Born Chalee Tate on April 11, 1969, in Freeport, TX; daughter of Richard (a policeman) and Patsy Tate (a nurse); married first husband, c. 1985; divorced, c. 1988; married second husband (a prison guard); divorced; married third husband, Joe Tennison; divorced, 1998; married fourth husband, Mark Gillespie (a guitarist), 2001; children: (with first husband) Tiffany, (with Joe Tennison) Haley, Tyler. Addresses: Management--Tanasi Music Group, 1710 Roy Acuff Place, Nashville, TN 37203, phone: (615) 846-6060.
Chalee Tennison has been compared to country music legends Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Like Wynette, she sings about the relationships between men and women in a voice that is alternately strong and vulnerable; like Lynn, her songs celebrate feminine triumph over everyday adversities. Many of her songs offer fictionalized accounts of her own experiences as a young single mother who endured multiple marriages, romantic relationships, infidelities, breakups, and divorces. Although her musical arrangements use such traditional country instruments as pedal steel guitar and fiddles, they also feature electric bass, guitars, and keyboards, along with "new country," hard rock, and blues influences.
Born in Freeport, Texas, in 1969, Tennison was exposed to a wide variety of music by her parents and four siblings. She married her first husband when she was 16 years old and had her first child, Tiffany, when she was 17. Her first marriage lasted about three and a half years, and her second, to a Texas prison guard, only a year. She met her third husband, guitarist and bandleader Joe Tennison, when she gave an impromptu performance with his band at a prison Christmas party in 1990. Joe was struck by Chalee's talent and decided to form a new band, called Midnight Rodeo, with Chalee sharing lead vocals. The group played mostly top 40 country hits in a Waco, Texas, club but also traveled for opportunities to play. With little room for Chalee and Joe's competing egos at the head of the group, Midnight Rodeo disbanded in late 1997.
By the time she had divorced Joe Tennison in 1998, Chalee had declared bankruptcy and given birth to three children. She performed in several bands while working as a waitress, hanging drywall, and serving as a security guard in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. After Tennison's divorce from Joe, she did not date for nineteen months. During that time Tennison "learned to be alone" and that "my kids could totally count on me," she told Texas Monthly. It was this period in Tennison's life that inspired a number of songs on her first two albums.
In 1996 Tennison's demonstration recording was brought to the attention of record producer Jerry Taylor, who hired her to record demonstration songs by other songwriters for Sony Tree Music Publishing. Taylor also produced Tennison's first two albums, Chalee Tennison and This Woman's Heart for Asylum Records. She earned comparisons to Wynette by duetting with the late singer's former husband (and frequent duet partner) George Jones on the pair's classic "Golden Rings" in 1999, the same year she debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. She also employed Wynette's publicist Evelyn Shriver. In May of 2000 she was nominated Best New Female Artist in the Academy of Country Music Awards, losing to Jessica Andrews. In late 2001 Tennison married her fourth husband, Mark Gillespie, the guitarist in her band.
Released in 1999, Chalee Tennison featured her first single, "Someone Else's Turn to Cry," a song cowritten by Tennison that celebrates feminine strength and independence while enduring the emotional strain of divorce. The song's heavy reliance on steel guitar and the story of the narrator's triumph over heartbreak brought comparisons to Tammy Wynette, one of Tennison's admitted influences. To market her album, Asylum trumpeted Tennison's single-mother and victim-of-infidelity status to radio station programmers in a memo: "A single working mother in her thirties is a description of country radio's target demographic.... She is your audience." The memo continued: "Chalee has the talent of relating to both men and women. Men respond to her looks and personality. Women identify with her story and do not find her threatening." Besides touring country radio stations to promote the album, Tennison also toured as a support act for traditional country star Alan Jackson.
Tennison's second album, This Woman's Heartreleased in 2000, marked a more upbeat, independent tone. Interviewed by Lorie Hollabaugh of Billboard, Warner Bros. senior vice president of promotion Jack Purcell's, initial reception of the album was positive: "The biggest thing radio has commented on between this album and the first is the overall musical growth that has taken place, in her songs, the production, her vocals," he said, adding "Everything comes up about five notches from the first record." In live performances to support the album, Tennison emphasized her diverse musical background with several covers that also thematically connected with her own recorded material, including Gloria Gaynor's disco anthem "I Will Survive" and the Temptations' "Get Ready."
Tennison cowrote seven of the songs on This Woman's Heart, including "Makin' Up with You." In the single's controversial video, Tennison's narrator intentionally angers her partner, played by National Basketball Association (NBA) player Jim Farmer, because she anticipates the romantic encounter that will result when they resolve their differences. This prompted Billboard critic Chuck Taylor to note: "The lyric finds the woman in the relationship looking to start a fight and encouraging her man to slam doors and get riled up because she loves the way he looks when he tries to be tough. Oh pleeeeease. No one can deny that making up is great, but a song about instigating an argument to get there is repugnant. In recent years, numerous country songs have brought attention to the tragedy of domestic violence. Now here's a song inviting it. Bottom line: talented artist, bad song." People critic Robert Nowak, however, found This Woman's Heart an emotionally rich album, adding that Tennison "sounds sincere, and the catch in her voice doesn't seem to be quite so artificial." In 2001 Tennison's record label Asylum went out of business, and she signed with DreamWorks. Her third album, due to be released in 2002, was produced by James Stroud, and exhibits a move closer to contemporary music, according to her manager, Tony Harley of the Tanasi Music Group.
by Bruce Walker
Chalee Tennison's Career
Self-produced CD earned her a job recording songwriter demonstrations for Sony Tree Music Publishing, 1996; released first album, Chalee Tennision, 1999; debuted at Grand Ole Opry, June 1999; performed duet with George Jones at Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN, 1999; released second album, This Woman's Heart, 2000; signed with DreamWorks, 2002.
- Billboard, May 1, 1999, pp. 36; November 18, 2000, pp. 29; August 26, 2000, pp. 33, 35.
- Country Music Today, March 2001, pp. 68-70.
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 25, 2001, p. 5B.
- Music Row, December 8-22, 1999.
- People Weekly, December 18, 2000, p. 43.
- Tennessean, June 16, 1999.
- Texas Monthly, April 2001, p. 118.
- USA Today, June 8, 1999, p. 4D.
- Washington Post, June 27, 1999, p. G08.
- Woman's Own, March 2000, p. 18.
- "Album Review--Chalee Tennison: This Woman's Heart," Country Review, http://www.countryreview.com/ChaleeTennison/ (December 14, 2001).
- "Chalee Tennison."All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 14, 2001).
- Additional information was provided by Asylum Records press materials and Tanasi Management Group.