, country singer Warren Smith (“Odds and Ends”) heard and offered him a job with his road show. Soon he was touring with rockabilly acts Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps (“Be-Bop-A-Lula”), and Johnny Burnette (“You’re 16”). In an interview later, Moman pointed out that all three of those artists died at a relatively young age.
While fresh out of his teens, he spent time in Los Angeles, trying to make his way as a studio musician at Gold Star Studio. During the early 1960s, however, Moman returned to Memphis, hitching his star to the indie Satellite Records, primarily a country label as an engineer, but when that didn’t pan out, started concentrating on producing soul singers. The label’s first regional success was Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz” in 1960, which Atlantic picked up, turning it into a national Top Five R&B single (and a crossover pop Top 10).
Moman, who liked to gamble, garnered the nickname “Chips.” Less of a gamble was aligning himself with the Stax label, bringing in Carla’s dad Rufus Thomas, who scored with “Walking The Dog.” Chips produced some of the now legendary label’s early soul hits, notably “Last Night” by The Mar-Keys and “You Don’t Miss Your Water” by William Bell. In a huff, Moman departed Stax in 1964, regarding payments for Booker T. & The MGs’ mega hit “Green Onions.”
Chips then organized The Memphis Boys, session bandsmen, who helped define the earthy Memphis Sound of the 1960s, and founded his American Sound Studio (with Don Crews) in ’67. There 120-plus hits were produced for such notables as The Gentrys, B. J. Thomas, Dusty Springfield and Neil Diamond. Chip’s most successful sessions, however, were with Elvis Presley, starting in January 1969, when the king of rock and roll turned to him to resuscitate his flagging recording career, cutting “Suspicious Minds” and “In The Ghetto,” for starters. Their collaboration resulted in the iconic studio album “From Elvis In Memphis” (1969), representing Presley’s first Memphis session since his mid-1950s Sun days. A year later, they reunited for Elvis’ “Back In Memphis.”
The innovative Chips also developed a talent for writing, including pairing with Dan Penn on the soulful “Dark End Of The Street” a hit for James Carr, and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” for Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. He left Memphis in 1972, played sessions at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and then moved north to Nashville. Among artists he worked with tin Music City were Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, producing such successes as “Luckenbach, Texas,” “The Wurlitzer Prize” (both of which he wrote), “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Pancho & Lefty” and Nelson’s 1982 cover of “Always On My Mind,” earning Willie a Grammy for best country vocal, plus best single and best song. Speaking of Grammys, Chips encouraged Willie, Waylon, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash in 1985 to do “The Highwayman,” which earned that prize as best song.
Moman and Memphis merged again, when in September 1985, Chips produced the “Class of ’55” session reuniting former Sun Records artists Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, prompting a documentary by Dick Clark Productions, tracking their historic get-together from start to finish. Initially it was coupled with the album and marketed as a TV product. Further, John Fogerty contributed the album’s song finale “Big Train (From Memphis),” which blended the vocals of John, Dave Edmunds, Ricky Nelson, The Judds, June Carter Cash and Sam Phillips, Sun’s founder. A sideline to the event was another recording, “Interviews From The Class of ’55 Recording Sessions,” which earned the performers and Moman a shared 1987 Grammy for Best Spoken Word.
Other compositions credited to Chips include “This Time,” recorded by Troy Shondell; “Love Looks Good On You,” cut by David Houston; and “So Much Like My Dad,” recorded by George Strait. Among other country artists cutting his songs were Johnny Lee, Barbara Mandrell, Archie Campbell & Lorene Mann. Moman, a member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame since 1990, was previously wed to songwriter Toni Wine (who wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love,” “Candida” and “Black Pearl.”
In the early ’90s, Chips relocated to West Point, Ga., not far from LaGrange, where for a time he continued to produce and record until ill health set in. Survivors include his wife Jane, daughter Monique and son Casey. Funeral arrangements were not completed at the time of writing.

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News of Nashville . . .

Music City Beat – May 2016 . . . Pop stars go country!

     Steven TylerNASHVILLE, Tenn. – Country’s selling better these days, otherwise such pop icons as Cyndi Lauper or Steven Tyler wouldn’t be jumping on the bandwagon with such fervor. Tyler, 68, best known as Aerosmith frontman, currently has a country album ready, and its first single “Love Is Your Name” released last June, soared high, hitting #1 on Billboard’s Country Streaming Songs chart; however, its overall reception on the trade weekly’s Hot Country Songs (HCS) stalled at #19. The follow-up, “Red White & You,” also co-produced with Dann Huff (who guided the likes of Keith Urban), peaked at #29 on HCS in February. Tyler’s long-awaited CD (co-produced by T-Bone Burnett) is due out this summer on Big Machine’s subsidiary label, Dot Records. Not one to miss an opportunity, Tyler graced ABC’s (now canceled) night-time soap Nashville, doing a duet with show star Hayden Panettiere, singing the Patsy Cline classic “Crazy.” Its lyrics (by Willie Nelson) are more attuned to country than Tyler’s “Red, White & You” throwaway pickup-trucker line “free fallin’ into your yum-yum,” as it apparently strives to be another “Summertime Blues” anthem a la Eddie Cochran’s original 1958 single (which is also name-dropped in the number). “Bang bang baby/ Like the fourth of July/A lightning strike in the midnight sky/Don’t give a damn about the summertime blues/All I need is red, white and you!” He also name checks Tom Petty, and (his new label) Big Machine, yet singing about “your yum-yum” sounds sorta strange coming from a man nearing his seventh decade. Nonetheless, he’s off on tour for the summer, including headlining the New Hampshire cycle crowd LaconiaFest’s main stage June 15, backed by his Nashville band Loving Mary. Others slated to share the stage on tour with the new country crooner are mostly hard rock acts Buckcherry, Saving Abel & Fuel, Bret Michaels, Ted Nugent and Sevendust.

cyndi-lauper-detour-coverCyndi Lauper’s 35-city “Detour” tour, co-sponsored by her new label Sire Records, is scheduled to wrap at The Joint in Las Vegas, Oct. 8. Meanwhile, she’s been plugging it and her country CD media-wise on CBS This Morning, NBC Late Night With Seth Meyers, America’s Morning Show, Nash Nights Live, Big D & Bubba, Kickin’ It With Kix (Brooks), CMT, GAC, as well as in print via USA Today, Associated Press, Rolling Stone, Maverick, Billboard and Nash Country Weekly. Can you believe she’s invited Boy George to open six of her supposedly country-oriented stops (shades of Moe & Joe “Where’s the Dress,” a Top 10 Bandy-Stampley sendup on Boy George)? The seemingly-indefatigable Cyndi, now 62, is one of the few singers to earn Grammy, Emmy and Tony awards. She says Sire’s founder Seymour Stein served as executive producer of her new album, which boasts guest vocals by such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson (on her revival of his classic “Night Life”). The pop princess even tackles Patsy Montana’s 1936 million seller “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” sharing the mic with Jewel, exhibiting yodeling skills. Lauper launched her tour at the Ryman in Nashville, May 9, noting, “In the end of the whole world there will be Cockroaches and Cher and me. This is our first show of the tour. I’m really nervous because I just get nervous, but this is a church (initially built as a tabernacle in the 19th century), so how bad can it be? . . . except the F-bomb has got to stop!” Yes, she did include some of her past hits, among them “She Bop,” “I Drove All Night” and “Money Changes Everything.” Incidentally, in recognizing the recent passing of Prince, she briefly went off message, singing “When You Were Mine,” and commented in part, “He was funny, and he was a great artist, and, bottom line, he really gave everything onstage. Everything.” As did Cyndi, earning several standing ovations for her premiere performance, as the pink-haired lady signed off with “True Colors.”

Kiefer SutherlandScene Stealers: Even actors sometimes get the urge to sing folksy for fans, as did last century superstars Bing Crosby (“Pistol Packin’ Mama”), Dean Martin (“Lay Some Happiness On Me”), Robert Mitchum (“Little Ol’ Wine Drinker Me”), and current screen favorites Kevin Bacon (“36 Cents”), Steve Martin (“Love Has Come For You”) and Kevin Costner (“Untold Truths”). So why should we be surprised 24-TV star Kiefer Sutherland (Jack Bauer) did a Nashville recording session? Kiefer, 49, was born a twin (with sister Rachel) in London, to actors Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas. One of his pastimes was playing guitar, which led to singing and songwriting. Sure enough, this good ol’ boy had the fever as well, cutting an album here of country songs, “Down In A Hole.” Spinning off its first single, the self-penned “Not Enough Whiskey” (also filmed as a music video) fits Kiefer’s gravelly vocals to a T. As the veteran player confides, he’s had his own bouts with the bottle: “I’ve certainly been there, where something will happen in life, and one, two, three bottles of whiskey are not going to fix it . . . so you have to find another way to deal with it. I’m sure a lot of people have felt that way.” Currently, Kiefer’s in the midst of a 26-city tour to promote his music . . . Lady Antebellum was in Louisville, May 7, for the annual Kentucky Derby race, and despite a downpour, the group hit the stage singing the National Anthem before more than 167,000 fans and umpteen nags. On hand to watch Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley’s opening song were their respective mates Chris Terrell, Kelli Haywood and Cassie Kelley. As Cassie’s hubby quipped, “I watched some You-Tube videos of other artists that have done it in the past and it’s pretty nerve wracking! We’re gonna make sure we don’t have too much to drink before we sing.” . . . Grammy winner Linda Davis is understandably excited about being invited to join Kenny Rogers’ farewell tour, The Gambler’s Last Deal, starting across the nation, May 13 in Minnesota, and then its off to Asia in August. Rising star Charlie Worsham (“Could It Be”) will join them for their European gigs in late October. The Country Music Hall of Famer has also made his mark in movies, most notably “The Gambler,” “Six Pack” and “Rio Diablo.” Rogers stated, “I’m excited about making one more sweep around the world. For more than five decades, I’ve been fortunate enough to have such wonderful, loyal audiences and their support has meant so much. This final tour is going to be a celebration of all of my music, and I know each night will be truly special.” . . . Country Music Hall of Famer Charley Pride chatted candidly with iconic newscaster Dan Rather, May 7, sharing some of his childhood memories during an in-depth session for the AXS TV series The Big Interview. Pride told of how he became influenced in country music growing up in the Mississippi Delta, listening on radio to Hank Williams singing songs like “Mansion On the Hill,” “Lovesick Blues,” but his very favorite was a gospel number Hank sang, “I’ll Have a New Body (I’ll Have a New Life).” One of 11 children, Charley and his brothers had to pick cotton, not one of his favorite memories, and “We’d sleep three and four to a bed; I remember sometimes I’d wake up and my brother’s toes were right in my nose.” His family was into gospel music mostly, though his father liked bluegrass by Bill Monroe. Humorously, Pride recalled getting his first guitar, a Silvertone, ordered from a Sears & Roebuck catalogue, costing $14: “I left it in the wagon and it rained. It was just glued together, you know, and I kept trying to tune it, and it just kept bowing and bowing with strings, the glue around it (loose) . . . and my mother was walking up on the porch, it was probably about 105 degrees and she heard something go ‘Boooiiinnng!’ She said, ‘Boy, you better go up there and look at your box! The rats are running over it.’”
Honors: The CMT video award nominees have been announced. Not surprisingly vying for best female video are Cam, “Burning House”; Kelsey Ballerini, “Dibs”; Jana Kramer, “I Got the Boy”; Maren Morris, “My Church”; Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits”; Carrie Underwood, “Smoke Break.” Best male video: Luke Bryan, “Kick the Dust Up”; Eric Church, “Like a Wrecking Ball”; Sam Hunt, “Breakup In a Small Town”; Thomas Rhett, “Die a Happy Man”; Blake Shelton, “Sangria”; Keith Urban, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Best group or duo: Brothers Osborne, “Stay a Little Longer”; Dan + Shay, “Nothin’ Like You”; Florida Georgia Line, “Sippin’ On Fire”; Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”; Old Dominion, “Break Up With Him”; Zac Brown Band, “Loving You Easy.” Breakthrough video: Brothers Osborne, “Stay a Little Longer”; Cam, “Burning House”; Chris Janson, “Buy Me a Boat”; Maren Morris, “My Church”; Old Dominion, “Break Up With Him”; Chris Stapleton, “Fire Away.” Performance of the Year: Cheap Trick & Jennifer Nettles, “I Want You To Want Me”; Brantley Gilbert & Lynyrd Skynyrd, “What’s Your Name”; Adam Lambert & Leona Lewis, “Girl Crush”; Darius Rucker, “Alright”; Carrie Underwood, “Smoke Break.”  Finally, nominees for Video of the Year: Jason Aldean, “Tonight Looks Good On You”; Luke Bryan, “Strip It Down”; Cam, “Burning House”; Florida Georgia Line, “Sippin’ On Fire”; Sam Hunt, “Breakup In a Small Town”; Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”; Tim McGraw, “Humble & Kind”; Thomas Rhett, “Die a Happy Man”; Blake Shelton, “Sangria”; Chris Stapleton, “Fire Away”; Carrie Underwood, “Smoke Break”; Keith Urban, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Winners will be announced live at the CMT Music Awards show, June 8, from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
Speaking of award shows, the 15th annual Americana Music Festival nominations were revealed during a May 11 special show in Washington, D.C. Among those included in the 2016 line-up are as follows. Album of the Year: “Something More Than Free,” Jason Isbell, producer Dave Cobb; “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” Lucinda Williams, producers Lucinda, Greg Leisz, Tom Overby; “The Very Last Day,” Parker Millsap, co-produced by Millsap & Gary Paczosa; “Traveller,” Chris Stapleton, produced by Dave Cobb & Stapleton. Artist of the Year: Jason Isbell, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Stapleton, Lucinda Williams. Duo/Group of the Year: Alabama Shakes; Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell; Lake Street Dive; The Milk Carton Kids; Tedeschi Trucks Band. Emerging Artist of the Year: Leon Bridges, John Moreland, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Song of the Year: “24 Frames,” Jason Isbell; “Dime Store Cowgirl,” Kacey Musgraves; “Hands Of Time,” Margo Price; “S.O.B.,” Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats. Instrumentalist of the Year: Cindy Cashdollar, Stuart Duncan, Jedd Hughes, Sara Watkins. Results of the voting will be disclosed during Americana Honors and Awards night, Sept. 21, in the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville.
Bits & Pieces: Del McCoury’s bluegrass tribute to folk legend Woody Guthrie, “Del & Woody,” just marked its second week atop Billboard’s Bluegrass Album chart. The story goes that Woody’s daughter Nora invited Del to put melodies to Depression Era song lyrics her father wrote, among them such titles as “The New York Trains,” “Ain’t A Gonna Do,” “Left In This World Alone,” “The Government Road,” “Hoecake Fritters” and “Family Reunion.” Woody, who died in 1967 at age 55, was known primarily for protest tunes, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You.” . . . Blake Shelton and his latest love Gwen Stefani announced a new duet single on social media, May 9, titled “Go Ahead and Break My Heart.” They were to sing it on the karaoke talent show they judge, The Voice, that evening, and it’s on Blake’s next CD “If I’m Honest,” hitting stores May 20 . . . Nice to know 1980s’ hitmaker Sylvia’s still in there recording. Word is that her new album “All In the Family” will be released in June on the indie Red Pony label, her first in a baker’s dozen years. She scored with single word hits such as “Tumbleweed,” “Drifter,” “Matador” and “Nobody” on RCA, before choosing semi-retirement to concentrate on her writing . . . Sad to say Kid Rock (Robert Ritchey) discovered the body of his assistant Michael Sacha, 30, April 25, after an apparent accident involving his ATV on the singer’s property. Reportedly following a party on site, Sacha drove guests to a waiting Uber down the lengthy driveway, around midnight. Allegedly Sacha lost control of the vehicle and crashed, while attempting to drive back to the residence. Ritchie in a statement, said he is “beyond devastated . . . He was a member of our family and one of the greatest young men I have ever had the pleasure to not only work with, but also to become friends with. I know I speak for us all in sharing my deepest condolences to his family. I cannot imagine how they must feel.”
More Honors: Blake Shelton will be present to officially kick off the exhibit “Blake Shelton: Based On a True Story,” scheduled May 27 to Nov. 6, at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum here. Museum editor Michael McCall will interview Blake, June 6, discussing his career, after which the star will do a short acoustic set . . . Middle Tennessee State University’s new veterans and family center on campus will be named the Hazel & Charlie Daniels Center, in recognition of the couple’s efforts on behalf of veterans attending school there, following service to America. Daniels has been responsible for raising about $125,000 in contributions as part of a Journey Home Project. Charlie acknowledged, “I’ve been blessed to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and now, having a veterans center named after me . . . We are deeply touched and deeply honored.” . . . Alabama, the country band, and soulful Sam Moore are the latest VIPs receiving stars on the Music City Walk of Fame, in a ceremony conducted May 26, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. Located adjacent to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the latest Walk of Fame celebrates the 71st and 72nd stars installed. Reminds us of the original Walk of Fame laid down in the previous Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum on Music Row, in which artists’ names were included for a fee, sometimes paid by the artists themselves or their fan clubs. Sad that these were not replaced in connection with the newer museum built downtown, which probably means no further recognition for those legendary names of the past, such as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Johnnie & Jack, Minnie Pearl, Carl Smith and Webb Pierce, all recognized in the original walk-way . . . Country superstar Brad Paisley joined forces with pop singer Jewel and screen star Sean Penn in a Nashville fund-raiser – Nashville Shines For Haiti – to benefit the J/P Haitian Relief Organization’s Day 2, hosted by Johnathon and Newman Arndt, April 27, on their property. Penn, of course, has long been a benefactor for Haiti, one of the hemisphere’s poorest nations. Cheering on the acts, which also included comedian-host Kevin Nealon and Haitian artist Paul Beaubrun, were Nashville’s elite, who paid handsomely to just be in the audience. In closing his set, Paisley invited Beaubrun and Penn to join him on the number “Alcohol.” (J/P HRO supports programs such as medical aid, community development, reconstruction and reforestation in Haiti.)
Box Office Bonanzas: Country stars scoring in Billboard’s annual Top 10 moneymakers of 2015, are #2 Kenny Chesney (totaling $39.8 million) and #7 Luke Bryan ($23.1 million), who incidentally is also country’s top streaming artist (and 13th overall) with 667 million streams over the past year. Finishing just out of that lucrative box office list is country rocker Jason Aldean (#11, with $18.9 million) and Shania Twain (#12, $14.4 million). Topping the list is former country chirp Taylor Swift with an astounding take of $73.5 million, and just behind Chesney at #3 is British rock legends the Rolling Stones ($39.6 million). Country runners up in the Top 40 box office list are: #19 Florida Georgia Line ($11.5 million), #23 Eric Church ($10.1 million), #35 Brad Paisley ($6.8 million), and #38 Toby Keith ($6.5 million). Sources include Nielson Music and Billboard Boxscore chartings . . .  If Keith Urban’s free outdoor concert here, May 9, is any indication, look for him to make next year’s Top 10 moneymakers list. More than 7,000 spectators crowded Lower Broad Street to witness his mid-day Monday appreciation concert to mark the release of “Ripcord,” his latest CD. Urban and backup players had a portable bandstand situated outside the Bridgestone Arena. Keith kicked off his spectacular set with “Gone Tomorrow,” exclaiming, “Good Lord, Nashville! . . . I so appreciate this morning.” In addition to tracks from the album, he included such successes as “Sweet Thing” and “Long, Hot Summer.” He launches his “RipCORD World Tour,” June 2 . . . ASCAP’s Elizabeth Matthews, who heads up the performing rights organization in Nashville, reports more than $1 billion in revenue collections in 2015, marking a $61 million increase over the previous year’s revenues. Despite the upsurge, she cautions that there’s still a crying need to update the music’s copyright laws . . . Come the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, June 6, fans can enjoy international artists during the now annual CMA World GlobaLive! showcase on the outdoor stage at Hard Rock Cafe downtown. And it’s free, reports Sarah Traherne, CMA’s CEO, “This event continues to grow, along with CMA’s strategic focus on developing markets outside the U.S. for country music. We are pleased to provide an annual platform for these international performers to reach and cultivate domestic fans, as well as garnering attention from the music industry.” Among the foreign talents scheduled are: Troy Cassar-Daley, Karin Page, Caitlyn Shadbolt (Australia); Raquel Cole, Chad Brownlee, Brett Kissell (Canada); Kayla Mahon (New Zealand); and Frankie Davies, plus The Pauper Kings (United Kingdom) . . . Nice to see smooth-voiced Marty Raybon again touring in Shenandoah, 17 years after saying “Sayonara” to the Muscle Shoals band he helped form in 1985. Of course, they charted such #1’s as “The Church On Cumberland Row” and “If Bubba Can Dance,” until Marty moved on to recording bluegrass. Shenandoah’s current tour wraps Nov. 18 in Newberry, S.C.
Final Curtain: Tim White, host of the PBS bluegrass series Song Of The Mountains, is mourning the sudden death of daughter Jackie, 28, in Louden, Tenn. Only four months ago, she gave birth to his granddaughter Riley Quinn Dawson, whose dad is Derrick Dawson. Besides her dad and daughter, survivors include Derrick, her mother Penny White, and sister Meaghan. Services were held May 5 at Bethel View Baptist Church in Bristol, Tenn.
Singer-guitarist Lonnie Mack, 74, died April 21 in Nashville’s Centennial Medical Center, reportedly from natural causes. He’s best remembered as a guitar influence on such players as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughan, with whom he co-produced his classic 1985 album “Strike Like Lightning.” A fan of such musical giants as Merle Travis, Robert Ward (of The Ohio Untouchables), Bobby Bland and George Jones, he developed his own unique style, both as guitarist and vocalist. A native of West Harrison, Indiana, he moved 20 miles east to Cincinnati doing sessions with R&B icons James Brown, Hank Ballard and Freddie King, and himself signed with Fraternity Records. Standouts include his 1963 Top Five instrumental version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and its follow-up “Wham,” which produced the groundbreaking Bigsby tremolo bar he played on his 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar, serial #7, and nicknamed “the Whammy bar.” Memorable, too, was Lonnie’s bass guitar riffs on The Doors’ “Morrison Hotel” 1969 tracks: “Roadhouse Blues” and “Maggie M’Gill.” He was an inductee into both the International Guitar Hall of Fame (2001) and Rockabilly Hall of Fame (2005). R&B’s Bootsy Collins probably best summed it up, in citing Mack as his musical idol: “The songs that he did were just so incredible to me. I would try to mimic all the notes he would play on his guitar.” In an earlier review of a concert in the Big Apple, a New York Times music critic wrote, “Although Mr. Mack can play every finger-twisting blues guitar lick, he doesn’t show off; he comes up with sustained melodies and uses fast licks only at an emotional peak. Mr. Mack is also a thoroughly convincing singer.” Enough said.
Musician-songwriter Jody Johnson, 66, died at his home in Port Charlotte, Fla., April 29. A native of North Wilkesboro, N.C., he grew up loving music and learned how to play the guitar. For more than 20 years, he toured with name country artists, including as bandleader-guitarist for Little David Wilkins, and later spent 12 years backing Justin Tubb as guitarist-bandleader on the road and his portion of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry show. He became a mainstay on Ernest Tubb’s famed Midnight Jamboree, also on WSM, while in Justin’s band. Little David Wilkins recorded “He’ll Play the Music (But You Can’t Make Him Dance)” which he co-wrote with Johnson in 1977, and a Billboard Top 20 single. Among other artists recording Jody’s songs were Tubb, Jack Greene, Brenda Lee, Charlie Louvin, Charley Pride and Faron Young. He was preceded in death by his elder daughter Tammy Johnson. Survivors include Ginger Johnson, his wife of 40 years; sons Craig and Joe Johnson; daughters Keela Shoesmith and Amy Johnson-Grant; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. Services were conducted at Kays Ponger & Uselton Funeral Home, Punta Gorda, Fla., May 7, with The Reverend Wayne Earnest officiating.

