While I don’t watch America’s Got Talent, the occasional video clip has caught my eye on social media. One that went viral on the recently-completed Season 17 involving Chapel Hart, a country music vocal group, has led to a national audience, unexpected stardom and a bright future.
Chapel Hart, consisting of sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin, Trea Swindle, are originally from Poplarville, Mississippi. The band’s name is a subtle reference to Hart’s Chapel Baptist Church in their hometown. They performed an original song, You Can Have Him Jolene, during the July 19 audition episode on AGT. It was inspired by Dolly Parton’s Jolene, and served as an answer song.
The trio received a golden buzzer from all four judges and the host, only the second time in the show’s history it had happened. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.
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This group is extremely talented. They have strong voices and exceptional pitch. They’re able to write original music that engages an audience. They’re intelligent, well-spoken, witty, photogenic and gregarious. They look, see and feel like they’ve always belonged on stage and in front of the bright lights.
The other part of Chapel Hart’s rags-to-riches story is equally fascinating. It’s rare to see three African-American women perform together in perfect harmony in country music.
While there haven’t been many African Americans in country, bluegrass and Old-time music, there have been some talented groups and solo acts.
Charley Pride immediately comes to mind. DeFord Bailey was an early star of the Grand Ole Opry. Ray Charles wrote and performed some magnificent country songs. Rhiannon Giddens did incredible work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and continues to excel in her solo career. Darius Rucker went from success in Hootie and the Blowfish to even greater heights in country music. Lil Nas X also broke into this world with his popular country rap song, “Old Town Road.”
Could Chapel Hart change the face of country music in a way that would make it appeal to traditional and modern audiences? Could their success help open doors and inspire more young African Americans to consider country music as a career?
I don’t see why not.
In a Sept. 12, 2020, interview with Paul Zollo of American Songwriter, the group (now based in New Orleans) was asked why they chose country music. They’ve been asked this before, and the answer was as pitch-perfect as their lyrical melodies. “You don’t really choose it; it was how we grew up and who we are,” Trea responded. “There is a lot to deal with being African American and singing country music, even in 2020. Country music is simply just in our hearts.”
A country music station was also one of the very few they picked up in their small community. “It’s just a part of life,” Trea told the Houston Chronicle’s Joey Guerra on Sept. 25, 2020. “You hear songs about fancy cars and clothes, and you can’t really identify with it. Danica and I used to hop on our uncle’s lawnmower and ride around up and down the river like it was a car.”
Danica also told Guerra she fell asleep in the car as a youngster while her father played tunes by George Jones and Kenny Rogers. “Those moments were a big part of how country affected me and impacted me as a kid. That was family time. That was bonding time with my dad.”
Chapel Hart experienced some early success. They have two self-released albums, Out the Mud (2019) and The Girls Are Back in Town (2021). They were inducted into CMT’s Next Women of Country in 2021. They have a few popular songs like Jesus & Alcohol (with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on guitar), Grown Ass Woman (with pro wrestler/country singer Mickie James) and the aforementioned viral sensation on AGT.
Ironically, the latter event almost didn’t happen. They were asked to audition for the show but declined. According to an Aug. 16 interview with the blog Taste of Country, it only materialized due to a “persistent” TV producer and a cancelled tour with the Indigo Girls when one of its band members got COVID-19.
This twist of fate turned out to be a career-defining moment.
They received Dolly Parton’s support. She tweeted on July 20, “What a fun new take on my song!” There was a shout-out from Tanya Tucker, who tweeted on Aug. 17, “You all were fantastic!” They made it all the way to the AGT finals, finishing fifth. Their last performance was a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s Something to Talk About with Rucker. They just recorded a song – Ol’ Church Hymn – with him.
Chapel Hart also made their debut at the Grand Ole Opry on Sept. 17, playing to a standing ovation. They’ll be back on Oct. 8, performing alongside established stars like Bill Anderson, Deana Carter, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs.
It will be interesting to see what happens next for these talented three women from Mississippi. The sky certainly seems to be the limit. For now, one thing has become clear: Chapel Hart is winning the hearts of country music and America in leaps and bounds.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.
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