If country music were true to its roots, Shania Twain would be a model, Trisha Yearwood would be a banker, and Chalee Tennison would be a household name.
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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 man who would become her third husband and put her in front of audiences for good.
Joe Tennison picked guitar in a band called Branded Heart that played a 1990 prison Christmas party. Encouraged by her second husband, Chalee got onstage to sing a couple of songs by Lorrie Morgan; it was the first time she had performed with a band. Joe was so impressed that he tracked her down weeks later to form a new band called Midnight Rodeo, with Chalee sharing lead vocals. She soon divorced again and quickly married Joe. Playing mostly Top 40 country hits of the early nineties, Midnight Rodeo typically worked a Waco club six nights a week and traveled whenever possible. “You’re gonna make me a millionaire before I’m thirty,” Joe told her repeatedly. As Chalee refined her raw style, the Tennisons had a girl, Haley, and a boy, Tyler. After their son was born, Joe and Chalee cut back to three gigs a week and started a drywall business. But the marriage began to buckle as they battled each other for the spotlight. “I will never date a musician again,” Chalee sighs. “It’s a very competitive thing. I’ve always been very competitive.”
Still, Joe encouraged her first trip to Nashville, late in 1996, though he would come to regret it. The couple struggled to keep the family together as Chalee went back and forth between Texas and Tennessee, and she soon had a stark revelation about her life. “I had married basically the same guy three times—different suit, same guy,” she says. Midnight Rodeo played its last show on New Year’s Eve, 1997. She filed for divorce a week later, and on April 1, 1998, she signed both her Texas divorce papers and her Nashville song-publishing contract. She moved to Nashville with the kids. Though Chalee has custody, Joe spends considerable time with their children.
Immersing herself in self-help books like M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, Tennison abstained from dating for nineteen months. “I learned to be alone, and I learned that my kids could totally count on me,” she says. If her first album, 1999’s self-titled Chalee Tennison, was about taking her lumps, This Woman’s Heart is about moving on. Indeed, her favorite track is the lush ballad “I’m Healing,” one of seven songs she co-wrote. The others are also contemporary takes on the timeless truths that drew her to country music in the first place.
“I look up to those women so much, sometimes I feel like I live in that era,” she says of Cline, Wynette, and the others. “They are so respected for their honesty. Even if I don’t make it, people know that everything I’ve said about myself was honest, because I’ve written only things that I’ve lived.” The trick is to speak her mind in a way that’s compatible with her old-country instincts and her new-country environment. Her best original songs connect because they so clearly reflect hard-learned lessons; they can’t help but stand out among the bromides that make the industry go ’round nowadays. “I think today’s music lacks realism. I want to sing about hurt and pain and happiness and real-life situations,” she says. “I want to sing about a love that’s intense, not a love that’s a bubblegum kind of thing. I won’t sing about fairy tales.”
Yet the first single from This Woman’s Heart was “Makin’ Up With You,” a novelty ditty that peaked at number 56 on the charts. “Go Back,” the follow-up, is a mawkishly sentimental fairy tale like those she vows to avoid. It is also slowly climbing the charts. In late February it had made it into the mid-thirties. She had no hand in writing either song. Meanwhile, original gems, like the catchy, triumphant “Yes, I Was” get passed by.
Though “Somebody Else’s Turn to Cry,” the first single on her debut album, also slipped into the Top 40, the lack of a breakthrough song has left her in the classic music-biz catch-22: Without a smash hit, she can’t tour, and without touring, she can’t promote her records. She thus tirelessly exploits the few avenues open to her. She hops onto someone else’s tour as an opening act. Or she travels from radio station to radio station, chatting up disc jockeys and performing an acoustic song or two. And she keeps hoping against hope to catch a well-deserved break somewhere, anywhere.