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Loss of another music legend . . .

  Hall of Famer Guy Clark . . . This One’s For Him

    NASHVILLE — I write stories about people and Guy Clark wrote songs about people, but there the similarities end. My pieces focus on the who, what, where, when and why, while Clark’s strong story-songs sound like sheer poetry when played. Upon learning the legendary artist had died, I was stunned, though not unaware that he had been suffering health issues in recent years, but we’re sure gonna miss his heartfelt originality.
Officially speaking, Texas-born Guy Charles Clark, 74, died in his Nashville home, May 17, according to manager Keith Case. Best known as the writer of  classic songs like “L. A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting For a Train,” “The Carpenter,” “She’s Crazy For Leaving,” “Heartbroke,” “Baby, I’m Yours” and “Oklahoma Borderline,” it’s easy to see why Clark was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 2004.

Guy Clark, no desperado-2
“I would not be the songwriter I am, if I hadn’t sat at your table and learned from a master,” Rosanne Cash, Tweeted the morning of his death, “Travel  safe, old friend.”
While Guy sure didn’t bust any chart records, Clark did land a trio of his own Warner Bros. singles onto Billboard’s country list, all self-penned: “Fools For Each Other,” “The Partner Nobody Chose” and “Homegrown Tomato,” the latter two Top 40s. Nonetheless, cover artists such as Jerry Jeff Walker (“L.A. Freeway”), The Highwaymen (“Desperados Waiting For a Train”), John Conlee (“The Carpenter”), Rodney Crowell (“She’s Crazy For Leaving”), Ricky Skaggs (“Heartbroke”), Steve Wariner (“Baby, I’m Yours”) and Vince Gill (“Oklahoma Borderline”) enjoyed hits from his magical pen. Others including Asleep At the Wheel, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Alan Jackson, Lyle Lovett, David Allan Coe, Brad Paisley, George Strait, U-2, Hayes Carll and Kenny Chesney covered his songs. Quite an impressive list for any writer.
He married Susanna in 1972, having first met her in Oklahoma. She was an art teacher, who later designed album covers for labels, including Willie Nelson’s acclaimed “Stardust” LP. She co-wrote such successful songs as Kathy Mattea’s #1 “Come From the Heart,” and near Top 10s for Emmylou Harris, “Easy From Now On,” and Dottsy, “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose.” In 2012, Susanna died from cancer. That was tough for her surviving mate, who was already experiencing poor health himself.
A trio of Guy’s albums – RCA’s “Old No.1,” “Texas Cookin’,” and Warner’s “Better Days” – also scored near the Top 40 on Billboard’s chart – and he won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album: “My Favorite Picture Of You” (2013). He confided it was inspired by a picture of Susanna, taken when she was angry with him, but his lyrics inform her, “The camera loves you/And so do I.”
Guy joined his writing hero Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle for a “live” album “Together At the Bluebird Cafe” in 1995, and both Clark’s “Old Friends” 1989 and “Workbench Songs” in 2006 were Grammy-nominated. A 2011 double-CD, celebrating his influence on music – “This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark” – featured an all-star cast, including Rosanne Cash and Willie Nelson, paying him homage, while earning Americana’s Album of the Year award.
Born Nov. 6, 1941, in Monahans, Texas, Guy was mainly raised by his grandmom in her small hotel, where her World War II roomers consisted mainly of bomber pilots, drifters and oilmen, while Guy’s dad was away at war. One tenant, a wildcatter called Jack Prigg, was referred to in Guy’s “Desperados Waiting For a Train.” In his ballad “Randall Knife,” Guy saluted his father (and as a result the tradition of American craftsmanship), writing: “If you’ve ever held a Randall knife/Then you know my father well/If a better blade was ever made/It was probably forged in hell . . .” 
In high school, Guy proved a skilled athlete,  playing basketball, football and track and field, but also did some acting in school productions, and participated on the debate team. Guy proclaimed,  “I grew up in a family where poetry was read every night.” He didn’t own a record player until he was in his teens, and was 17 before he began playing guitar.

A young Guy Clark-2
Reportedly,  he was a shipbuilder’s apprentice, and also briefly joined the Peace Corps, before launching his professional pickin’ and singin’ career in Houston, where he and pal Minor Wilson also started up a guitar repair shop. He once joined the Houston Folklore Society, which reflects on his thought process in those formative years.  While playing music in Texas, Clark shared the stage with such future luminaries as Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, and at one time, was part of a trio, with star-to-be Kay Toinette Oslin (K. T. Oslin) and David Jones. (She said they actually recorded an independent album together that was never released.)
With his guitar building experience, he moved to Long Beach, Calif., landing a day job repairing and building Dobros for the Dopyera Brothers’ Original Music firm. He continued to perform in his off hours. Guy also was writing, and regarding “L. A. Freeway,”  recalled he initially titled his song “Long Beach Freeway,” but wisely figured it would be more recognizable outside of California by substituting the nonexistent “L. A. Freeway” name. It was in 1971, that Clark scored a writing contract with a Nashville publisher, triggering a relocation to Music City. Subsequently, his 1975 RCA-produced debut album, “Old No. 1,” boasted both “L. A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting For a Train.”
Raspy-voiced Clark once noted how much he liked doing acoustic sets, especially in the United Kingdom, singling out gigs in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and, of course, on this continent for Canadians: “In England, I think that’s something they’ve always liked, that storytelling troubadour kind of approach. I’m up there singing and it’s like they’re out there taking notes . . . It’s amazing. In Australia and New Zealand, I sold out rooms that hold three or four hundred people.”

Guy with Arlo Guthrie-1
                                     Guy and Arlo Guthrie.

Author and long-time friend Tamara Saviano says her book, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life & Music of Guy Clark,” is scheduled for publication in October. Of his passing, Saviano says, “My heart is broken.” Musicians mourning him on social media, include  Zac Brown Band’s Clay Cook:  “I guess we can’t live forever. Gonna miss Mr. Guy Clark. He was a great ol’ feller.” Fellow singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who co-wrote the #1 “She’s Crazy For Leaving,” posted a picture of his hero/mentor, writing, “My friend @GuyClarkKCA passed from the world this morning. – Rodney.”
A member of the Nashville Association of Musicians union, guitarist Guy has also earned the Academy of Country Music’s Poet’s Award in recognition of his iconic writing talent. Survivors include his son Travis, sisters Caroline Dugan and Jan Clark, and two grandkids. As funeral arrangements were pending, we couldn’t help but recall the songwriter’s words in “Homegrown Tomatoes”: “When I die don’t bury me/In a box in a cemetery/Out in the garden, would be much better/I could be pushin’ up homegrown tomatoes . . .”           – WT

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Reflections on Merle Haggard . . .

Remembering Legendary Merle Haggard

     NASHVILLE — Merle Haggard, a legendary, but complex figure in country music, passed away on his 79th birthday, April 6, 2016, in California. Weeks earlier, the singer-songwriter-musician had postponed touring, due to a respiratory ailment, complicated by double pneumonia.
Known as “the common man’s poet,” The Hag was hailed for hits such as “Branded Man,” “Mama Tried,” “Working Man Blues,” “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” all self-penned. Between 1967 and 1987, Merle scored 38 #1 Billboard singles, an amazing track record, that also boasts 71 Top 10’s over a quarter century (1965-1989).

