Jeannie Kendall carries on the tradition – March 2003
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Jeannie Kendall carries on the tradition  Print

By Jon Weisberger, March 2003

For older country music fans, the mere mention of The Kendalls is enough to summon up vivid memories of some of the finest singing ever to grace country radio.

A rare father-daughter duet, Jeannie and Royce Kendall scored big in the late 1970s and early 1980s with memorable songs, powerful harmonies and a distinctive country sound that made such records as "Heaven's Just A Sin Away," "Pittsburgh Stealers," "I'm Already Blue" and "Sweet Desire" stand out from the radio crowd.

Today, following the untimely death of her father in 1998 after a stroke, Jeannie Kendall is carrying on the tradition alone.

With a new album - begun with her father, but completed as a solo project with a stellar collection of guests adding the harmony vocals that were Royce Kendall's specialty - and a growing list of personal appearances to look forward to, the singer is moving into a new stage of her career.

"Daddy and I were still touring," Kendall recalls of the period leading up to the duo's signing with Rounder Records, which released "Jeannie Kendall" in late February.

"We did a 'Best Of The Kendalls' album to be sold on TV up in Canada, and we recorded a gospel album, too. That kind of started us doing a more acoustic kind of thing, and we liked that, so when we started thinking about doing another album, that's what we were thinking about. And when Brien Fisher, our producer, talked to the people at Rounder, they were interested in doing that, too, and so that's how we got it started."

"Daddy sang on two songs on the album - in fact, right before we left, we were working on songs, and that's why we had them done. And then we went out on the road, and that's when he passed away."

"It took a couple of years to get our bearings and figure out what to do, and then we decided to try to finish the album with some guests. So, we sat down and made a list of different singers and artists we'd like to have on the album. We wanted Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs and Rhonda Vincent and, of course, big on the top of the list was Alan Jackson - and I'm thankful that we pretty much got everybody that we were looking for. (Kendall's husband) Mack called Alan's management, and they they talked to him and he said he wanted to do it, to just let him know when and where. That was so nice of him, because I know he always has people asking him to do things. He sent me 'Timeless And True Love' and said he really liked that song and thought it would make a good duet, so that's what we did."

With Jackson serving as full-fledged duet partner on the one song, the list of harmony singers includes Krauss, Skaggs, Mountain Heart's Steve Gulley, Allison Moorer and, on the majority of the CD's selections, Rhonda Vincent and/or her brother Darrin.

The result is a compelling set of music that hovers near bluegrass in its virtuosity and precision, yet retains an essentially country flavor. With songs ranging from from the classic "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight" (one of the two featuring Royce Kendall's harmonies) through a pair by bluegrasser Laurie Lewis ("Love Chooses You" and "Old Friends") to Larry Cordle and Leslie Satcher's devastating country ballad, "Smoky Lonesome," it's a strong vehicle for Kendall's voice, which has grown ever stronger since her childhood in St. Louis.

"I was born and pretty much raised there," says Kendall, 48. "We lived in California for a little while when I was really young, but otherwise that was it. Daddy used to sing with his brother, and when I was a little bitty teeny thing, they had a duet called the Austin Brothers. They sang some bluegrass songs, and Louvin Brothers style music, and he would do the harmony, and then he'd switch off and sing the lead. But he never did like singing lead that much, so he started me right out doing that, and then he'd sing harmony to me."

"We basically went from the living room to the studio," Kendall adds with a laugh, "because I was too young to be dragging around places where I didn't need to be. A DJ in St. Louis told us about (steel guitarist and producer) Pete Drake, and when we connected with him, he really liked us and had a lot of faith in us, and that's where it all started."

Not that The Kendalls were an overnight success by any means.

Drake's sponsorship led to two albums and a couple of low charting singles, including a cover of Peter, Paul & Mary's "Leavin' On A Jet Plane" that marked their chart debut in 1970 - and led them to move to Nashville - but it wasn't until 1977 that the duo hit the big time with their first single for Ovation Records, "Heaven's Just A Sin Away."

"When we first started recording," she says, "we did everything as a duet, and they'd put a background singer with us. But we had a little home tape recorder, and we did some experimenting, where we sang two parts, and then Daddy would go back and put the third part on. Well, we thought that sounded pretty good, so we decided that we wanted to record that way. And even though we didn't have a label at that point, we figured out all the songs that we wanted to do. And then when we signed with Ovation, we were ready with what we wanted."

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