Diane’s Country Music Newsletter — 26 December 2018

Tony Booth initially planned to be a school teacher. He was majoring in education at the University of New Mexico when a friend invited him to join a band. Realizing music was his calling, he dropped out of school. “I started playing when I was 18 or 19 years old,” he told me during our recent phone conversation. “We played six nights a week, we had Sunday off, and I couldn’t wait for Monday, so I could get back and play on the bass.”

Descended from people who settled in Florida 180 years ago, Tony was born in Tampa in 1943. When he was six, his family moved to New Mexico, in the hope the dry air would lessen the effects of his mother’s illness. They went home to Florida two years later. Tony graduated from high school and then returned to New Mexico to start college.

In 1968, he formed his first band. After moving to California, he led the Tony Booth Band as the house band at the famous Palomino Club in Los Angeles. In 1971, the Academy of Country Music named him the Most Promising Male Artist of the year. He charted 14 songs on Billboard during the 1970s. His biggest was “The Key’s in the Mailbox,” which reached #15 in 1972.

Tony worked with Buck Owens Enterprises. In addition to recording, he toured with the Buck Owens All-American Show and appeared on the Hee-Haw and Buck Owens Ranch TV shows. He went to Japan with the group in 1974, when Buck did a live album at Nakano Sun Plaza in Tokyo.

Tony returned to Japan in 2014. “That was the first time I’d been back in Japan since 1974,” he told me. “There were people that came to that show in 2014 that were at that show in 1974. They had the programs! Like they’d been kept in a vault or something. That was really fun.”

He told me he played in South Dakota one time, for a solo gig booked by the Buck Owens group. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “Ipswich. You know what kind of music I do, I’ve got fiddle and steel, right? The lead instrument in this band was an organ. It was a big deal in this little town. The mayor was there, the doctor, and everybody. Doing ‘Key’s in the Mailbox’ with an organ, that was different.”

He reminisced about how times have changed: “Now, if I play with a band I don’t know, I send them CDs so they can rehearse. Well, back then, they didn’t have anything like that. Once I was past three or four songs, I was kind of on my own. They’d heard of those and could play them. But you can’t do just two or three songs and get down. So I would listen to the group and see what their strong suit was, and get up and do that kind of music.” With his years of playing in clubs, he knew all kinds of music. “I would stand up there and do Faron Young or Bob Wills or whatever their strong suit was,” he explains. “I would tailor the rest of my show to something I knew they could do and sound good.”

Although Tony didn’t tell me why he left Buck Owens, my research did. Everything fell apart after the motorcycle crash that killed Don Rich on July 17, 1974. Don had played on Tony’s recording session earlier that day. Buck was never the same after his best friend’s death, and his team’s recording contracts were eventually canceled.

When Tony later auditioned to sing and play bass in Tommy Tune’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, he was chosen to be the narrator and band leader. During the following 2½ years, the group presented over 3000 performances throughout the United States.

Tony joined Gene Watson’s band in 1983. “I became the backup driver on the bus,” he told me. “Because it’s so boring to ride down the road for hours on end. I’d rather be doing something, so I started driving the bus.” When Gene’s dates dropped off, “I finally just told Gene,” Tony says, “as much as I loved what I was doing, I had to make more money. I had a family to support. I left Gene in 1995.” Tony went to work as a truck driver and eventually bought his own truck.

Making a living driving a truck, he thought his musical career was over. He occasionally played the Little Opry, which he alternated with his brother, because neither wanted to do it fulltime.

Then along came Tracy Pitcox. “He found out I was living in Texas,” Tony says, “and he started asking me to come and do a show for him. Bear in mind, I played the Whorehouse for two and a half years, I played with Gene for twelve years, and then the trucking. So basically, I hadn’t done a show where I was featured for close to twenty years. I just didn’t have confidence I could pull it off. It wasn’t a problem of having enough songs, it was like, how do you do a show?”

Due to the persistence of his wife, Wanda, his future manager, Lynn Brown, and Tracy, Tony says, “the three of them aggravated me so much that I finally agreed to do it. I went up there and did the show, and it was just like I was eighteen again. I got the buzz all over again.”

Tracy invited Tony to join his Heart of Texas Records label in 2006. “It’s just been a great treat ever since,” Tony states. “I’ve won awards–something I thought was in the past. I never dreamed this would resurrect my career–to the extent I would win awards again. I won some when I was in my twenties. I never thought that would happen again.”

