Music City Beat – January 2017
NASHVILLE — Bluegrass duo Daily & Vincent (Jamie and Darrin, that is) are scheduled to be the latest artists inducted as regular cast members in WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, come March 11, 2017. Now in their 10th year as an act, D&V were guesting on the 90-year-old broadcast, Dec. 30, when member Marty Stuart issued their invitation. Attesting to their delight with the honor, Jamie said it’s indeed “One of the most special things that has ever happened to us!” That includes being a triple winner of the coveted Bluegrass Entertainer of the Year award. Still, one can’t help but wonder what the cast criteria is, considering Darrin’s sister Rhonda Vincent has been both a country and bluegrass recording artist since 1990 (and started him off in her band), and she’s scored five #1 bluegrass albums, earned seven successive IBMA best vocalist awards (four more later), six Entertainer of the Year trophies, five Grammy nods and in 2000 The Wall Street Journal proclaimed her “Queen of Bluegrass.” In 2014, The Society For the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America named the Missouri diva to its prestigious Bluegrass Hall of Greats. Here’s what country queen Dolly Parton, a cast member since 1969, proclaims: “Rhonda Vincent: What a talent! What a beauty! What a special human being.” But she’s still not an Opry member.
Legal Tip: Detective Sgt. Jim Vaughn has reported there will be no charges filed against musician Benny Birchfield, 79, in the shooting death of Travis Sanders, 21, in Birchfield’s Hendersonville residence, early Dec. 17, determining it a “self-defense.” Birchfield, widower of Opry star Jean Shepard, heard an alleged altercation between Sanders and Benny’s step-granddaughter Icie-Mae Hawkins, 18, went downstairs to investigate, and was confronted by Sanders wielding a knife with a 10-inch blade. Seeing the girl’s wounds, and was himself attacked, prompted Benny to arm himself with his .38 caliber handgun. Subsequently, to stop the attacks, Birchfield shot Sanders (five times). When police arrived at Birchfield’s home at 3 a.m., Benny was in the front yard with deep cuts to his neck and head. Inside, police found Hawkins, suffering from upper body injuries, plus apparent self-defense wounds, and Sanders’ body. Hawkins and Birchfield were rushed to the hospital, though the teen’s wounds proved fatal, and she died enroute. Benny who also suffers from COPD, received emergency surgery and released Dec. 18, into the care of his elder son (by a previous marriage). Hawkins was granddaughter of Shepard and her late singer-husband Harold (Hawkshaw) Hawkins, who died in a 1963 plane crash that also claimed the lives of fellow Opry stars Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas. Icie-Mae moved into the home to assist Shepard, who died Sept. 25 from Parkinson’s Disease, according to Velvet Sloan, Icie-Mae’s mom, and stayed on to help Birchfield with housekeeping chores. “She was a beautiful sweet girl,” said Sloan. “She loved so many people.” She was also the daughter of Don Robin Hawkins. Reportedly, Icie-Mae began dating Sanders early in 2016, but broke off with him, after claiming he stole money from her. Police continue to investigate the deaths, added Vaughn, “This is still an active and ongoing investigation. It’s going to take some time. In order to find a motive, we’re going to have to interview a lot of friends and family.” Birchfield earlier played in bluegrass bands such as The Osborne Brothers, before devoting himself to guiding the career of Shepard, his wife of 47 years, and longest-tenured Opry star with nearly 61 years, and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Following services at Long Hollow Baptist Church, Icie-Mae was buried next to Hawkshaw, her biological granddad, in Goodlettsville, Dec. 23.