The Hag . .     Merle Ronald Haggard’s life reads like a Picaresque novel, our anti-hero being born April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, Calif., to an emigrant Oklahoma couple, James Francis and Flossie Mae (Harp) Haggard, who a few seasons earlier fled the disastrous Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Home was a converted railway boxcar in Oildale, a few miles north of Bakersfield. After Dad’s death from a stroke, the 9-year-old began pursuing a precarious existence at best, trying to help Mom feed the family, when not running away. At age 11, Flossie turned him into authorities as “incorrigible,” and he spent some time in reform school.
Putting school behind him, the 14-year-old drop-out hitchhiked, climbing onto trucks and hopping freights, to hang out in hobo jungles and labor camps, things he heard his musical heroes Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Snow only sing about. Soon, he toiled in the oil fields, picked fruit with migrant Mexicans, pitched hay for farmers, drove a delivery truck, and even toiled as a short-order cook in a greasy-spoon diner.
The teen-ager was already trying to pick and sing some, having been given a guitar by his older brother when he was 12, and later played a local TV program Chuck Wagon in ’56. But a temptation to score easy cash via rolling drunks, stealing cars and burglaries, soon led to San Quentin Prison, with a sentence of one-to-15 years. Ironically, Merle was among those cheering Johnny Cash when on Jan. 1, 1958, he performed there, serenading the cons with hits like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” Six months later, Merle’s wife, the former Leona Hobbs, gave birth to their first boy, Marty, while – as later lyrics revealed – Merle “turned 21 in prison.”
Fortunately, Merle put time served, 33 months, to good use, working in the prison textile mill, obtaining a high school GED diploma, and honing his talents by playing in the warden’s band. He came naturally by it, as both James and granddad had played fiddle, mainly in Oklahoma honky tonks.
Once back on the street, the parolee continued playing music weekends, while working day jobs to keep his kids fed. He even dug ditches, working with his brother, an electrical contractor. Haggard later confided, “Since I was 23 years old, it’s been uphill all the way.” He kept up this routine a few years before hooking up with Bakersfield music veterans Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Tally, who co-wrote the 1953 Jean Shepard chart-topper “A ‘Dear John‘ Letter” (recorded with Ferlin Husky), which helped launch the Bakersfield Sound.
It was on the indie Tally label that Haggard’s first four Billboard chartings set him on the path for further acceptance: “Sing a Sad Song,” written by Wynn Stewart; “Sam Hill,” penned by Tommy Collins (who helped Merle define his writing skill); and two written by Liz Anderson, “Just Between The Two Of Us,” a duet with Bonnie Owens, and Merle’s first Top 10 “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” in 1965, and after which he named his bar room band (The Strangers).
Merle and Leona finally called a halt in 1964 to their tumultuous marriage, which produced four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli and Noel. Subsequently, he and duet partner Bonnie Owens, herself divorced from Bakersfield star Buck Owens, were wed (1965). Incidentally, daughter Dana was the first offspring to try her hand as a performer, forming Dana & The Drifting Cowboys, a local band which later recruited Marty (in the early 1970s).
Dad’s first Top 20 singles – “Sing a Sad Song” and the duet with Bonnie – prompted producer Ken Nelson to urge Merle to sign with Capitol. According to Nelson, in turning him down in 1964, Haggard cited loyalty to Tally; however, at the behest of both Fuzzy and Lewis, Merle signed with the major label in 1965. Capitol was also home to Buck Owens, Hank Thompson and Tommy Collins, all of whom were role models to Merle, and several years his senior.
Early 1960s ad for Merle and BonnieThe best advice Collins gave him was to write about what he knew, and almost on cue, Haggard fashioned two back-to-back Top Five singles: “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” (1966). Thanks to a Liz Anderson ballad, “Fugitive,” the cocky newcomer landed his first #1 disc (on March 4, 1967).
That proved a banner year for Merle, thanks to “I Threw Away the Rose” (#2); “Branded Man” (#1); and “Sing Me Back Home” (#1), all self-penned. Obviously on a roll, he had a trio of best-sellers in ’68, as well: “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde” (#1), benefitting from the movie smash of that title, co-starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway; his semi-biographical “Mama Tried” (#1), which became a signature song and eventually voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Song. It was also heard in the film “Killer’s Three,” marking Merle’s movie debut, opposite another new face, Robert Walker and former DJ Dick Clark, who also produced. (Ironically, ex-con Merle was cast as a sheriff.)
“Merle Haggard is living proof that with self-confidence and determination, a person can go from the depths of degradation to the pinnacle of success,” mused Ken Nelson, years later.
Indeed, his “success story” vindicates the American Dream, a semblance that suggests success for those seeking and striving, who never give up the struggle. Yes, Haggard’s bosses were solidly behind him, and even encouraged Calif. Gov. Ronald Reagan to issue Merle a pardon for past offenses (1972). A 1960s Merle in the studio
Instead of hurting him, Haggard’s checkered past propelled him to superstardom, fascinating fans who love the outlaw, the anti-authoritarian figure, though never taking into account chaotic consequences. To be sure, Merle suffered inner devils that threatened to consume him at times, and certainly marred his marital relationships, sometimes extending to his children.
Although Bonnie was married to Merle 13 years, their union was one-sided at best, as he went on his merry way, but kept her close to his side professionally, as backup vocalist . . . and shortly after their divorce, she served as a bridesmaid when he wed younger singer Leona Williams in 1978. Leona, who wrote or co-wrote songs for him – “The Bull & The Beaver,” “Some Day When Things Are Good” – suffered through some tough times with her mate, who once stranded her in a houseboat in the middle of Kern River, while he went partying. Two songs she wrote, “You Take Me For Granted” and “We’re Strangers Again,” signaled their finale in 1983.
As noted above, The Hag’s flirted with films, and in fact even co-wrote a salute of sorts, “It’s All In the Movies” (#1, 1975), co-written with daughter Kelli. His involvement includes more than 80 soundtrack contributions on both the big and small screens, such as “Chisum,” “Six Pack,” “Platoon” and “Bronco Billy,” in which he furnished the ballad “Bar Room Buddies,” a #1 duet with his cinematic hero Clint Eastwood (1980). In the acclaimed 1979 TV series “Centennial,” Haggard was Cisco, while in the 2005 Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain,” he sang “I’m Always On a Mountain When I Fall,” one he didn’t write (Chuck Howard did).
Harking back to the controversial Vietnam War, Haggard penned two hawkish tunes that conservatives took to heart, “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” at a time when protesters were dissing President Nixon and spitting on GIs back from battle. Despite Merle’s insistence that he did not intend to become known as a right-winger, it was those anthems of country patriotism that attacked dissent, garnering him an invitation to the White House in March 1973.
Further, they accounted for management tripling his one-night fee from $3,000 to $9,000, and assured his victories, as both CMA and Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year, along with best male vocalist, album and single trophies, as well. It wasn’t until 1984, however, that he earned his first Grammy, but for a decidedly more romantic remake of Johnny Rodriguez’s 1974 #1 “That’s the Way Love Goes” (which 15 years later Merle again revised in collaboration with pop icon Jewel). Merle relaxes during interview
It was in 2004, that trucker and sometimes singer Scott Haggard introduced himself to Merle as his son, the product of a brief liaison years back. Armed with DNA proof documentation, the two talked amicably, and Merle didn’t deny the possibility. Though reportedly they remained in touch, they never did pursue a father-son relationship. Haggard once thought he might relocate to Nashville, as well, but after a short stay decided Music Row turned him off, and decided he preferred life in Bakersfield, boating and fishing on Kern River.
In 2006, Merle was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Other major accolades include induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977); ACM’s Pioneer Award (1995); Country Music Hall of Fame (1994); Broadcast Music Inc.’s BMI Icon Award (2006); and the national Kennedy Center Honors arts recognition (2010) for “Outstanding contribution to American culture.”
Merle was like no other country music artist talent-wise. He was a gifted writer, skillful lead guitarist and fiddler, who possessed one of the most unique baritones in the business. Still, there was no denying his dark personality traits, fostering disagreeable and sometimes even aggressive behavior, like stomping on the foot of a musical partner he felt was taking too much of the spotlight. His eldest son Marty gave Merle low marks as a father, noting in an interview the ugliness he and his siblings witnessed in their early years: “Dad liked to argue and Mama would take it a step farther and go berserk! It took all his strength to keep her from whipping his butt, and half the time she did . . . it was like a damn circus.”
Nonetheless, he went beyond the norm in appreciation to another artist, most notably Tommy Collins, whose once promising career got sidetracked by his own demons within. Merle did so via a song, recalling a helping hand he’d been given in hard times. Titled simply “Leonard” (after Tommy’s real name, Leonard Sipes), Merle wrote: “He was on his way to having what he wanted/Just about as close as one could be/Hey, once he even followed Elvis Presley/And he wrote a lot of country songs for me . . .” including #1’s “Carolyn” and “The Roots Of My Raising.” Merle told of Tommy turning to the ministry, “For years he chose to let his music go/But preaching wasn’t really meant for Leonard/But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know . . .” Attesting to his finite way with words, Haggard proceeded, “Well, life began to twist its way around him/And I wondered how he carried such a load/He came back again to try his luck in music/And lost his wife and family on the road . . .” Collins was proud of that tribute.
We also remember when Kitty Wells scheduled a farewell performance at the Nightlife Theatre near Opryland, shortly after the start of the Millennium, and a sentimental Merle sent the Queen of Country Music several dozen roses in commemoration.
Haggard had a good heart when it came to the music folk who inspired him, like recording tribute albums to the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, “Same Train, A Different Time,” featuring the Blue Yodeler’s classics (1969); “A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World,” his salute to Texas Playboy Bob Wills (1970); and a contemporary hero, “My Farewell To Elvis,” shortly after his untimely death in 1977.
Songs he wrote have honored his mom, “Mama Tried,” her parent “Grandma Harp,” father “Daddy Frank,” and his poignant remembrance of their hard scrabble existence in “Hungry Eyes,” reading in part, “I remember Daddy praying for a better way of life/But I don’t recall a change of any size/Just a little loss of courage, as their age began to show/And more sadness in my Mama’s hungry eyes . . .” and even more heart-rending is its climaxing chorus, “Mama never had the luxuries she wanted/But it wasn’t cause my Daddy didn’t try/She only wanted things she really needed/One more reason for my Mama’s hungry eyes.”
A career highlight was returning to prison to entertain the San Quentin population, a number of whom were inside the walls when he was serving time. Though admittedly not much of a churchgoer, he occasionally came up with an inspirational triumph, such as “Jesus Take a Hold” (#3, 1970) and the album “Land of Many Churches” with Bonnie and The Carter Family (#15, 1972). In 2001, he and gospel legend Albert Brumley got together to record an album of Christian songs, titled “Two Old Friends.” More recently, “Sweet Jesus,” which he co-wrote and sang with the Oak Ridge Boys, earned a 2015 Dove Award for song of the year. This from the man who wrote and recorded such rousers as “Ramblin’ Fever,” “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad),” “Misery and Gin,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” and “C.C. Waterback.”

Mighty Merle in action!
Mighty Merle in action!

Some might argue that his works were variations on a similar theme, but he never forgot what Tommy told him, and wrote about what he knew and understood, no doubt slyly calculating it was what listeners longed to hear, and rightly so from the poet of the working man. Haggard’s albums and CDs also sold well, 16 of which went #1, including the Platinum-selling “Pancho & Lefty” with buddy Willie Nelson in 1983 for Epic, boasting a chart-topping title single, as well as their Top 10 duet “Reasons To Quit.” It also became Merle’s highest-charting crossover album (#39), and his #1 single “If We Make It Through December,” peaked at #28, in 1974, making it his top pop charting.
A few seasons earlier, Merle and pal George Jones hit #1 with their collaboration on “Yesterday’s Wine” (written by Willie), featured on their successful LP “A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine” (#4, 1982). Janie Fricke joined him in the mid-1980s on a pair of #1 singles: “A Place To Fall Apart” and “Natural High.”
Following his split with Leona in 1983, he encountered financial difficulties, but was able to recoup thanks to that terrific talent. Although he once wrote, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” he later confided that he did indeed do so, and even experimented with cocaine. But recognizing what it was doing to him, he quit under his own steam. Haggard in Wisconsin
In 1985, he married Debbie Parret, but that coupling also ended in divorce in 1991. Two years later, he wed Theresa Ann Lane, mother of his children Jenessa and Ben, who as an adult played in pop’s band The Strangers, much as sons Marty and Noel had done years before.
Haggard’s last #1 was “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (Feb. 20, 1988). A year later, he scored his last major success, “A Better Love Next Time” (#4, 1989), but he never stopped recording or taking his music to the fans, until failing health caused him to be hospitalized.
In June 2015, another Willie and Merle album, “Django & Jimmie,” debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and at #7 on the pop Top 200 albums list. Nelson described it thusly, “The title track is about (guitarist) Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. Both of these guys were very influential in both of our careers.” It received critical acclaim internationally. And according to Merle, “Willie sang like he was a teen-ager.”
Meantime, Merle and Mac Wiseman also had an album collaboration, “Timeless,” released in 2015, in which the two icons shared the mic on songs from the past, such as Carl Smith’s “If Teardrops Were Pennies,” Tommy Collins’ “High On a Hilltop,” Mac’s “Jimmy Brown The Newsboy,” Merle’s “Mama Tried” and another Haggard creation that was never a single, “Learning to Live With Myself,” as a solo featuring backing by The Isaacs. Merle long admired Mac’s vocals and initiated the joint sessions, produced by longtime Haggard producer Ronnie Reno, and included guest vocals by Vince Gill on two tracks. Mac n Merle, 2015
“I think Merle had also done one by himself recently,” muses Mac, 90, commenting on his friend’s studio sessions, shortly after Merle’s passing. “I was half-way prepared because Ronnie (Reno) had kept me pretty much updated on his health problem . . . but of course I was still hoping and praying he might bounce back. One thing’s for certain, he left one helluva legacy.”
Reno adds his reaction to the news, “I am incredibly saddened by the passing of my dear friend Merle Haggard . . . today, of all days, on his 79th birthday. I first met Merle while working with the Osborne Brothers. I worked for Merle about eight years, and we went through so much together. There were good times and there were other times, well, that only he and I could laugh about. He loved to hear me laugh for some reason. He would call me up just to hear me laugh when he needed some cheering . . . I was hoping to see him last month, but he fell ill and I’ve been praying and talking with him often throughout this time. Today, I was contacted by the family and found out that Merle had expressed his desire to have me sing ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ at the funeral. What a fitting song for such an amazing man.” Reno, son of Bluegrass Hall of Famer Don Reno, currently hosts Reno’s Old Time Music on RFD-TV.
“Merle was a singer’s singer, a musician’s musician, and a songwriter’s songwriter,” notes singer-songwriter Bill Anderson. “He set the feelings of the everyday common man to music, creating songs that will outlive us all. I feel privileged to have toured with him and known as both a great artist and as a friend. His passing leaves a big hole in country music and in the hearts of the millions who loved him and his artistry.”
“We join the world of the broken-hearted, hearing of the death of Merle Haggard,” says Kenny Alphin, who with John Rich comprise Big & Rich. “One of the first things John and I realized we had in common was our love of Haggard songs. What a blessing to have had a chance to get to know him and work with such a legend in our career. Merle, guess you finally are on the ultimate ‘Natural High.’ We will have your music in our hearts and souls, and honkytonk nights forever.”

Merle backstage with John Rich of Big & Rich.
Merle backstage with John Rich of Big & Rich.

    Jeannie Seely, who sang backup on Haggard hits “Ramblin’ Fever” and “I’m Always On a Mountain When I Fall,” recalls their first meeting: “When I first met Merle, I was a little intimidated because my Mom warned me of anybody who had been in prison. I got over my fears and we became very close through the years. He recorded two of my songs ‘Life Of a Rodeo Cowboy’ and ‘My Love For You.’ His passing is such a loss to not only me personally, but our entire industry. We all loved The Hag.”
Willie Nelson penned this on Facebook the afternoon of Merle’s death: “He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him.” Dolly Parton, who wrote Merle’s #1 song “Kentucky Gambler,” opines, “We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads . . . Rest easy, Merle.”

Linda Davis and Merle Haggard
Merle with singer Linda Davis.

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Music City Beat – April 2016

Music City Beat – April 2016 . . . New Patsy Cline museum


     NASHVILLE — After nearly 40 years’ keeping his idol Elvis Presley’s memory burnishing brightly, Ronnie McDowell felt it was time to tell his own story. “Bringing It To You Personally,” written in collaboration with journalist Scot England, covers Ronnie’s compelling career and personal life, illustrated by more than 100 photos. Shortly after Elvis’ death in August 1977, McDowell co-wrote “The King Is Gone” (with Lee Morgan) and recorded that tribute, which became a multi-million selling country-pop crossover single.