I asked if he still rides a Harley. “It’s still in my garage,” he answered. “I still ride it, yes. My wife doesn’t like for me to ride it anymore. She gets nervous.” He added, “My mother would never let me have a motorcycle when I was a kid. I grew up in a strict household. I was a grown man before I ever got one. The first one I had, I sold it right after Don Rich died in his motorcycle accident. I didn’t have another one until 2002, when I bought that Harley. I’ve still got all my toys; I just haven’t played with them very much.”

Tony enjoys traveling with a package show. ‘You’ve got other people to hang out with, and who understand you,” he says. “Tracy and that bunch–everybody’s like family. All the entertainers, we all just like each other. There’s no rivalry. We’re all supporting each other, kind of like a band of brothers and sisters. It’s awesome.”

Now that he’s back in the music business, Tony Booth isn’t planning to give it up again, even at age 75. “I’m determined I’m not going to hide in Texas,” he says. “Anyone who wants me to come up and entertain them, I’ll do that. I’ve played every state in the Union, in my career, so there’s no reason not to.”

Songwriter Jerry Chesnut, 87, died December 16 at his home in Brentwood, Tennessee. The New York Times reports he had been experiencing respiratory problems since October. Born in Kentucky in 1931, Jerry Donald Chesnut enlisted in the Air Force in 1949 for four years. He moved to Nashville in 1958 to be a songwriter. While building that career, he sold vacuum cleaners to survive. His first hit song was “A Dime at a Time, ” recorded by Del Reeves in 1967. Faron Young brought “It’s Four in the Morning” to #1 in 1972. “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” was a hit for Elvis Presley in 1975 and Travis Tritt in 1992. Other memorable Chesnut songs include “A Good Year for the Roses” (George Jones), “Oney” (Johnny Cash), “Holding on to Nothing” (Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton), and “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy” (Loretta Lynn). Jerry retired from the music business in 1980 and was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996.

Chevel Shepherd of Farmington, New Mexico, is the winner of Season 15 of The Voice. The 16-year-old, who is only 4’10” tall, was coached by Kelly Clarkson. PEOPLE reports that she learned to yodel after her mom showed her a yodeling video when she was 11. When she performed the Loretta Lynn hit, “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” during the live top 10 performances, Loretta shared the video on her Facebook page with the comment, “Loved it, honey!” Bill Mack, likewise, shared a video of her singing his famous song, “Blue.” Chevel considers herself “an old soul” who loves the sound of older country music. “I love everything about it,” she tells PEOPLE, “the storytelling, all of the instruments and the musicality of it. I love being able to do something different that no one is doing now because it’s all modern country and old country is dying, as well as yodeling. I’d like to bring it back.” What does she plan to do with the $100,000 grand prize? “I would love to have a Chevelle because that’s my name,” she says. “Me and my dad are probably going to get one and build a ’72 [Chevrolet] Chevelle together.”

John Rich has come to the defense of Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, who is being attacked for his stance on improved gun control. “I see a lot of people attacking my friend,” he wrote on Twitter. “I wanna ask you to stop that. He’s a good man and means well, he’s trying to have dialogue and I applaud that.” Rich tells Fox News he has a “concealed weapons permit to defend myself against the crazy guys,” and he hasn’t seen a good answer proposed by his anti-gun friends. He wants to know what laws they would propose. “Give me a solution,” he says. “I never hear the solution of what it would be.”

Ken Burns has been working for six years on his 16-hour series called Country Music. It will air on PBS in eight parts in the fall of 2019. “Country music is just the perfect subject,” Burns tells The Tennessean. “Because as Harlan Howard said, ‘It’s three chords and the truth.’ It does not have the sophistication and elegance of jazz, but what it has is essential human emotions and stories told, basically, that everybody experiences. When someone says, ‘I’m not a fan of country music,’ we say, ‘OK, just watch.'” More than 100 people in country music were interviewed for the project. Dayton Duncan, the film’s writer and co-producer, says, “Part of our motivation is trying to answer that question, ‘What is country music?’ I suppose if we have an answer–and I think we’re more interested in pursuing that question than in necessarily answering–it isn’t a music. It is many different musics.”

A seven-story building is being proposed at the corner of 17th Avenue South and Grand Avenue in Nashville, reports News4 WSM-TV. Ray Stevens is selling properties to make way for the 164,000-square-foot tourist destination with retail, food and drinks, and live music. It would stretch over five parcels of land on Music Row. “I think that’s what’s best for Ray, and it’s his personal right to exercise,” says Trey Bruce, vice president of Historic Nashville. “It’s not best for preserving a cultural business district. . .. The city has no preservation plan or tool, so we’re at a loss.” One of the houses to be demolished, located at 1009 17th Avenue South, is eligible for the historic register. Built in 1925, it later housed Grey House Studio and Barnaby Records. A real estate representative, Dave Wells, told News4 that Ray Stevens does not view the properties as historic. “Our vision is to restore the Row by adding modern, state of the art Class A office space with unique amenities,” Wells said in a statement. “It’s really about bringing people back to the area during the business day—and that means bringing JOBS back to the area. To do this we need modern space/new construction.”

