Famed fiddler Jenee Fleenor jams in bluegrass 

Reigning Country Music Association Musician of the Year Jenee Fleenor got her start in Nashville with bluegrass veteran Larry Cordle. The fiddling contest standout moved from Springdale, AR when she was 18 years old, and within weeks, landed a job in Cordle’s Lonesome Standard Time band, which led to her playing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. 

The Lonesome River Band’s lead singer/guitarist Brandon Rickman, who grew up playing in jam sessions with Fleenor, was a sideman in Cordle’s band that played every other week at The Station Inn. 

“We got done with the first set, and I got off stage, and there’s Jenee Fleenor,” Brandon Rickman recalls. “She was going to school at Belmont. I said, ‘Did you bring your fiddle with you?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Number one, never leave your fiddle in the car in this part of town, and  number 2, go get it; I want you to play and sing with a buddy of mine. Me and her and Cord did about two songs, and Cord [stunned] looked at me. I said, ‘There’s your gal!'”

“The very 1st thing I noticed about Jenee was she could play, and play in tune really good,” Larry Cordle said. “Also, from the first time she stepped on stage with me at the Station Inn, I realized right off that people loved to WATCH her play as well as hear her play. She has this sparkle that just comes through her and immediately affects the audience. It’s a pure, not conjured up joy, that she just exudes when she plays.”

“Working in Larry Cordle’s band when I first moved to town was such a fun part of my career,” Fleenor recalls. “If you know Larry, you just love that guy, and I am so proud to call him my great friend – more like family, really! Being new to Nashville, I was soaking up everything like a sponge when I joined his band at 18. There were so many firsts for me being in that band – recording in a professional studio in Nashville, taking the Opry stage, being on the road, and learning what it takes to be a songwriter in Nashville – that was a big one for me. I didn’t know much about songwriting before I moved to town, and I’m so thankful Larry took the time to answer my hundreds of burning questions about the industry back then. And of course, we have now written a good handful of songs.”

In fact, it was Cordle who gave the aspiring studio musician her very first cut on record for his Can’t Let Go on the Songs From the Workbench album.

“In the early days Jenee could play really well, but as the years have passed she has gained the experience and savvy of knowing to the nth degree what the song needs,” Cordle said. “When it’s time to wail, she wails but recognizes that sometimes there is as much to be gained by what you don’t play as well as what you do play. She has a talent that came from God Almighty, and through hard work and dedication to her craft, she has taken her skill level to an elite status, and become an in demand session player and a dynamite live performer, who steals the spotlight without even trying. Add to this that she’s also a great singer and songwriter at this point, and I believe she has yet to reach the pinnacle of her already sparkling career.”

Fleenor counts among her bluegrass influences Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Lonesome River Band, and The Osborne Brothers. 

“I remember listening to The Osborne Brothers growing up,” Fleenor says. “I always thought it was so cool because they had steel guitar in their music and drums. I got to know Hal Rugg, who played on The Osborne Brothers records, in my teenage years playing at steel guitar conventions. He was a huge hero of mine. I’m dear friends of Rhonda Vincent. I listened to so much Ricky Skaggs growing up. I’m honored to call him a friend now. I had my Opry debut back in November, and he was there that night. I was like, ‘Oh, my God! What is my life that Ricky Skaggs even knows my name’?” 

Fleenor, who is a member of the house band for the NBC hit reality show, The Voice, recalls the time she performed with Skaggs on the show.

“I think the most nervous I’ve been is playing Country Boy with Ricky Skaggs, and a contestant named Emily Ann Roberts. There was a key change. Lord have mercy! You’ve never seen The Voice band practice a song more than that song. Those guys aren’t bluegrassers. One of the guitar players grew up playing a little bit of bluegrass, but they had their work cut out for them. As fast as that song is and we had modulation, and it was going to be on live TV. It was really interesting getting to be a part of that process, but it came out great.”

Fleenor made history in 2019 when she became the first female ever to be nominated for CMA Musician of the Year. Not only did she win the award last year, but her peers chose her for the trophy again this year. For the past two years, she has been nominated for the Academy of Country Music Specialty Instrument Player of the Year, and over the past two decades Fleenor has toured with country stars Terri Clark, Martina McBride, Jon Pardi, and Blake Shelton. Her talents are also featured on several #1 country hits like Shelton’s I’ll Name The Dogs and Pardi’s Dirt On My Boots.

Besides country music, Fleenor’s songwriting has been recognized in bluegrass. The first cut she had as a songwriter was I Am Strong by The Grascals featuring Dolly Parton. She co-wrote the 2011 IBMA Song of the Year nominee with Jamie Johnson and his wife, Susanne. 

“That song was really written for this little girl that I went to church with. She was 3-years-old at the time and got diagnosed with cancer. We watched her parents go through that, and it was such a hard time. All I cared was to write this song that maybe would lift her and her parents up.”

Jenee has written a few songs for Darin and Brooke Aldridge, including Mountains in Mississippi from Faster and Farther that featured the harmony vocals of Vince Gill. Along with Cordle she penned Big Blue Raindrops for Del McCoury’s Grammy-winning 2013 album, The Streets of Baltimore. 

“Someone messaged me on Facebook and said, ‘Hey, I like your Del McCoury cut.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?'” she remembers, laughing. “It was out and I didn’t even know it. When I heard it, I thought it was so fantastic.”

Jenee also joined her old pal Brandon Rickman, along with Brennen Leigh, on the special project group Antique Persuasion for a tribute album to The Carter Family, Don’t Forget Me Little Darling.  

“It got a lot of airplay on bluegrass radio. Brandon and I grew up together basically. We’d be at a lot of jam sessions together. We’d always jam to those Lonesome River Band songs.”

“I met her at a bluegrass convention in Springdale when she was about 11, maybe 12, and she was kicking everybody’s butt then when she got into a jam session with me and some of the older guys,” recalls Rickman.

While Fleenor makes her living in the country music genre, part of her musical heart remains in bluegrass music.

“I played a ton of bluegrass before I moved to Nashville. I certainly enjoy playing it. I don’t get as much of it as I’d like to, but I love bluegrass.”

(Note: You can catch Fleenor with Johnny Meyer & Friends on the Station Inn Livestream every Monday night at 8 o’clock. You can see their show on the Bluegrass Today Facebook page.)

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About the Author

Bill Conger

Bill Conger has been a music journalist for 23 years for a variety of TV, radio, print, and websites including TNN, CMT, CMT.com, GACTV.com, Country Music Today, Bluegrass Unlimited, and www.songwriteruniverse.com.