Music City Beat – December 2016
NASHVILLE — Naomi Judd, half of country music’s dynamic mother-daughter duo The Judds, has been recuperating from a struggle with mental illness, as bared in her new book about that experience, published Dec. 6 – “River of Time: My Descent Into Depression And How I Emerged With Hope” (Center Street Publishers). She and co-writer Marcia Wilkie feel bringing it out in the open may help others suffering from this severe malady. Of course, Naomi, now 70, and Wynonna, 52, scored 20 Top 10 duet singles – 14 of which went #1 from 1984-1991 and earned four Grammys. During a recent ABC-TV Good Morning, America chat with co-host Robin Roberts, Naomi’s appearance was anything but normal, as her face was swollen, her eyes puffy and hands still shaky. Fans know following a breakup of her marriage to Michael Ciminella, Naomi worked to put herself through nursing school, while raising two young daughters. When Wynonna was in her teens, the two formed The Judds and were soon signed by RCA, where they hit with such songs as “Mama, He’s Crazy,” “Why Not Me,” “Grandpa” and “Change of Heart” (which Naomi wrote). The singer alluded to the fact that the duet team’s breakup was due in part to her chronic Hepatitis C, but also to an estrangement developing between her and Wynonna. Since that split, she has been battling depression and confides she even became suicidal, “I would come home and not leave the house for three weeks . . . it was really bad.” Last August, she and musician-husband of 27 years Larry Strickland were divorced, when she charged him with adultery. Naomi credits film actress-daughter Ashley with being a wall of support, especially since the finale of her reality TV series The Judds in 2011. According to Ashley, “In our family, my mother has a well-earned reputation for being thoughtful and caring. Even as a small girl, I’m told, she remembered every relative’s birthday when most kids know (and are concerned with!) only their own. This book is another iteration of her longing for connection and belonging. Our greatest need is to be known in our experience, to be witnessed and accepted as we are in this moment. In ‘River of Time,’ she shares her journey through a harrowing tempest of treatment-resistant depression. Perhaps the details differ, but you may recognize yourself, or someone you love, in her battle. Depression is an epidemic in our country, a profound financial and emotional public health burden. The toll on us, the loved ones, must be addressed, too. As I watched Mom and Pop wade through the sucking mire of depression, I was deeply thankful that there was also help for us family members. May this book serve you in the way my brave mother hopes it may.”
BITS & PIECES: Singer Luke Bryan did what a lot of entertainers, past and present, would’ve liked to have done while performing on stage, and an unruly fan got out of hand: Luke without missing a beat, guitar in hand, stepped off stage, struck the antagonist on his head, hopped back on stage and finished singing his hit “Move.” A fellow heckler was carrying a sign saying, “We can see your camel toe,” acknowledging Bryan’s familiar too-tight jeans. This occurred during Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, Nov. 30, where security staffers soon ushered the wiseacre (who had made an obscene gesture towards the star) out onto the street. Of course, such a demonstration could also incite assault charges and a possible lawsuit, so it’s always best to cool it guys. A representative for the artist explained, “A man in front row was making crude hand gestures toward Luke . . . it was insulting not only to him, but more importantly to the men, women and families sitting around him who were there to support and celebrate Charlie Daniels and the efforts of raising money for the military veterans – some of whom were in the audience.” . . . Veteran vocalist Crystal Gayle got a huge surprise during a guest shot Nov. 15 on WSM’s iconic Grand Ole Opry, when member Carrie Underwood gushed would she like to join the cast? Carrie added, “You’re amazing, and you are beautiful, and you are incredibly talented, and just an inspiration to so many of us,” Without hesitation, Crystal replied, “I would love it!” Initially Crystal expected Carrie to come out merely to join her in singing Gayle’s signature song “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” Gayle had her first Top 10 single “The Wrong Road Again” in 1974, and went on to chalk up 18 #1 records including “I’ll Get Over You,” “Till I Gain Control Again” and “Cry.” Famed, too, for her ankle-length dark hair, she is the younger sister of Loretta Lynn who joined the Opry 54 years ago and scored 16 #1 singles (two less than sis). Gayle said, “I always felt like I was a member of the family, and this is just so special. Thank you!” It’s odd that the Opry management didn’t issue this legendary lady an earlier invitation, rather than waiting until her autumn years (she’ll be 66 come Jan. 9). Her “induction” will occur Jan. 21. Of course, that was true of the Opry induction of the late Ralph Stanley and more recently Charlie Daniels, long after Opry manager Pete Fisher supposedly said he wanted all grey-hairs off the Opry, but the irony of that is without grey-hairs in the audience, the lovers of traditional country, the show would suffer an economic set-back . . . Meanwhile, Brooks & Dunn have re-signed for an another year co-starring with country queen Reba McEntire at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, where they attracted more than 130,000 fans a night into CP’s Colosseum venue this past year. This teaming initially prompted the reconciliation of Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks, who had split six years ago. It was in June 2015 that “Reba, Brooks & Dun: Together in Vegas” kicked off, and now appears will continue through December 2017 . . . Speaking of country queens, Dolly Parton stepped up to offer $1,000 a month for six months to families in her home county – Sevier – who lost their homes in the recent fires that savaged the Great Smokies in early December to the tune of multi-million dollars in damages. Additionally, the “Coat of Many Colors” singer-songwriter’s