Bits & Pieces: Look for Reba McEntire to return to TV in a projected dramatic series, as yet untitled, created by Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives), reports The Hollywood Reporter (trade magazine). It’s briefly described as having a sort of “Southern gothic” storyline, dealing with a Kentucky sheriff (Reba) and FBI agent seeking terrorists. No stranger to series, she starred in the popular sitcom Reba and later briefly co-starred with Lily Tomlin in Malibu Country; meantime, she’s also booked in Vegas with Brooks & Dunn through next December. Busy lady . . . A new film about Nashville with actor Stephen Dorff in the title role of aspiring singer “Wheeler,” is slated for national release Feb. 3. Co-starring are Kris Kristofferson, who knows a lot about being a struggling artist in Music City, with young singer-songwriters Audrey Spillman and Bobby Tomberlin. The soundtrack’s notable due to its lead single “Pour Me Out Of This Town,” which Stephen co-wrote with younger brother Andrew, who died unexpectedly Dec. 19. Their dad, Steve Sr.’s, also a country composer, who supplied songs for such movie soundtracks as “Honkytonk Man,” “Pure Country” and to artists such as Clay Walker and George Strait . . . Movie legend John Wayne’s granddaughter Jennifer Wayne of the Runaway June trio (think “Lipstick”) is engaged to new country singer William Michael Morgan (“I Met a Girl”). She’s also co-writer of Eric Paslay’s “She Don’t Love You.” . . . Country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves is also sporting a new diamond, marking her engagement to songwriter Ruston Kelly, his Christmas present. The romantic gift prompted her to write on Instagram that he “got down on one knee in my little pink childhood home” in Texas, and she exclaimed, “I didn’t say yes . . . I said, Hell Yes!” . . . Yet another country chirp Kelsea Ballerina became engaged over the holidays. Her groom-to-be is Morgan Evans, an Australian country singer, who alerted social media with this Tweet: “When you know, you know . . . she’s perfect #ultimatedibs.” Meanwhile, the red-hot East Tennessee native is up for best new artist in the upcoming 59th Grammy Awards being telecast Feb. 12 via CBS-TV . . . In this new year, we learned Sam Hunt proposed to girlfriend Hannah Lee Fowler, whom he saluted in song in 2014, via his multi-platinum album “Montevallo,” named after her Alabama hometown. According to his current single “Drinkin’ Too Much,” Hannah didn’t welcome the unwanted attention it brought her, and parted with him, as his lyrics reveal: “I know you want your privacy/And you’ve got nothin’ to say to me/But I wish you’d let me pay off your student loans/With these songs you gave to me . . .” Strangely enough, none of the couples have yet disclosed wedding dates . . . Singer-songwriter Lee Brice has confided he and wife Sara are anticipating a third baby this year, to join brothers Ryker Mobley, 3, and Takoda, 8 . . . Another country couple, Austin Webb and wife Melanie, expect their first baby in June, noting, “We’re trading our silent nights for a bundle of joy.” . . . Likewise on Christmas day, Ashley Monroe and hubby John Danks told the world they’re looking forward to their first baby this year, as well . . . Stephen Barker Liles (of Love & Theft) and wife Jenna anticipate their second child, a girl, as a playmate for brother Jett . . . Mo Pitney and bride Emily expect daughter Evelyne Nadine in February . . . Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston and wife Evyn anticipate a baby come April.
Scene Stealers: Big & Rich (John Rich and Kenny Alphin) filled the vacuum suffered by the Donald Trump Inauguration committee, in its failed attempt to attract big name pop talents to entertain at the new president’s celebration in Washington, D.C. The duo agreed to entertain at the Great America Alliance Inaugural Gala, Jan. 19, the night prior to Trump’s official taking of the oath. Rich, of course, participated in The Donald’s 2011 Celebrity Apprentice series, and in 2008 penned John McCain’s presidential campaign song “Raising McCain.” . . . Yet another conservative artist, Gary LeVox (Rascal Flatts), entertains for the Veterans Inaugural Bally; singer-songwriters Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley accompanied Gary. As of press time, they’re the primary country names joining Trump’s troupe of entertainers, after country king Garth Brooks reportedly nixed an invitation to entertain . . . Blake Shelton, in collaboration with Ryman Hospitality Properties (RHP), is opening a pair of honky tonks, one down on Lower Broad in Nashville, the other in Tishomingo, Okla, his hometown, both titled Ole Red (yes, after his 2002 story-song “Ol’ Red”). At a Jan. 5 press conference here, Shelton and Colin Reed, RHP chief executive, jointly disclosed details about the sites with a cost of $20 million-plus, pointing out the Okla. bar opens this year, and Music City’s site in 2018 . . . WSM Grand Ole Opry manager of 17 years Pete Fisher steps up to head the Academy of Country Music, starting Jan. 30 in Los Angeles. He succeeds