Cowboy Corner

Cowboy Corner

By Michael W. Stout

This month marks the 10th anniversary of "Cowboy Corner." It seems like just yesterday that I began this incredible journey with Louisville Music News. In honor of this special occasion, I'm going to do things a little different this month and not report the latest news in country music, but rather reflect on the great experiences I've had within the crazy world we call country music, which I define as "music for the people, by the people, about the people."

Well, this story begins on a blistery winter night (well, almost winter) on December 10, 1970. A bouncing baby boy named Michael W. Stout entered the world, the second of a brood which would eventually top out at four. Blah, blah, blah...the moral of the story, he grew up and became a country music journalist. I won't bore you with all of the gory childhood details, but I do want to relate how my love affair with country music began.

"Work your fingers to the bones and whataya get? Boney fingers. Boney fingers." Thanks to Hoyt Axton, those are the first country lyrics I recall as a child. As a wee little tot, my parents were vegetable farmers and it was nearly a nightly ritual for Dad, Mom, my older brother Al and me to pile into the cab of our 1947 Chevrolet quarter-ton truck we lovingly dubbed "Old Blue" and head for the market in downtown Louisville to deliver some of the finest tomatoes, green beans, squash, etc. This wasn't the fancy Haymarket of recent years, but merely a single strip of vegetable vendors with concrete block restrooms without a roof. I promise, this story does relate to country music-keep reading. Well, once the vegetables were unloaded, it was time to head south toward the farm. More often than not, the return trip home involved stopping at the White Castle either at the corner of 1st and Market or Preston and Outer Loop-thus the beginning of my love affair with food (there's nothing like a hot, steamy White Castle hamburger, especially late at night). While we sat cramped in the cab of "Old Blue" eating our White Castles, we'd sing "Boney Fingers" at the top of our lungs (at least at the top of my lungs), much to Al's chagrin, he never being a huge country fan himself.

Unlike my older brother who had and continues to this day to have pop/rock tendencies, I myself am a creature of my environment and exposure to country music as a youngster. It was an annual ritual for the family to pack up the car and head down Preston Highway to the fairgrounds whenever the rodeo came to town. Despite the fact that I loved the animals and equally loved the clowns (as long as they didn't get near me), the thing that most impressed my little mind was the "half-time" entertainment. I'll never forget Lynn Anderson and her band entering the dirt-covered floor of Freedom Hall on a tractor-drawn hay wagon and singing her heart out. "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden..." And the cotton candy was good, too!

The first concert I ever recall attending was none other than the legendary "Man in Black," Johnny Cash, along with June Carter Cash and their daughters. My Dad was always a huge Johnny Cash fan and I'll never forget his favorite song, "A Piece At a Time." Well, Johnny and the family were headed to the state fair in the late 1970's and Mom won tickets on the radio, probably the first thing she had ever won in her life. Although Al was more impressed watching the double Ferris wheel on the Midway through the gap between the wall and the roof in the nosebleed section of the old Cardinal Stadium, I was thoroughly impressed with the music onstage. "Daddy sang bass, Momma sang tenor," Johnny and June sang.

(NOTE: If you've been reading my column throughout the last decade, you've probably noticed I'm a huge Dolly Parton fan. Here's the Dolly paragraph you've been expecting.) As if "Boney Fingers," Lynn Anderson and Johnny and June Carter Cash weren't enough to convert me into a lifelong country music fan, the turning point was Mom joining the BMG cassette tape club. The first shipment included Dolly Parton's 1975 Best of Dolly Parton tape. Remember that tape? The one with Dolly wearing a red bandana print button-down shirt, huge hoop earrings and a red bandana taming a huge blonde wig. It included the hits "Jolene," "Love Is Like a Butterfly," "Coat of Many Colors," and the eternally popular "I Will Always Love You." Needless to say, I wore that poor tape out. I was sold - my parents had successfully brainwashed me into a true country music fan (which I am attempting to do to my own children today). And I must say that I'm proud to be a country boy and I'm proud to say that I am still a huge Dolly fan to this day. On Christmas morning 1980, under our pathetically ugly cedar Christmas tree with cardboard cut-out ornaments was my very first vinyl record, Dolly's 9 to 5 and Other Odd Jobs, including the smash hit from Ms. Parton's acting debut movie which we had gone to town to see a few months prior. Fast-forwarding a few years into my teens, I finally got to start driving the tractor and I must say my favorite job on the farm was raking hay. Dolly and I have raked acres and acres of hay in our time, thanks to my beloved Sony Walkman (the cassette tape version a few years prior to the introduction of the compact disc). I must say, I think I could have easily replaced Kenny Rogers as Dolly's duet partner, well, as long as I had my headphones on and couldn't really hear how bad I was really singing. Dolly, please call me up if you're looking for a new duet partner, despite the fact I sound much more like Porter Wagoner than Kenny.

