Jeannie Kendall - Of missing persons
Jeannie Kendall is seated in a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Branson, Missouri, and she's nervous. A moment ago she announced she wasn't hungry. Now, confronted by a waitress, she orders two scrambled eggs, two strips of bacon, and a biscuit. "They have pretty good biscuits here," she advises. When her meal arrives, she busies herself applying salt and pepper to the eggs and buttering the biscuit, but she eats not so much as a bite. "This is kind of like a new adventure to me here," she says, laughing at her own anxiety. "I'm not used to this at all. It's the first interview I've done." Jeannie Kendall is a 35-year veteran of the country music business, and this is hardly the first time she's been interviewed. What she means is that this is the first interview she's given in a very long time -- and among the first she's done without Royce Kendall at her side. Her father and duet partner, Royce died suddenly of an aneurysm in the spring of 1998. He was 63. At the duo's peak, when Royce was still in his 40s and Jeannie was in her 20s, the Kendalls were in demand not just for interviews but for live performances, television spots and recording sessions. Between 1977 and 1984, Royce and Jeannie Kendall's records climbed into the Top 20 of the Billboard country singles chart eighteen times, including eleven Top-10 hits and three #1s. On the duo's first chart-topper, "Heaven's Just A Sin Away", as on "Thank God For The Radio", their last, Jeannie's fervent, distressed high leads dazzled like sunlight on fresh snow, while Royce joined in on the choruses with hushed yet supportive close harmony. In a country radio era dominated by perhaps the cheesiest country music Nashville has ever made (consider the hits of Dave & Sugar or the Bellamy Brothers), the Kendalls were stone-cold traditional, as country as the Ozark mountains where Royce grew up. By the late '90s, however, the Kendalls had been out of the spotlight for nearly a decade and a half. Still, they'd never stopped singing together, continuing to tour and, occasionally, to record out on the fringes of the country music business. When the duo began working on a new album for Rounder Records in 1998, it looked as if their persistence had paid off. Then Royce died. "We were on the road, doing a show," Jeannie explains, her former nervousness now replaced by something closer to disbelief, or awe. "We were just getting ready to go on, maybe three minutes till show time, and it was a full house and everything. We were just back there in the dressing room. I was taking my last look in the mirror, and Daddy was signing some photographs...then he said, 'Something's not right.' He backed up a little and sat down in a chair that was there, in front of the mirror. And...and that was it." Her voice trails to a whisper. Her skin is paler than before, and she closes her eyes tightly. "I mean, it took a little bit. I went out in front of the curtain there and tried to wave for somebody to help. But, yeah, that was basically it." "I'm sorry," she says suddenly, squinting back tears and excusing herself from the table. "I'm so sorry." When she arrived for her interview, Jeannie Kendall pulled into the Cracker Barrel parking lot in a late-model Lincoln driven by her husband and longtime bandleader Mack Watkins. It's been two decades since Kendall stood alongside country music's biggest stars, but she appears to have aged hardly at all. She's slightly built and has one of those faces that, no matter her age, likely will always suggest a young girl's. Her hair is blonde, long, and crimped, and excepting her boots, she's dressed all in denim; she's even sporting one of those hip jean caps favored during the 1970s by everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Tammy Wynette. Indeed, she almost looks as if she's stepped out of a photograph on the back of the Kendalls' 1979 album, Just Like Real People. It's odd that in some country music reference books today, there is no Kendalls entry. For surely the duo doesn't lack a legacy. Jeannie Kendall's self-titled solo debut, a bluegrass-inflected set released February 25 by Rounder, includes guest harmonies by one of the Kendalls' contemporaries from their country radio heyday, Ricky Skaggs, and by a pair of bluegrass singers who followed in their wake, Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss. Vincent and Krauss are especially savvy choices for the project, as Jeannie's voice in some respects splits the difference between the singers: Like Krauss, Kendall sings with airy delicacy; like Vincent, she wields bluesy, gut-punch power. To phrase it another way, Jeannie Kendall is a link between these younger singers and one of her own predecessors, Dolly Parton. The guest most likely to grab headlines, though, is country star Alan Jackson, a Jeannie Kendall fan since boyhood. The first concert Jackson attended was a late-'70s Kendalls show outside Atlanta, and in 1994, the singer cut a version of the duo's "Thank God For The Radio". He duets memorably with Jeannie on the dulcet pledge "Timeless And True Love". Star power aside, the album's most welcome guest is the one who's no "guest" at all: Jeannie's father. Royce Kendall recorded harmony parts for two songs just before he passed away. The second of these, "Train Of Thought", achingly conveys the blur of loss -- how minds can remain fixed on what's gone even as life hurtles ceaselessly forward. Her voice quivering under the weight of memory, Jeannie declares, "I can't get off this train of thought." Underscoring the complexity of this point, her