Interview: Jenee Fleenor, First Female CMA Musician of the Year Nominee, ‘Still Gets Teary-Eyed’ at a Good Fiddle Line
Like many creative types, fiddle player Jenee Fleenor can be her own worst critic. It's getting harder for her to avoid hearing her work, though.
A longtime member of Blake Shelton's road band and Jon Pardi's go-to in-studio fiddler, Fleenor is also a regular part of the house band for the TV singing competition The Voice. She's played in studio for Cody Johnson, Ashley Monroe and many others, and, as a songwriter, her work has been recorded by Shelton, Reba McEntire, Gretchen Wilson and more. It's Fleenor's fiddle that opens Pardi's current single "Heartache Medication," a song that, for the chart week dated Nov. 16, sits just outside the Top 10 on the country radio charts.
"When I heard "Heartache Medication," and when I heard my fiddle intro [on the radio for the first time] -- I mean, it's always been my dream to play on an intro like that," Fleenor tells The Boot. "And then to have it be a single -- I listened to it over and over and over ... I still get teary-eyed if it comes on the radio.
"I was walking on Broadway, and one of Jon's songs came on," she adds, "and I heard my fiddle, and it just stopped me in my tracks. It's what I dreamed of!"
A fiddle player since the age of three, Fleenor remembers buying CDs to study the work of the professional players who backed the stars with their names on the covers. She knew she wanted to be a studio musician at the age of 11 -- "When I stepped into the studio ... and heard the fiddle through my headphones, that was the moment I said, 'Wherever they do this, I want to go there,'" she recalls from a Nashville cafe -- and started down that road as a teenager, spending her weekends as part of the staff band at steel guitar conventions.
"I did a lot of groundwork before I moved here," Fleenor explains. "None of my friends -- this was not the cool thing to be doing. But, to me, I was getting to play with my musical heroes ... I was getting to play onstage with these guys, and take solos and kick off songs."
Through those gigs, Fleenor made connections with some of the major players on Nashville's studio scene. Still, when she moved to Music City at 18, "it took a lot time [to establish myself] ...
"You can't make anybody start picking up the phone and calling you," she continues, "but it was, oh my God, the best education ever."
Her first Nashville job was as a member of songwriter Larry Cordle's bluegrass band. Working with him taught Fleenor about the art of writing a song, and about listening to both the melody and the lyrics as a musician. "The lyrics really will tell you what to play -- or what not to play -- a lot of times," she explains.
Producer Garth Fundis took a chance on Fleenor early on, too, hiring her to sing background vocals for Terri Clark. Roads gig with Clark, Don Williams and Martina McBride, then Shelton, followed. Her fiddle heroes -- the names she'd studied in CD liner notes and, she recalls with a laugh, "stalked online" in the early days of AOL -- were suddenly names in her phone, friends to meet for coffee.
"The fact that I have now played with all of those people, or have their numbers in my phone, it just blows me away ... It's like, 'What is this world I'm living in?'" Fleenor admits. She gets a bit more serious as she continues: "All of those dreams I set out for when I was a little girl, they've really all come true. I guess I've realized that, but to say it is so crazy.
"But the CMA nomination is -- I mean, as a musician in town, that's what you strive for."
On Wednesday (Nov. 13), Fleenor will learn if she's the 2019 CMA Musician of the Year -- the very best of the category's five studio player nominees. Fleenor won a CMA in 2015, in the Touring Musician of the Year category, but this nomination is different: She is the first woman to ever be nominated in the Musician of the Year category, and the first fiddler to earn a nod since 2003. (Earlier in 2019, Fleenor became the first woman to ever be nominated for the ACM's Specialty Instrument Player of the Year honor.)
"I heard some say that they were told growing up, 'Oh, [being a studio musician is] not really a woman's job,' and, fortunately, I never heard that," Fleenor says. "I'm so sad to think that there's any little girls out there that somebody's saying that to them. It's not at all true ...
"You've gotta practice your ass off, and you might, along the way -- there's been times when I get 'that look' -- Oh, God, here comes a girl fiddle player," she adds, "but if you know how to play your instrument, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to do this."
The CMA Musician of the Year trophy will be handed out prior to the 2019 CMA Awards telecast, which begins at 8PM ET on ABC and is also being used to spotlight some of country music's female artists. Win or lose, Fleenor will be onstage with Shelton that night for his performance.
The Boot will be staying up late covering the most buzzed-about winners, fashion and moments at the 2019 CMA Awards. Readers can watch along with us by checking back to TheBoot.com for the latest CMAs headlines, liking The Boot on Facebook and following The Boot on Twitter.
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