Closeup of natural background - blue suede.

True fans may recall, Ronnie also supplied Kurt Russell’s vocals in the bio-pic “Elvis” (1979), featuring Shelley Winters; ditto 1988’s “Elvis & Me,” singing for Dale Midkiff as Presley, which depicted the romance between Elvis and wife Priscilla Presley; and in 1997, he furnished vocals for Rick Peters as the king in a Showtime Special, “Elvis Meets Nixon,” a so-called “mockumentary” about Elvis’ real-life visit to the White House. Although McDowell continued to headline a series of Elvis tribute shows, often with The Jordanaires, throughout his career, he scored 14 Top 10 non-Elvis country singles, including #1’s “Older Women (Are Beautiful Lovers)” and “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation.” A talented songwriter, the Tennessee native came up with the smash “I Love You, I Love You, I Love You,” and had a hand in penning his hits “Watchin’ Girls Go By” and “All Tied Up.” His last Top 10 to date was a 1988 revival of Conway Twitty’s chart-topper “It’s Only Make Believe,” boasting a cameo vocal from Twitty himself. Incidentally, Ronnie’s self-produced new book features a Foreword by former touring buddy Ray Walker of The Jordanaires, reportedly Elvis’ favorite backup vocal group.

   Scene Stealers: Rory Feek has added filmmaker to his list of credits, and his first film “Josephine” premiered at the 2016 Nashville Film Festival, April 14-23. The singer-songwriter got the idea for the song of that title after learning a Civil War soldier John Robison, a former farmer, wrote letters home to wife Josephine while away fighting. That number first appeared in Feek’s 2012 album “His & Hers,” showcasing the talents of husband-wife duo Joey+Rory. (Sadly cancer claimed Joey’s life,  March 4.) Rory used Robison’s messages to fashion a screenplay that details how Josephine posed as a man to enlist, when her man went missing. According to a teaser for the flick, she “battles the enemy, the men of her unit and her own identity, in a quest to find her missing husband.” In addition to co-writing the script, Feek directed and edited the movie, made possible financially via a “Kickstarter” campaign Rory started to obtain backers for his project. With only about $122,000 raised, it evolved on a shoestring budget, but co-stars Alice Coulthard, Boris McGiver, Jessejames Locorriere and Linds Edwards stuck with it. Rory wrote on the Kickstarter’s movie page, in part: “Magic doesn’t happen because you plan it. It happens because you believe in it. And I believe in the magic of telling a great story . . . like Josephine’s. One that’s hard at times, and rough and scary, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Incidentally, other music-oriented films scheduled at the festival were “Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of The Broken Spoke,” “Sidemen: Long Road to Glory,” and “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story.” . . . Former duet partner Kenny Rogers quipped that he regarded Dolly Parton as country’s Donald Trump, noting she was flashy and candid in comments, and neither hesitate to defend the size of their respective assets, but quickly added he meant it as a compliment. When a Rolling Stone reporter asked her opinion of his remarks, she steered clear of dissing the singer, saying he probably meant because of her tresses: “Me and Donald kinda have the same hair . . . he could’ve meant that, too, and he does talk about the fact that I’ll just say whatever’s on my mind.” So she’s making excuses for him; now that’s what I call “Real Love” (their 1985 #1) . . . Divorcee Miranda Lambert raised eyebrows in her low-cut yellow gown on the Red Carpet at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, arriving on the arm of her new “boyfriend”  Anderson East for the Academy of Country Music awards gala, April 3. Five years her junior, he’s an R&B vocalist (“Satisfy Me”) who she says is the complete opposite of her ex, Blake Shelton . . . Joining Blake Shelton and Adam Levine as a judge on NBC’s reality series The Voice, is Billy Ray Cyrus’ daughter, pop vocalist Mylie Cyrus, come September. Alicia Keys, who earlier served as a mentor, rounds out the new judgmental foursome. Cyrus has been a mentor this season . . . Yet another kin to a popular name in music, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough, stars in the steamy Starz series, The Girlfriend Experience, adapted from Steven Soderbergh’s sexy 2009 film of that title starring Sasha Grey. It revolves around a $2,000 a night law student-turned-Manhattan call girl’s challenge of meeting the desire and needs of male clients, during the 2008 presidential election. Wonder how mama Lisa Marie and grandma Priscilla Presley feel about this turn of event in Riley’s career climb? There are 13 episodes being filmed for the small screen series, on location in Toronto, Canada . . . Bill Miller, who owns the relatively new Johnny Cash Museum, situated among Nashville’s Lower Broad strip of clubs downtown, has announced plans to open a Patsy Cline Museum on the upper floor of his building. He anticipates construction on the 4,000-foot site to commence in June. Thanks to cooperation of Cline’s children, Julie and Randy, many of the Country Hall of Famer’s costumes, awards, rare photos and other artifacts will be on display. “Since the passing of our father last fall, this is our first step together in continuing to share Mom’s music, life and story, as we feel Dad would have,” said Julie, referring to her father, Patsy’s widower Charlie Dick’s November passing. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to partner with and experience what Bill will present to old and new fans alike.” Cline, of course, enjoyed such classic cuts as “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy” and “I Fall To Pieces,” prior to her 1963 death in a plane crash that also took the lives of Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and musician-pilot Randy Hughes.

    Bits & Pieces: Despite half a dozen Grammy wins April 3 at the annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) awards show in Las Vegas, Chris Stapleton still has his feet firmly on the ground, and visited his hometown of Paintsville, Ky., where he and sponsors Ram Trucks and ACM’s Lifting Lives program presented some $57,000 worth of instruments to Johnson Central High School to benefit students. Chris also performed a free concert for them, and the community, on a new stage constructed there by the school’s carpentry class and Ram Nation volunteers . . . Ryman Hospitality (RH) has disclosed plans to produce a country music-themed club right in the heart of Times Square in New York City, feeling that the spread of the genre’s popularity warrants such a venture. The joint restaurant-bar complex – not yet named – will focus on southern food and hospitality, along with live country music and various video screens throughout displaying country sounds. RH’s primary showcase, Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, has undergone extensive renovation, including a new Cafe Lula in the long-time Opry home. According to CEO Colin Reed, “There’s no doubt that Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry are the homes of country music, but the genre’s incredible growth and mainstream appeal means that there are now lovers of country music all over the world . . . This venue will bring to Times Square and its nearly 40 million annual global visitors a rich country music heritage and an opportunity to experience the unique country music lifestyle.” . . . Charlie Daniels causing an uproar on line after Tweeting this comment, “There are some kids in college who should spend a year picking cotton!” Understandably as a Southerner, he’s referring to doing a little hard work, which should make the college crowd appreciate what so many of them take for granted. Predictably there are those who read into it a racist remark, but Daniels, who admittedly leans to the right, accomplishes a lot of positive things in behalf of those in need, and stresses equality for all. (Of course, we may be a bit bias towards ol’ Charlie, as he agreed to write the Foreword for this writer’s recent Nova book release, “Mac Wiseman: All My Memories Fit For Print.”) . . . Kenny Chesney’s following in Willie Nelson’s footstep, by launching his own show No Shoes Radio on SiriusXM Satellite, which began April 12, borrowing its handle from his 2003 near-charttopper “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem.” Aside from his own songs, the program will feature Chesney’s favorites by other artists a la Willie’s Roadhouse (which first began in 2006 as Willie’s Place, adopting its new name in 2011).

                 Honors: It’s great hearing Charlie Daniels, Randy Travis and Fred Foster are the latest recipients for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2016, as all are well-qualified for the genre’s highest honor. In addition to having carved out an enviable career as a country rocker (“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), Daniels gives back via the charitable causes he’s headed up, including his annual Volunteer Jam, Christmas4Kids, and the more recent Journey Home project to aid veterans blending back into civilian life. Travis, we’ve known since before he struck it big with “On the Other Hand,” and thanks to Lib Hatcher, he avoided jail to pursue a life of music. Still, troubled times erupted on occasion, but he gave us great sounds along the way, including “Forever and Ever, Amen” and “Three Wooden Crosses.” Barely able to say “Thank you,” when news of his honor was officially announced, Travis, suffering a 2013 debilitating stroke from which he’s trying to recover, was supported by Mary, his new wife. Producer-writer Foster, who like his fellow recipients, hails from North Carolina, earned his spurs behind the scenes, promoting then-newcomers like Jimmy Dean to 4-Star, where he scored his first hit, “Bumming Around,” then in 1958 Foster launched his own label, Monument, luring Dean’s TV show guitar picker Billy Grammar to be his first signee. Their collaboration resulted in a million-selling Grammer disc “Gotta Travel On” (1959). Subsequently, Fred also signed Jeannie Seely (“Don’t Touch Me”), Billy Walker (“A Million and One”), Kris Kristofferson (“Why Me, Lord”), Dolly Parton (“Dumb  Blonde”) and Boots Randolph (“Yakety Sax”). He has produced such stars as Roy Orbison (“Oh, Pretty Woman”), and Robert Mitchum (“Little Old Wine Drinker, Me”). Congrats to the anointed trio; however, it sure seems the powers-that-be behind the Country Music Hall of Fame need to do some serious catching up. Still missing from the 55-year roster are such deserving names as John Lair, Bradley Kincaid, Lulu Belle & Scotty, Wilf Carter (Montana Slim), Stuart Hamblen, Al Dexter, Jimmy Wakely, Slim Whitman, Colonel Tom Parker, Johnnie & Jack, Skeeter Davis, Hank Locklin, Johnny Horton and Dottie West. While it’s true not every artist should be voted into the Hall, these influential people more than made their mark in music, and proved an inspiration to those that followed . . . Ratings for the 50th Academy of Country Music’s annual awards presentation, a CBS telecast from Las Vegas, was down a steep 36 percent from last year, but stood as the night’s top-rated broadcast in most categories, April 3. Part of the problem was being in competition with top-ranked drama The Walking Dead. Co-hosted by Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley, among the highlights was a pairing of Katy Perry and Dolly Parton in a medley of the latter’s songs. Katy also presented Dolly Hollywood’s Tex Ritter Award for her movie “Coat of Many Colors.” Additional winners included Jason Aldean, Entertainer of the Year; Chris Stapleton, Male Vocalist; Miranda Lambert, Female Vocalist; Florida Georgia Line, Best Vocal Duo; Little Big Town, Vocal Group; Stapleton, New Male Vocalist; Kelsey Ballerina, New Female Vocalist; Old Dominion, New Group; Stapleton’s “Traveller,” co-produced with Dave Cobb, best album; Thomas Rhett with “Die a Happy Man,” produced by Dann Huff & Jesse Frasure; best video, Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood,” produced by Megan Smith with directors Reid Long & John Peets; while Stapleton’s “Nobody To Blame” earned best song honors, Chris sharing this award with co-writers Barry Bales & Ronnie Bowman.

     More Awards: The Tennessee General Assembly honored country singer Collin Raye, 56, with a resolution citing contributions to the music scene and his humanitarian work. The legislative happening occurred in front of the full House of Representatives at the State Capitol here. In presenting Raye’s resolution, Rep. Susan Lynn also recognized the artist’s 25th anniversary in the business. The proclamation was co-signed by Raye, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Gov. Bill Haslam. Ray’s #1 “Love, Me,” of course, was his biggest hit . . . Vince Gill was honored with the Nashville Convention Center’s third annual Bud Wendell Award, recognizing “contributions to the success of the tourism and convention business” in Music City. Cited were his participation in expanding the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum through the ongoing All For The Hall fund-raisers; helping design the Bridgestone Arena; supporting the NHL’s Nashville Predators hockey team events; and advocating the city host the 2014 NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball tournament . . . Eric Paslay, a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, was the recipient of his alma mater’s Young Alumni Achievement Award (2015-’16), presented on the Grand Ole Opry by school president Sidney McPhee, March 15. Paslay was a Grammy nominee this year, thanks to his hit “The Driver” . . . The late Merle Haggard’s signature song “Mama Tried,” a 1968 #1, has made the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Yet another country-style instrumental, “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” recorded in 1937 by W. H. Stepp, was also among the 25 sound recordings added, as of March 23. (It took Pee Wee King to add lyrics to this uptempo melody, giving him a Top 10 RCA single in 1950.)

     Ailing: Steve Gatlin, recovering from surgery, missed his siblings very special appearance with Brad Paisley, March 19, at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, where they joined Brad to sing their #1 “Houston,” much to the delight of the nearly 75,000 people attending. According to Larry, “While brother Rudy and I were having a great time with Brad in Houston, brother Steve was home in Nashville nursing a brand new hip. That’s why he wasn’t with us in Houston in case anyone was wondering!” Other Gatlin hits include “All the Gold In California” and “The Lady Takes The Cowboy Every Time.” In addition to being part of the Gatlin Brothers trio, Steve was once part of Tammy Wynette’s Young Country backup harmony group. On April 4th, he marked his 65th birthday! . . . Glen Campbell, 80, who’s receiving care at an Alzheimer’s treatment facility in the Nashville area, has reportedly lost most of his language skills. The artist was initially diagnosed with the disease in mid-2011, but soon departed on a lengthy farewell tour, which included three of his children playing in his backup band, wrapping on Nov. 30, 2012 at Napa, Calif. Famed for such songs as “Gentle On My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Glen’s received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In March, news stories signaled that adult children Debby and Travis had filed legal action against stepmother Kim, charging she had cut them off from their father, preventing their participation in his care. Kim says, “Glen’s getting great care; he’s happy, he’s cheerful,” but added he no longer plays guitar and doesn’t seem to understand what visitors say anymore. Meanwhile, he was slated to receive the Academy of Country Music’s Career Achievement Award, April 3, in Las Vegas (which, of course, he couldn’t attend).

     Final Curtain: Musician-singer-educator Johnny Reynolds died Feb. 16, at Regional Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn., from injuries suffered in a truck accident. The talented backup player, adept on electric bass, guitar or keyboards, performed with such country notables as Jerry Reed, Leroy Van Dyke, Connie Smith and Chet Atkins. When he came in off the road, he served as teacher and then principal at Liberty Tech Magnet School (2003-2008) in Memphis. With a master’s degree in counseling, Reynolds was a volunteer counselor with Alcoholics Anonymous and the Aspell Recovery Center, helping those suffering addiction. On March 29, Reynolds would have been 69. Survivors include wife Ruth, children Jennifer Cavitt and Marcy Moon, as well as step-children Ruth Ann Baty, Lora Goad and Eddie Herndon. He also had 15 grandchildren.

     Songwriter Steve Young, 73, died March 17, following a fall that left him suffering a brain injury. Among his more popular compositions are “Seven Bridges Road” (The Eagles), “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” (Waylon Jennings) and “Always Loving You” (Hank Williams, Jr.). A native of Newnan, Ga., Young worked in bands on the West Coast, including Stone Country and Van Dyke Parks.  A 1969 country-rock LP “Rock Salt & Nails,” also featuring Gram Parsons and Gene Clark, included his first performance of “Seven Bridges Road.” In 1976, he appeared in the movie documentary “Heartworn Highways,” playing his own song “Alabama Highway.” A development deal with RCA led to his 1976 album “Renegade Picker,” followed by a sole single charting “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way,” five weeks in ’77.  Others who have recorded his songs include Eddy Arnold, Joan Baez, Ricochet and Dolly Parton. In 2013, Shooter Jennings sang Young’s “White Trash Song” in his CD “The Other Life.” Survivors include his son Jubal Lee Young and granddaughter Sophie Young. A Celebration of Life service is planned later in Nashville.