father's voice hovers just above hers, a ghost she can't shake and a gift she'll never lose. "I feel so lucky he was able to do those two songs," she says of her late father's contributions to the record. "He did them just before we left town, for that last show." Royce Kendall (nee, Kykendall) was born in St. Louis but spent his youth in northeastern Arkansas, where he was raised on southern gospel quartets, brother acts, and bluegrass. He loved harmony. When he and his brother Floyce were young men, they performed together a la the Louvin Brothers -- Floyce picked mandolin and sang most of the leads, while Royce added harmony and played acoustic guitar. Eventually the siblings headed to California to try their luck in the music business. Calling themselves the Austin Brothers, they cut a handful of sides and made some television appearances, but major success eluded them. By this time, Royce had met his wife, Melba, a beautician and fellow Arkansan; he married her in St. Louis before heading west. In 1954, Melba gave birth to the couple's first and only child, Jeannie, who today just barely recalls watching her father and uncle harmonize on California television. "Oh, I was little bitty teeny then," she says. "I just vaguely remember being allowed to stay up late sometimes to watch daddy on the TV." When the Austin Brothers split up ("Like a lot of brothers," Jeannie offers, "they didn't get along very well"), Royce, Melba and Jeannie returned to St. Louis. At first Royce held down a series of factory gigs, but he eventually decided to join Melba in her trade and enrolled in barber school. By the time Jeannie was in her teens, her parents owned their own business, a combination barbershop and beauty parlor. Jeannie was always singing. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if there had never been a time when Jeannie Kendall wasn't impressing people with her voice. "When I was little," she remembers, "my mom got a call from my kindergarten teacher. She said, 'Did you know your daughter can sing?' My mom says, 'Yeah.' And my teacher says, 'No, I mean she can really sing. Like an opera singer or something.' I think she was trying to encourage my mom to get me voice lessons. My mom told her, 'No, not opera, but maybe the Grand Ole Opry.'" Around the house, she sang with her father, who'd join in on high harmony when he'd catch her singing along with the radio or to the George Jones and Glen Campbell records he brought home. "Sometimes I think our whole career got started because he didn't have a partner anymore. He didn't have anyone to sing with," she laughs. "We started out just singing some for our friends and neighbors. They'd come over the house and we'd sing for them in the living room. Daddy didn't drag me out to clubs or anything." Nashville was another matter. "One time, all of us and a neighbor couple across the street went on a trip down to see the Opry," she remembers. "Daddy and our friend went over to Ernest Tubb Record Shop. They were looking at records and talking about the music business -- you know, just dreaming out loud -- and Daddy turned and asked him, 'Do you really, really, truly think we're good enough?' And our friend said, 'Yes, I do.'" It was what Royce needed to hear. He and Melba sold their business and most of their belongings and relocated with their daughter, only 16 at the time, to Music City. "It was probably a dumb thing to do," Jeannie admits, "but we just didn't have that factor in our heads that we couldn't do it. You know?" It wasn't as if the Kendalls lacked prospects when they hit Nashville in 1970. While they were still in St. Louis, a disc jockey acquaintance had put Royce in touch with renowned steel guitarist and producer Pete Drake, who quickly began encouraging the Kendall clan to make the move. In fact, with Drake as their producer, the Kendalls had already charted a single by the time they arrived in Nashville. Released on Stop Records, their cover of John Denver's "Leaving On A Jet Plane" (a #1 pop hit the previous year for Peter, Paul & Mary) crept as high as number #56 on the country chart. "We pretty much just went straight from the living room to the studio," Jeannie says. It was a start. But the duo's subsequent singles for Stop (including a version of the Righteous Brothers classic "You've Lost That Loving Feeling") didn't fare as well. The family struggled by on Melba's income as a beautician and whatever session work Drake threw Royce and Jeannie's way. In 1970, for instance, Drake produced Ringo Starr's solo debut, Beaucoups Of Blues, on which Jeannie provided backing vocals. "I really loved the Beatles," Jeannie says. "They had a great sound -- and great harmonies. So singing on Ringo's album was really kind of scary. Here it was the first time I ever sung harmony on a record, and it's for a Beatle! I was like, 'Aaaah!'" In 1972, Drake moved the Kendalls to Dot Records, where the group charted twice more, though just barely. Not firmly established yet in the Nashville music community, the Kendalls didn't have access to much new material from Music City tunesmiths early in their career. But there was always a pop song on the radio that Jeannie liked to sing. Their Dot singles included versions of hits by the Grass Roots ("Two Divided By Love") and Bread ("Everything I Own"). These pop-inflected selections had the added benefit of helping to distinguish the Kendalls' recordings from the more blatantly country material cut by the popular duet team of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton. "You have to have a special sound, your sound," Kendall stresses. "We were very