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Members include Cheryl Dawdy, vocals; Connie Huber, vocals and guitar; and Grace Morand, vocals. Addresses: Record company--Red House Records, P.O. Box 4044, St. Paul, MN 55104. Management--Donna Zajonc Management, P.O. Box 7023, Ann Arbor, MI 48107.
The Chenille Sisters insist that they are sisters, it's just that they have different parents. Their voices blend like siblings--a la the Andrew, Boswell, and McGarrigle sisters--and their music is very reminiscent of the sound of those girl groups. Their own moniker shows their identification with sister bands, as well as with groups like the Nylons and the Chiffons: they've memorialized chenille, the soft and nubby fabric of bathrobes and grandmothers' bedspreads. Related or not, these three women have slowly and carefully made a name for themselves--first across the Midwest and then throughout the nation--as hilarious and talented songstresses.
The Chenilles are Cheryl Dawdy, Connie Huber, and Grace Morand. They hail from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they still live when they're not touring, which they seem to do constantly. Dawdy began her music career as a "folkie," writing ballads and performing in coffee houses. By day she was a library assistant at the University of Michigan. Huber, an accomplished guitar player and percussionist, sang with rock and country-western bands. Her day job was as a speech therapist. Morand, a hair stylist by profession, performed in musicals and studied opera in her spare time.
Huber and Dawdy had once worked together on a show, and later Morand and Huber started up a little band for fun. They performed Motown hits, Bonnie Raitt covers, and the like, but when they decided they wanted to sing Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Huber insisted she couldn't do the "Sock-it-to me" backing vocals by herself. They recruited Dawdy and on March 17, 1985, gave their first performance. The threesome settled on their name, as Morand told Dirty Linen, because "we ended up deciding that we wanted to be sisters. We felt that we had a natural blend of voices and we shared the same vision. We wanted to be the "'Something' Sisters," and chenille is comfy and down-home and pokes fun at established older groups."
During the early years of their career, the Chenilles were considered a lesser imitation of those other established groups. But their live shows were so well loved by Ann Arbor audiences that their reputation kept growing. This gave them the confidence to make a homemade tape and send it off to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion radio show. The long shot paid off: they were invited to appear in the first of several live spots from the Prairie Home Companion listening audience. As a result, the Chenilles recorded their own album with loans from investor-friends. The Chenille Sisters was released on their own Frou-Frou Records label in 1986.
In 1988 the Chenilles were signed by the small but prestigious Red House Records label. That same year, they released their second album, At Home with the Chenille Sisters. "Although some have casually dismissed the Chenilles as a conglomeration of the best ideas of better artists, they are beginning to move as peers into the ranks of those same performers," wrote Harmen Mitchell in the Ann Arbor News. "The Chenilles may have gotten attention initially by mingling a wide array of girl-group harmonies with the pseudo-sarcastic wit of Seattle's Uncle Bonsai and New York's Christine Lavin, but there is evidence on their new album that a great deal of effort is being exerted to move the group beyond its reliance on the wit of others, in order to spotlight their own songwriting and arranging talents."
Mitchell wasn't the only one to recognize the Chenilles' growth. The group's next recording represented their first foray into children's music. 1,2,3, for Kids received the coveted 1990 Parents' Choice Gold Award, was named Children's Recording of the Year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD), and went on to become one of Red House Records' biggest selling recordings ever. "The Chenilles pulled out all the stops ... creating an irresistible recording that works on many levels," wrote D. L. Mabery in Raising Minnesota. "Quite unlike children's singers that arrange their songs with enough sugar coating to induce diabetes, the Chenilles keep an ear on today's pop music." 1,2,3, for Kids even inspired an Utne Reader contributor to write: "These women may be Michigan's best contribution to music since Motown blew out for the coast."
The Washington Post's Geoffrey Himes found the Chenilles' fourth album, Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm, "their most ambitious outing yet. With their peppy, unapologetic odes to "Chocolate" and "Big Hair" and their transformation of the lyric "La-la-la-la Bamba" into "Listen to Your Mama," they should satisfy their old fans' demands for laughs. Yet it's the more straightforward songs where the Chenilles show the most growth." A Boston Herald reviewer, however, did not agree. "When the Chenilles switch gears and get serious, they're lost. Their acoustic-based sound isn't distinctive enough to carry serious songs about lost love and depression. When [they] play for comedy, they soar. But when the subject is soap-opera drama, these sisters sink."
