'Open your mouth, boy!'

By PAULETTE FLOWERS Published:

"That's how my mama taught me to sing. We'd sit on the porch late at night singing old gospel songs and wait for Daddy to come home. If I didn't sing loud and proud and live it while I sung it, she'd reach back and pop me behind the head. 'Open your mouth, boy!'" That's deep baritone Jeff Bates, describing his vocal training.

Of course, like just about everyone who becomes a country singer, Jeff's public performances began in church and at school talent shows (his voice's particular quirks were additionally shaped later by, he admits, "too many cigarettes and too much whiskey"). By 17, he was singing in local honky-tonks, where his astonishing voice helped him work his way up through the local circuit and finally to Nashville.

But then he hit a major obstacle one that he's very honest about. He developed an addiction to methamphetamine, which eventually landed him in jail for three months. Those three months changed his life. "All of a sudden, I'm thinking clear enough to realize that I've hurt everybody I love," he says.

All that's over with now, although he does use the experience to keep his head on straight. "Here's how I keep my ego in check," he says. "Five years ago, I was in jail. I was lost and had lost everything, was the loneliest I'd ever been and just wishing I could get my feet in the grass again. You go from that to this ... I can't ever forget that. I remember it every day. And that alone is very humbling."

His 2003 debut album, "Rainbow Man," produced hits like "Long, Slow Kisses," "The Love Song" and "I Wanna Make You Cry." Now he's just released a new album, "Leave the Light On," that is even better than his first album. "Leave the Light On" features the sympathetic "The Woman He Walked On," the emotional "No Shame" and the touching "One Second Chance," an ex-con's plea for forgiveness that Bates obviously holds close to his heart. It also has a hefty dose of Jeff's wry wit on tunes like "Good People," "That'll Get You Ten," "Hands On Man" and a lusty romp through the Billy "Crash" Craddock classic "Rub It In."

Yes, Jeff's been on a long and sometimes hard road from his mama's front porch. But he's definitely made it.

QUIBBLES 'N BITS

Two Wreaths in the Hall Dept.: March 25 and 27 were sad days for country music. First, Buck Owens, country legend and originator of the Bakersfield sound, died in his sleep. He once said, "I'd like to be remembered as a guy that came along and did his music, did his best and showed up on time, clean and ready to do the job, wrote a few songs and had a hell of a time." Among his biggest hits were "Together Again," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" and "Love's Gonna Live Here." He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. On March 27, funeral services were held in Mexia, Texas, for groundbreaking songwriter Cindy Walker. Cindy's songs were recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley. Some of her best-known songs are "You Don't Know Me," "Dream Baby" and Gene Autry's hit "Silver Spurs." Cindy was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.

Do As I Say Dept.: Singer Billy Ray Cyrus has been trying to talk his daughter out of a career in show business all her life. And just like most teens, 13-year-old Miley didn't pay any attention to her dad. Miley and Billy Ray are currently starring in a Disney Channel show called "Hannah Montana" that airs on Thursdays. Plus, Miley already has a four-album record deal and will probably put out her debut album this summer.

Rough Cuts Quote of the Week: "My question is, Why bring all that up again? Let's leave it behind and put some great Chicks songs on the radio." Nashville radio station WSIX program director Keith Kaufman, on the Dixie Chicks' first single in three years, "Not Ready to Make Nice," which has lyrics saying that lead singer Natalie Maines won't apologize for her political quotes a few years ago.

I'd love to hear from you, so please write me at P.O. Box 121438, Nashville, TN 37212.

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