- The country trio Chapel Hart made its Grand Ole Opry debut Saturday night.
- The Poplarville, Mississippi-based group finished 5th on the 17th season of ‘America’s Got Talent.’
Sometimes linings that look silver are platinum instead.
That’s the best way to begin chronicling the near decade-long road to stardom for Poplarville, Mississippi-based country trio Chapel Hart.
The trio comprised of sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin, Trea Swindle, could’ve debuted at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night as winners of the 17th season of NBC’s televised singing program “America’s Got Talent.”
They could’ve also been − given the nature of “America’s Got Talent” as a star-making platform − been tabbed as pop’s answer to country’s revived moment in pop music, plus an at answering the question of why Black women have been absent from so much of country music’s mainstream history, and how to solve it.
To put it bluntly, they would’ve been the lucrative pop punchline to asking the question, “What if Beyonce, Mary J. Blige and Lizzo walked into a honky-tonk?”
However, that didn’t happen. Instead, and for many reasons, how and why they finished in fifth on the just-completed season is the first platinum lining that sets them up for potentially incredible country music stardom.
On the surface, the idea that they’re selling a Black female R&B superpower group landing in country music appears to be what they’re doing. However, look past their skin color and just get caught in the essence of their overpowering in-person charisma. The lesson that short-sighted definitions fail at adequately noting who they are and what they can potentially accomplish is quickly learned.
“We’re as country as the day is long,” trio member Trea Swindle tells The Tennessean. “It’s not the twang but the truth that defines that. I like listening to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams while wearing my cowboy boots and sitting on the porch with my guitar.”
“As people, we’re kind and know that because of who we are and how we were raised, you don’t have to agree on or believe in the same things to exist together,” Danica Hart says.
Trio’s country roots dominated run on ‘America’s Got Talent’
During their two-month stint in front of roughly 20 million people nationwide on “America’s Got Talent,” the group’s evident country roots and exuberant personalities dominated the program.
They auditioned with “You Can Have Him, Jolene,” a sly lyrical flip on Dolly Parton’s 1974 classic “Jolene.” Notably, the track was not slickly commissioned to curry favor with national audiences. Instead, it was a year-old, unlikely boutique favorite of corners of the country intelligentsia, from their 2021-released “The Girls Are Back In Town” − their second independently-released album in three years.
The regional breakout success of their 2020 single “Jesus and Alcohol” (which featured ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons − an early Chapel Hart supporter − “he showed us that established artists were willing to give us a chance”) led to them being named members of CMT’s Next Women of Country class of 2021. That acclaim spurred them to get into the studio to boost efforts to complete their album.
Unlike their previous work, they finally made their way into Nashville to finish recording. The trio desired to mimic something sonically between ZZ Top’s catalog and a pair of Nashville’s favorite 2004 hits: Big and Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.”
Parton was not alerted to the 2021 debut. However, after all four of “America’s Got Talent’s” 2022 season judges − Simon Cowell, Terry Crews, Howie Mandel, and Sofia Vergara − pressed the golden buzzer, noting they believed the group needed to be sent straight to the live shows, Parton tweeted , “What a fun new take on my song, @ChapelHartBand!”
“I could’ve died a happy woman on the spot,” says Danica Hart about when she saw Parton’s message.
The past two months have seen the group continue to achieve success via the television program, including the support of Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker, and Wilson.
“Outlaw women supporting outlaw women. It’s the ultimate validation,” Danica Hart says.
“The women who created the quintessential foundation of country music said they were behind us,” Swindle says about their powerful recent cosigns.
However, on Sept. 13’s “America’s Got Talent” finale, the group performed “American Pride,” a new ballad. The performance was fraught with vocal issues, which Cowell and Mandel attributed to nerves and pressure. However, music impresario Cowell added, “I really, really like you and I’m really happy that you did what you did tonight. Good for you.”
Finishing fifth on AGT proved to be a platinum lining.
Country music superstardom being presaged by TV singing program success is a generational trend. Kelly Clarkson, Scotty McCreery and Carrie Underwood won “American Idol.” Cassadee Pope won “The Voice.” However, none of them were feted by having a week named for them in their hometowns or saluted by a hologram version of Tanya Tucker on national television.
Even though Chapel Hart didn’t win the 17th season of “America’s Got Talent,” they may have won something more significant in return: the kind, non-begrudging respect of the genre’s predominantly white fanbase regarding accepting Black women as superstar-level artists .
‘It’ll always make me cry’
After country icon Jeannie Seely introduced Chapel Hart to the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, they received three standing ovations.
It was made more special because one of every three people backstage at the venue on Saturday night was a family member of the Hart or Swindle variety. Danica and Devynn’s tall, stately preacher father, Kevin Hart (“If you find that short guy, tell him he owes me money,” he joked), discussed the “anointed blessings” of his family’s voices while clad in a western shirt highlighted by black and silver roses, black cowboy hat, turquoise-studded bolo tie, black boot cut jeans and white alligator-print cowboy boots.
The trio hit the stage to a rock-star reaction. Yes, many in attendance were Poplarville, Mississippi residents. However, as usual at the Opry, others were elderly vacationers, generations of die-hard country music fans, or Nashville supporters of the genre attending one of its pinnacle venues.
Winning over that crowd − a group of people who have been watching every manner of country music conceivably possible for 97 years − is a feat. To win them over on three separate occasions, with raucous, deafening applause? That’s special.
Danica Hart’s husky lead vocal is unexpectedly warm. Baritone voices in country music have keyed stardom for a lengthy list of male stars. A deep twang aids Hart’s contralto. It’s unmistakable, intriguing, and sonically pleasing in equal measure. The lack of an absolute need for gospel-style vocal gymnastics or scream-shouted lyrics from Devynn Hart and Trea Swindle adds to their presentation. Plus, add in the trio’s wild, loose, profound Southern charisma underpinned by an unwavering belief in faith and family. Overall, the approachable yet exciting nature of how they perform their art separates them from previous presentations of Black performers at this level in country music. It makes them a wholly unique game changer in the genre’s industry.
“Sure, we were having success before ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but we’re realizing now that to achieve the much greater success that we want, expanding the reach of the joy and love our music brings is necessary. I’ll never get tired of seeing the process of winning over greater numbers of fans in larger groups keep happening,” Devynn Hart says. “One thing though, it’ll make me cry. It’ll always make me cry.”
Roughly one in 10 people in attendance at the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry attended what devolved into a post-event autograph signing and hug-fest at the Nashville Palace honkytonk/nightclub across the street from the Opry. People who attended high school with the group and drove 500 miles from Poplarville were there. Also, Black fans of the genre exalting in seeing themselves onstage − yet again, as of late − at the Opry giggled in excitement. Fans of the band from multiple states also lined up for four hours on a Saturday night at a busy Music City watering hole. Vibe-wise, it felt as much like a music industry event as it did a Sunday afternoon post-church service potluck supper.
Up next for Chapel Hart is an Oct. 8 return to the venue for the Grand Ole Opry’s 97th birthday celebration. As well, Darius Rucker’s long-teased partnership (hinted at in This June 2022 Tennessean feature) with Chapel Hart for a single on his forthcoming latest album is also likely in the offing.
“We’ve got our foot in the door and now we’re hitting the ground running,” Swindle says. “Once you play with us, you’re stuck with us.”
She then made a poignant statement and added another joke.
“We want to bring real country music back to country radio. I’ll also suggest that we’re going to need a defibrillator added to our tour rider. If we keep getting standing ovations like that, it might kill me. They’ll have to drag me by my ankles off the stage every night.”