Dollywood Foundation has launched a My People Fund in support of those hurt by the wildfires, reportedly started by two unnamed teen-agers in the Great Smoky Mountain woods near famed tourist sites of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Dolly’s hometown Sevierville. A known 14 lives were lost, though this may not be the final figure, pending completion of an extensive investigation into the blaze. Dolly’s three-hour telethon – “Smoky Moutains Rise: A Benefit For The My People Fund” – Dec, 13, features an all-star entertainment extravaganza with Dolly, Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Chris Young, Big & Rich, Chris Stapleton, Michael W. Smith, Montgomery-Gentry, Amy Grant, LoCash and Chris Janson. In separate donations to the cause, pop star Taylor Swift pledged $100,000, while the Country Music Association in affiliation with Kenny Chesney (another East Tennessee native) have donated $500,000 for relief efforts. Chesney confided: “Growing up in East Tennessee, the only thing greater than the beauty of the region is the heart of the people who live there. It is devastating to think of what’s been lost in terms of the fire, but overwhelming for the families facing rebuilding their lives – in many cases – from scratch. I’m appreciative that CMA shares my hope that these families can feel our love at a time of such tragedy.” . . . Country music acts Chris Stapleton, Three Doors Down, Darryl Worley and 38 Special were co-sponsoring the annual Christmas4Kids tour bus program in Hendersonville, Tenn., Dec. 12. The artists’ bus drivers bring their tour buses to the shopping area, perform, and the funds raised benefit some 400 local school kids. Other artists participating in the event included T. G. Sheppard, Kelly Lang, Shenandoah, Guy Gilchrist, Ray Scott and James Robert Webb. The following day, those same tour buses will take the children from school, treat them to dinner, and a party hosted by Santa Claus. The day will conclude with a shopping spree at the local Wal-Mart store, with each youngster receiving a new coat and $150 spending money . . . David McCormick’s WSM Midnite Jamboree show returned to its downtown Ernest Tubb Record Shop site, Nov. 26, after years being broadcast out at the Texas Troubadour Theater on Music Valley Drive. The free Lower Broad show included performances by Leona Williams and Bradley Walker with special guests. In 2017, the broadcast marks its 70th anniversary and, of course, began with Country Music Hall of Famer Ernest Tubb hosting the late night program. According to McCormick this was a one-time event and future shows will be back at the Texas Troubadour Theatre . . . Due to its popularity, the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum has extended its Johnny Cash-Bob Dylan exhibit another year, through December 2017.
Honors: The nominations for the 59th annual Grammy Awards Dec. 6 brought much good news for Nashville-based musicians, especially Sturgill Simpson, whose country album “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth” competes with pop CDs by Adele, Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Drake. The country newcomer seemed shock on hearing the news he’s in such rich company, but chuckled: “I’m sure there’s probably a lot of ‘Who the hell is Sturgill Simpson?’ going on right now!” Others sharing in pop Grammy categories are Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris against The Chainsmokers, Chance The Rapper and Anderson.Paak for best new artist; while Kelly Clarkson’s version of “Piece By Piece” versus pop performance songs by Adele, Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. Veteran vocalist Willie Nelson is up for the best traditional pop vocal category with “Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin.” Morris is nominated also for best country solo performance for her song “My Church” against Brandy Clark’s “Love Can Go To Hell,” Miranda Lambert’s “Vice,” Carrie Underwood’s “Church Bells” and Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” Competing for best country duo or group are: “Different For Girls,” Dierks Bentley and Elle King; “21 Summer,” Brothers Osborne; “Setting the World On Fire,” Kenny Chesney & Pink; “Jolene,” Pentatonix with Dolly Parton; and “Think Of You,” featuring Chris Young & Cassadee Pope.” Brandy Clark’s “Big Day In a Small Town’s” nominated best country album, along with Loretta Lynn’s “Full Circle,” Maren Morris’s “Hero,” Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth” and Keith Urban’s “Ripcord.” Urban’s hit “Blue Ain’t Your Color” co-authored by Hillary Lindsey, Clint Lagerberg & Steven Lee Olsen, nominated for best country song, competing against Thomas Rhett’s “Die A Happy Man,” co-written by Sean Douglas, Joe Spargur and Rhett; Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” written by Lori McKenna; Maren Morris’ “My Church,” co-written with busbee; and “Vice” which Miranda wrote with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. Sierra Hull garnered her first nomination for her album “Weighted Mind” in the folk category, along with Sarah Jarosz’s “Undercurrent” and CDs by July Collins & Ari Hest, Robbie Fulks and Rhiannon Giddens. Other categories produced nominations for Nashville artists include best contemporary Christian performance song “Thy Will” by Hillary Scott & The Scott Family, co-written by Bernie Herms, Emily Weisband and Hillary Scott, whose album “Love Remains” also garnered an album Grammy nod. Lori McKenna’s “Wreck You” was nominated as best Americana roots music performance, and best Americana roots song, competing in the latter against Vince Gill’s “Kid Sister,” performed by his group The TimeJumpers. Gill’s TimeJumpers also were cited for their “Kid Sister” in the best Americana album category, competing with Kris Kristofferson’s “Cedar Creek Sessions” and Lori McKenna’s “The Bird & The Rifle.” Vying in the best bluegrass album class are Blue Highway’s “Original Traditional,” Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s “Burden Bearer,” Laure Lewis & The Right Hands’ “The Hazel Sessions,” Claire Lynch’s “North & South,” and Mark O’Connor’s Band CD “Coming Home.” Winners will be announced live Feb. 12, 2017.