aware that we could have a tendency to sound like Porter & Dolly. And we didn't want to." Still looking for a hit, Drake moved the pair again, this time to United Artists, but that relationship didn't result in so much as a released single, let alone a hit. All involved had different ideas of what the Kendalls should do. The label wanted to downplay Royce and promote Jeannie as a solo act. Drake thought their best bet would be to pursue the pop charts. Royce and Jeannie, meanwhile, hoped to record in a style more reminiscent of the Louvin Brothers. Eventually, everyone just agreed to disagree and went their separate ways. "We had an idea of what we wanted our sound to be," Jeannie recalls. "All of our early records just had two vocal parts on them. But we had decided it would sound good with three parts, with Daddy doing two harmony parts to my lead. So we had our little tape recorder at home -- we had one of those little sound-on-sound recorders -- and we'd practice on there. Put two on, then he'd put the extra part on. We thought it sounded pretty good. We spent many, many hours in restaurants talking with Brien [Fisher] about what we would do if we got the chance to do it. And then we got the chance." Born in the hills of east Tennessee, Brien Fisher grew up in Ohio after his father, a part-time musician who played bluegrass and sang southern gospel, migrated there in search of factory work. When he got out of the Marines in 1955, Fisher pursued a music career. He was a mildly successful rockabilly act, opening tours for Gene Vincent and Dale Hawkins in the late '50s and once appearing on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" when it was still based in Philadelphia. He also had a bit of luck as a songwriter, penning minor hits for the actor Sal Mineo ("Little Pigeon") and for Red Foley's daughter, Betty ("Old Moon"). "I had a little success here, a little success there, but never a big success anywhere," Fisher says today. By the time the Kendalls were considering a move to Nashville, Fisher had found his way to the Windy City, where he produced a series of blues and blues-rock acts (Chicago Slim, Stu Ramsey) who weren't much more successful than he had been. In the early '70s, he produced the first album by TW4, a progressive rock band that shortly thereafter changed its name to Styx. Fisher thought he might stand a better chance recording country, which at any rate was still the music he most enjoyed. "When I first heard 'Jet Plane' [in 1970]," Fisher recalls, "I became a Kendalls fan, even though I didn't actually know them till a few years later. I just loved that sound of theirs." By the time Royce and Jeannie were pondering their next move in the wake of the United Artists disappointment, Fisher had relocated to Nashville. The three met and hit it off, and in 1976 Fisher signed them to a new Chicago-based label, Ovation Records. "We recorded that entire first album in one day," Fisher says. "I asked Royce what he wanted to start with, and he says, 'Why don't we start with that fast song, just to get everyone going.' We got it on the second take. [Pianist and session leader Ron] Oates suggested we could put a little clavinet on there, and that really gave the record its distinctive feel, I think." The Kendalls' first single for Ovation, a version of the country standard "Making Believe", topped out at #80 on the charts. "I thought we had a real shot with that one," Fisher says, "but when Emmylou [Harris] released her version, she just beat the crap out of us." It was the number Royce had called "that fast song," the Kendalls' second Ovation single, "Heaven's Just A Sin Away" (the B-side to their second single, actually), that won the Kendalls and Fisher the radio success they'd been chasing for years. The record changed their lives. "Heaven" topped the country charts for four weeks and crossed over to #69 on the pop charts. Within the year, the Kendalls had appeared on the syndicated television programs "Pop Goes The Country" and "Hee Haw" -- they stood in the show's famous cornfield and shouted "Saaa-lute!" to their hometown of St. Louis -- and they'd scored three more Top-10 hits, including "Sweet Desire", a Jeannie Kendall original that became the pair's second chart-topper. They also were able to hire a band (led by a former Del Reeves sideman, guitarist Mack Watkins, who Jeannie married in 1978) and, consequently, became a top concert draw as well. Jeannie remembers that "we would actually break some of Kenny Rogers' attendance records when we played." Royce and Jeannie Kendall had become an overnight success, albeit nearly a decade into their career. "You have to really want to make it in this business because it's long, hard work," Jeannie says. "You don't just fall out of the sky in a rhinestone suit." Like most of the duo's hits, "Heaven's Just A Sin Away", written by Jerry Gillespie, is a cheating song -- and one in which Jeannie Kendall finally decides to give in to the earthly heaven her sin will provide. Incredibly, even with such unmistakably secular content, "Heaven's Just A Sin Away" managed to receive spins on some gospel radio stations. One can imagine, perhaps, a program director's arguments about object lessons. But it's more likely what really made such an unlikely crossover possible was the record's irresistible clavinet bouncing along with Kendall as she rushes to her lover. The Kendalls' haunting close harmony, combined with the record's joyous melody and thumping southern gospel backbeat, probably didn't hurt either. In other words, "Heaven" was successful because it was good record, an obvious point but