     Musician-promoter Robert Lee Younts, 66, died March 21 in Nashville. Starting at age fifteen, he worked as a musician, disc-jockey, and vocalist, including a stint with an Arkansas rock band, the Merging Traffic, which recorded for Decca Records. After moving to Nashville in 1973, the Little Rock, Ark. drummer began playing for Nat Stuckey, then hot with the Top 10 “Take Time To Love Her.” Soon after, he began drumming behind Mel Tillis, with whom he continued to play until 1985. It was then he helped start Bobby Roberts Booking Agency, and proved so successful the CMA nominated him Agent of the Year in 1994. Among artists he represented were John Anderson, Bobby Bare, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Survivors include son Cory Manning Younts of Nashville. Services were held March 23, in First Presbyterian Church, Nashville.

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Music City Beat – March 2016

Music City Beat . . . March 2016 – Carrie cheers hockey hubby on

      NASHVILLE — As blonde country queen Carrie Underwood celebrated her 22nd #1 single “Smoke Break,” which she co-wrote, hubby Mike Fisher was about to mark his 1,000th National Hockey League game. Since Feb. 12, 2011, the Canadian-born skater’s been playing center for the Nashville Predators, racking up 86 goals to add to the earlier 167 goals made while with the Ottawa Senators. On March 1, Carrie hailed her song’s chart-topping feat at the Sutler Saloon here, also noting it was her 12th self-penned song to go #1, another enviable credit. Sharing honors with Mrs. Fisher were co-writers Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsey. Two days later, Mike’s

Carrie Underwood
Carrie Underwood

1,000th game paired Preds and the New Jersey Devils, as the Preds maintained a lead, until a penalty allowed the Devils to overcome it in overtime, winning 5-4. Fisher’s official ceremony occurred March 21 at Bridgestone Arena, as his team played the Los Angeles Kings, amid observances. At 35, Mike’s a valued veteran for the team, one who has a year left on his current contract, but hasn’t shown any sign yet of quitting. He’s appreciative of being based here, giving him more time with Carrie and their year-old son, Isaiah Michael. “I love the city and all that it has to offer. The people are unbelievable. The fans are so good,” confides Fisher. “I’m thankful for the team . . . and hopefully I can give back a little bit when I’m done playing . . . I try not to look too far ahead, but at the same time, you know you’re not going to play forever.”
        Bits & Pieces: Following recent hip replacement surgery, Country Music Hall of Famer Don Williams, 76, announced that he’s hanging it up (not his hip), opting for retirement: “It’s time to enjoy some quiet time at home (nearby Ashland City) . . . I’m so thankful for my fans, friends and family, for their love and support.” Of his 17 #1 discs, Don had a hand in writing “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” and “Love Me Over Again” . . . The Band Perry’s also calling it quits, with their label, Big Machine, that is. Siblings Kimberly, Neil and Reid Perry first hit with the Platinum-selling single, “If I Die Young” (#1, 2010). Kimberly wrote the song, which won both CMA song and single of the year. Subsequent #1’s were “All Your Life” and “Better Dig Two,” though their last few were disappointing, notably “Live Forever” (#29, 2015). The announcement read in part: “We are grateful for six years of the big moments,  and great strides we made . . . and will carry that foundation forward with us.” Reportedly, Big Machine still has an album in the can that may yet be released . . . Mike Curb, owner and top dog at Curb Records, has acquired Word Entertainment, the gospel label, from Warner Music Group (WMG). Word, founded 65 years ago in Texas by Jarrell McCracken, currently is home to such acts as Switchfoot and Point of Grace. WMG will continue to distribute their product, notes Curb, whose own secular star line-up includes Mo Pitney, Rodney Atkins and Lee Brice on Curb Records . . . Gibson Guitar’s steadily slumping sales has prompted Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade the Nashville firm’s credit rating. Their negative report occurred as Gibson appears short of meeting its $100 million financial obligation, due over the next 22 months. Apparently Gibson hopes to focus less on instruments and more on audio manufacturing, and why the company acquired Onkyo, an electronics company, in efforts to broaden its scope  of becoming a music lifestyles company . . . The CMA says the first phase of performers for its annual Music Festival (formerly Fan Fair), scheduled June 9-12 in Nashville, were signed. Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Rascal Flatts kick off the nightly gigs at Nissan Stadium, Thursday, June 9. Others TBA will be posted on CMA’s app . . . On March 8 Blake Shelton Tweeted appreciation for an honor to his late father, “So proud and thankful to Dr. Haddad and St. Anthony Hospital in Shawnee, Okla., for dedicating the new wing (fountain) to my dad Richard Lee Shelton.” (Richard was a patient, prior to his passing in 2012.)
      Scene Stealers: Mike Dungan, head of Universal Music Group, marked his 15th year as a Country Radio Seminar board member, insisting at this year’s February seminar, “It’s the singularly most important thing” to keep country music relevant. He maintains country radio still plays a major part in promoting artists and their music telling The Tennessean, “People have been predicting the decline of regular broadcast radio in the face of all these new technologies for several years now, and it’s stronger than it’s ever been.” He adds that’s proven by research conducted, indicating the major way fans find music is via radio. Nonetheless, there’s little denying the younger crowd seeks sounds from digital sites and other on-line sources. Indeed, Dungan welcomes this rising phenomenon, noting the newer methods can interact with broadcast radio, as UMG recently learned with new artist Chris Stapleton: “What’s happened with Chris is really a best-case scenario example of the intersection of all the technologies we have, and all the ways people intersect with music.” Dungan and company expanded their focus to include the newer technologies for artists like Chris, whose CMA awards pairing with pop idol Justin Timberlake last fall blew every one away, as they musically combined a George Jones classic “Tennessee Whiskey” (co-written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove) and Justin’s “Drink You Away,” for a show-stopping performance. To be fair, they were supported by Justin’s wife Morgane on harmony vocals, and a dynamic brass band. According to Mike, the social network exploded, fueling an amazing streaming of their duet globally: “This is a huge success. This guy’s selling tickets, albums, tracks, and he’s selling streams. He’s just exploded!” During awards night, Chris’s CD “Traveller” won best album as he was named best new artist; then, come Feb. 15, the newcomer nabbed two country Grammys for “Traveller,” as best album and his as best performance. Dungan pointed out, “But radio is smart. We had a lot of guys on board prior to that (CMA) performance, and a lot of the guys, the really smart ones, jumped on board when they saw the big cultural importance it was having” . . . Grammy Award-winning producer Tony Brown, 69, was booked Feb. 23 on a domestic assault charge involving wife Jamie Nicole Brown. It was the second such dispute between the couple, just remarried Feb, 4, 2016, having ended their first marriage in June 2014, after little more than a year as man and wife. Nicole told the police they got into an argument when she showed proofs for a photo shoot, seeking his ideas for additional poses. Reportedly, Brown slapped her face, calling them “slutty poses,” then allegedly knocked her down, pulling her by the hair, while dragging her down a hallway. After breaking free, she called her parents, who advised notify the law. Jamie was taken to St. Thomas Hospital for treatment, revealing marks on her body and visible signs of pulled hair, and damage to hair extensions. Brown was arrested and placed on a 12-hour domestic violence hold. The following day, he was released on a $10,000 bail bond. An earlier assault case occurred in October 2013, after she claimed Brown kicked in a bedroom door, and allegedly pushed and choked her, as she attempted to flee. At the time, Belle Meade police referenced multiple scratches to her body. Brown, formerly a highly successful president of MCA-Nashville and co-founder of Universal South Records, produced the likes of Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and George Strait. Earlier in his career, he played keyboards in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. More recently, Tony produced a country album on pop artist Cyndi Lauper, “Detrour,” for Sire Records. He’s slated to re-appear in Davidson County court to answer the latest domestic dispute charges. Stay tuned . . . A $20 million Grammy Museum, the second such institution, opened March 5 in Cleveland, Miss., recognizing the Mississippi Delta country as “cradle of the blues.” A smaller version of its headquarters museum in Los Angeles, Grammy Museum Mississippi, chronicles the music scene, specifically the blues, since the organization started in 1957. A news release cited such Mississippi blues artists as B. B. King and Robert Johnson, with a nod to Tupelo-born rock king Elvis Presley. It would be nice, too, to also salute such Mississippi music makers as Jimmie Rodgers, Conway Twitty, Charley Pride and Tammy Wynette . . . Tennessee native Dolly Parton and hubby Carl Dean will celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary in May, and plan to renew their vows. The couple met in a laundromat two days after she moved permanently to Nashville, and married two years later in Ringgold, Ga., in 1966. Carl, 73, has made it a point to stay behind the scenes, declining interviews and avoiding media. Speaking of him earlier, Dolly chuckled: “He is not musical, but he’s kind, funny and romantic. His poems are lovely and heartfelt. And that kind of stuff keeps us happy over the years – two old goats together.” Her next TV-movie, “Jolene,” about one of her songs, which she confided was inspired by a flirtatious red-haired bank-teller who had a yen for Dean. In an imagined confrontation with the gal, his wife pleads “Please don’t take him/Just because you can . . .” Dolly plans immediately after their 50th gala to launch her largest tour in 25 years – Dolly Pure & Simple – covering the map with 60 concerts, designed to plug her new CD “Pure & Simple With Dolly’s Biggest Hits.” The energetic Parton, now 70, quips, “I don’t know how pure I am, but I am pretty simple,” during a press pour announcing her ambitious schedule that runs through December. She also pointed out last year’s TV movie “Coat of Many Colors” will be released on DVD in time for Mother’s Day in May, and a Broadway musical based on her life is still in the early stages.
     Honors: Veteran producer and label chief Jim Ed Norman, 67, received the Bob Kingsley Living Legend Award on the Grand Ole Opry House stage, Feb. 24, as artists he’s worked with performed in tribute to the silver-haired executive. In his 22 years at Warner Bros. Records-Nashville, serving as A&R chief and later president, he helped launch such artists as Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Faith Hill, Travis Tritt, Big & Rich and Blake Shelton. Following his brief retirement in Hawaii, Mike Curb engaged Norman as chief creative advisor to Curb Records in 2013, but by 2015, he was CEO of Curb Music Group. In reflection, Jim Ed recalled joining the Texas-based band Felicity in 1969, playing keyboards and guitar, along with Don Henley. He continued playing in groups such as Shiloh and Uncle Jim’s Music, but between 1973-1980, he played keyboards and contributed arrangements for a series of hit albums by the legendary likes of the Eagles (“Desperado” and “Hotel California”), Linda Ronstadt (“Don’t Cry Now”) and America (“Hat Trick”). Others he worked with in the studio include Jackie DeShannon, Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams, Jr., Anne Murray, Garth Brooks and Crystal Gayle. This latest award is reserved for individuals who make a lasting contribution to the country music scene, with last year’s winner being Joe Galante, ex-CEO at RCA. Appearing to honor him were such cohorts as Don Henley, Mickey Gilley, Mo Pitney, T.G. Sheppard, Gary Morris, Crystal Gayle, Michael Martin Murphy and Rogers, while proceeds benefitted the Opry Trust Fund . . . Early awards nominees for the annual Academy of Country Music awards (prior to ACM’s actual telecast, April 13) were announced, including best bass players of the year: Mark Hill, Tully Kennedy, Tony Lucido, Michael Rhodes and Jimmie Lee Sloan; vying for best drummer: Chad Cromwell, Fred Eltringham, Shannon Forrest, Chris McHugh and Nir Zidkyahu; for best guitarist: J. T. Corenflos, Kenny Greenberg, Jerry McPherson, Danny Rader and Derek Wells; for keyboards: Jim (Moose) Brown, Charlie Judge, Gordon Mote, Steve Nathan and Matt Rollings; for best steel guitarist: Steve Fishell, Paul Franklin, Steve Hinson, Mike Johnson and Russ Pahl. Specialty instrumental player nominees are: Dan Dugmore, Glen Duncan, Larry Franklin, Aubrey Haney and Danny Rader; plus audio engineer nominees: Derek Bason, Steve Marcantonio, Justin Niebank, Vance Powell and Reid Shippen. The all-important producer nominees are: Nathan Chapman, Dave Cobb, Ross Copperman, Dann Huff and Michael Knox. Allegedly due to “time constraints,” winners in these categories will not be part of the televised gala in Las Vegas, co-hosted by Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley.
     Ailing: Merle Haggard, 78, has again been hospitalized with pneumonia, prompting postponement of show-dates. Publicist Tresa Redburn made this March 1 announcement: “Due to a persistent reoccurring bout with double pneumonia, Merle Haggard is currently receiving treatment at a hospital in California, and has had to postpone his concert dates in March.” The Hag was hospitalized last December, but thought he was well enough to tour again in February.
    Final Curtain: Singer-songwriter Joey Martin Feek, of the Grammy-nominated Joey + Rory duo, died March 4 in an Indiana hospice, concluding a contentious cancer struggle. The artist, age 40, chose to spend her final days at her family home in Indiana, with husband Rory and their daughter Indiana, 2, by her side. Writing on his Internet blog, Rory mused, “After four-and-a-half months in Indiana, we will soon be back home in Tennessee . . . me and our little one, with our older daughters (Heidi and Hope). It’s hard for me to imagine being there without Joey, but at the same time, it is where she wants us to be.” The couple first met at a songwriters night in Nashville, and two months later were married – June 15, 2002. Ex-Marine Feek proved a successful songwriter, with such cuts as Clay Walker’s “Chain of Love,” Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach,” and Easton Corbin’s “A Little More Country Than That.” Rory had two daughters from a previous marriage, Heidi and Hope. Joey+Rory competed as an act on CMT’s reality series Can You Duet in 2008, placing third, though he had no previous inclination to do vocals. Sugar Hill Records signed the duo, and their first Top 40 success was their co-write “Cheater, Cheater,” recorded earlier by Bomshel, but did not chart. They scored better on the album charts: “The Life Of a Song” (#10, 2008); and “Album Number Two” (#9, 2010). Their first #1 album was inspirational (released by Gaither Music Group), “Hymns That Are Important To Us,” topping both Billboard’s Country and Christian lists, while scoring Top Five on the trade magazine’s Top 200 pop chart. Among their numerous CMA, Academy of Country Music (ACM) and Inspirational Country Music (ICM) award nominations, the couple won as ACM’s top new duo in 2010; and ICM’s best in 2011. This year, Joey+Rory were nominated for a best country duo Grammy (which they lost) and ACM’s best vocal duo (yet to be determined). In February 2013, Joey chose natural childbirth when their daughter Indiana Boon was born, though two months later, the new mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The couple soon learned their daughter was a Down syndrome baby. Despite aggressive treatments, Joey’s cancer spread, eventually to her colon, and she was told her condition was terminal. A deep faith sustained her through the months that followed, and Rory chose to keep friends and fans updated on her final days via the Internet. On the day of her death, he posted on their blog, in part: “My wife’s greatest dream came true today. She is in Heaven. The cancer is gone, the pain has ceased and all her tears are dry. Joey is in the arms of her brother Justin and using her pretty voice to sing for her savior.” Survivors include Rory, Indiana, Heidi, Hope, parents June and Jack Martin, sisters Jody Martin, Julie Snyder and Jessie May. A private funeral service was planned.
Guitarist Rick Wright, 57, died after being involved in a two-car crash Feb. 7, near his home in White House, Tenn. He had long been a picker in Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith’s band The Sundowners. Wright, an Oklahoma native, performed with Smith on the Opry, on tour, and on such discs as “Long Line of Heartaches” (2011) for 17 years. “He played from the heart. It’s going to be hard to look to my right (on stage) and not see him there grinning at me,” said Smith. Previously he played in Jody Miller’s band, and the Music City Playboys, plus occasionally in Nashville’s Lower Broad honky-tonks. Survivors include wife Sherrie, son Joshua, two granddaughters, and mother Linda Piro. Arrangements were handled by Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home, Nashville.
Richard (Buck) Rambo, 84, died Feb. 21. He was a member and founding father of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and earned numerous Dove and Grammy awards in a career that spanned more than 60 years. Among the acts he toured with were the Oak Ridge Boys and the Stamps Quartet. From 1954, Buck devoted himself to the ministry, and in 1960, he and former wife Dottie founded a group they called The Gospel Echoes. Once daughter Reba joined, they performed as The Singing Rambos. The Rambos recorded multiple albums until the group was disbanded in the mid-1990s. Afterwards, he toured with his vocalist wife Mae, while conducting missionary work. In 2012, Rambo was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., 11 years after being named to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Survivors include Mae, his wife of 21 years, daughter Reba McGuire, three grandchildren, and a great-grandson. Services were held Feb. 29 at the Church of the City, Franklin, Tenn., with internment in Williamson Memorial Gardens.
Singer Joyce Marie (Paul) Potter, 78, died Feb. 15 at the Sunrise Senior Center in Roseville, Minn. As vivacious blonde recording artist Joyce Paul, she scored a 1968 country Top 40 single, “Phone Call To Mama” (co-written by Jerry Chesnutt & Norro Wilson), on United Artists. Born in Shelbyville, Tenn., she was voted Miss Cohn High School in 1955, and attended Peabody College, Nashville. After residing in Tulsa, Okla., she returned to Nashville and cut 15 singles, and a 1969 LP, “Heartache, Laughter & Tears,” before departing the music scene. Predeceased by husband Billy Potter and daughter Heather, survivors include son Lincoln Potter, and two grandchildren. Funeral services were conducted Feb. 27 at Woodlawn-Roesch-Patton Funeral Home, Nashville.
Singer-songwriter Tommy Turner, 77, died Feb. 9. A native of Jacksonville, Fla., he was born into a musical family, as singer-mom Janet and guitarist-dad Cloyer (C.A.) Turner played professionally. During the 1940s, they performed on WCKY-Cincinnati, Ohio, and later operated American Music Store in Florida, which later Tommy himself ran for 25 years as Turner’s Discount Music Center. Turner served four years in the Navy. In the early 1960s, Tommy came to know country artist Mel Tillis, who encouraged him to try Nashville. He did and with his Minstrels 3 even recorded an album for United Artists Records. Other Turner groups include Thom’s Travelers, a road band; The Hearts, playing Printer’s Alley; and at the Black Poodle and Voodoo Room there he worked as a single. A BMI songwriter, Tommy has co-written with notables like Kent Westberry, and his catalog includes such songs as “I Never Thought a Lot About Texas” and “I Would.” He was a Presbyterian Lay Pastor, and wrote a regular music column for Songwriter magazine. Predeceased by Peggy, his wife of 46 years, he is survived by son Fred of New Jersey. A Celebration of Life was conducted Feb. 18 in Glencliff Presbyterian Church, Nashville.