temporary CEO Tiffany Moon, who accepted the role following Steve Romeo’s departure last May. In a prepared statement, Fisher acknowledged, in part: “I want to thank the officers and Board for giving me this exciting opportunity to lead the Academy into a new era. I look forward to collaborating with them and our passionate and talented staff, charting an exciting course into the future.” . . . Dolly Parton became that rare person to earn The Tennessean newspaper’s accolade top “Tennessean of the Year,” twice: first in 2006 (mainly for her Imagination Library), and again in 2016. The Country Music Hall of Famer easily copped the honor this time in recognition of her action to create a My People charity at year’s end, donating funds from her Dollywood Foundation, pledging $1,000 a month for six months to those who lost their homes (884 families); while simultaneously launching a Dec. 13 TV telethon to help raise some nine million dollars, to benefit the victims of a massive wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountains that engulfed her native Sevier County and surrounding communities in East Tennessee. Reportedly, 14 died, 191 injured, while more than 17,000 acres burned, including 2,460 structures damaged, resulting in an estimated $500 million loss. Parton, hailed as their Patron Saint, said in part, “Mountain people are tough. If you look back and see what they had to do to settle this area, you know they are tough. We have always relied on one another and God to bring us through, and with the help of the My People fund, we will endure . . .”
Honors: Charley Pride and the late Jimmie Rodgers were selected to receive the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences’ prestigious Lifetime Grammy Achievement Award in recognition of their vast contributions to the music scene. Both are Mississippi natives and members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Rodgers died of TB, May 26, 1933, at age 35, following such successes as “Soldier’s Sweetheart,” “T For Texas” and “I’m In the Jailhouse Now.” As country’s first African-American superstar, Pride broke the color barrier in a big way with 29 #1 discs, including “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” “Hope You’re Feelin’ Me” and “You’re My Jamaica.” Their names join such early recipients as Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and Elvis Presley . . . Moderator Scott Goldman helped salute one of Nashville’s top singer-songwriters, Jan. 23 via An Evening With Rodney Crowell, co-sponsored by the Americana Music Association and Grammy Museum, in the museum’s Clive Davis Theater in Los Angeles. The Grammy Award-winning artist was interviewed by Goldman, v.p. of the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares, which aids musicians in need, prior to his performance. “We are so excited to welcome Rodney Crowell to our theater for the first program of the year in our Americana Series,” said Lynne Sheridan, director of the series p.r. program. “Aside from being an incredibly talented songwriter and musician, Crowell’s contributions to the music community and Americana genre are unmatched.” Among Crowell’s #1 chartings are “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “She’s Crazy For Leaving” and his Grammy winner “After All This Time,” all of which he wrote. He also penned his and ex-wife Rosanne Cash’s chart-topping duet, “It’s Such a Small World.” Early in his career, he was a guitarist in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and later was with The Notorious Cherry Bombs (also featuring Tony Brown and Vince Gill) . . . Zac Brown will receive the Country Radio Seminar’s 2017 Artist Humanitarian award at the broadcasters annual convention which kicks off Feb. 22. Brown, whose Grammy Award-winning Zac Brown Band has chalked up 15 #1 radio singles, created his ongoing Camp Southern Ground in Georgia to benefit children with disabilities. He’s also supportive of the Grammys’ MusiCares, aiding musicians in need, and other charitable organizations like the Robin Hood Foundation and the USO . . . Billboard announced Chris Stapleton was its top country artist of 2016, over all, based on the trade weekly’s Hot Country Songs charts, which covers sales, airplay and streaming, as well as touring totals, and ringtone sales. Hot on his tail were Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and Carrie Underwood, making them country’s Top Five acts of the year.
Ailing: Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis, 84, is currently recuperating from colon surgery in Nashville, at his home in Ocala, Fla. According to a new report from publicist Don Murry Grubbs, “His vitals are good and his senses of humor is very much intact. He is trying to get stronger and we are hopeful that will be the case now that he’s back at home. He misses all his loyal fans and is beyond thankful for all of the well wishes. Your continued thoughts and prayers are greatly appreciated.” Tillis took 36 songs into the Top 10, including six #1 singles, among them “I Ain’t Never,” “Good Woman Blues” and “Coca Cola Cowboy.”