Alabama has announced the first leg of dates for 2019’s 50th Anniversary Tour. “We never thought playing for tips at The Bowery in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that 50 years later we would still be playing arenas, stadiums and festivals,” frontman Randy Owen said in a press release. The tour begins January 10 in Detroit and completes the initial 30 dates on June 27 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Guest performers on various dates will include the Charlie Daniels Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Oak Ridge Boys, Restless Heart, Tracy Lawrence, and Exile.

Ronnie Milsap will commemorate his 76th birthday with a tour in 2019, Nash Country Daily reports. The 76 for 76 Tour kicks off on his birthday, January 16, in Nashville. Early stops include St. Louis, Austin, and Cincinnati. Ronnie is also releasing a 13-track album called Ronnie Milsap: The Duets. A few of the duet partners are Luke Bryan, Dolly Parton, Jason Aldean, Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town, and George Strait.

Rolling Stone Country reports on the George Strait concert in Las Vegas on December 7. Although the 19th show of his Strait to Vegas residency, it was the first after the death of his drummer in a car accident. “We had some tragedy that happened to us Labor Day weekend,” George told the sold-out crowd at the T-Mobile Arena. “We lost our drummer of almost 30 years, Mike Kennedy. God bless him. We didn’t know how we were going to handle this. . . .. I know Mike would want us to keep going, so we are.” George sang for two hours, backed by The Ace in the Hole band and new drummer Lonnie Wilson. His mixture of old hits and new songs included several from his upcoming album, Honky Tonk Time Machine.

Jewel, along with twelve others, will receive the 2019 Horatio Alger Award during the 72nd Horatio Alger Award induction ceremonies in Washington, D.C., in April. “Bestowed annually to accomplished corporate, civic and cultural leaders from across North America,” Nash Country Daily explains, “the award recognizes an individual’s ongoing commitment to higher education and generosity toward philanthropic endeavors.” Three past winners were Reba McEntire (2018), Waylon Jennings (1988), and Johnny Cash (1977). Jewel Kilcher experienced homelessness, abuse and severe poverty in her youth. Her 1995 debut album, Pieces of You, is one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. It was produced by Ben Keith.

When tickets for the May 4 Garth Brooks concert in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sold out in under an hour, Governor Mark Dayton asked Garth to add a second show. Nearly 50,000 fans had been unable to purchase tickets. Garth agreed during a conference call to add a second show. Taste of Country reports the Minneapolis dates are part of a massive stadium tour that will cover 10-12 stadiums each year for three years. The Garth Brooks Stadium Tour begins in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 9.

Here’s a wedding story I must have missed when it happened: The Boot reports an update on the marriage of Shania Twain and Frederic Thiebaud. Shania had been married for fourteen years to Robert “Mutt” Lange, who wrote songs and produced her albums, when she found out he was having an affair with her best friend. Frederic Thiebaud, the friend’s husband, broke the news to her in 2008. Both marriages ended at that point. In 2009, she called Frederic “a dear friend and a true gentleman.” A year later, they were engaged. “Frederic Nicolas Thiebaud has been a true gift to me as a compassionate, understanding friend,” Shania wrote then, “and over time, an amazing love has blossomed from this precious friendship.” They married on New Year’s Day, 2011, in Rincon, Puerto Rico, in the presence of forty friends and family members. Shania, 53, and Frederic, 48, live in Switzerland. He is a business executive at Swiss Nestle and a native of Switzerland.

A Blake Shelton Cancer Research Program has been established at Oklahoma University’s Children’s Hospital. Nash Country Daily reports Blake Shelton created the program in honor of his cousin, who underwent cancer treatment there when she was five months old. After two blood transfusions, surgery and three rounds of chemotherapy, she will celebrate her third birthday in January. The hospital’s Jimmy Everest Center is Oklahoma’s only full-service children’s cancer program. Blake earlier donated $600,000 to the center during a concert stop in Oklahoma City in 2016.

Reba McEntire is working with a new creative team to design her next television show. It would be her third TV series, after Malibu Country and Reba. Her 2017 effort, Red Blooded, wasn’t picked up by a network. She would have played a Kentucky sheriff joined by a young FBI agent following a suspected terrorist attack on the Fourth of July. Although that was a disappointment, she tells The Boot, she hasn’t given up on her mission to return to TV.