The year 1992 saw the release of the Chenilles' second children's album, The Big Picture and Other Songs for Kids. Detroit News contributor Ellyce Field called it "the kind of recording you'll want to swipe from your kids and play on your way to work." In addition to their kids' concerts, the Chenille Sisters began a PBS radio show called Read to Me, sponsored by the Borders Books and Music store chain. This serialized book review program, launched in 1995, takes young people on a journey through the pages of selected children's titles, with each four-minute segment devoted to a different book.
Back in the grown-up sphere, the Chenilles continued to branch out, releasing Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight? in 1992. Backed by James Dapogny's Chicago Jazz Band, with whom the Chenilles had been touring on and off for years, the trio sings a combination of better and lesser known swing era favorites like "Goody-Goody," "Sentimental Journey," "Nagasaki," and "Little White Lies." Grover B. Proctor, Jr., of the Saginaw News found that "the combination of Dapogny's musical history tour of the first 50 years of jazz with the Chenille's original, hip, witty, harmonic commentaries on modern life was just too wonderful not to love." Rapport declared, "This is very special!"
In 1994 the Chenilles were "back to their same old goofy, lovable selves with their seventh album, True to Life," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "In a word, 'fantastic!'" enthused Victory Review. "These three voices can melt your heart.... You can never guess what might come next on this album, but you listen, laugh, cry and wait. Just like reading a good book, you look forward to the next chapter."
In 1995 the Chenilles were the subject of a PBS television special called The Chenille Sisters: Makin' Rhythm. This exposure helped them along the road to reaching the ultimate goal that Morand voiced in Dirty Linen: "We want to keep doing what we are doing but on a much larger scale.... We wouldn't mind being--I don't want to say a household word, I don't think we wanted to be mainstream like Madonna or Michael Jackson--but there is an alternative audience out there who we haven't yet reached, and I think that we can." The fact that, while visiting Ann Arbor, American first family members Hillary and Chelsea Clinton asked reporters, "Isn't this where the Chenilles are from?," suggests that they're definitely a common enough name in some households.
by Joanna Rubiner
Chenille Sisters, The's Career
Band formed in Ann Arbor, MI, 1985. Performed on Prairie Home Companion radio show, 1985; released The Chenille Sisters on their own Frou-Frou Records label, 1986; signed by Red House Records, 1988.
Chenille Sisters, The's Awards
Parents' Choice Gold Award and National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD) Children's Recording of the Year, both 1990, for 1,2,3, for Kids.
- Selective Works
- On Red House Records, except as noted The Chenille Sisters, Frou-Frou Records, 1986.
- At Home with the Chenille Sisters, 1988.
- 1,2,3, for Kids, 1990.
- Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm (includes "Chocolate," "Big Hair," and "Listen to Your Mama"), 1991.
- The Big Picture and Other Songs for Kids, 1992.
- Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight? (includes "Goody-Goody," "Sentimental Journey," "Nagasaki," and "Little White Lies"), 1992.
- True to Life, 1994.
- Haute Chenille, 1995.
- Ann Arbor News (Ann Arbor, MI), December 9, 1988; December 10, 1988.
- Billboard, January 14, 1989.
- Boston Herald, April 26, 1991.
- CD Review, December 1989.
- Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1989.
- Columbus Dispatch, March 13, 1995.
- Detroit News, December 16, 1988; October 9, 1992.
- Dirty Linen, February 1995.
- Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), October 31, 1992.
- Evening Observer (Dunkirk/Fredonia, NY), April 3, 1992.
- Folk Roots, August 1989.
- Janesville Gazette, April 27, 1995.
- Kennebec Journal (Augusta, ME), October 10, 1992.
- Milwaukee Journal, March 3, 1989.
- Muskegon Chronicle (Muskegon, MI), June 27, 1994.
- People, February 13, 1989; September 2, 1991.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, August 27, 1993; December 2, 1994.
- Raising Minnesota, April 1990.
- Rapport, January 1993.
- Saginaw News (Saginaw, MI), June 14, 1993.
- San Francisco Bay Guardian, August 9, 1989.
- School Library Journal, September 1990.
- Sing Out, February 1995.
- Utne Reader, January 1991.
- Victory Review, January 1995.
- Washington Post, January 13, 1989; May 7, 1991; December 2, 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was taken from a United Press International release dated January 27, 1989, and from Red House Records publicity materials, 1992 and 1994.
Chenille Sisters, The Lyrics
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