Final Curtain: Tragically, singer-songwriter Andrew Dorff, 40, died Dec.19, in Miami, Fla., of an as yet undisclosed cause. Among his #1 country airplay clicks are Blake Shelton’s “My Eyes” (with Gwen Sebastian) and “Neon Light,” Hunter Hayes’ “Somebody’s Heartbreak” and Kenny Chesney’s “Save It For a Rainy Day.” His father’s country pianist-songwriter Steve Dorff (Eddie Rabbitt’s “Every Which Way But Loose,” Kenny Rogers’ “Through The Years”), and he’s brother to film actor Stephen Dorff (“Shadowboxer,” “Cold Creek Manor”). Dorff spent several years as an artist himself, singing in Los Angeles and touring, before making his move to Nashville in 2003, to concentrate on composing. There he’d sign a writer’s pact with Universal Music Group. Success wasn’t instant, as “Andy’s” first hit was Martina McBride’s “Ride” (#11, 2008), and more recently he contributed “Missing” to newcomer William Michael Morgan (with a writing assist from Mark Irwin and Josh Kear). “Our songwriting community is small and close, and this loss will hurt us all deeply,” stated Lee Thomas Miller, president, Nashville Songwriters Association, Inc. “Andrew was a good man and a good friend. He was an elite songwriter at the peak of his life and career. Our sincerest prayers go out to his family. May we all hug each other a little tighter this week and remember that life is fragile.” The lady whose vocals helped him launch his career in country, Martina McBride, Twitted, “So very sad to hear about @endorffin . . . Thanks for caring enough to write with me and for ‘Ride’ #shinewhileyouhavethechancetoshine #sweetsoul.” During a chat in MusicRow, Andy had concluded: “I’ve been fortunate the artists that have cut my songs are some of the great artists. So those songs are going to live on.” Blake Shelton also penned his thoughts via Twitter, “Sad to be finding out about Andrew Dorff passing away . . . Terrible tragedy. Prayers to his family.”
Musician Joe M. Wright, 79, died Jan. 3, 2017, with his family by his side. A resident of suburban Gallatin, Wright began professionally playing lead guitar in Marty Robbins’ Teardrops country band at age 18. He went on to become a talent manager and songwriter until the early 1970s. Wright was president of GrayStone Productions, Nashville. A favorite sideline was playing pool, winning numerous tournaments. Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Betty, daughter Betsy Stanford, sons Brett and Kevin; and granddaughters Jessica and Katie Stanford. Services were conducted by Cole & Garrett Funeral Home, Goodlettsville, Tenn., Jan. 5.
Veteran producer Sam Lovullo, 88, died at his Encino home in Los Angeles, Jan. 5. He was the co-creator and producer of the CBS-TV variety show Hee Haw, which began in 1969 and continued in syndication for a quarter of a century due to its popularity with country fans. Lovullo noted it was inspired by the TV comedy sensation Laugh In, co-hosted by Dick Martin and Dan Rowan. In addition to its star co-hosts Roy Clark and Buck Owens, Lovullo helped make household names of such talents as Roni Stoneman, Buck Trent, Gunilla Hutton, Misty Rowe, Gailard Sartain, Linda Thompson, The Hager Twins, Lulu Roman, Junior Samples, Marianne Gordon, Kenny Price, Barbi Benton, George Lindsay, Cathy Baker and Gordie Tapp (who died Dec. 18). Additionally, he helped reinvigorate veteran players’ careers, notably Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, Archie Campbell, Don Harron and Chet Atkins, while providing another small screen spotlight for guests such as Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Bobby Bare, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson among many others, visiting the program’s fictional Kornfield Kounty. Prior to Hee Haw, Sam worked with the CBS comedy series The Jonathan Winters Show (1967-’69), and later became producer and casting director, for such TV shows as Swing Out, Sweet Land (1970), Hee Haw Honeys (1978) and The Nashville Palace (1980). Sam, a Buffalo, N.Y. native, penned his biography, “Life In the Kornfield – My 25 Years At Hee Haw” (with Marc Eliot, 1996). His son Torey, a former pro baseball player with the Oakland Athletics and California Angels, currently manages the Arizona Diamondbacks. Survivors also include wife Grace and three other children.
