Jenee Fleenor, Fiddler for Blake Shelton and Jon Pardi, Revels in Making Country Music 'Herstory'
When did fiddler Jenee Fleenor know she’d finally made it?
Perhaps it was when she found herself playing on the Grand Ole Opry at just age 18. Or maybe it was when a succession of country stars — Terri Clark, Martina McBride, Blake Shelton — invited her on their tours. Or maybe it was when her calendar had filled up, turning her into one of Nashville’s most sought-after studio musicians.
If none of that told Jenee Fleenor (whose first name rhymes with “Renee”) that she’s among the best of the best, then CMA voters officially put the question to rest in August when she was selected as a 2019 nominee for musician of the year. She’s the first woman to be nominated in the award’s 31-year history.
Even when she got the news, Fleenor says, she had trouble letting it sink in. She’d just pulled into a recording studio parking lot when a flurry of incoming texts set her phone off “like a casino,” Fleenor, 36, recalls to PEOPLE. Once she saw her name alongside the other nominees — four of “my heroes and friends,” including 10-time winner Mac McAnally — “I just started bawling,” she recalls.
Fleenor gathered herself enough to post her good news on her Instagram account, but then a congratulatory text came in from Shelton. “I lost it again — and then I had to go on and do a session and try to work,” she says, chuckling at the memory. “It was just the most amazing day ever.”
There could be another that will be even more amazing: the day of the CMA Awards, Nov. 13. This is, after all, the year that the show is “celebrating the legacy of women in country music,” so it would be only fitting for Fleenor to take home the award.
At the moment, she doesn’t dare think about that. She’s just savoring her rarefied state and marveling at the journey that has brought her to this place.
A native of Springdale, Arkansas, Fleenor first picked up her instrument at age 3 when her parents enrolled her in Suzuki violin lessons, an early childhood teaching method. In fact, all of her formal training is on the violin. (The difference between a violin and fiddle? Only the way it’s played.)
Fleener remembers falling hard for country around age 5 when she first heard Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River.” After that, she began to find the twang in her instrument, learning by ear. By her teens, she was a standout in fiddling contests, and after high school, she headed to Nashville to study commercial violin at Belmont University. Within weeks, she was hired to play in Larry Cordle’s bluegrass band, Lonesome Standard Time, which put her on the Opry stage for the first time. A few months later, platinum-selling artist Terri Clark asked her to join her touring band.
“She was doing about 150 shows a year,” Fleenor says, “so that’s when I really had to choose if I was going to stay in school or not, and I knew I needed to take the road gig.”
A stint with Martina McBride’s band followed for several years, and then Shelton came calling in 2013 with an invitation to join the house band on The Voice, which she’s performed on ever since. She also plays in Shelton’s touring band, and she’s gone out on the road with Steven Tyler, playing both his country and Aerosmith music.
Over the years, Fleenor has expanded her repertoire, teaching herself the acoustic guitar and the mandolin, and she also performs on both. She is an accomplished singer and songwriter, as well, but today she defines herself most as a studio musician after a steady rise to Nashville’s A-list.
“It just literally was my dream to be a ‘Nashville Cat,’” she says. “Maybe in the past four or five years have I been really hitting my stride. It’s my confidence in my playing. … I just feel at home doing it.”
Among the large library of recorded music you can hear Fleenor’s fiddle licks on are Shelton’s “I’ll Name the Dogs” and “I Lived It,” Cody Johnson’s “On My Way to You,” Reba McEntire’s Grammy-winning album, Sing It Now,and most recently, Jon Pardi’s new single, “Heartache Medication.”That’s Fleenor you hear in the Pardi intro – a first for a fiddle in a radio single since Alan Jackson’s "Good Time" in 2008.
Fleenor is especially grateful for Pardi’s passion for fiddle and steel, and she hopes it’s just one sign that the traditional instruments are making a comeback in country. “Jon’s sound is so fresh and current yet it sounds old school,” Fleenor says. “I like to be really creative with my sound, and Jon has said that I bring kind of a fun, spunky vibe. Maybe this thing’s kind of taking a turn back to what country used to sound like.”
Of course, one thing that’s not old school is Fleenor’s gender, which is still a rarity in the country music studio. Fleenor blames some of the scarcity of women on a lack of role models. Her stature, of course, is helping to change that. She is particularly proud of her recent participation in a master class for string students at Belmont, a full-circle moment.
Fleenor also has enjoyed shattering gender stereotypes over the years with the skill of her playing. Especially early in her career, she says, she often got a certain look from male musicians that said, “Here comes the ‘chick fiddle player.’”
“I always say the proof is in the pickin’,” Fleener says, “so I’ll just play and then I’ve had them come back and tell me, ‘Man, you’re really good,’ like they’re surprised. And I just say, ‘Thank you.’”
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Fleenor rarely gets that look these days, and she’s grateful that she commands full respect from her male counterparts in the studio. “That’s the way it is in the studio world,” she says. “They’ve got my back.”
Her new renown with the CMA nod, she says, has been a lot of fun, but the real joy comes in simply making the music. “I feel so lucky to be able to do this every day and really live my dream,” she says. “I think I’ve pretty much accomplished everything that I set out to do in Nashville. This CMA nomination definitely is icing on the cake.”