+ Two years after embracing her inner Daisy Duke, Jessica Simpson still wants to scratch that country itch. The singer and sometime actress who released A Public Affair to disappointing sales last year is assembling a team of Nashville-based producers and songwriters for her fifth studio album. ''It's the best thing for her,'' says a label source close to the singer. ''A country record is what she absolutely needs to be doing now.'' She's certainly playing the part: After presenting at Nov. 5's ACE Awards in New York City, Simpson headed south to attend the CMA Awards and is expected to ''start writing and recording right away.'' A separate Nashville insider says that Simpson will spend up to six months in a Music City studio beginning in January. As for the notion that Nashville shuns outsiders particularly pop stars trying to go country? ''Jessica is committed to doing this,'' says the label source. ''She's gone back to her Southern roots and embedded herself in the Nashville community.'' To further her country cred, Dukes costar Willie Nelson recently invited Simpson to appear in a video for his new song ''You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore,'' in which she races lawn mowers and wins against Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, and Dan Rather.
+ Meanwhile, the third effort by Jessica's younger sister Ashlee Simpson which was slated for release this month has been postponed until 2008. According to a source, Simpson and producer Timbaland wanted more time to perfect the production, which includes collaborations with the Neptunes' Chad Hugo (Alicia Keys) and Butch Walker (Pink). Shirley Halperin
+ As the realities of the strike hit hard (think: no paycheck), some writers are already grumbling about their union's hard-line negotiating tactics. ''I feel like it was a fait accompli that the strike was going to happen,'' says writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc). ''It's dispiriting. You hire a federal mediator, why not hash it out?'' This kind of public dissent has been rare, but Carnahan insists he's not the only Guild member fretting over the policies that restrict striking writer-directors from tinkering with their own scripts on the set. ''Some friends of mine think the strike agreement is a little neo-fascist,'' says Carnahan. Christine Spines
+ Big Brother fans, it's time to start celebrating the Writers Guild strike. A reliable source says CBS is quietly preparing for a ninth season of the reality show that could begin airing in late January or early February if the work stoppage persists past the holidays. It's easy for CBS to fire up production on the series because it owns the house (which is located on the network's Studio City, Calif., lot) and casts for the show year-round. We hear that executive producer Allison Grodner is already hiring production staff and Julie ''Chenbot'' Chen will, of course, return to host. As in seasons past, the network would probably air the show three times a week, although there's the possibility of adding more nights. If the midseason BB does go forward, it is unlikely to affect the show's regular summer run. Lynette Rice