Final Curtain: Songwriter-producer Mentor Williams, 70, died of lung cancer Nov. 16 in Taos, New Mexico, where he had resided with his girlfriend, the late singer Lynn Anderson prior to her death in July 2015. Williams co-wrote such country hits as Alabama’s “When We Make Love” (1984), Eddy Raven’s “She’s Gonna Win Your Heart” (1984) and the Randy Travis and George Jones’ duet “A Few Ole Country Boys” (1990), but his biggest success was “Drift Away,” for R&B singer Dobie Gray (#5, 1973), and hit again when Gray revived it three decades later with Uncle Kracker (#9, 2003). That classic cut with it’s haunting refrain “Give me the beat boys/And free my soul/I wanna get lost in your rock and roll . . . And drift away!” has been recorded by an array of legendary artists including Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Rod Stewart, Roy Orbison and Michael Bolton. It was also in 1973 that Narvel Felts first enjoyed a Top 10 country single via “Drift Away.” Mentor also produced for the A&M, MCA and Columbia Records labels, and worked on the soundtrack for “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” (1969) and engineered post-production on “The Muppet Movie” (1979). Williams was the brother of singer-songwriter-actor Paul Williams, who serves as president and board chairman of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), a performance rights agency. Paul shared his thoughts, “It seemed the closer we got to his death the more absolute joy he claimed to feel. He was an amazingly kind, big-hearted cowboy.” According to Paul, memorial services for Mentor Williams in Taos and Nashville will be announced at a later date.
America’s first Native American songstress to attain international fame was Kay Starr, whose bombastic vocals earned acclaim in jazz, country, pop and rock and roll via such songs as “The Wheel of Fortune,” “Side By Side” and “The Rock & Roll Waltz.” The legendary artist, who suffered Alzheimer’s disease in recent years, died at her Los Angeles home, Nov. 3, at age 94. Kay once described herself as a “hillbilly singer,” when Capitol Records teamed her with Tennessee Ernie Ford for a Top Five double-sided country-pop crossover: “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” (#3) and “I’ll Never Be Free” (#4). According to Starr, “Ernie sang the kind of music I grew up on. He talked the way I did and phrased a song the way I did.”
