Jeannie Kendall – Of missing persons
Jeannie Kendall is seated in a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Branson, Missouri, and she’s nervous. A moment ago she announced she wasn’t hungry. Now, confronted by a waitress, she orders two scrambled eggs, two strips of bacon, and a biscuit. “They have pretty good biscuits here,” she advises. When her meal arrives, she busies herself applying salt and pepper to the eggs and buttering the biscuit, but she eats not so much as a bite. “This is kind of like a new adventure to me here,” she says, laughing at her own anxiety. “I’m not used to this at all. It’s the first interview I’ve done.”
Jeannie Kendall is a 35-year veteran of the country music business, and this is hardly the first time she’s been interviewed. What she means is that this is the first interview she’s given in a very long time — and among the first she’s done without Royce Kendall at her side. Her father and duet partner, Royce died suddenly of an aneurysm in the spring of 1998. He was 63.
At the duo’s peak, when Royce was still in his 40s and Jeannie was in her 20s, the Kendalls were in demand not just for interviews but for live performances, television spots and recording sessions. Between 1977 and 1984, Royce and Jeannie Kendall’s records climbed into the Top 20 of the Billboard country singles chart eighteen times, including eleven Top-10 hits and three #1s.
On the duo’s first chart-topper, “Heaven’s Just A Sin Away”, as on “Thank God For The Radio”, their last, Jeannie’s fervent, distressed high leads dazzled like sunlight on fresh snow, while Royce joined in on the choruses with hushed yet supportive close harmony. In a country radio era dominated by perhaps the cheesiest country music Nashville has ever made (consider the hits of Dave & Sugar or the Bellamy Brothers), the Kendalls were stone-cold traditional, as country as the Ozark mountains where Royce grew up.
By the late ’90s, however, the Kendalls had been out of the spotlight for nearly a decade and a half. Still, they’d never stopped singing together, continuing to tour and, occasionally, to record out on the fringes of the country music business. When the duo began working on a new album for Rounder Records in 1998, it looked as if their persistence had paid off. Then Royce died.
“We were on the road, doing a show,” Jeannie explains, her former nervousness now replaced by something closer to disbelief, or awe. “We were just getting ready to go on, maybe three minutes till show time, and it was a full house and everything. We were just back there in the dressing room. I was taking my last look in the mirror, and Daddy was signing some photographs…then he said, ‘Something’s not right.’ He backed up a little and sat down in a chair that was there, in front of the mirror. And…and that was it.”
Her voice trails to a whisper. Her skin is paler than before, and she closes her eyes tightly. “I mean, it took a little bit. I went out in front of the curtain there and tried to wave for somebody to help. But, yeah, that was basically it.”
“I’m sorry,” she says suddenly, squinting back tears and excusing herself from the table. “I’m so sorry.”
When she arrived for her interview, Jeannie Kendall pulled into the Cracker Barrel parking lot in a late-model Lincoln driven by her husband and longtime bandleader Mack Watkins. It’s been two decades since Kendall stood alongside country music’s biggest stars, but she appears to have aged hardly at all. She’s slightly built and has one of those faces that, no matter her age, likely will always suggest a young girl’s. Her hair is blonde, long, and crimped, and excepting her boots, she’s dressed all in denim; she’s even sporting one of those hip jean caps favored during the 1970s by everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Tammy Wynette. Indeed, she almost looks as if she’s stepped out of a photograph on the back of the Kendalls’ 1979 album, Just Like Real People.
It’s odd that in some country music reference books today, there is no Kendalls entry. For surely the duo doesn’t lack a legacy. Jeannie Kendall’s self-titled solo debut, a bluegrass-inflected set released February 25 by Rounder, includes guest harmonies by one of the Kendalls’ contemporaries from their country radio heyday, Ricky Skaggs, and by a pair of bluegrass singers who followed in their wake, Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss.
Vincent and Krauss are especially savvy choices for the project, as Jeannie’s voice in some respects splits the difference between the singers: Like Krauss, Kendall sings with airy delicacy; like Vincent, she wields bluesy, gut-punch power. To phrase it another way, Jeannie Kendall is a link between these younger singers and one of her own predecessors, Dolly Parton.
The guest most likely to grab headlines, though, is country star Alan Jackson, a Jeannie Kendall fan since boyhood. The first concert Jackson attended was a late-’70s Kendalls show outside Atlanta, and in 1994, the singer cut a version of the duo’s “Thank God For The Radio”. He duets memorably with Jeannie on the dulcet pledge “Timeless And True Love”.
Star power aside, the album’s most welcome guest is the one who’s no “guest” at all: Jeannie’s father. Royce Kendall recorded harmony parts for two songs just before he passed away. The second of these, “Train Of Thought”, achingly conveys the blur of loss — how minds can remain fixed on what’s gone even as life hurtles ceaselessly forward. Her voice quivering under the weight of memory, Jeannie declares, “I can’t get off this train of thought.” Underscoring the complexity of this point, her father’s voice hovers just above hers, a ghost she can’t shake and a gift she’ll never lose.
“I feel so lucky he was able to do those two songs,” she says of her late father’s contributions to the record. “He did them just before we left town, for that last show.”