Well, while we're still in my teens, I made it through those difficult years remaining a country music fan despite the attempted brainwashing from my older brother, who tortured me with the likes of Duran Duran, Olivia Newton John and Culture Club. Nowadays I can tolerate these bands, because they are a real blast from the past and such a huge part of my childhood. During those teenage years, one of the most successful duos hit country music airwaves - an Ashland, Ky. mother and daughter team named Wynonna and Naomi, The Judds. Well, "Why Not Me" and "Mama, He's Crazy" only helped reaffirm my love for country music. My lovely bride-to-be Jenny was an equally huge Judds fan, so much so that we walked down the aisle as husband and wife on our wedding day to "Love Can Build a Bridge."

Well, you're probably bored with background information by now, so I'll get into how this crazy journey as a country music journalist began. When Jenny and I were first married, there were few country concerts that came to town that we didn't attend. We'd even drive a distance if we had to. While we were dating, we felt like we were actually on tour with The Judds during their Farewell Tour, seeing them in multiple states. As we attended so many concerts, I kept saying to myself that one day I wanted to meet these stars who donned the stage and brought us hours and hours of musical pleasure, whether performing live, on the car radio, or blaring on the home stereo. The straw that broke the camel's back came during the Kentucky State Fair in August 1994. After enjoying concerts by Brooks and Dunn, Faith Hill, Lorrie Morgan, Vince Gill and Mary-Chapin Carpenter, the Courier-Journal critic responsible for reviewing these country shows clearly knew nothing about country music (and, no, I don't remember the critic's name and wouldn't tell you if I did). The concerned citizen and country fan that I am, I got on the phone and spoke with the CJ's pop critic, Jeffrey Lee Puckett, stating that I thought I could write better reviews than whoever had written the fair reviews, so he challenged me to try. Well, I took the challenge and wrote my very first concert review of Brooks and Dunn and a newcomer named Faith Hill. Although impressed with the review, Puckett said he had no room for another country writer, but he pointed me in the direction of Louisville Music News. I got on the phone and spoke with editors Jean Metcalfe and Paul Moffett, wrote a sample column and the rest is history. "Cowboy Corner" was born and premiered in the October 1994 issue, along with a concert review of Sammy Kershaw and Gibson/Miller at the old Louisville Gardens. I must admit and I hope not to change your opinion of "Cowboy Corner," but I am not a trained journalist, although I've always had an affinity for a typewriter. Even after all these years, I still get occasional emails from Mr. Moffett pointing out grammatical errors, although they're not really errors, I intentionally include them in my writing to keep him sharp and on his toes. (Thanks for all the literary "hints," Paul.)

This ten-year ride as a country journalist for Louisville Music News has been a blast. It has afforded me several wonderful opportunities and has fulfilled several dreams. For many years, I have had a wish list of stars I would like to meet. The top three on my list are: 1) Dolly Parton, 2) Loretta Lynn and 3) Reba McEntire. I am happy to say, I have met each of these three incredibly talented ladies of country music and they are each exactly as you would imagine them to be. Dolly is sweet, energetic, quick-witted and generous, not to mention a tiny, tiny woman (well, at least most of her is tiny, but we won't go there). The "Coal Miner's Daughter," Loretta, is as innocent and naïve as she appears on television. And Reba is one of the most down home, witty, outgoing and naturally talented performers you could ever meet. My all-time dream involving country music has even partially come true. Although I have met Dolly, gotten her autograph, had my picture taken with her and spoken with her numerous times during press conferences at Dollywood, I have always wanted to interview this legend. Well, upon a request for an interview a few years ago while in town for the IBMA awards, Ms. Parton did not have time to do an in-person interview, but graciously agreed to answer questions I faxed her and she promptly answered my questions and faxed her answers back. So, Dolly, if you're reading, I'm still waiting for that in-person interview.

