When Jenee Fleenor answers her phone at her house in Nashville, Tenn., she sounds friendly, approachable -- and a little baffled. She's wondering why her hometown newspaper is interested in writing a story about her. It's as though the accomplished musician -- who has toured with country music luminaries like Terri Clark, Martina McBride and Blake Shelton, and who was nominated for an Academy of Country Music Award for specialty instrument player of the year last month -- doesn't understand that she is, in fact, not only a talented musician, but also pretty famous, as well.
"She seems to be devoid of egotism," says Ed Nicholson, who played with Fleenor in the popular Northwest Arkansas band Outside the Lines when Fleenor was still in high school. "You don't get to where she is by not having been told, constantly, how good you are, but she hasn't let that go to her head. She's still as nice as she can be -- and it's genuine."
My favorite song to play is: That’s like picking out my favorite shoes! I do love to play “Faded Love”…maybe because it takes me back to when I was around 5 years old and playing it for the first time.
The thing I miss most about Northwest Arkansas (other than my family!) is: Yes, I certainly miss my family and friends the most, but here are a few other things I miss: AQ Chicken, vintage/ thrift & antique shopping, downtown Fayetteville…especially during Christmas when it’s all lit up, biking the Razorback Greenway (y’all are so fortunate to have that!), and I always want to go hiking when I’m home but never have time.
One musician that I would love to be on stage with, but haven’t yet, is: As I write this I am sitting in a hotel room in Vegas…as I was driving to my hotel I saw a billboard of James Taylor. I’ve always thought it would be really fun to play with James. I’ve always loved his music.
The craziest moment that has happened on tour was: Recently we had country legend John Anderson on the Blake Shelton tour. There was a beautiful Native American made Seminole patchwork jacket he wore throughout the tour and I told John that I really wanted to get one like it. Well, the last night of the tour he presented me with a jacket … he didn’t have one made, he gave me that very jacket he wore on tour! (There’s no telling how long he had it.) I was floored, and I was in tears for days over it! Now the jacket even has its very own Instagram account! @JohnAndersonsJacket.
The most nervous I’ve ever been on stage was when: Playing “Country Boy” on “The Voice” with Ricky Skaggs and voice contestant Emily Ann Roberts. I rarely get that nervous, but the whole day I was as nervous as a cat. (For those not familiar, it’s basically playing bluegrass at lightning speed on national television.) All day I had the jitters, but when the cameras came on, I had this calm that came over me … kinda like “Jesus take the wheel!” I reckon He did cause we made it through with no train wrecks! Whew!!!
Frank Scott Jr.
In fact, the humble Fleenor has been told how talented she is from the tender age of 3, when her parents, George and Helen Keener, enrolled her in a Suzuki violin course after seeing an ad in the paper.
"My mom and dad saw these kids carrying their violins [in the ad] and just thought it was so cute," says Fleenor, who was born and raised in Springdale. She's funny, easy to talk to and peppers her speech with folksy southern colloquialisms like "nervous as a cat" and "that's a whole 'nother bag of worms." "My mom read the Suzuki book, and she basically went by the book -- got me in Suzuki violin lessons. My mom or dad was at every single lesson until I was 10 or 11."
The Keeners were devoted parents who had Fleenor later in life, and they had plenty of time to dedicate to her musical ambitions.
"They're the reason I play music," she says. "Every single weekend, we were at a fiddle competition or a talent show or a bluegrass festival -- anything having to do with music. I'm really grateful for the upbringing I had."
Helen Keener says Fleenor had been studying the violin for about a year when she and her husband started getting indications that she might have a talent far beyond that of the average child.
"I was just giving her music lessons, because that's what parents do," says Keener. "I couldn't compare her with the other kids, because I'm not that musically inclined. But her teachers realized [her talent] when she was, oh, probably about 4."
"My mom told me that when I was really little, one of my teachers said, 'You know she's pretty good, right?'" recalls Fleenor. "My mom didn't know. She was just going by the book, making me listen to my tapes every night. I think it wasn't until then that it clicked with her: 'Oh, right, I think this could really be something.' It took the teachers telling her, you know: 'You should not let this go.'"