Author-musician Ruth White, 87, died from cancer Dec. 30 in hospice care with daughter Kathleen by her side. A multi-faceted music veteran, Ruth Bland White was born in Nashville, graduated from East High School, and initially played in a seven-piece area band fronted by Bill Williams. She continued her education as a music major at Ward-Belmont College in Nashville, while playing piano and selling sheet music for Strobel’s downtown, before joining WSM’s music library, clearing songs for its Grand Ole Opry and Waking Crew broadcasts for stage manager Vito Pellettieri. Later, she was office manager for Porter Wagoner, coordinating the Opry star’s multiple enterprises; also administered her and husband Howard White’s Locomotive Music publishing; later co-managed Henry Strzelecki’s October Records, an independent label sponsored by Pepsi-Cola; handled publishing for Reed Music, Inc.; and Sherman Ford’s Country International Records. Ruth became the go-to gal concerning music publishing and copyright matters, for song stalwarts such as Carmol Taylor, Norro Wilson, Charly McClain, Gary Gentry, Sonny James, Bill Pursell, Phil Baugh, Joe Stampley, Hargus (Pig) Robbins, Buddy Emmons and Terry McMillan. In 1990, already past 60, Ruth wrote her first book, “Every Highway Out Of Nashville,” compiled from hubby Howard’s road stories and their personal experiences behind the scenes on Music Row. She was production coordinator on albums involving Canadian vocalist Lucille Starr; Howard White’s gospel collection; and a music CD for The Hermitage popular tourist site. Subsequently, her expertise earned White the coveted 2010 SOURCE Award, in recognition of her many accomplishments. Indeed the author has met many of her subjects through the years, which lends authenticity to her writings, including White’s latest book, “Knoxville’s ‘Merry- Go-Round,’ Ciderville and . . . The East Tennessee Country Music Scene.” Colorful characters covered in this literary effort are Roy Acuff, Carl Smith, Lowell Blanchard, Archie Campbell, Bill and Cliff Carlisle, Kitty Wells, Johnnie & Jack, Martha Carson, Chet Atkins, Stoney Stonecipher, Arthur Q. Smith, Bonnie Lou & Buster, Lois Johnson, Pee Wee King, Molly O’Day, Homer & Jethro, Don Gibson and Ciderville’s David West. Obviously, her books focus mainly on music, be it country – “The Original Goober,” the story of (Wagonmaster) James Buchanan, Nova Books (2004); “Nashville Steeler,” a biography on steel guitarist Don Davis, Schiffer Books (2012) – or R&B: “You Can Make It If You Try,” the life of R&B icon Ted Jarrett, Hillsboro Press/CMA Foundation (2005). Additionally, White authored the historical tome “Mecklenburg: The Life & Times Of A Proud People” (in North Carolina), JM Productions/Picker’s Rest (1992). After a brief teen marriage to band drummer Murrey (Buddy) Harman, who became an original A Team session player for the likes of Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline, she wed musician Bob Kirkham. He was brother to session drummer, Doug, whose wife Millie Kirkham was a renowned studio soprano. Following her divorce, she met “soul mate” Howard, steel guitarist to such stars as Cowboy Copas, George Morgan, Hank Snow and Hank Williams, Jr. Ruth confided it was Howard who convinced her, in part, to undertake the last project: “My late husband Howard literally began his professional career in Knoxville, playing in the ’53 band of (future superstar) Don Gibson, working both WNOX’s ‘Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round’ and ‘Tennessee Barn Dance’ programs. He loved to make me laugh with tales about the music and people in his life during this period. Through Howard, I developed a fascination with the culture, music and beauty of the East Tennessee city.” According to Kathleen, her mother requested cremation and no service. Ruth is also survived by son, Robert Kirkham, Jr.