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Remembering Sonny James, country legend

Sonny James voice silenced . . .

NASHVILLE — “True Love’s a Blessing,” which no doubt Sonny James wrote and sang from the heart, sort of sums up his life. First there was the musical family of his childhood, then Doris, the love of his life, and the loyalty and affection of fans, celebrating him as The Southern Gentleman.
Sonny James died Feb. 22, age 87, at Alive Hospice in Nashville. Among the Country Music Hall of Famer’s finest hits were his co-writes “You’re the Only World I Know,” “A Little Bit South of Saskatoon,” plus a 1956 release, “Young Love,” a #1 pop and country crossover disc that helped launch the fabled Nashville Sound.
On a personal note, our family misses the annual holiday card from the James household, a tradition we’ve delighted in for years. Doris and Sonny were indeed caring and thoughtful folk, and unfortunately she suffered a stroke more than a year ago.

Mr. and Mrs. Sonny Claus
                           Mr. & Mrs. ‘Sonny’ Claus!

Sonny’s genuineness was reflected in his sincere and straightforward presentation of songs produced through the years. That he succeeded is evidenced by over 110 Billboard chartings between 1953 and 1983, including #1 albums “The Best of Sonny James” (1966) and “Need You” (1967), boasting such chart-topping singles as “Take Good Care Of Her,” “Behind the Tear,” “You’re the Only World I Know” and “Need You.”
Born May 1, 1928, James Hugh Loden’s parents Della and Archey ran a small country store in Hackleburg, Ala. Already performers, they included their children Thelma and Sonny soon as they were big enough to sing and play as part of The Loden Family, making their way via local radio and in-person appearances promoted on-the-air.    As a youngster, their “Sonny” boy first learned to play mandolin from a rough-hewn instrument father fashioned from a Shaker wooden molasses bucket.
At 4, he took his first public performing bow at an Alabama convention, and the applause hooked him for the next half century. A quick study, Sonny soon mastered fiddle, banjo and guitar, and later reflected on this skill: “Most pickers – I know Ricky Skaggs is that way – can play most anything with strings. I just grew up playing ’em, not realizing I wasn’t supposed to, so I learned to play both fiddle and guitar.” Nonetheless, his fiddlin’ surpassed the competition enough to win several championships as a youth, and later played on sessions for other acts, such as Jim & Jesse, the bluegrass duo.
“Each (instrument) would help you play the other one better, I think, because it has to do with coordination,” James mused. “I find most fiddle players can adapt to most any instrument  . . .  I don’t know why, I guess, unless it’s the action of the wrist and the noting of the fiddle. It has no frets on it. You see a lot of people, they don’t realize in playing fiddle, it’s almost a marriage between your ear and hand. That’s the only gauge you have . . . you don’t have a fret like you do on mandolin . . . but on a fiddle , you sort of have to learn you can be a little sharp or a little flat, see? So that really helps you . . . I’m speaking in country music, for that’s all I can talk about. Once you get your coordination down on the fiddle, you can generally play other instruments. At least that’s the way it was with me.”
The Lodens played show dates throughout the Southeastern U.S. As Sonny’s vocals matured, he stepped up front at their shows, ultimately billed as Sonny Loden & His Southerners, berthed at such radio stations as WAPI-Birmingham, WJDX-Jackson, Miss., and WPTF-Raleigh.

The Loden clan and teen-aged Sonny
The Loden band (from left) Pop, Joe Turner, Mom, Thelma, Sonny and Ruby Palmer, who was raised by the Lodens.

Still there was time for Sonny to partake of his love of sports, and he played ball in school. Following graduation from high school, James joined the Alabama National Guard, and Uncle Sam called them into service to fight the Korean War, which kicked off in June 1950. In his 15 months, Sonny still managed to write songs, filling up a notebook, while entertaining fellow GIs and Korean orphans with his pickin’ and singin’ talents, until his ’52 discharge.
During his stint at WPTF, he’d met musician Chet Atkins, then playing fiddle (before switching to guitar) for Johnnie Wright’s Tennessee Hillbillies. When James came to Nashville, he looked up Atkins, then understudying A&R honcho Steve Sholes at RCA Records. Chet listened to Sonny’s songs and recommended him to Capitol boss Ken Nelson, who liked his vocals better than the compositions, and gave him a contract that summer of 1952.
A year later – having taken Ken’s advice to drop the Loden – as Sonny James he charted his first single “That’s Me Without You” (a cover of Webb Pierce’s hit), notching Top 10 for a single week. Still it was a warm welcome for an unknown.
Ken Nelson told this writer of a song he supposedly put “on hold” for Sonny with its publisher, titled “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” which they recorded after Ken prompted Fred Rose (Acuff-Rose) to do a slight rewrite of the Cecil Null creation. Fred Stryker, the local publisher, pulled a fast one on Ken, asking for a dub of Sonny’s track, then gave it to a new duo The Davis Sisters, whose subsequent RCA single beat Capitol’s to the punch complete with changes, giving the gals a #1 disc from the get-go, and sold a million records in ’53.
The next chart single, “She Done Give Her Heart To Me” (#14, 1954), which Sonny wrote, also lasted one week. He fared better via a co-write with Jack Morrow, “For Rent (One Empty Heart),” charting 11 weeks (#7, 1956). Two additional charters were “20 Feet of Muddy Water” (#11) and his self-penned “The Cat Came Back” (#12), preceding the year-end smash “Young Love” (co-written by Carole Joyner & Ric Cartey), which made Sonny a star to be reckoned with.
That gem was “pitched” to Ken by Atlanta publisher Bill Lowery, and despite Sonny’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction, recorded it a week later in October 1956. To James’ surprise, “Young Love” topped both country and pop charts, and also peaked #3 on the R&B chart, placing Sonny in a rarefied list of country stars claiming a hit on Billboard’s three coveted lists.
“I had so much faith in the record, I put it on rush release,” recalled Nelson, who assigned Wade Pepper, an adept Atlanta promoter, to plug the disc nationally. An across-the-board success, it did extremely well with DJs, on jukeboxes and sales-wise totaled three million discs sold. No doubt Dot Records’ screen teen idol Tab Hunter’s quick cover disc cut into James #1 stay atop the pop chart, though both charted pop 17 weeks each. Tab’s tune spent six weeks topping the pop list, five weeks longer than Sonny, who held fast to his #1 country status nine weeks, for a total 24 weeks’ charting.     Additionally, “Young Love’s” flip-side “You’re the Reason I’m in Love” also enjoyed hit status on the country chart (#6, 1957).
(Ken Nelson, irked with Dot, got revenge by covering Dot’s hit “A Fallen Star” by Jimmy C. Newman that same year, with Capitol’s Ferlin Husky release, which kept Newman just shy of scoring #1.)

Sonny James 1950s
During the 1950s, Sonny became a regular on WNOX’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride, and the CBS-TV series Ozark Jubilee. The slender 6’3” star was a popular guest on such broadcasts as KRLD’s Big D Jamboree in Dallas, WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, as well as covering the national scene, via shows of Jimmy Dean, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Pat Boone and Ed Sullivan’s CBS Sunday Toast Of the Town variety series.
In the pop realm, James’ follow-up was “First Date, First Kiss, First Love,” a 1957 teen ditty, scoring Top 20, while charting country’s Top 10, as well. It proved timely, making a great serenade while dating Doris Shrode, whom he’d recently met at a church in Dallas. The couple wed in July 1957, and though childless, theirs became one of the music scene’s most successful marriages.
Come August 1957, Sonny charted “Lovesick Blues” (#15), his smooth revival of Hank Williams’ 1949 breakthrough #1, backed with “Dear Love.” Its novelty number follow-up, “Uh-Huh-mm,” brought him back into the prestigious Top 10 (#8, 1958). For some four years, however, James was noticeably absent from Billboard, with the sole exception of a 1960 Top 20 country cut “Jenny Lou.”

TX ad for Big D Jamboree radio show
In 1962 James became a regular Opry cast member, while touring constantly with his Southern Gentlemen backing group. In 1963, Jimmy Gately’s “The Minute You’re Gone” chalked up another chart Top 10 for James, followed by the melodic Jean Chapel number, “Going Through the Motions of Living” (#17, 1963).
Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s ballad “Baltimore” proved another winner (#8, 1964), followed by a romantic #1 “You’re the Only World I Know,” which he wrote with Bob Tubert, who also supplied his next release “I’ll Keep Holding On,” a near number one. Next up, Ned Miller’s “Behind a Tear” proved a chart topper, as well, and followed by Sonny’s self-penned “True Love’s a Blessing” (#3, 1965), co-written with Carole Smith, who became a frequent song collaborator with the Southern Gentleman.
James’ pattern of a #1 and a near-#1 reoccurred in 1966, with release of back-to-back singles “Take Good Care of Her” (#1) and his own “Room in Your Heart” (#2). In 1967, he co-hosted the Country Music Association’s premiere awards show with singer Bobbie Gentry, in spite of an innate shyness.
As former label boss and mentor Ken Nelson noted, between 1967’s “Need You” and 1971’s “Here Comes Honey Again” (another Carole collaboration), James hit the musical jackpot: “Sonny was the only artist during my era, pop or county, who had 16 successive number one hits!”
A little explanation is in order. As a boy, Sonny learned his dad’s favorite singer was Nat (King) Cole, a fellow Alabamian. So when signed to Capitol, Sonny got to meet the amiable black artist. Not only did they become fast friends, but it was Cole who suggested James consider R&B classics that lend themselves to country. His King Cole Trio had done just that in reverse, notably the 1944 #1 country click “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “I Can’t See For Lookin’,” (#2, ’44), as well as “Ramblin’ Rose” later.
Like the 1950s’ Johnnie & Jack (with “Oh Baby Mine, I Get So Lonely” and “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight”), James began arranging R&B songs suitable for the country crowd, among these hitting #1 for him were the Big Bopper’s “Running Bear,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” and “Empty Arms,” Brook Benton and Clyde Otis’ “It’s Just a Matter of Time” and “Endlessly,” and Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City.” James also revisited other genre hits, including Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” Arlie Duff’s “It’s the Little Things,” Cindy Walker’s “Heaven Says Hello,” and The Chordette’s “Born To Be With You,” his formulaic twist turned them all into #1 country cuts.
Oddly enough, his re-do of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” ranking 17th (and once a hit for Gene Pitney), stalled at #2, but its two successors “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do” (by Jack Morrow and Kelso Herston) and “When the Snow Is On the Roses” also struck the bell at #1 in ’72. James’ final Billboard #1, his 23rd, was “Is It Wrong,” a 1974 revival of Warner Mack’s 1957 breakthrough ballad.
Nonetheless, on the competitive trade chart Cash Box, Sonny actually scored 21 successive #1 songs from 1966-1972, counting “Take Good Care of Her,” “Room In Your Heart” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart” all deemed chart-toppers, followed by “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do” and “When the Snow Is On the Roses,” totaling 21.

Sonny James a 1970s cover boy
1970s cover boy Sonny James.

In 1971, James became the first artist to record especially for a space flight, Apollo 14, taking his music to the moon, and upon its return, Commander Alan Shepard presented an awed Sonny with an American flag that had been part of the project.
Meanwhile, Sonny’s post-1971 Top 10s also included “White Silver Sands,” “I Love You More and More Every Day,” “A Mi Esposa Con Amor (To My Wife With Love),”  “A Little Band of Gold,” “What In the World’s Come Over You,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” “Come On In” and “You’re Free To Go,” his last (1977).
“Ken Nelson was the best person to work with for me,” James explained. “I cut two albums on the West Coast, but the rest of them were recorded here. Then the people who worked the Nashville office for Ken, notably Marvin Hughes, we never went into the studio that we didn’t work well together, and he cut I don’t know how many top songs for me; and also Kelso Herston, one of my dear friends, and all through that time, I couldn’t ask for better production men.”
Helping to spread his musical fame farther afield were appearances and soundtrack vocals in various cinematic ventures a la “Las Vegas Hillbillies” (1966) and its (1967) sequel “Hillbillies In a Haunted House,” both with friend Ferlin Husky and Hollywood glamour girls Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield and Joi Lansing. Rounding out James’ film credits are “Nashville Rebel” (1966), Paul Newman’s “Slap Shot” (1977), “Lipstick On Your Collar” (1993), “A Holiday For Love” (1996), and Jake Paltrow’s “Young Ones” (2014).

Sonny James upclose
Moving to the other side of the mic, James produced the Osmond family’s only daughter Marie for MGM, writing all the arrangements for her debut album “Paper Roses,” which not only scored #1 three weeks, but sold Gold, and crossed into the Billboard pop chart. It also introduced Marie to the singles chart, giving her a #1 chart debut – a feat accomplished by only a handful of female artists, notably Kitty Wells, Goldie Hill, Jean Shepard, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith and Donna Fargo – and helped her win a Grammy. Sonny also produced her twin follow-up albums, “In My Little Corner Of the World” (#10, 1974) and “Who’s Sorry Now” (#20, 1975), giving the newcomer a good foothold in the genre. Big brother Donnie Osmond decided to revive Sonny’s biggest success “Young Love” (#25, 1973), his falling  far short.
A highlight for Sonny – a concept album pioneer – was the 1976 LP, “200 Years of Country Music,” musically marking the nation’s 200th anniversary, a project taking over a year to research and record. Another he prized, was “In Prison, In Person,” a 1977 release, utilizing musician-inmates credited as his Prison Band, cut inside the walls of Tennessee State Prison. When WestSide Records in England combined these two landmark LPs into a single 2001 CD, this writer had the honor of writing its liner notes (and still treasures James’ thank you copy).
At the time, Sonny confided, “I’m glad that’s coming out, especially the ‘200 Years’ album, which I recorded for the Bicentennial, so that marks its 25th anniversary.”