The close-knit family jumped into the world of music together. George started taking violin lessons, and the family, says Fleenor, would have "jam sessions" with Helen accompanying the violins on piano. While Helen preferred Fleenor to continue to play classical music, George's preference for country and bluegrass music was compelling to Fleenor.
"Mom wanted me to be a classical player and go to Juilliard," she says. "Dad listened to Bob Wills and Frankie Kelly. I remember learning 'Faded Love' by ear when I was 5 -- I heard it so much around the house. I stood up on, like, a chest that Mom had, and played 'Faded Love'. That was kind of the turning point, when I could just play whatever I heard." It was obvious that it would be the fiddle, and not the violin, for the tiny Jenee.
"Once she heard her dad play 'Faded Love', it was all over," says Helen. "But we continued on with the violin for 14 more years."
"I am thankful for that," says Fleenor. "I don't regret playing classical music, by any means. All of the technique carries over." But, she says, "I remember stepping into the studio when I was 11 years old and hearing my fiddle through the headphones and thinking, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.'"
Outside the Lines
Because the Keeners were so determined to give Fleenor as many musical opportunities as possible, she rapidly became well known as a fiddle phenom. She was soon winning state competitions and, later, national ones. She played in West Fork's Little Ole Opry's staff band when she was 11, then joined Outside the Lines when she was 16.
"Not the way she played," says Nicholson, when asked if he had any hesitation about asking a 16-year old to play in the band, which, in addition to Nicholson and Fleenor, included band members Emily Kaitz and Stan D'Aubin. "She's phenomenally talented and played with an incredible maturity, even at age 16. Most of the time, we had to play to her level, instead of vice versa, and all of us had been around for quite some time."
"I got nothing but encouragement, really," says Fleenor. "It was just like, 'There's Jenee and her fiddle.' It was a part of me. We didn't have orchestra in school, so I had to learn a band instrument. I learned the French horn, but even in marching band in junior high and high school they would give me violin solos, even on the marching field, which is one of the most fun things. Pat Ellison was a legendary band director at Springdale High School. I loved her. I was a drum major, and we entered the band contest. I can't remember the song, but I stepped down from the podium, and I picked up my fiddle and played it through a megaphone or something. They judge you on these little tape recorders, and the judge was saying, 'You have good alignment here, and the trumpets sound really good, and now we have a solo from a ... a ... a... fiddle.' It was the funniest thing. I would give anything to hear that recording again."
And through it all, says Nicholson, Fleenor's parents were supportive -- but never pushy. They let Fleenor lead the way.
"Jenee was raised right -- she really was," says Nicholson. "She really has, I believe, a set of values that probably have contributed to her success. I think that a lot of the way she is was how she was taught, and credit for that goes out to Helen. She wasn't a stage mom. She let Jenee take the lead, and she supported her. I've worked with people who were younger, whose parents, quite honestly, were pains, but she wasn't like that at all. She wasn't trying to impose her own vision on Jenee."
At no time was that quiet support more evident than on the day Helen dropped Fleenor off on the campus of Nashville's Belmont University. Fleenor's plan was to pursue a career in country music, but she was hedging her bets by enrolling in college at the same time. Tragically, Fleenor's dad -- who so loved country music and loved hearing his daughter play it -- had died her senior year of high school.
"When it was time for me to leave the parking lot, I got into the vehicle, and I just sat there," says Helen. "I thought, 'I can't even -- what am I going to do?" What she did was drive back home to Springdale and continued to support her daughter from afar. Today, she wonders what would have happened had she not enrolled Fleenor in violin lessons.
"That's what I would tell any parent: 'At least try,'" says Helen. "What if I had decided not to do that?"
