Jenee Fleenor’s CMA Musician of the Year Win Is a Huge Victory for Women in Country Music
In a lot of ways, the 2019 CMA Awards' planned spotlight on legendary women in country music felt clunky and fell flat. An evening showcasing female performers seemed to set up Carrie Underwood to receive the Entertainer of the Year award -- but the night fizzled out in an anti-climactic ending once Garth Brooks was crowned the winner instead, for the seventh time in his career. More strikingly, word broke after the show that former publicist and alleged sexual predator Kirt Webster had been in attendance, even posing for pictures backstage with Dolly Parton and other attendees.
An Entertainer of the Year win for Underwood -- the first of her career, and the first for a woman since 2011 -- would have certainly have been the most resounding, public indication of progress in creating gender equality within the genre. However, there was an even more critical opportunity for a woman to break barriers in the country music format during the awards show -- and it happened.
Fiddle player Jenee Fleenor was the first woman ever nominated in the category of Musician of the Year since the CMA Awards' 1967 inception -- and, on Wednesday evening (Nov. 13), before the show's official broadcast began, she won. While it may not have been a big, televised moment, it was the night's single most important advancement for the genre's women.
Fleenor's had a big year in the studio, thanks to a prominent role on Jon Pardi's new album, Heartache Medication. She is also a longtime member of Blake Shelton's road band and a regular part of the house band for The Voice, and she has toured with Martina McBride, Terri Clark, Don Williams and more. Backstage after her big win, Fleenor said she didn't think that much about the gender imbalance in the studio when she set out to pursue a career in music.
"I was always like, 'This is what I want.' I never thought of it as an obstacle, I guess," she explained. "I keep getting the woman question, and I'm so happy to be the one that broke that glass ceiling, and now, you know, there's an awareness about that -- but I just saw something and went for it."
The 2019 CMA Awards fell just days after Fleenor made her Grand Ole Opry debut, an experience she says was heightened by the fact that one of her idols was playing in the Opry house band that night. "[One of] my inspirations growing up was Wanda Vick ... and so it was amazing getting to talk to her. She was on TNN growing up, so that was a neat moment," Fleenor shared.
"But there's so many amazing women musicians out here -- my goodness," she added. "So, yeah, there should be many more in the session world, for sure."
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Along with increased recognition comes a widening fanbase, and Fleenor is beginning to find a larger fandom for her work as an artist and songwriter, not just as a band member. The day after the CMA Awards, Shelton hosted a The Voice event at his Nashville bar, Ole Red, and brought Fleenor to the stage to perform with him.
"We do a bit on "Hillbilly Bone" where my guitar player and her have this solo thing, and they'll go back and forth. By the end of it, obviously, Jenee just destroys the building," Shelton recounted with a laugh. "I honestly hate following that. Once that's over, and people are on their feet and throwing s--t, and then I'm back up there ...
"But she's a superstar," he continued. "I texted her and said, 'Hey, if you quit now that you're famous, I'm gonna kick your a--.'"
Fleenor admits that being in the spotlight doesn't come all that naturally to her. "In that opening number [at the CMAs], I got to perform with Terri Clark again. I hadn't performed with her in so many years. It was just a feeling of, 'I'm at home,' getting to play those fiddle lines behind her," she said. "It's a thrill. What I love is to make them look good. So I always make them look good, and sound good, of course."
Still, she basked in her CMA recognition. "I just feel like this is what God created me to do, and to be living that is the most amazing feeling," Fleenor added. "Really, [at the 2019 CMAs], every dream I ever dreamed has come true."
During Shelton's Ole Red performance, Fleenor got a chance to make both Shelton and herself look and sound good. At the opening of his hit, "God's Country," Shelton told the crowd about Fleenor's CMA Awards win, drumming up excitement for her performance and explaining that she was going to take a solo on the song. When it was time, Fleenor stepped forward, wearing a glittery, sequin-studded, floor-length cardigan. The crowd roared.
She drew her bow across the strings and tore the house down -- like she was always meant to do.
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