one that can hardly be overemphasized. For in the rare instances today when the Kendalls are included in histories of country music, there is inevitably a smirking mention, if only in passing, of how creepy and titillating it was supposed to have been, or at least how odd, to hear songs of illicit love sung to one another by a father and his daughter. Jeannie believes such comments are primarily revisionist history and, at any rate, beside the point. "We didn't really have much of a problem with that," she says. "It's like it got written down once and has been repeated ever since." "I don't remember it ever even being written about," says Fisher. "Maybe it did, though, and I've just forgotten it. The subject did come up now and then, and if it did, Jeannie went into a shell. It upset her, because it didn't mean that to us. There was no controversy about it. We just did the songs that we thought were hits." It makes sense that the Kendalls would not give much thought to whether their material was "father-daughter appropriate" (in the way that, for example, the Judds would later do). Royce and Jeannie had been harmonizing to whatever good song came on the radio next, and then singing those songs for Melba Kendall and the neighbors, since before they'd left St. Louis. What's more, the majority of Kendalls' hits weren't duets in the same way that, say, Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn sang duets. Jeannie and Royce didn't sing to one another on records such as "Heaven's Just A Sin Away", "Teach Me To Cheat", or the harrowing "Just Like Real People". Rather, Jeannie cried her heart out while Royce offered the comfort of his harmony, a fatherly arm around the shoulder. But then, what to make of the exceptions? For instance, on the 1978 Top-10 hit "Pittsburgh Stealers", which is not about that season's Super Bowl winner, Royce and Jeannie play-act the roles of blue-collar adulterers. "It's just storytelling, like a movie," Jeannie says. "We didn't worry about all that too much. We figured if we did, we wouldn't have a very long career. We picked what we thought were great songs, and just didn't worry about the rest. We did songs 'cause we liked them, and because we thought they'd sound good with harmony on them. "And anyway, what was much more common for us was people who commented how great they thought it was that a father and daughter worked together so closely and got along so well. We got that response way more than any raised eyebrows." The Kendalls' tenure as mainstream stars was intense but brief. Like most regional, independent record labels, Ovation had folded by the early 1980s. Royce and Jeannie switched labels again, this time signing to Mercury, where they had several more hits. Still, for all practical purposes, the duo's time in the spotlight was finished before Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his second term. But, after a long stretch on the margins -- twice as long as it had taken them to get that first big hit -- things were at last looking up for the Kendalls at the end of the '90s. Royce and Melba, and Jeannie and Mack, had bought houses next door to one another in the Arkansas Ozarks. The Kendalls were performing occasional gigs across the state line in Branson, and their comeback was in the works for Rounder. After Royce died, Jeannie didn't know if she wanted to go on singing, or even if she could. She didn't sing at all for over a year, with one exception. "I had to go back there later [where her father died] and do a makeup date," Jeannie says. "I think it was the hardest thing I ever did in my life." But now she's back, and Jeannie Kendall is the proof. Co-produced by Brien Fisher (who spent the down years, among other projects, producing the Old Dogs albums for Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed), the album finds her surrounded by not only a star-studded cast of guest singers, but also by musicians such as guitarist Bryan Sutton, drummer Kenny Malone, and the members of Union Station. Perhaps the album's most poignant moment comes on a Larry Cordle song called "Smoky Lonesome". Trailed by the boo-hooing dobro of Sonny Garish and Larry Franklin's sympathetic mandolin, Jeannie sings in a voice that is both bruised and beautiful: "You're right beside me/But all the crowd sees/Is a cloud of smoky lonesome over me." "He was a great guy, easygoing, with a great sense of humor," Jeannie says of her father. She reaches for her iced tea but doesn't drink. "He loved the music business, everything about it. He loved calling people, doing all the things you have to do. The guys in the band all thought of him as a second father. "And he was always there for me. He didn't try to put himself out front. He wanted me to be there. He was always thinking about me and my mom. The last thing he said to me was -- I never told anybody this, but it really shows how selfless he was. The last thing he said was, 'I don't want to let you down.'" For a moment, she's overcome again with emotion. She shakes her head from side to side, then up and down, and takes a deep breath. "He was the best daddy in the world to me," she says with conviction, her voice steady. "I know he'd want me to keep on singing. I don't want to let him down." ND contributing editor David Cantwell lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Heartaches By The Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles, co-written by Cantwell and fellow ND contributing editor Bill Friskics-Warren, is due out in March. It includes discussions of two singles by the Kendalls: "Heaven's Just A Sin Away" and "Just Like Real People".