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Honky Tonk Crooner Honored

Music* A tribute album to the late Webb Pierce, organized by country singer Gail Davies, draws top names in recognizing the legendary performer.


NASHVILLE — Growing up in Seattle, country singer Gail Davies remembers spying through heating vents with the other kids as her parents and their friends danced to Webb Pierce's honky-tonk music.

"To us, the coolest thing in the world was to be in that room with the adults dancing to Webb Pierce," said Davies, who scored a string of hits in the 1980s.

"My first single when I grew up and got a record deal was [Pierce's] 'No Love Have I.'"

Davies, 53, has gathered an impressive group of country music stars for a tribute album, "Caught in the Webb: A Tribute to the Legendary Webb Pierce," on Audium Records.

Dwight Yoakam, Robbie Fulks, Crystal Gayle, George Jones, Mandy Barnett, Emmylou Harris, Allison Moorer, Lionel Cartwright, Willie Nelson and Billy Walker are among those on the album.

The music they celebrate hasn't dominated mainstream country since Pierce's heyday in the 1950s and '60s. The songs, propelled by twin fiddles and weeping steel guitar, talk about the temptations of drinking ("There Stands the Glass"), two-timing ("Back Street Affair") and love gone wrong.

"I've worked with the same engineer for years now," Davies said. "He came to me after the sessions and told me he couldn't get the melodies to Webb's songs out of his head.

"I told him that's because they have melodies. So much of the stuff done today doesn't even bother with it."

Pierce dominated country music in the 1950s with hits such as "Wondering," "In the Jailhouse Now" and "Honky Tonk Song."

Pierce was 69 when he died of cancer in 1991. By that time he'd become better known for his colorful, sometimes abrasive personality. His singing style--nasal and occasionally off pitch--is the stuff that parodies of country music thrive on. He courted the attention of Nashville tourists with a guitar-shaped swimming pool and a convertible studded with silver dollars.

One widely told story has a fellow country music star complaining that Pierce made himself too accessible to tourists, compromising their neighborhood's privacy. Pierce replied: "Well, you shouldn't have moved so close to a star."

The idea for the tribute album was born when Davies was interviewed by a disc jockey for a show last February that marked the 10th anniversary of Pierce's death. She mentioned her desire to make a tribute album.

"The next morning I got an e-mail from [Pierce's daughter] Deborah. It said that she and Webb's wife, Audrey, had heard the interview and wanted to know if I was serious about doing a tribute."

The three women met at one of Davies' Nashville shows and started planning the album.

"I don't have any money," Davies said. "I've had 18 hit records and I don't know how many in the Top 10, and I've never seen a royalty check from a record label in my life.

"I decided I could sell my Rolex watch, which is the only thing of value that I have left. Then the musicians, especially [the band] BR549, said, 'Don't do it, don't sell your watch. Get the guys to play for nothing.'"

She announced that album proceeds would go to the Minnie Pearl Cancer Research Foundation and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, then started making phone calls.

"Nobody said no," she said. "There were a few conflicts with schedules, which stopped Mark Knopfler from being on it, but that was all."

The album was recorded in two daylong sessions last June. Several stars backed out when told how quickly the album had to be recorded to save money.

"A couple of people I had to go, 'Look, if you can't sing, don't come,'" she said. "I don't have time to do overdubs or 15 vocals. I don't do Pro Tools [computer software used by many stars to correct their voices if they hit bad notes].

"You show up, you get two passes at your vocal....There were a couple of people who panicked when I said that and backed out, but their names will go unmentioned. Lovely people, but it was scary for them."

The result is a grab bag of talented singers, among them Grand Ole Opry stars such as Walker and Charley Pride, mainstream stars such as Pam Tillis and Nelson, and critical favorites like Fulks and Dale Watson.

Cartwright, who scored the No. 1 hit "Leap of Faith" in 1991, expertly replicates Pierce's trademark vocal yelps on the No. 1 hit from 1952.

"I did it because Gail asked me," said Cartwright, who writes TV background music. "There was a real good feeling on the sessions, no pressure ... to come up with a hit, which was refreshing."

Davies said she doesn't expect "Caught in the Webb" to spark a honky-tonk revival.

"The only other goal we had for it was to help get Webb into the Country Music Hall of Fame," she said. "We recorded the album in June, and they announced he was going in in August.

"So there's no goal but to enjoy the music. And let people know that there's more to Webb Pierce than guitar-shaped swimming pools."

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