June Thompson writes from Alabama, “Thanks for your wonderful article on ‘Miss Norma Jean.’ I remember seeing her on Porter’s show when I was nine or ten on an old TV where the picture wavered all over the place. It took tightening the aluminum foil around the wire that came in from the antenna through the window to straighten up the picture, and hope a passing car didn’t totally knock the picture off. A couple of years ago, my husband and I got hold of a few of Miss Norma Jean’s albums and they brought back a lot of memories. Again, thanks for your wonderful newsletter. Be specially blessed for Christmas and New Year’s.”

Norma Jean says, “I enjoyed the article and thought it was done well. Thank you. Best wishes for a Merry Christmas.”

Lynn Brown writes, “Great job on Pretty Miss Norma Jean, she’s a sweetheart, awesome article. I think after reading your Spotlight articles about Justin and Norma Jean that you are doing an awesome job, and I really mean that, keep up the good work.”

Gene Burkhart says, “All of your newsletters are really good, but in this issue, you have outdone yourself. Congrats are in order. Thank you so much.”

Jenny Jones writes, “Really enjoyed your Email, and as usual you brought back so many great memories…I enjoyed all the news about Norma Jean….I always enjoyed watching her on Porter’s show and am glad she is still singing……. I tell you this every time I send you a note, but it is so good to get news on our traditional Country artists…. I heard from a dear Pen Pal that she thinks of me every time she sees my name in your Email letter. Time goes so by swiftly, and she thinks she will get a note off to me, but time seems to keep us slowing down… would you pass a Hello along to Shirl from me…… Merry Christmas.”

Dominique “Imperial” Anglares writes from France, “Thank you very much for that newsletter and to have turned the spotlights on Pretty Miss Norma Jean. Tommy Tomlinson, Johnny Horton’s guitarist, wrote ‘Heaven’s Just A Prayer Away’ that was recorded by Porter Wagoner on January 15, 1958, and issued on RCA 47-7199. That song was also recorded in 1968 by Norma Jean and was the title for her RCA LPM 3910 release. A Warden music check for $8.00 came to Tommy’s son on January 2015. Small money maybe but that shows the song being still appealing. Tommy was also the composer for ‘You’re My Baby’ recorded by Johnny Horton and issued on Columbia 4-41043. The flip side is ‘Lover’s Rock’, a killer! Tommy showed a lot about guitar to David Houston and helped him to sing on the beat. I wish you and all the contributors and readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Keep it Country.”

Ernie Reed writes from Nashville, “I was disappointed to find no mention of Sammi Smith by the women of OK. She was born Jewel Faye Smith in Guymon, OK, August 5, 1943.”
Diane: She probably wasn’t mentioned because she’s no longer around. Sammi died in 2005 and was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

David Frederick says, “Thank you Diane for a most welcome country music write. Please let’s all country music fans remember a great Star we lost, Freddy Hart – ‘Easy Lovin’.”

Robert MacMillan sends Festive greetings from Arisaig, Scotland, along with this note: “The question posed in the September newsletter regarding Marty’s vocals being added to new updated music didn’t seem to find favour but I was surprised that no one came back to you to point out that it has been done on a couple of occasions in the past.
1. In 1993 Michael Martin Murphey duetted with Marty on ‘Big Iron’, the lead off track on his album Cowboy Songs III – Rhymes of The Renegades on Warner Western Records. In the CD booklet Mr Murphey writes, ‘Marty Robbins was one of the first artists in Nashville to use multiple-track recording. Thus his voice was easy to isolate for a duet. Many thanks to Marty’s son Ronnie who encouraged me to do this’. He dedicates the album, which also includes his take on ‘El Paso’, to the memory of Marty Robbins. The song ‘Big Iron’ was also issued as a single and Michael Martin Murphey is extremely complimentary of Marty and his music on the CD insert.
2. Possibly providing credence to Michael Martin Murphey’s statement re Marty’s vocals being easy to isolate for a duet, is the 1996 various artists compilation Christmas In The West (Warner Western Records). Marty is featured on two tracks on this album ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’, both previously released via Marty’s A Christmas Remembered album on Thunder Records in 1987. However on the Warner release, ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ has been given new backing instrumentation while on ‘Rudolph…’ not only is there new backing but Marty is joined by guest vocalists, The Riders In The Sky. Again there is a dedication to the memory of Marty Robbins and special thanks to Ronnie Robbins (Marty Robbins Enterprise) on the CD card. N.B. Warner spelling of Ronnie/Ronny.”

