You can’t get more country than singer Chalee Tennison. The Texas native has a rich, powerful voice, full of knowing tears as well as unabashed twang. Her phrasing echoes Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. And she has lived the classic, country-star life: At the age of 28 she endured her third divorce, becoming a single mother of three. Before she began singing professionally, her best job had been as a guard at the Mountain View Unit of the state women’s prison in Gatesville. Her songs, which strike a difficult balance between the personal and the universal, the traditional and the contemporary, confront those ups and downs.And maybe that’s the problem. The 31-year-old Tennison might be too real for contemporary country. Today’s female star is more likely to be a suburban banker’s daughter (Trisha Yearwood) than a working-class country girl, and the most successful singers smooth regional inflections out of their voices (Faith Hill). They rarely sing hard-luck tales. Tennison’s own role models are either dead (Wynette, Patsy Cline) or relegated to independent labels on the fringes of the commercial music business (Lynn, Dolly Parton). Country, once the music for people who spoke maturely even when they were young, is now a music for people who must speak young even when they’re mature.
So, two albums into her major-label career, Tennison is still looking for her first sizable hit single and her first full-fledged tour. And as country as her voice and original songs are, This Woman’s Heart, which came out last fall, is produced to sound as conventional as anything in Nashville, leaning toward crashing guitars and big-beat pop. Traditional instruments like fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar are used for seasoning rather than for the main course. That is the compromise Tennison must make to stay alive in today’s market: hard-country voice, soft-country sound, lyrics a little of both.
Make no mistake, Tennison wants to be a star, but not at any cost. She also wants to extend country tradition, not replace it. One look at the charts suggests that may not be possible, so she lives with the current strategy, knowing that she must. “I can’t change my hillbilly voice, can’t change my lyrics, because they’re real life,” she says, nursing a glass of water in a Nashville conference room. Dressed in a simple black blouse and red blazer, her hair long and straight, she looks less like the glamour girl of her CD covers than like the fresh-faced girl next door. “But the production on this album is bigger. You have to walk a fine line, but I don’t see myself ever getting poppier than this. When your third or fourth CD is successful, then you can do the exact album you want.”
Though Tennison hasn’t made it there yet, she has come a long way already. The middle of ten children, Chalee (pronounced Sha- lee) and her twin brother, Kelley, were born in Brazosport to parents who divorced when she was two. Her mother and father eventually married four times each; Tennison’s grandmother Lottie Pate, the family matriarch, counted 172 grandchildren before her death a few years back. Tennison sang in school choirs, but her hopes of singing professionally were put on hold when she was a junior in high school. She got married at sixteen, and her first daughter, Tiffany, came a year later. The marriage lasted only three and a half years.
She met her second husband in Palestine, where he was a prison guard about to be transferred to Gatesville. That suited Tennison just fine, so she became a guard herself. “The money was good, and I’d always wanted to be a cop or a narc,” she says. “I still to this day watch Cops and Rescue 911.” The couple stayed married for a year, but by then she had met the