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Chapel Heart: Bringing Country Back to Nashville

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As a police-led motorcade of Mississippi country trio Chapel Hart made its way to the Founders Square Pavilion at the Neshoba County Fairgrounds on July 23, Devin Hart was surprised by the number of cars she saw.

But she was truly shocked when they finally arrived and saw a throng of people waiting for her to perform with her sister Danica Hart and cousin Trey Swindle, childhood friends from Poplarville, on the Thacker Mountain radio time. It’s a moment she won’t soon forget.

“Seeing everyone singing the words to our songs, [and] not just ‘You Can Have Him Jolene’ — there were little kids there who knew all the words to almost every song we played — it was mind-blowing,” Devin says.

Danika, who immediately called herself “the loudest”, agrees. “It sounded like we were playing in a stadium, and all I could think was, ‘Mississippi loud and proud, baby!’ I was exactly where I needed to be after all of this. You know, after everything blew up.”

Of course, she’s referring to Chappell Hart’s jaw-dropping TV audition “America’s Got Talent” just four days ago that put them on the national stage. After performing their original song ‘You Can Have Him Jolene’, a response to Dolly Parton’s famous hit ‘Jolene’, the four celebrity judges – Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Sofia Vergara – awarded the coveted ‘golden audio honour'” – unanimous a sign of approval that takes them straight to the competition stages.

Social media immediately went crazy for the group, especially after Parton herself tweeted the next morning praising their treatment of her “Jolene” tale. New band fans sent 2021 album, The girls returned to the city, topped the country’s iTunes chart on the same day. Even Darius Rooker jumped in to announce that they would be singing on his next album.

Three weeks later, the Chapel Hart train is still rolling. The group’s “AGT” performance has been viewed more than seven million times on YouTube — in addition to the seven million who watched it live on NBC — and their video for “You Can Have Him Jolene,” filmed in Pass Christian and released in therefore, also gets millions of views.

Sitting on the couch in a hotel room in Ketchum, Idaho, the ladies of Chapel Heart are beaming with energy and enthusiasm. They’re on a short tour, playing concerts booked before their breakout moment, until they return to Los Angeles to continue their bid for the “AGT” crown. But they know that regardless of the outcome of the show, they’ve already won big. A month later, they will fulfill their dream by performing at the Grand Ole Opry. And the numbers don’t lie; they’re getting the attention of country music fans and probably fans of the industry as well.

Overcome with emotion while standing on the “AGT” stage, Danica tearfully responded to Cowell when he asked how they worked to establish themselves in the country music industry. “We’ve been trying to break into Nashville for the last couple of years,” she said, “but it’s been pretty tough when I think country music doesn’t always feel like us.”

Trey picks up on her cousin’s train of thought, using a poignant anecdote she heard at a recent conference organized by Change the Conversation, a Nashville-based group dedicated to gender equality in country music, about the unspoken rules that define how non-white male and female artists getting pushed to Music City.

“They made a very specific, important point — and it wasn’t just about minorities, but women and marginalized communities in general — that Nashville has always had this one-at-a-time concept,” Trey says. “It was just Darius Rucker for a while, then they slowly added Jimmy Allens, the Brelands and the Kane Browns. Micky Guyton was pushed to the forefront last year, even though she’s been in Nashville and the music industry for over 15 years.”

Country trio Chapel Hart hails from Poplarville credit: Rudy Melancon

Similarly, Chapel Hart’s success has accrued over the years, based on their mutual love of country music, which has been pervasive in their lives since childhood.

“I grew up in Poplarville, there was country music music” says Danica. “When you go to the grocery store, there’s country music playing overhead; when you’re riding the school bus and the school bus driver has a radio with him, it’s country music; when you have a job and you’re at work, and they have music they play at work, it’s country music. Even I remember bedtime when we were little and they’d put the music on when you’re about to go to bed and go to bed and it was country music.”

The lifestyle they portray in songs like “Jesus & Alcohol” and “That’s a Redneck Summer Night” comes across honestly. Although they were in the pews on Sunday morning — Danica and Devin are preacher’s daughters and their grandfather was a minister — Saturday night they were in the field drinking beer with friends. Danica characterizes their upbringing as “rebellious Baptist.” “I’m going to pray to heaven for you and then drink some Budweiser,” she laughs.

After forming a band, they went through years of chopping wood, setting up networks, and pounding the pavement in search of opportunities. Chappell Hart made connections over the years and their growth was steady until the “AGT” rocket ride began. The MuzikMafia hitmakers they sang with in their youth, like “Redneck Woman” singer Gretchen Wilson, Cowboy Troy and Big & Rich, are now on their phones; Danica is still in awe when John Rich texts her to check on them.

“We always said we wanted to bring country music back to country radio,” Danica offers. “And so the push is just good country music, you know what I’m saying? It’s what we grew up with. This is the country of the nineties.”

Although the trio has been based in New Orleans for several years now, they’re making an effort to show some love for their home state. At a recent performance on CMT, Devin wore a Mississippi shirt, and they mention her in songs like “4 Mississippi.” Their love of home comes with few, if any, asterisks.

“Honestly, I think the world needs to understand that Mississippi is a place of pure love,” Trey says. “I know there’s a lot of stigma in Mississippi, being at the bottom of the list for a lot of things, from education to health care and everything in between. Danica says this a lot on our show, talking about growing up, a lot of people were too poor to even know the difference, so everyone came together. And I feel like seeing us do what we do on this scale shows the strength of that Mississippi hospitality. You have people from completely different socioeconomic classes, completely different cultures [for] for the sake of good music.”

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