Hometown Honors: Springdale celebrates award-winning fiddler Jenee Fleenor

Hometown Honors: Springdale celebrates award-winning fiddler Jenee Fleenor
LARA JO HIGHTOWER
lhightower@nwadg.com


Editor’s Note: This time every year, we look back at some of the noteworthy stories of the past 365 days. This story originally appeared June 20 in What’s Up!

There’s no two ways about it: People love Jenee Fleenor.

Even if you haven’t heard of the Springdale native — whose maiden name was Keener — it’s a good bet you’ve heard (and love) her fiddle playing. She regularly tours with country music star Blake Shelton, has toured and recorded with rock legend Steven Tyler, plays in the band for the NBC television show “The Voice” and is a session player for countless musicians in Nashville. In addition to the fiddle, which she’s played since she was 3, she also plays the mandolin and acoustic guitar and has written songs recorded by luminaries like Dolly Parton. Her achievements are so impressive, in fact, that, in 2019, Fleenor became the first woman to win the Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year award — also the first time a fiddler had been recognized for the award in two decades. She then repeated the victory in 2020. She’s also been nominated for two successive years for the Academy of Country Music Awards Specialty Instrument(s) Player of the Year and has won two Arkansas CMA Awards.

Despite the superstar resume, talking about the upcoming June 25-27 Hometown Celebration Springdale has planned to honor her many successes brings this humble talent to tears.

“I was just beside myself when people started reaching out to me, saying, ‘We really want to celebrate you — what can we do to make this happen?’” Fleenor says, getting choked up. “I’m just so overwhelmed and blessed by all of the messages I’ve received. You’ve heard the saying ‘I’m over the moon’ — well, I’m over the moon, sun, stars, galaxy.”

In a testament to how down-to-earth and accessible Fleenor is, the plan to celebrate her the weekend of June 25 started in a conversation on Facebook between Fleenor and Sarah King, a fan of Fleenor’s. King had written a letter to the editor, published in this newspaper, asking why Springdale doesn’t brag more about its homegrown superstar.

“Is it just Ozark humility that makes us afraid to brag? That’s the only explanation I can figure for why Springdale doesn’t have a giant ‘Home of Jenee Fleenor’ sign at the city limits,” King wrote. She closed out the letter with: “As we work to put these hard times behind us, let’s celebrate one of the world’s best fiddlers! Come on, Springdale!”

“I heard Jenee play years ago at a house concert at Mike Shirkey’s on Block Avenue in Fayetteville around Christmastime,” says King. “She was a young teen, playing with these experienced musicians and just shining. My dad, Gary King, brought up that the city ought to have a city limits sign saying that we’re the proud hometown of Jenee. When I was a little kid, my mom called me Carrie Nation, because I have a tendency to get a bee in my bonnet and not let go. It seemed like such a missed opportunity — not only to celebrate a woman who has broken the glass ceiling in her field, but also for Springdale to hitch our wagon to a star.”

King posted the published letter on Facebook, and one of Fleenor’s friends tagged her. “I’m simply overwhelmed,” Fleenor posted as a reply. “I’ll always be proud to say I’m from Springdale.” King saw her chance and asked if there was a possibility Fleenor could appear in the Rodeo of the Ozarks parade, driving an “awesome classic convertible.”

“Looks like I’m free then!” Fleenor replied. “Hey — what about an old turquoise truck? (My obsession.)”

“After the letter was published, Mayor Sprouse and Kevin Flores reached out to me,” says King. “Understandably, big community celebrations were not the highest priority in the past year, but, by March, we were cautiously optimistic that by summer it would be safe to gather. It was a unique opportunity; because touring music had ground to a halt, Jenee had the time to return to Springdale. The mayor convened a group of Springdale leaders, and this whole weekend was planned at lightning speed.”

“I remember Jenee as a young girl, playing her violin in the orchestra and for special music at church,” says Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse in a press release about the event. “I know the people of Springdale join me in honoring Jenee; not only for the artist she has become, but for the person she is. Jenee is truly a jewel from Springdale, and we look forward to celebrating her.”