Meeting Larry Cordle
Fleenor was finally realizing her dream of living in Nashville. She was enjoying an outing with fellow Belmont students at the famous music venue the Station Inn when she made a connection that would change the trajectory of her life. An old acquaintance, Brandon Rickman, was playing with Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time at the venue. When he saw Fleenor, Rickman asked her if she had her fiddle with her.
"I said, 'Yeah, it's in my car,'" remembers Fleenor. "He said, 'During the break, come back here and play for Larry.' I'm just sitting there with a couple of kids from Belmont going, 'What's going on?'"
Fleenor fought through her nervousness and trepidation and ventured backstage to the green room during one of the band's breaks and asked if she could play for Cordle.
"To be honest, I knew I would like to hire her right then," says Cordle. "This was on a Friday or a Saturday, and I made myself wait until Monday to call her."
"I was 18, and green as I could be, and everyone kept saying, 'That's the sht , that's the sht,' as I was playing," says Fleenor, laughing. "I didn't know what 'That's the sh*t' meant, and I thought, 'Well, I guess that's a good thing.' Larry called me and said, 'If you want to do this bluegrass thing, you can come on the road with us.' His band was very popular, and he was a hit songwriter. I said my concern was being in college, and he said it should work out, because they were just playing on the weekends -- I might miss a couple of Fridays."
"I told her, 'You tell your mom, if she'll let you work for us, I'll take good care of you,'" says Cordle affectionately. "She said, 'I'm 18! I don't need help!' and I said 'You tell her anyway.' I think she went with us for two years and made at least one record with us and has been a guest on several other records of mine.
"She's been taking fiddle lessons since she was 3, but she has something that you can't be taught," he continues. "I always refer to it as a 'God thing' -- I know it when I see it, and she most definitely has it. It is such a joy to play with her. She has perfect pitch, and she's an asset to any group -- I knew it from the first time I worked with her. She has this sparkle on stage that is just undeniable. Once you see that, you realize that her natural place is to be on stage. She has a connection with every audience I ever saw her play in front of. They love to watch her play, to hear her play."
Cordle wasn't the only person to spot Fleenor's potential. Within a year, she found herself accepting a job with country superstar Terri Clark. Clark's touring schedule -- she had over 100 concerts a year scheduled -- meant Fleenor would have to make a hard decision between a music career and her college education.
"Everybody on the outside was saying, 'You have to take this gig -- this is your chance,'" says Fleenor. "'This is what you're going to school to get a piece of paper to do. These opportunities don't come every day.' But on the other side, I'm in school, and the president of the school called me and was saying the exact opposite: 'You can always get a gig, but you can't always be in school. '"
The college president was, perhaps, ignoring the fact that Fleenor had been in school, studying her instrument, for 16 years. So Fleenor closed her eyes and took a leap of faith.
There's little doubt that it was the right thing to do: She toured with Clark for six years before moving on to the band of Martina McBride, where she stayed for five years. Today, she tours with mega-superstar Blake Shelton. She just finished up Shelton's spring tour.
"The tour was called the 'Friends and Heroes Tour,' and we had John Anderson, the Bellamy Brothers, Trace Adkins...they were all with us, and we got to accompany them," says Fleenor. "And it was amazing. This tour was the best tour, we've all said it, that Blake has ever done. These are the artists that he wanted to be when he was young. We were all in tears, we were so sad when it was over, because these are our heroes, too."
One of the highlights for Fleenor was when her childhood hero John Anderson gifted her with his jacket. Fleenor was so excited about the souvenir that she started an Instagram account for the jacket called, of course, "johnandersonsjacket."
If it sounds as though Fleenor is living the Nashville dream that she envisioned way back when she was 11, it's because she is. In addition to touring with Shelton, Fleenor has become a noted songwriter -- and she credits Cordle for sparking her creativity in this arena. Her songs have been recorded by Shelton, Del McCoury, Kathy Mattea, Gretchen Wilson and Dolly Parton, who sang on "I Am Strong," a song Fleenor co-wrote with Jamie Johnson of The Grascals.