Though born in Dougherty, Okla., to an Iroquois chief and his Irish-American wife, she also claimed Cherokee and Choctaw Indian heritage in her family lineage. Her real name was Katherine Laverne Starks, but she selected Starr as a stage name after radio announcers and fans mispronounced Starks. Kay made her radio debut at 7, and before long landed her own 15-minute broadcast twice weekly at $3 a pop. Fibbing about her age, she began singing professionally in her teens, decorating the bandstand with her dark good looks for such bands as violinist Joe Venuti’s in Memphis, before Glenn Miller engaged her for a brief hiatus, when his main vocalist Marion Hutton became ill. With Miller, she recorded her first session songs, “Baby Me” and “Love With a Capital You,” neither of which were hits. Starr was only 16, but recalls the arrangements were in a key too high, making her sound like a “jazzed-up Alfalfa,” referring to the film’s comedic Our Gang kid, famed for singing off-key. After relocating to Los Angeles she found work in trumpeter Wingy Manone’s orchestra and later saxophonist Charlie Barnet’s band. Starr also entertained troops during World War II, and in the post-war years signed with Capitol Records. The vivacious vocalist’s first charting was a Top 20 “You Were Only Fooling” in late 1948, but her next was a pop Top 10, “So Tired.” It was the novelty number “Hoop-Dee-Doo” (#2, 1950) that made her a star, followed by a series of hits: Pee Wee King’s “Bonaparte’s Retreat” (#4, 1950), “Oh, Babe!” (#7, 1950) and those country-pop duets with Ford. Her recording of the 1952 multi-million-selling “Wheel Of Fortune” spent 25 weeks on Billboard’s list, 10 in #1 spot, and became her signature song. Other major singles include “Come On-A-My House,” her Top 10 cover of the Rosemary Clooney hit; “Comes Along A Love” (#9, 1952, and reportedly #1 in the UK); “Side By Side” (#3, 1953); “Half a Photograph” (#7, ’53); “Changing Partners” (#7, 1953); and another two-sided single success in ’54: “The Man Upstairs” (#7) and “If You Love Me (Really Love Me)” (#4). In 1956, she enjoyed a six-week second #1, “Rock & Roll Waltz,” which topped all four Billboard music charts: Hot 100, Jukebox, Best Seller & DJ. In 1957, sultry-voiced Starr achieved her final Top 10 single “My Heart Reminds Me.” As her chartings declined, she chalked it up to changing times, noting “When they brought in rock, hard rock and acid rock, I thought God was trying to tell me it was my turn to get off the stage,” but this talented trouper didn’t take the hint and continued to tour for decades, delighting in the devoted fans who turned out for her shows in Vegas and Atlantic City. During the 1980s, she also performed on tour with a show titled “4Girls4,” featuring her and such former Big Band singers as Helen O’Connell, Rosemary Clooney, Kaye Ballard, Rose Marie and Margaret Whiting, when available. In 2001, she recorded a duet with Tony Bennett for his album “Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings The Blues.” Starr once told an interviewer: “I am a firm believer that a singer is no more than an actor or an actress set to music. They learn the story, they tell the story, and if they don’t tell the story right, people are not going to like it no matter what the melody is.” Reportedly, Kay was married six times, once in ’53 to bandleader Vic Schoen (who later wed Marion Hutton), but is survived by only a daughter, Katherine Yardley.
Singer-songwriter-pianist Mark Gray, 64, died Dec. 2 in Lebanon, Tenn. He was initially a member of the group Exile (1979-1982) of “Kiss Me All Over” fame, and with fellow member J.P. Pennington co-wrote #1 songs for Alabama: “Take Me Down” and “The Closer You Get.” He also co-wrote the #1 Janie Fricke 1982 cut, “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Easy,” and Gary Morris’ #7 single “Second Hand Heart” (1984). Pop singer Melissa Manchester also scored with his creation “Nice Girls.” Prompted by producer Bob Montgomery, Gray went solo, charting Columbia hits such as the Top 10s “Left Side of the Bed,” “If All the Magic Is Gone” and “Diamond In the Dust,” all in 1984. Then came his iconic duet with Tammy Wynette: “Sometimes When We Touch” (#6, 1985), followed by his solo single “Please Be Love” (#7, 1985). Although his own solo Columbia successes stopped with the Top 20 “Back When Love Was Enough,” in 1986, he continued to chart until 1988 on the indie 615 label. Gray released three Top 40 albums including “Magic” and “This Ol’ Piano”in 1984, and “That Feeling Inside” (1986). A native of Vicksburg, Miss., Gray was the youngest of seven children, and later said, “I’ve been told before I could talk, I was singing . . . and I’ve been making up songs all my life. My brothers and sisters have tapes of me as a child singing songs that I’d made up along the way. So you might say that I didn’t pick music as a profession, it chose me.” He first started singing gospel songs with his aunt and cousins, “who traveled all over, and ever since I can remember, I was traveling with them singing in churches and city auditoriums. I didn’t do anything but gospel until I was probably 20 years old.” While singing with The Revelations, a group he formed in 1972, they opened for the Oak Ridge Boys, who admired Mark’s writing talent and invited him to join their publishing company in Nashville. He toured several years in their troupe, as well. “I scanned material for their publishing company. That’s where I really learned to write and to play in something besides F sharp and B natural,” mused Mark.
At one point, Gray, whose Nashville hero was Floyd Cramer, became a finalist on the TV series Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour.
“I love all kinds of music, but country is where I want to be, because it isn’t fake music for me,” Mark confided in an early interview. “I feel it. For me, country music is that line between gospel and R&B and that’s where I am.” Others who recorded Gray compositions include Engelbert Humperdinck (“Till You And Your Lover Are Lovers Again”), Ray Stevens (“This Ole Piano”) and George Jones (“Nightspell”). Services for Mark Gray were observed at Sellars Funeral Home in Lebanon, Dec. 5, with interment arranged in Learned, Miss.