James double LP revived in the UK
Sonny last charted in August 1983, “A Free Roamin’ Mind” (#58), another co-write with Carole Smith and in 1985, James retired from show business. The single “One Big Family” found Sonny guesting on a Heart Of Nashville collaborative benefit, sharing the mic with fellow artists like Roy Acuff, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Bobby Bare, George Jones, Webb Pierce, Jerry Reed, Tanya Tucker, Porter Wagoner and Faron Young, as his swan song (#61, 1985).
James confided he was suffering a mysterious throat ailment that affected his singing, and despite treatment by specialists, never recovered enough to satisfy his own high standards vocally. In retirement, he relished the freedom for fishing, and along with Doris, his wife of 58 years, the opportunity to travel, and serve others through their involvement with the Church of Christ. They were both physical fitness buffs, visiting the gym regularly. At the time, he joshed, “Doris is really keeping me in shape.”
Sonny also acknowledged: “I love sports; I follow them all, according to the season. I really get caught up in it. Some of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever had, have been with Little League teams, watching little kids play ball.”

Sonny and wife at ann'y party 1987
Doris and Sonny at a 1987 reception (photo by D. Trott).

Honors coming his way have included a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame; Record World magazine’s citation as 1970s’ Artist of the Decade; induction into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987; being named a Lifetime Member of the Nashville Association of Musicians (AFM Local 257); and climaxing his career by being voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2006. He declared then,  “It’s a great honor to join many of my friends in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
A memorial service conducted Feb. 25 at  Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, consisted of prayers, hymns and fond remembrances of those who knew him well. Participants included vocalist Andy Flatt, Jonathan Seamon and Walt Leaver. The Recessional was his own recorded instrumental interpretation of “Eres Tu (Touch The Wind),” while other songs sung included “Love Lifted Me” and “When They Ring Them Golden Bells.” Pallbearers were former bandsmen and friends Kevin Anderson, Barry Estes, Milo Liggett, Reggie McLaughlin, Gary and Greg Robble and Ronnie Williams. A down-home service was held Feb. 27 at Hamilton Funeral Home, with Interment in Cedar Tree Cemetery, Hackleburg, Ala.
Sharing her condolences, Marie Osmond Twittered: “Country Music Hall of Famer, producer & lifelong friend #SonnyJames. U will be missed! #RIP.”  Marie’s former label boss Mike Curb weighed in with his remembrance of his late friend: “Sonny James opened the doors of Nashville to me. He was the first person to invite me into a recording session at the Quonset Hut in 1964, and it started a friendship that lasted our whole lifetime. When I became Billboard Producer of the Year (in the early 1970s), I realized that I needed to find someone better than me to produce Marie Osmond. I called Sonny, who produced ‘Paper Roses,’ which went all the way to #1. I also got to witness Sonny’s first #1 country record ‘You’re The Only World I Know’ (actually his second). More important than all of that was a lifetime of friendship with Sonny and Doris; even seeing him the last two days of his life will have eternal meaning for me.”
Yet another producer, Jerry Crutchfield (Dave Loggins, Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell), added, “Few if any possessed such a combination of talent, character, personality and genuine niceness to others, as did Sonny. Best and warm thoughts to Doris.”
Songwriter Curly Putman (“Green, Green Grass of Home”) texted this message regarding Sonny to Doris, “Bernice and myself, Curly Putman, fellow Alabama songwriter, will miss him. We will be thinking of you. I will think of him with each fish I catch at Center Hill Lake. Love!!!”   (- By Walt Trott)

Sonny James hitmaker
Sonny James: country-pop musician,   vocalist, writer, producer, Hall of Famer.


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Jimmy Fortune sans Statlers . . .

Jimmy Fortune at 60 . . . a visit with Walt Trott

NASHVILLE –Thanks to captivating vocals, country’s Jimmy Fortune ranks right up there with the legendary likes of fellow tenors Vince Gill, Mac Wiseman, Hank Locklin and Bobby Osborne. Of course, Jimmy’s already a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, due to his 21-year membership in the now-retired Statler Brothers, for whom he also wrote the #1 songs “Elizabeth,” “My Only Love” and “Too Much On My Heart.”

Jimmy Fortune's new CD.
                          Jimmy Fortune’s latest CD.

Those who dig hearing his soaring tones will be pleased knowing Jimmy’s got a new collection, “Hits & Hymns,” being released Oct. 23 in both CD and DVD formats. The latter will be the basis of a forthcoming PBS special, as well. Although it’s Fortune’s voice showcased throughout, he’s joined by a troupe blending familiar harmonies to the soundtrack, among these are Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, The Oak Ridge Boys, Charlotte Ritchie and The Isaacs, Sonya and Ben.

“There are also a couple of other singers – Sydni Perry and Mike Rogers – we feature on three gospel tracks,” notes Fortune. “They also accompany me sometimes on tour. No, I don’t take a band out, we just do a trio thing on the road.”

Fortune’s touring averaged about 80 shows a year, however, his friendship with bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent (Jamie and Darrin, respectively) and their appearances together on RFD cable TV, resulted in additional shows this year, including bluegrass festivals.

“On those, I do a 90-minute set and then come out later for another 30 minutes guesting with them,” adds Fortune. “You know they did an album of Statler hits – ‘Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers’ – that won a couple bluegrass awards, and even got a (2011) Grammy nomination for their recording of ‘Elizabeth.’ Can you imagine that, after all those years! Daily & Vincent are absolute talents and I think they’re trying to expand their musical boundaries, doing other than bluegrass, and I hope the people out there will recognize that.”

            Apart from being an advocate for them, Fortune maintains, “I am still a Statler Brother, and I will die being one. I’m an ambassador for the group. They were about God, family and country, and that’s what I’m all about. You know (acclaimed author-humorist) Kurt Vonnegut called the Statlers, America’s poets.” Statlers Xmas card-1The Statler Brothers in their heyday!

            Their repertoire represents a mix of downhome original songs, performed with an almost gospel feel, though sometimes peppered with humor and satire. Among their greatest hits are “The Class of ’57,” “Bed of Rose’s,” “The Official Historian of Shirley Jean Birrell,” “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You,” “Ruthless,” “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too,” “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

In 1955, the year Jimmy was born, the former Staunton, Va., high school group – Harold Reid, Phil Balsley, Lew DeWitt and lead singer Joe McDorman – were performing professionally as The Four Star Quartet. They became The Kingsmen in the early 1960s, but by the time a Portland, Ore. Rock band emerged under that name with a national 1963 hit “Louie, Louie,” they changed to The Statler Brothers, adopting a name spotted on a box of tissue in a hotel room. By then, McDorman had opted out, being replaced by Harold’s kid brother Don Reid.

So that was the Statler line-up when Johnny Cash engaged them as an opening act on a major tour in ’63. Two years later, Lew DeWitt’s song “Flowers On the Wall,” became their first Billboard chart song (#2) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Obviously, the Statlers did quite well by their tenors, as Lew’s “Flowers On the Wall” was their first chart record, and Jimmy’s “More Than a Name On a Wall,” their last Top 10 charting, a quarter of a century later.

Due to DeWitt’s declining health, suffering Crohn’s disease, he departed the group in 1982, replaced by Fortune (and DeWitt died in 1990). Jimmy says the first song he recorded with the Statlers was their remake of the Johnnie & Jack hit “I Get So Lonely (Oh Baby Mine),” for their Top 10 “Today” album, and which as a single peaked at #2 in 1983. In 1985, the group enjoyed its only #1 album “Pardners in Rhyme,” which boasted the Fortune-penned chart-topper “Too Much On My Heart.”

Their longest-charting album is the Mercury compilation “Best Of The Statler Brothers” (#2, 1975), a triple-platinum seller, hanging in there 168 weeks. Yet another longevity album is “Atlanta Blue” (#8, 1984), charting 136 weeks and featuring the #1 single “My Only Love.”

One of country’s major award winners, The Statlers earned CMA’s best vocal group annually (1972-’77) and again in 1979, 1980 and 1984, and a trio of Grammy statuettes. Their Gospel Hall of Fame induction occurred in 2007, a year prior to their Country Music Hall of Fame honor.

The Gospel Hall of Fame citation would have pleased his mother, who originally hoped Jimmy would become a preacher. He remembers her affectionately as “a prayer warrior,” a no-nonsense person, who was concerned about her son’s marital failures and its effect on his family.

“She didn’t like it,” muses Fortune, looking a decade younger than his 60 years. “My mom and dad were both disappointed those marriages ended in divorce. I wasn’t a perfect person, and there are things I wished I could change, but I take the blame.”

Lester James Fortune, one of nine children born to Odie (Byrd) and Dabney Fortune, arrived March 11, 1955, in Williamsburg, Va. While growing up, the family entertained themselves, harmonizing at home.

Jimmy started out playing in high school groups, and kept nurturing his first love.

“Of course, I was out in the bars a lot in my life and it taught me something. But I never was into alcohol or the drug scene. Unfortunately, my dad was an alcoholic and that’s probably what turned me away from it. I saw what it did to him, but at a late age, he turned his life around and gave himself to God. It was in time enough that he became my hero. I knew anybody could turn his life around, if my dad did, because he had it so bad. That showed me that I could turn my life around, too.”

When he first became involved with the Statlers, he had a day job selling cars in Charlottesville, while playing in local bands six nights a week, singing cover songs. Lew heard Jimmy sing and when he became ill, suggested the unknown 26-year-old as a temporary tenor in the internationally famed quartet (in November 1981).

“Initially, it was temporary, as Lew was supposed to be back in about six months. With that in mind, I could accept it. If they hired me from the start to replace Lew, I think I would’ve said, ‘Fellows, I don’t think I can do this.’ Thinking it was only temporary, I could feel good about helping somebody. I just loved being able to do what I did. I mean it was a dream come true.”

Then upon Lew’s return, they kept Jimmy in the band playing rhythm guitar and as backup singer in case DeWitt took sick on the road. Fortune said his first audition was in Staunton, but for the final verdict he was sent an airline ticket to try-out in Nashville, which marked his first ever flight.

After DeWitt bowed out, Fortune was finally announced as his permanent replacement: “When I went out for the first few shows, people would walk through the line when we’d sign autographs after the show, and some would kinda pull back their pen and paper, and walk around me, to go to the next artist. I could understand that and I’d look at them and grin. I knew it wasn’t easy to accept somebody new like that.

“I wanted to make a place for myself so bad. I finally figured the best way to do that was to write a song they would like. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it belonged to somebody else, not me . . . I mean face it, one week I was in Charlottesville working a day job and playing local bars, and the next week I was in Texas at the Astrodome, playing to 40,000 people. I wondered how did I get here?”

Songwriting was something he longed to do, and Jimmy asked Don and Harold if he wrote a song would they record it? “Harold gave me the most honest answer he could, ‘Yeah, little buddy, if it’s good enough.’ Well, I had a melody that kept sounding in my head, and it really lent itself well to harmony. But I didn’t have any lyrics.”

One day in a store buying supplies to take on their tour bus, Jimmy heard “This little girl in a shopping cart, and it seemed she was into everything, and her mother kept saying ‘Elizabeth’ this . . . and ‘Elizabeth’ that, and I got a kick out of it. Then while playing in Tulsa, Okla., I kept seeing this hand coming up over the front of the stage, from back where I was playing. Towards the end of the night, we’d go up towards the front of the stage, and I looked over to see who belonged to the hand and there was this beautiful young lady, saying, ‘Hey, I’m Elizabeth! I’m Elizabeth!,’ like I should know her, and she was so pretty, with that beaming face. I told her ‘I’m going to write a song about you.’ Some time later, she and her brother came to our 4th of July show and she reminded me of that Tulsa time, ‘You said you would write a song about my name, and you did!’ She’s not the only one who felt ‘Elizabeth’ was inspired by her name.”

In February 1984, the Statlers, who have played for presidents, were invited to perform at Elizabeth Taylor’s 52nd birthday party in old Tucson, Ariz. “Elizabeth” was climbing the charts, so the boys sang it to honor the movie legend. “After we sang it, Harold said we wrote the song especially for her,” grins Fortune. “That was all right. She was very gracious and a nice lady.”

From 1991 to 1998, the group produced its own variety series on TNN, which was the cable network’s top rated show during its run. Fortune also recalls the group’s last gig’s date and site – Oct. 26, 2002 at the Salem (Va.) Civic Center – a heart-wrenching experience: “The last song we sang there was ‘Amazing Grace’ and it was also the very first song I ever sang with them on stage. Just before we did that closing number, we talked about my Mom, who died in 2000, and I about lost it. Later, I saw on the DVD of that final show, I actually made it through the song, but Lord I was torn up.”

Jimmy notes it was only a short time before the Salem show, that his “brothers” broke it to him that would be their finale, saying, “We’ve been knockin’ this around, and we’re retiring this year. We wanted you to hear it from us before the word got out . . . What do you think you’re gonna do?”

At age 47, the Virginia native felt too young to quit, and recorded a secular album for Audium Records, fittingly titled “When One Door Closes,” and made some promotional appearances.

“I’d built a brand new home out there on the side of a mountain, a beautiful place, but I had four kids in college and was having a tough time trying to run a career out of Staunton. Well, I put a price on the house and four days later, it sold. I took that as a confirmation from God, it was right.”

In June 2004, he and wife Nina determined it was best to move to Nashville to conduct a solo career in earnest. “We were married in 1998, after I’d dated her awhile, but being older than she is, I wasn’t sure it would work. But now I know if it wasn’t for Nina, none of this would’ve been possible. After being with the Statlers, I didn’t know anything about booking or publishing. She had been an accountant, and started learning about all this, and now she runs a tight ship, and I need that. She is my left brain.”

Once in Nashville, Jimmy recorded his first solo gospel album, “I Believe” (2004), co-produced with bassist Dave Fowler, who had co-authored the title track with Fortune: “I got to know Dave years ago when he was playing for Helen Cornelius, and they opened for the Statlers. He said then, ‘If you ever do something on your own, I’d like to be part of it.’ I remembered that.”

Other Fortune collections include “Feels Like Christmas” (2006), “Windows” (2009) and “Lessons” (2012). For the new “Hits & Hymns” CD, he had Ben Isaacs produce, and among the selections are three former Statler hits: “Elizabeth,” “Too Much On My Heart” and “More Than a Name On a Wall.” Naturally, Jimmy was concerned how to make them sound fresh.

“What Ben did when he got all the musicians and me together in the studio, he said, ‘Guys, these songs have been done a lot. What I want us to do is approach these songs like it’s the first time anybody’s ever heard them.’ Gordon Mote, the pianist, whom I think is anointed, starts playing and I wonder ‘where’s this going?,’ when all of a sudden Aubrey Haynie, the fiddler, joins in and starts doing his thing in the same vein, and it took me to a place I’d never been before. It’s all more acoustic, and to me the music is simply brilliant. I heard ‘Amazing Grace’ like never before . . . Sonya Isaacs comes in on it and I get chill bumps, and when Vince Gill comes in, I start crying like a baby. It’s so different.”

Fortune fathered sons Chris, Matthew, Grant, Jimmy Jr. and daughters Jessica, Meghann and Courtney: “Yes, I have seven children and eight grandchildren, and they’re all so special to me.”

Are any musically inclined, or interested in a career as an artist?

“My son Matthew writes well and sings. I told him, ‘If you come to Nashville, maybe I could help you.’ He’s got three kids, and he looks at his boys and says, ‘This is the reason I won’t do it.’ I told him if he became an artist and won best song year after year, I couldn’t be any prouder of him than I am when he said that.”

Currently, Jimmy’s prepping his own book, a biography, with the aid of a ghostwriter: “He’s a friend of mine, who went with me to Virginia and we talked about my growing up there. He’s a great guy. I’ve decided on a title for it, ‘Untold Fortune,’ there’s no better way to put it.”