"I remember sitting at home, honestly, praying to God to help me write something worthwhile, and the first song that I got cut was a song [to benefit childhood cancer funding]," she says. "It was called 'I Am Strong,' and Dolly Parton ended up hearing it and they put it on her record and it did really well for The Grascals, and raised a lot of money for St. Jude[Children's Research Hospital]. Dolly told us that was our 'Coat of Many Colors,' which just knocked me out. We wrote it, specifically, about a little girl at my church who had cancer. Seeing her parents go through that was just heartbreaking -- I just wanted them to hear it. The fact that Dolly sang on it and it reached so many people was such a blessing."
'The Voice' and Steven Tyler
Fleenor is also a musician on the television show "The Voice" and frequently tours with rock legend Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith. You read that right: Aerosmith's lead singer, Steven Tyler. When Tyler came to Nashville to record his first solo album -- which, uncharacteristically, had a country flavor -- Fleenor was hired to be a session musician. She says Tyler was so much fun in the studio, she told him to give her a call if he ever needed a fiddle player on tour, never expecting him to actually follow through.
"I was taking a nap the next week, and I get a call, and it's Steven," says Fleenor. "He said, 'We're playing New York City, doing a bunch of TV stuff, and I want you to come and do these gigs if you can.' I said, 'Uh, yeah, I will be there.' So it's always understood that if Blake didn't have anything going on, I could tour with Steven, and it's been amazing. I went to Maui with [Tyler] over the New Year holiday for 10 days. We were playing shows with Alice Cooper and Mick Fleetwood. We hung out in Shep Gordon's house -- he was Janis Joplin's manager."
And then, of course, there is her award nomination -- notable, as CMT News pointed out, because she is the only woman nominated in the studio musicians field and the first woman ever nominated for this specific award. The rarity of being a woman, doing what she does, is not lost on Fleenor. She says she hopes her success can be a beacon for other young girls hoping to forge paths as musicians.
"There aren't a lot of women doing this," she says. "When I step into these sessions, 98 percent of the time I'm the only woman in there unless it's the artists I'm performing with. Even on the engineering side, there are only a few women doing that. I don't know why. I certainly hope it's not little girls thinking, 'Oh, it's a man's world,' because I never thought that. I've stepped into a few scenarios where I've walked in, and it's been, like, 'Oh, here's the chick,' but I just kind of step back. Because for me, it's all about the music."
When you read accounts of artists successfully reaching the heights of show business, frequently they're tales of hard scrabble, back-biting, I'm-only-out-for-myself travails. Not so with Fleenor. There's no doubt she's worked hard and fought for all that she's accomplished, but her friends and colleagues say she's done it all with grace and generosity, never forgetting the small-town girl she grew up as.
"When I first met her, I was subbing for [Shelton's] previous background singer," says Kara Britz, backing vocalist in Blake Shelton's band and on "The Voice." "Jenee, from the get-go, was the smartest, warmest, most educated musician you could meet. You walk in and think, 'She's going to know what the heck I'm supposed to do.' She's a natural leader. She was a sister from the start. She's hilarious -- she's out of her damn mind -- she's really fun, and we have a blast. It's a sisterhood. She'll do anything to make you laugh hysterically, to pray with you when you need a friend. She's been a godsend."
"If anything, she's just sweeter now than she was then," says Cordle. "She's had a strong faith. She has a sparkle around her -- she never meets a stranger. She has all of these qualities that entertainers really need, instead of being so aloof and so away from everything. I couldn't be happier for her. She is truly one of my favorite people -- I love her like my own daughter. "
Despite her success, as far as Fleenor is concerned, she's no big deal. But that doesn't mean that she isn't thrilled with where she finds herself these days.
"When you messaged me, I felt like I had won the lottery," she says. "The CMT article was so sweet, then you asked me to do this, and the whole tour was amazing, and the ACMAs and John Anderson's jacket, and my husband and I just celebrated 15 years of marriage. I'm just very grateful.
"I'm just tryin' to be a blessing."
NAN Profiles on 04/21/2019