Marshall Jordan says, “Some time ago, I received your newsletters. I changed my email address and neglected to inform you of this change. My friend Denise in Dunbar, West Virginia, reminded me of your newsletters. She sent me your latest one, and I have really enjoyed reading it. I would like to get back on your mailing list. I look forward to once again receiving your newsletters. I really love the traditional classic country music, and I appreciate all you do to promote it.”

Marty and Kate Davis write from Medford, Oregon, “Wow! What a fun, fact-filled newsletter. Thank you. Great job, as always. Merry Christmas and all the best in 2019.”

Ed Zambrello writes, “As a 54-year-old, I am a newcomer to country music. I spent two weeks in Virginia and West Virginia this summer and listened to Willie’s Roadhouse the entire time. I became a fast fan of Webb Pierce. Quickly afterward, I learned of Faron Young, after hearing of his association with Webb. Faron soon became my ultimate favorite. Today for Christmas, my girlfriend got me your biography and I immediately started reading it. I LOVE it. I wanted to reach out to you to thank you for the book and for telling his story. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas and an even better 2019. Thank you again!”

As we commemorate the life of Jerry Chesnut, who died December 16, it seems an appropriate time to remember his conversations. Here are a few of his comments from my telephone interview with him in 2000:

Okay, let me tell you the truth. I wrote “Four In the Morning” one morning at four in the morning. I picked up the guitar, and I looked at my watch and it was four in the morning. I said, “It’s four in the morning and a new day is dawning.” Then I just started, like writing any other song. I got the first verse and chorus, and the second verse, and I needed one more verse, and nothing was happening, so I went up and got on a tractor and started–I had a boy with me and he was picking up rocks and I was disking. While I was riding around on that tractor, the third verse, “I saw more love in her eyes when I left her than most foolish men will ever see”–which is most women’s favorite line in the song–that verse came to me on the tractor. Goin’ around and hearin’ the motor of that tractor, I wrote the entire third verse, and kept singing it over and over. Of course, you couldn’t hear me above the tractor, but I kept singing it anyway until I got it to where I could remember it. Then I just pulled the pin on the disk and took off down the hill, and this boy started hollerin’, “Where you goin’?” I just waved and kept goin’. Went down and walked in the house, and my kids were getting ready to go to school and they wanted to know was anything wrong. I just went straight in the little room where I wrote, and got it down.

Faron said, “Have you wrote anything else?” I said, “Yeah, but it’s not for you.” He said, why, and I said, “It’s a waltz and I know you hate waltzes.” He said, “Let me hear it.” So I took the guitar and sang it to him. . .. He said, “I’m gonna cut that, but I’ll do it in four-four.” A waltz, you can’t do nothing with it but waltz, but he thought he could. He tried western swing, he tried four-four, he tried bluegrass, he tried everything to get that thing out of waltz time, and finally he said, “Hell, let’s just do it the way it is.”

So then when they decided to record it, Faron called me and he said, “We’re gonna put your song out, but I want to change the title to ‘The Wanting In Me.'” I said, “Hell, call it ‘Under the Double Eagle’ if you want to. If it ain’t a hit, I’ll get somebody else to cut it.” So he told Kennedy to go ahead and put it out, but he was gonna change the title of it to “The Wanting In Me,” and Kennedy said, “Faron, just leave it alone.”

I’ve had dozens upon top of dozens of hit records, chart records, and top forty and top ten, but it’s one of my real favorite songs. In fact, it’s in the top three. I’d say “Trouble” I like number one, and “Four In the Morning” and “A Good Year For the Roses” are about tied.

As far as the esses, when I came to town, I lisped real bad, and Faron used to call me Sylvester. And then he had that car wreck and about split his tongue. I went to the hospital to see him. When I walked in, I said, “I had a friend one time that had a crow and he split his tongue so he could curse, but I didn’t think you needed to do that.” “Get the &#@&& out of here!” After he had that wreck, he got to where he lisped. I think he told me one time, “Write me a hit that ain’t got no esses in it,” but it didn’t have anything to do with “Four In the Morning.”

Faron was very proud. We played golf one time, and I think I beat him on every hole. We played for like a dollar. The next day we went out that morning to play. A bunch of people were standing on the tee. And he spotted me a stroke a hole, just to show off in front of them people. After I’d beat him every hole the day before. He said, “I’m gonna spot you 18 strokes now.” Them guys just looked. I guess they thought I couldn’t pick a ball up.

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