Chalee Tennison

IF YOU MISPRONOUNCE CHALEE TENNISON’S name, you’re in good company. George Jones, who has invited Tennison onstage several times and knows her name well, once introduced her with the wrong inflection.

“He knows it by heart,” she told POLLSTAR. “He gets as nervous as I do when he gets onstage and he totally forgot my name.”

That didn’t bother Tennison in the slightest. As she told the audience, if anyone in the world was to forget her name or say it wrong, she’s glad it’s The Possum. (Think wine, she instructs. “It’s like Chablis without the ‘b.'”)

The country artist is still relatively new to the big leagues, setting foot in Nashville for the first time in 1996. Since then she has received a slew of excellent reviews, including an ACM nomination for top female vocalist, as well as appearing at the Grand Ole Opry.

Still, Tennison is only a few years beyond living in a trailer park and bankruptcy, and the popular press has made a big deal of that. It seems to suit her fine, though, because her material is generated from years of love and loss, and working countless menial jobs. She relates to working-class single moms because she was one, and for all the trappings of Nashville, she’s still spending evenings with her three kids.

“My children are my biggest grounding tool… I’m a soccer mom, I’m a drama mom,” she said. “They’re what keep me sane where most people might think they’d drive me insane.”

Tennison has been married (and divorced) three times, the third to guitarist Joe Tennison. In 1988, she met him while she was a guard in Texas’ Gatesville Prison. She worked there because her second husband was also a guard and she signed up.

Tennison joined Joe onstage at the prison’s employee Christmas party for a song. He returned to Gatesville months later to romance her, and they eventually married. Tennison worked several jobs to support her kids while Joe played music. She is a cowboy’s dream come true, with a background as an electrician and a dry-wall installer, as well as being a waitress and substitute teacher.

She found time to sing, too, with a Waco band named Midnight Rodeo, traveling the small clubs of Texas for eight years. In 1996, she came to Nashville for the first time to do a 10- song CD just to find out if she could cut it in the studio.

On a whim, Tennison sent the CD to Sony Tree Publishing. It eventually got into the hands of Jerry Taylor, who asked her to do vocals for a demo.

Those three songs got her signed to Asylum in 1998, but not before “another label” came out to see her perform.

“It was just one of those situations where they said I was 90 percent there,” she said. “See, the thing with labels here is, they don’t look for the reason to sign you; they look for the reason not to sign you.”

However, she disagreed that they only want sure bets and don’t want to roll the dice on anyone. “I just think they want to roll the dice on 100 percent winners.”

Signed to Asylum, Tennison and her kids moved to Nashville in June ’98 . She had also signed divorce papers.

The main reason, she has told the press, was jealousy. She refers to her song “Handful of Water”: “I knew you were a rambler, and bettin’ on you made me a gambler.”

Chalee Tennison

“I remember when I first moved. Our house is probably over 2,000 square feet now, but it’s the first new house I’ve ever owned,” she said. “You know, it was a year or two old when I saw it, but I’m leasing it. My kids think they’re rich! It’s so funny; we’re far from it. Yes, we definitely have gone miles and miles from where we were.”

After Asylum, everything fell into place quickly. She signed with Tony Harley for management in 1998, who merged with Tanasi Entertainment, and Tennison has stuck with him since.

She also signed with William Morris, but felt lost in the shuffle. She has seen an increase in bookings since moving to Buddy Lee a year ago.

“It’s the only reason why an artist would ever think about changing booking agents,” she said. “I really loved William Morris, but Buddy Lee is really good about taking new artists and making them something as opposed to waiting until they’re something.”

“Our whole philosophy with her is to build a career instead of just throwing her out there and working her,” responsible agent Tony Conway told POLLSTAR. Tennison’s new album should be released in August by Warner Bros., he said, with a 75- to 80-date tour following. “Right now, she doesn’t even really need to be on the road until the new product’s out, but she wants to play certain events that give her high profile and big crowds.”

By April of ’99, the singer was opening for Alan Jackson on the High Mileage tour, and she thought it was in Wichita when she first heard her songs sung back to her by the audience.

“There’s just so many little things through your career that remind you that your dream has come true,” she said, “and that was one of them.”

Some of Tennison’s dreams are of the unconventional type, like recently when her ex- husband asked to join her onstage. She said he offered to play, saying he could learn the parts. “Yeah right,” she told POLLSTAR. “In your dreams, ese.”