I've had some very memorable moments with major country stars throughout the years. Although not a huge Garth Brooks fan, he is the most focused artist I've ever encountered. During a 1998 press conference at Freedom Hall, when I asked Garth about his recently released CD box set, I must say, he made me feel like I was the only person in the room at the time. When answering a journalist's question, he nearly stares a hole right through you - impressive, although a little eerie. At the conclusion of that press conference, I asked Garth to sing "Happy Birthday" to my lovely wife for her twenty-fifth birthday. He graciously fulfilled my request by serenading her with an a capella version of "The Dance." What a surreal moment! Thanks, Garth.

If you've never had the opportunity to tour a star's bus, then you've missed out on a big treat as these are palaces on wheels. I've been on several stars' tour buses throughout my days, but I've never had an experience as memorable as when I stepped onto Willie Nelson's. We all know that Willie is known for smoking a little weed - as he will admit - and I think it helps him wind down after a show. Although I've never been a partaker in marijuana or any other drug for that matter, when I climbed onto Willie's bus a few years back to have a guitar autographed for charity, the "Redheaded Stranger" was quite mellow and the bus had quite a unique odor. Weed aside, my hat's off to Willie for remaining true to the music all these years and the extensive work he's done for the American farmer through Farm Aid. Willie's a genuinely nice, but shy, guy with a heart of gold.

In my position, I have made some interesting observations of country stars. I must say, Lorrie Morgan and Louisville's own Patty Loveless are the best smelling stars of country music. I don't know what perfumes they wear, but I will never forget their heavenly scents. My first encounter with Lorrie was during the wintertime and when I hugged her upon leaving, my glove picked up the scent of her perfume. I didn't wash it for weeks.

Upon seeing stars up-close, I have been shocked more than once by their appearance. It's no surprise that Alan Jackson, Billy Dean and Neal McCoy are massively tall, but I have been totally surprised by some of the vertically challenged stars. I always thought Randy Travis was a giant, but he is shockingly average height, as well as George Strait. Some of country's divas seem near-microscopically small in person, including Dolly, Martina McBride, Lorrie Morgan and Barbara Mandrell. Although Terri Clark is not an Amazon woman by any stretch, she made me feel like a shrimp standing at my mere 5'9."

A moderate Tammy Wynette fan, I only saw her in concert once, but I had an unforgettable encounter with her a few months prior to her death. During rehearsals of an awards show at the Grand Ole Opry, I passed her as she was headed to the stage to rehearse her lines with her legendary ex-husband, George Jones. The shocker is that Tammy was wearing curlers-the ever so prim and proper singer was caught in the beautification stage. That same afternoon, I had another freaky behind the scenes encounter. I could have lived the rest of my life without running into the be-wigged Bill Anderson in the Opry House bathroom shaving, wearing a tank top.

Well, I could ramble on for many more pages, but I've already written more than our beloved editor wanted. But before I wrap this article up, I must answer the frequent question of who have been my favorite artists I have interviewed. Although a unique array of artists, I must say that my favorites have been Crystal Gayle, Billy Ray Cyrus, Lari White, Louise Mandrell and Tim McGraw. Each was extremely grateful, brutally honest, genuine and a wonderful human being. I will be eternally grateful to and huge fans of Crystal, Billy Ray, Lari, Louise and Tim.

As I've already stated, it's been a wonderful ride these last 10 years and I hope to continue this ride for at least another decade or two, as long as you keep reading. I hope you have enjoyed reading what I've had to say each month. Thanks for the supportive letters throughout the years and it's been great to meet my readers and fellow country fans at the concerts. As we embark on the next decade of this journey, always remember, "Keep your boots shined up and your hat on straight, `cause country music is comin' your way."