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Music City Beat – February 2016

             NASHVILLE – Great news for the summer tourists. Ringo Starr brings his All- Starr Band tour to Nashville, specifically a show at the historic Ryman Auditorium, on June 19. It’ll mark his first stop here since 2012, when he appeared at the same venue on his 72nd birthday, July 7. Initially inspired as a youngster hearing Gene Autry’s “South of the Border,” Starr began a life-long enjoyment of country sounds. He was especially enamored of Kitty Wells’ hardcore country laments, and encouraged The Beatles to cover Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” (penned by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison). In 1970, at the invitation of Pete Drake, Ringo journeyed to Nashville to cut an album, “Beaucoups of Blues,” which Pete co-produced, engaging Scotty Moore as engineer, accompanied by such session players as Charlie Daniels, Chuck Howard, Buddy Harman, Charlie McCoy, Junior Huskey, Jerry Reed, Dave Kirby, Jerry Kennedy and D. J. Fontana. Added attractions were The Jordanaires, harmony backup, and Jeannie Kendall warbling on the “I Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way” track. Ringo’s own creation “Coochy, Coochy” became a bonus number. (Reportedly, he penned another – “Band of Steel” – that failed his final cut.) Much later, Buck Owens invited Ringo to join him on a revised version of “Act Naturally,” which gave Starr a lone Billboard country singles charting (#27, 1989). No doubt, Ringo’s upcoming gig will be the hottest ticket in town. (Many Yanks still wonder why Ringo, a.k.a. Richard Starkey, was never knighted?)

Beatles, Act Naturally 1965
Beatles, Act Naturally 1965

            Scene Stealers: In case you were curious as to whatever happened to LeAnn Rimes’ ex-dancer-hubby, following their messy split, wonder no longer. Dean Sheremet not only went to a French chef school, then worked in an exclusive Big Apple restaurant, but also remarried (dishy photographer Sarah Silver in 2011), and now has a new book out; OK, a cookbook titled “Eat Your Heart Out,” sub-titled The Look Good, Feel Good, Silver Lining Cookbook. Dean had a few movie credits (“Not Another Teen Movie”) prior to meeting Rimes, who eventually ditched him to romance another actor, the also- married Eddie Cibrian, her co-star in the film “Northern Lights.” Now 35, Sheremet deadpans: “How cauliflower helped me get over LeAnn Rimes.” The celebrity chef’s due in Nashville, Feb. 16, to sign copies of his book and offer a cooking demonstration at the Farmer’s Market on Rosa Parks Blvd. Having once shared a Nashville mansion on Hillsboro Pike with his wife of seven years, which sold for $2 million-plus prior to their 2010 divorce, he’s not hurting financially. A book blurb notes, “When Dean Sheremet’s marriage to LeAnn Rimes went up in smoke, he decided to put his life back together, recipe-by-recipe. And it worked.” . . . Lady Antebellum co-lead singer Charles Kelley’s solo album “The Driver” is garnering lots of favorable commentary, begging the question could Chuckie consider going it alone? Meantime, Lady A vocalist Hillary Scott is recording a gospel CD with her family (including singer-mom Linda Davis), while band- mate Dave Haywood simply enjoys some time off, in the wake of the trio’s exhaustive 2015 Wheels Up tour wrap. Pop superstar Stevie Nicks and Kelley covered Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” on “The Driver,” while other guests for the venture included Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay. The latter two joined Kelley on his Grammy-nominated title track. On the home front, Kelley and Cassie, his Mrs., anticipate birth of their baby boy any day (after a lengthy infertility struggle). Come March 16, however, Lady A’s back intact to help honor Kris Kristofferson for a TV tribute taping here at Bridgestone Arena . . . LoCash’s Preston Brust and wife Kristen saw the New Year in with arrival of their first child, Love Lily Brust. Daddy continues touring with bandsman Chris Lucas on their highly successful I Love This Life Tour, named after their near chart-topping country airplay single . . . Legendary Loretta Lynn’s delighted to see The Donald (Trump) finally emerged a winner, Feb. 9, in New Hampshire, after bombing in Iowa, right after she endorsed his presidential candidacy! A coal miner’s daughter and a billionaire blowhard, who’s never before held elective office, make quite a combination. But hey, she’s not alone, for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also announced her support for the Republican’s celebrity candidate, who’s now off to South Carolina to test his political pull down in Dixie . . . Like daddy Billy Ray, singer Miley Cyrus has signed onto a new project, Woody Allen’s as yet untitled Amazon-TV series. Writer-director Allen also stars, along with veteran comedienne Elaine May, she of the popular 1950s nightclub duo with Mike Nichols (who became an award-winning film director). Reportedly, Allen’s first excursion into a series, will be set in the 1960s, with shooting to commence in March . . . Rocker Cyndi Lauper tried something different this time around. The New Wave artist recorded a traditional-style country album, titled “Detour.” Among Nashville notables sharing the mic with mi’lady is Willie Nelson no less, on his composition “Night Life.” Other Music City names invited include Emmylou Harris on the title track, Alison Krauss on “Hard Candy Christmas” and Vince Gill, “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” Additionally, Jewel joined Cyndi on the Patsy Montana classic, “I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Other tunes include “Misty Blue,” “Begging To You,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “The End Of the World” . . . Gary Morris put his booming vocals to good use, Jan. 23, for the Nashville Opera Guild’s annual fund raiser, La Bella Notte. This year’s theme fit the artist to a T, Opry To Opera – Where Opera and Country Meet, with black-tie event tickets tabbed at $300 each. Gary told The Tennessean his reply, when invited, “I said ‘I’m really not an opera singer. There are great opera singers.’ And they said the theme was From Opry To Opera, (and) I thought that’s pretty clever, and to me, it said, ‘OK, it’s a validation of music in general,’ and I thought I really would like to do that.” Of course, Morris was the first yank to play ValJean in “Les Miserables” on Broadway, and earlier had appeared on the Great White Way in “La Boheme” with Linda Ronstadt. Among his five #1 country songs are his self-penned “Baby, Bye Bye,” “Makin’ Up For Lost Time” (with Crystal Gayle) and “Leave Me Lonely.”

            Honors: Congrats to Ronnie Reno, 68, named a 2016 inductee into the Society For the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association (SPBGMA) Hall of Greats. The singer-songwriter-musician comes honestly by it, being the son of the late Bluegrass Hall of Honor recipient Don Reno (of Reno & Smiley fame). Ronnie, who performed with dad, also toured with the bands of the Osborne Brothers, Merle Haggard and his own family band The Reno Brothers (“Yonder Comes a Freight Train”). Conway Twitty recorded his hit “Boogie Grass Band” (1978). Ronnie has produced albums for the likes of Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman. Reno currently hosts RFD’s rural network program, Reno’s Old Time Music Show, and recently released “Lessons Learned,” his own album. Regarding his induction, Reno says, “I am so incredibly humbled to be listed among artists who have inspired me throughout my entire career. While I’ve known a lot of them personally, I have also studied their licks, admired their music and respected their craftsmanship to the point that I’ve dedicated a great deal of my career getting their performances archived on film and in audio files so that others can benefit from their work. To find myself listed among them is just mind-blowing! I just don’t even know what to say.”. . . Dierks Bentley will be honored with a contemporary country exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, March 4-Sept. 6. Titled “Dierks Bentley: Every Mile a Memory, Presented By Citi” (Bank), his exhibit will feature costumes, instruments, song manuscripts and assorted photos. At 40, the Phoenix, Ariz. native, can look back on a highly successful chart success that includes 15 Top 10 singles, including #1 songs like “What Was I Thinkin’,” “Free and Easy” and “Feel The Fire.” Bentley, who started in Nashville pickin’ and singin’ in Lower Broad street bars, will perform an acoustic set and offer a career retrospective in a short ceremony for the exhibit, March 12 . . . The Missouri legislature conducted dual ceremonies in the state house, Jan. 19, paying homage to singer Leroy Van Dyke, 86. State Representatives Steve Cookson and Nathan Beard first presented the veteran star with an official House Resolution honoring his 60 years in music, followed by a similar presentation in the Senate for a favorite son of the Show Me State. Van Dyke, celebrated for Gold Records “Walk On By,” “If a Woman Answers” and his self-penned “The Auctioneer,” was born in Mora, Mo. He currently resides in Sedalia.

            Bits & Pieces: Singer Kelly Clarkson has authored a children’s book – “River Rose & The Magical Lullaby” – covering a little girl’s visit to the zoo. Release date: Oct. 4 . . . During Nashville’s first snowstorm in late January, singer Dierks Bentley Tweeted, “There must have been magic in tin cup he found/Placed it to his lips, began to dance around. #blizzard2016@OleSmoky.” . . . Hollywood actor Josh Brolin disclosed on talk show host Conan’s late night telecast, he’s been cast as George Jones in a forthcoming flick, focusing on the pairing of Jones and then-wife Tammy Wynette. Country’s First Lady will be portrayed by Jessica Chastain (“The Martian”). Currently, Josh co-stars in “Hail, Caesar!” with A-liner George Clooney. Reportedly, the proposed music project is based on a book written by the couple’s daughter Georgette Jones, though thus far a title and start date have not been confirmed. Well surely they can’t call it “Stand By Your Man,” as their marriage lasted but six years (1969-1975), when Tammy must’ve sang back-to-back “I Don’t Wanna Play House” (anymore) and the ultimate signal, “D-I-V-O- R-C-E,” to The Possum! . . . Would you believe George’s widow, Nancy Jones, disclosed earlier there’s still another George movie in the works, as reportedly she huddled with writer Alan Wenkus about the screenplay. (He’s the dude who scripted the acclaimed “Straight Outta Compton.”) . . . The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences has decided, in the best interests of membership, to create a Super PAC, a Grammy fund, that is, to assist in lobbying elected officials to support music creators and their copyrights. This is a first for a music organization, but reflective of the slow results regarding such legislation as the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act, which calls for broadcasters and others to pay appropriately for music played, as well as more aggressively push bills filed to improve digital payments to songwriters. Another industry concern is much-needed copyright reform action to deal with advanced technology that has affected how music is being consumed via the Internet. Much of the music scene’s proposed legislation has been stymied by powerful broadcast monopolies, and Silicon Valley monoliths a la Pandora, You-Tube and Google, boasting very active lobbyists.

            Ailing: Country legend Don Williams, 76, had to postpone an extensive concert tour, due to unexpected hip replacement surgery. Jacksonville, Fla., Feb 17, was the first city on the 21-show schedule, slated to wrap April 16. No word on the Country Music Hall of Famer’s anticipated recuperative time. Meanwhile, producer-buddy Garth Fundis helms an all-star tribute album on Williams (whom he co-produced on the exceptional “Especially For You”). Fundis, you may recall, produced the earlier CD “Pride: A Tribute to Charley Pride, Deluxe Edition.” . . . Another Country Hall of Famer, Mel Tillis, 83, underwent successful colon surgery, Jan. 8 at Centennial Medical Center, Nashville. Daughter Pam kept media updated on his condition, and we’re relieved he’s expected to make a full recovery.

            Final Curtain: Charlie E. (Sonny) Louvin, Jr., 61, died Jan. 27, after suffering a troubled time following the passing of his father, Opry star Charlie Louvin, having played guitar in the Country Music  Hall of Famer’s band.

Ralph Emery (from left), label executive B. J. Wayne, Sonny Louvin and Charlie Louvin accept gold disc on their single 'He Keeps Crying' on Hal-Kat Kountry Records.
Ralph Emery (from left), label executive B. J. Wayne, Sonny Louvin and Charlie Louvin accept gold disc on their single ‘He Keeps Crying’ on Hal-Kat Kountry Records.

Reportedly, the death was a suicide, allegedly prompted by alcohol and drug abuse problems. Last summer, Louvin was arrested on I-24, after officers were alerted by witnesses in suburban Murfreesboro, about his suspected impairment, and was charged with his second DUI. In February, he and cousin Kathy acknowledged Lifetime Achievement Awards for their fathers, Charlie & Ira Louvin, famed brother duo, during Grammy’s annual Special Merit Awards gala. Survivors include his children Alex and Wendy; his mom Betty Louvin; and brothers Ken and Glenn Louvin. A private ceremony was conducted at Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens. Family members suggest donations in Sonny’s name made to MusiCares, Nashville, which assists those suffering drug abuse.

Guitarist Peter J. (Pete) Huttlinger, 54, died from a massive stroke at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Jan. 15. In addition to some 15 albums recorded as an artist (including “Catch & Release,” “Naked Pop” and “McGuire’s Landing”), he also played lead guitar for John Denver, as well as artists such as John Oates and LeAnn Rimes. With wife Erin Morris, he chronicled his musical achievements and life-long heart disease battle in their biography “Joined At the Heart: A Story of Love, Guitars, Resilience and Marigolds” (2015). In his youth, while studying at the Berklee School of Music, he played bluegrass in Boston subways. Upon graduation in 1984, Pete moved to Nashville and played at the Opryland USA theme park. He joined John Denver in a 1994 world tour, as well as recording with the superstar. Huttlinger was proud of having made three appearances in Carnegie Hall, and performing at three of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival. In 2015, Pete collaborated with singer Mollie Weaver, for his final CD “Parnassus.” Besides Erin, survivors include her children, Sean Della Croce and James Della Croce. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

Drummer Curtis (Curt) Werner, 68, a resident of Cottontown, Tenn., died Jan. 8. Playing on the WSM Grand Ole Opry, he performed with such stars as Jean Shepard, Tom T. Hall, Connie Smith, Johnny Russell and Ricky Van Shelton. He was preceded in death by wife of 47 years Lisa Werner. Survivors include daughters Jessie Beckett and Faith Gaskin; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; and mother Mary Werner. Services were held Jan. 16 at Jesus Reigns Fellowship in Cottontown.

Singer-pianist-arranger Joe Moscheo, 78, died Jan. 11, following a downhill fight with degenerative neurological disease, while hospitalized. As a key member of the inspirational group The Imperials, he first worked with Elvis Presley on mid-1960s sessions. Presley invited The Imperials in 1969, to accompany him in Las Vegas. Off stage, he also served as vice president of BMI’s special projects, during a 16-year association with the music rights organization. He is also a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2007) and Moscheo’s group earned Grammys for their 1975 album “No Shortage,” 1977’s “Sail On,” 1979’s “Heed The Call” and in 1981, “Priority.” Recalling his association with the King of Rock & Roll, he authored “The Gospel Side of Elvis.” No funeral arrangements were announced.

Glenn Frey, 67, a founding member of The Eagles, died from pneumonia, Jan. 18, after being hospitalized for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and colitis. His gritty vocals could be heard prominently on the group’s soulful hits like “Take It Easy, “New Kid in Town” and “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.” Country star Clint Black mourned his passing, noting, “Way too soon, we’ve lost one of America’s best singer-songwriters. I’ve always said he and Don Henley were America’s answer to Lennon and McCartney. Though he’s gone, his influence will always be with us.” Fellow country artist Travis Tritt added, “Glenn Frey and the music he created alone and with The Eagles, have been such an inspiration to me. We first met at the video shoot for my version of ‘Take It Easy’ in 1993. He always went out of his way to acknowledge and encourage me ever since. I’m a better person, better musician and a better songwriter having met him. I still can’t believe he is gone!”

Timothy P. Cotton, 64, died Jan. 26 from complications of kidney cancer. Tim worked 45 years in the music business, serving as road manager and even driver for such artists as brother Gene Cotton, The Eagles, Brenda Lee, Andre Crouch, Alan Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Oak Ridge Boys, Faith Hill & Tim McGraw, and Dan Seals. As a licensed EMT, he was an HIV/AIDS volunteer, earning honors such as Nashville CARES’ Volunteer of the Year, and cited as a 1991 recipient of the Catherine Strobel Award (named after the ill-fated care-giver, struck down by a hostile homeless man she tried to aid). Survivors include sisters Linda, Cathy and Sandra; and brothers Gene, Thomas and James Cotton. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested donations in Tim’s name to a charity dear to his heart, including the Cumberland Heights Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center, Nashville; Nashville Cares; or MusiCares.