Tell All, Show Nothing
Music Row types are shrieking in unison over the revelations in Laurence Leamer’s new book Three Chords and the Truth, which tells the dirt on Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, and others at the top of the country charts. “The industry reaction is, people are screaming,” says RCA head Joe Galante. “Apparently, it’s offending a number of artists.”
Leamer, who has written books on Johnny Carson and the Kennedy women, will sign books this Wednesday, May 14, at Davis-Kidd as part of a 15-city promotional tour. Publisher HarperCollins is buying 10 Nashville billboards, as well as ads on TNN. Country radio stations have been sent an eight-page crib sheet that tells them where to find anecdotes about certain country artists. “We’ve got over 250 country radio stations signed on to do things,” says Leamer, who lived in Nashville for 14 months while working on his book.
Mindy McCready was scheduled to appear with Leamer at Davis-Kidd, but Galante had her cancel after discovering that the author had portrayed her family in an unflattering manner.
Says Don Cook, producer of Brooks & Dunn and the Mavericks, “I read enough to realize I didn’t want to read it. It think it’s tabloid trash. The one page I read was just poorly written. There was an inaccuracy, and people told me there were many more.
“I don’t like people who take unnecessary shots at friends of mine,” Cook adds. “The page I read said Ronnie Dunn had a face like a ‘hungry eaglet.’ What is that about? Insult his looks? That’s an unnecessary shot.”
But manager/journalist John Lomax, who wrote a favorable review of the book for Country Weekly, says Three Chords and the Truth is a good look at Nashville. What more, he says, it helps create a good image for the town. “It was by someone who is an established author from out of town who had no real preconceived axes to grind,” Lomax explains. “It’s clear he didn’t rely on canned press releases or quotes from previously written articles. It’s not fluffy.”
Three Chords and the Truth is hardest on Wynonna, Reba, Garth, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Leamer paints Wynonna as troubled and lazy, while he portrays Carpenter as a depressed woman and an unfaithful friend.
The book includes the following revelations:
♦ Wynonna told Oprah Winfrey that she hadn’t considered having an abortion when she became pregnant with son Elijah because she had seen what had happened to Patty Loveless when Loveless’ abortion made the tabloids. Leamer alleges, however, that Wynonna had previously had an abortion under the name Connie Sims.
♦ Wynonna’s former manager Ken Stilts overheard someone ask Arch Kelley, Wynonna’s then-boyfriend, if the couple was planning to marry. “Well, she’s going to gross about $10 million next year,” Stilts recalled Kelley saying. “So what do you think?”
♦ Mary Chapin Carpenter criedbut to no availwhen Epic execs told her that they wanted her to record a duet with Joe Diffie. At another point, she offerered one of her friends a position as guitar tech on her 1995 tour. The friend quit college and bought new clothes, only to find out that Bob Dylan’s former tech had been given the job instead.
♦ “When he produced music, [Jimmy] Bowen used marijuana the way others used a breath mint, taking a quick toke just before he went into a studio,” Leamer says. “He felt it helped him hear better.”
♦ Mindy McCready’s mother took her 14-year-old daughter to bars. Later, she got Mindy to break into her estranged husband’s home.
♦ Despite her significant impact on country music’s history, Emmylou Harris has had to tour frequently to make a living. “Everybody thinks I have so much money,” Leamer quotes Harris as saying. Then, when Trisha Yearwood tells Harris how much she is admired, the singer replies, “I’m a hard woman. A hard woman. And I’m at the fucking bottom of the heap.”
Defending his book, Leamer says, “Traditional country-music journalism is very fan-oriented, and the fan has been trained to take this sanitized version of this world, which is demeaning. The fan is better than that. I think the journalism can change. The problem is when you write anything that has a little edge, you get negativity from people. That’s what is so hard.”
This isn’t a tell-all, he explains, but a tell-almost-everything. “I could have sold a lot more books if I put in things that I was not willing to put in,” he says. “I left out a lot of personal things about peopledrug problems, personal tragedies. I left out sexual identities.
“I have information equally well-documented about abortions of other country stars,” says Leamer, who claims that he has Wynonna’s medical records. “I didn’t put it in because I thought it was their private business. In Wynonna’s case, when she went on Oprah and liednot only [lied] about herself...but pulled Patty Loveless in, and it had a devastating impact on Patty Lovelessthat put it in a different dimension.”
In truth, the book reads more like the National Enquirer than the Philadelphia Inquirer. The sentences are often short, choppy, and replete with clichés about country music. Already, local journalists and publicists have gathered together to read aloud choice lines such as the following: “Gasp! It was youthful. Gasp! It was Mindy. Gasp! The video was dynamite.”
Three Chords and the Truth reads like a novel, and there are few direct quotes, which has raised questions about the book’s accuracy. Says Leamer, “I am a militant believer in the parameters of journalism. I don’t invent dialogue. I don’t put things into people’s heads that they haven’t said were in there. This book is so fiction-like in some of its techniques because I was able to get into the depths of the people’s lives.”
In truth, though, Leamer didn’t interview many of his main subjects. He never interviewed Wynonna, Garth, Reba, Alan Jackson, or Mary Chapin Carpenter. (Chapters on songwriter Bob McDill and producer Jack Clement were cut.) The author says he talked to those around the stars, such as managers, friends, and former flames. It’s obvious, for instance, that he relied mostly on Alan Jackson’s former manager Barry Coburn for his chapter on Jackson; likewise, interviews with Jimmy Bowen, former manager Pam Lewis, and former Capitol exec Walt Wilson shaped his Garth Brooks report.
“I didn’t think a great deal of it,” says Brooks & Dunn manager Bob Titley. “To begin with, there were two or three pieces of information that were completely wrong, stuff that you could get from a bio. That automatically turns you off a little bit. There were circumstantial descriptions that I thought were fairly inaccurate.”
According to Jenny Bohler, Reba McEntire’s spokewoman, Leamer called her to check facts, but several errors still made it into print. “I tried to correct him,”she says, “and apparently he chose to use his inaccurate information.”
The factual inaccuracies may be minor in some cases, but they undercut the credibility of the book. For instance, Chick Rains is called Chuck, and Radney Foster is called Rodney. Leamer says LeAnn Rimes was signed to MCA/Curb, instead of MCG/Curb.
Leamer says he allowed his subjects to read their chapters before publication and that they requested only a few minor changes. “I was amazed,” he says. “If I had been sitting there and there were this sort of revealing things about me, would I have the courage to say, ‘That’s true?’ ”
In the end, publicist Nancy Russell has emerged as one of Music Row’s smartest execs because she refused Leamer access to her clients. “This community is going to have to learn one way or another that you just can’t always open up your arms to anybody coming in here to write something,” she says. “The blessing and the curse of the community is that they’re very open-armed and happy when people give them any attention. It’s one of the cool and charming things about Nashville, but on the other hand, people in New York or L.A. probably wouldn’t have let executives do interviews, nor would the author have access to celebrities.”
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