For Fleenor, the event will be a joyous cap to what’s been a difficult 15 months. Since March 2020, her touring schedule has been greatly diminished, and, though she’s been able to continue with session work, she faced a big disappointment when a positive covid-19 test in November 2020 meant she had to cancel her appearance at the Country Music Association Awards. It was her second consecutive Musician of the Year nomination, and she was scheduled to perform “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in a tribute to Charlie Daniels.

“I didn’t find out until the day before, and I was absolutely heartbroken,” she says of the positive test. She was asymptomatic and felt fine. “I had these beautiful clothes made for me. It was just awful. But then, on the flip side, I got a call, and they said, ‘Well, we have some really good news — you won Musician of the Year again.’ My neighbors found out, and they said ‘You know what? We want you to get dressed up in your clothes.’ They made me come out on the front porch and play ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ as they all kept their distance. My neighbors made hay bales with my face on them, with a life-size CMA Award. It was just a special memory, you know, the yin and yang of show business. People have always been so supportive of me.”

It’s a support born of her immense talent, certainly, but there’s just something special about Fleenor. Part of that is the fact that, no matter how bright her star shines, she’s still just a Springdale girl playing her fiddle for her family and friends.

“I just hope it inspires some little ones out there — that they can see their dreams, and that they can go for it. And it can happen! It can happen.”

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Update

Since we talked to Jenee Fleenor over the summer, she’s had some exciting developments in her busy life — including a third win for the Country Music Association Award for Musician of the Year! Fleenor answered a few questions for What’s Up! to catch us all up to speed.

How did it feel to see your name among the nominees for the CMA award for Musician of the Year?

It was definitely a “pinch myself” moment once again! All of the nominees are so deserving! We work with each other on a weekly basis and I’d say we all push each other to be better musicians. To see my name alongside theirs is truly humbling. The one that always gets me is to see my name next to steel guitar legend, Paul Franklin, who was one of my heroes growing up.

Covid stopped you from attending the ceremony last year — were you able to go this year?

I did attend this year! It was such a fun time! I can’t believe I can say I’ve been in Nashville for 20 years now, so when the CMAs come around now it feels like a bit of a country family reunion. You get to see all the people you’ve worked with all year long and celebrate with them, plus you get to see the people you’ve known for those 20-plus years and catch up…it’s just really something special. The Musician of the Year award is announced right before the CMA Awards go live on TV so I could breathe once that was announced. After performing with Blake I got to sit in the audience (front row!) and enjoy the show.

Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing these days.

Things are busier than ever in the studio these days! I have a home studio which I do about half of my work from, so most days I am juggling in-person sessions in Nashville and then coming home and recording from home as well. It’s not unusual for me to get up around 6 a.m. have some coffee and be in my studio by 7 a.m. working on tracks before sessions start at 10 a.m.. I always dreamed of a time when I would be be-bopping around town to different sessions…I just love the challenge of playing on so many different styles of music on any given day. As far as live work in Nashville, I have been playing the Station Inn a good bit with different people (Sunday Gospel with Larry Cordle, Val Storey and Mike Rogers, and I have played there a lot with Johnny Meyer over the past couple years). I have also been known to pop in the Grand Ol’ Opry and play with some friends these days — most recently Country Music Hall of Famer Jimmy Fortune and just a couple weeks ago with bluegrass greats and Opry members, Dailey & Vincent.

I guess this would be a good place to announce I will be a part of the new American Currents exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame that will start in March and run for a year! It will include my custom flashy red dress I wore at the CMAs (yes, the one that was complete with rhinestones, 24 inch fringe, and embroidered fiddle and yellow flowers that my Instagram friends suggest I name it the “San Antonio Rose”). I am just over the moon about this!

And I have to give a big shoutout to all my Springdale folks…to see my name on those hometown signs when I come back for visits still blows me away. I can’t begin to tell you what your support means to me – I love you all so very much!!!

Categories: Music