MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Before last month, no woman had ever won the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year award. Then, fiddle player Jenee Fleenor did. Jewly Hight met Fleenor at a Nashville studio to learn how she played her way to the A-list.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Jenee Fleenor has tuned and soundchecked for countless sessions, a few of them here at Sound Emporium.
JENEE FLEENOR: (Playing fiddle) That's probably going to be louder than me talking. (Playing fiddle).
HIGHT: She did plenty of demonstrating while recounting the journey to her CMA award win.
FLEENOR: (Playing fiddle).
HIGHT: It all started in the late 1980s in small-town Arkansas. Back then, Fleenor was a 3-year-old classical violin student in the rigorous Suzuki method. But when she was 5, Bob Wills' "Faded Love" transformed Fleenor into a fiddler.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS SONG, "FADED LOVE")
FLEENOR: I'd heard it so much in the background, and I just picked up my fiddle one day and started playing it by ear. Honestly, that is the moment that I was like, wow, I can kind of play what I want to on this thing.
HIGHT: What she wanted was to explore the country side of her instrument. Her parents drove her anywhere that could happen.
FLEENOR: There was a Arkansas fiddle association down the road from me. And I'm, like, maybe 7, 8 years old. And I'm - it's all men over 60, probably. So, I mean, really, throughout my whole life, I've been playing with a bunch of hairy-legged men.
HIGHT: By age 10, she was in the staff band at a regional Arkansas opry house. Then it was on to lessons, camps and competitions, which require their own style of playing.
FLEENOR: Gosh, I haven't played contest stuff in so long, but let's see. (Playing fiddle). So, like, "Sally Goodin" (ph) would be really smooth. You wouldn't really want to pick up your bow. So in contest fiddling, (playing fiddle) - something like that.
HIGHT: Fleenor found there was something she enjoyed even more than performing live when she stepped into a local studio for the first time.
FLEENOR: I just remember putting those headphones on and hearing my fiddle through that microphone. And I'm sure it had some reverb in it. And I was like, oh, my gosh, this is the best my fiddle maybe ever sounded. It just was a spark in me.
HIGHT: Fleenor moved to Nashville for college in 2001. She'd only been here a couple of weeks when she ran into a friend at a bluegrass show who asked his boss, Larry Cordle, if Fleenor could sit in with the band. Cordle, a songwriter known for a tune that laments the loss of traditional country elements like fiddle, loved what he heard.
LARRY CORDLE: I actually wanted to ask her that night if she wanted to work, but I made myself wait till Monday.
HIGHT: When he called to offer the gig, he was mindful of the fact that she was still in her teens.
CORDLE: I said, well, you tell your momma that I'll take real good care of you and I'm going to help you - all this stuff, big sales pitch. She's just, I don't have to ask my mom.
HIGHT: Fleenor held her own in Cordle's group and soon made her Grand Ole Opry debut.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Would you make her welcome for her first appearance, by the way, on the Grand Ole Opry, Miss Jenee Keener?
HIGHT: Fleenor, whose family name was Keener, went on to bigger touring gigs with Terri Clark, then Martina McBride. But by the early 2010s, there was less demand for fiddle in general as country leaned harder on hip-hop, pop and rock. Fleenor adapted by picking up acoustic guitar and mandolin. Then she got a call from a young artist named Jon Pardi, who had a different musical agenda.
JON PARDI: You know, Nashville's like follow the leader sometimes, you know? And so you got all these artists that aren't really incorporating this fiddle. But then, you know, I came from California. It was high-energy. I had a fiddle player. I kind of studied country music. I knew what to listen for in players. Jenee is automatic, man.
HIGHT: Pardi's single "Heartache Medication" was the first radio hit in a good long while to kick off with fiddle.
(SOUNDBITE OF JON PARDI SONG, "HEARTACHE MEDICATION")
HIGHT: By the time that album, Pardi's third with Fleenor, came out, people recognized her signature playing.
FLEENOR: I can definitely be very traditional, but, you know, if there's a call to be outside the box, I try to be that, too. So like (playing fiddle).
I owe a lot to Jon, you know, because he kept putting fiddle and steel guitar turned way up in the mix. And I'm like, oh, my gosh, maybe this thing will come back around someday, not really thinking that maybe I would be the one that might help turn the thing a little bit, you know?
HIGHT: Eighteen years into her Nashville tenure, Fleenor splits her time between working in the studio and backing Blake Shelton and Steven Tyler. Her industry peers decided this was the year to give her one of the highest honors a country player can get.
FLEENOR: There's not a whole lot of females in this business, you know? And I honestly never thought about it too much. Being a session musician is just what I wanted to do. And I never thought I couldn't do that because I was a female. You know, it's just something I wanted, and I went after it and got it.
HIGHT: Jenee Fleenor's way of marking the occasion was to make a little music of her own.
FLEENOR: The single's called "Fiddle And Steel." So appropriate, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF JENEE FLEENOR SONG, "FIDDLE AND STEEL")
HIGHT: She co-wrote the song, expecting it would likely be sung by a man, then decided she should be the one to deliver it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIDDLE AND STEEL")
FLEENOR: (Singing) Oh, pickups drown my soul down the dirt road (ph).
HIGHT: For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIDDLE AND STEEL")
FLEENOR: (Singing) Old No. 7 tastes like Tennessee (ph).
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