Jeannie Kendall carries on the tradition

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."

Along the way to that deal, The Kendalls also managed to hook up with producer Fisher - and to find "Heaven's Just A Sin Away."

"Daddy ran into Jerry Gillespie," Jeannie remembers, "and he said, 'I've got a song that I think you guys could do really well.' We listened to it and said yeah, that's a pretty cute song. So, we kind of tucked it away, and then when we got ready to the album and were thinking about all the songs that we wanted, we said well, how about that song of Jerry's? And right then, before we even heard it again, we could sing parts of it. We thought that was probably a good sign, but we still didn't recognize it as being the big hit that it was - not even when we recorded it. It was the first song we recorded on the session, at 10 o'clock in the morning. We ran through it, and we sang it, and that was it. It came together instantly, and we moved on."

With its catchy melody, powerful harmonies and backing that featured the distinctive sound of the clavinet (the keyboard instrument heard on many of Stevie Wonder's hits of the era), "Heaven's Just A Sin Away" rocketed to the top of the country chart and cracked the pop one, too - a sign that, despite its unmistakably country flavor, The Kendalls sound was rooted in a more varied set of sources.

"I think we were always considered as pretty country, of course, but I think we had a lot of different sides to it, too," Kendall says. "We just did what our style of music, whatever it was. It's hard to put a name to it, but I always thought The Kendalls' music was country, gospel, bluegrass and pop, all combined in our own way. We stuck our necks out a lot and did a lot of different music in our albums. We weren't afraid to do something that had a reggae feel, for instance."

"We intermingled a lot of different sounds because it was fun to do a lot of different kinds of music - but we would still keep the country roots in there. We recorded songs like 'Making Believe' (a Kitty Wells hit) and 'Here Today, Gone Tomorrow' (penned by the Louvin Brothers) - those were our true love, that was the real us. We loved those songs, and we put one or two - songs that you just love to sing - on almost all of our albums. Maybe they wouldn't be singles, but we really liked them. We just kind of did our own rendition of them. That's the kind of harmony that we really kind of cut our teeth on, that kind of music, and, of course, it was really Daddy's roots."

The Kendalls were quick in the studio, and remarkably, most of what they sang was recorded live, rather than pieced together from multiple takes. "All of the vocals we did on the Ovation label were live," Kendall recalls. "What you heard was just what we sang, except I overdubbed one line on one song, and daddy of course had to do his other harmony. But, otherwise, we just would lay it right down, and that was it."

Though Jeannie sang most of the leads on The Kendalls' records, she notes that Royce could occasionally be persuaded to take a turn in the vocal spotlight. "Occasionally he did, when you pushed him into it," the singer says with a chuckle. "And we had some success with some of those where he sang lead. I always liked for him to do that, but he always wanted to put me out front."

Thinking about her father, the singer turns pensive. His death was a blow whose impact still remains with her - and indeed, listening to "Jeannie Kendall" and the two songs he recorded for it makes clear that the loss was not just hers, but country music's as well.

And though she's resolute in pursuing a new career as a soloist, she returns to his memory once more as the interview concludes.

"He just really loved singing the harmony," she says thoughtfully. "Singing was like breathing to him, he was a natural harmony singer. I know of producers who would say 'he could sing harmony by himself' or 'he could sing harmony to the moon.' You couldn't have asked for a better partner for singing, that's for sure, or a better daddy."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •