Opry Milestones: Chapel Hart Makes Debut Performance, Jeannie Seely Celebrates 55 Years of Membership
In a matter of weeks, familial country music trio Chapel Hart have gone from earning the group Golden Buzzer from the judges of America’s Got Talent and making it all the way to the show’s finale, to making a triumphant, tear-filled Grand Ole Opry debut performance on Saturday evening (Sept. 17).
The Mississippi-born trio — sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin Trea Swindle — previously released the albums Out The Mud (2019) and The Girls Are Back in Town (2021). Their three-song Opry debut earned the trio three standing ovations and fervent cheers from the Opry crowd.
On Tuesday evening (Sept. 13), the three-piece performed the patriotic number “American Pride” during the AGT finale, but were overcome by emotion during the show and battled vocal issues throughout the performance.
“We didn’t make it halfway through the song. The first notes started and we started boo-hooing on America’s Got Talent before the song even started, so tonight we want to dedicate this to the men and women who lay it all on the line day in and day out,” Danica Hart told the Opry crowd, before the group offered a heartfelt thanks to any and all military members in the Opry House audience, and gave the song another go on the Opry stage, drawing immense applause, a standing ovation, and one of the most inspiring moments of the evening.
They concluded with “You Can Have Him Jolene,” their AGT audition song that earned the trio the group Golden Buzzer win, along with praise from artists including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Darius Rucker.
During the AGT finale, Chapel Hart performed “Something to Talk About” with Rucker, who had previously revealed Chapel Hart will be featured on his upcoming album. Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Chapel Hart told Billboard how the Rucker collaboration for his album came about.
“First of all, you get a message from Darius Rucker on social media and you think, ‘These darn spam folks,’ but then you see there’s a blue checkmark!” Swindle said. “He said, ‘I have this song and I think I hear you guys doing the harmonies. Y’all just take it and do Chapel Hart. I’d love to work with you.’ So we took it and Chapel Harted it right up, put down the vocals and sent it to the producer. We were waiting for the response and the producer just goes, ‘Got it, thanks.’
“We were like, ‘Oh, maybe he didn’t like it as much as we thought,’ but then two weeks later, we get a message from Darius and he’s like, ‘OMG, what in the world?! I just heard this.’ He didn’t change a thing and said, ‘I want this to be a feature, a collaboration.’ Just to see him be so excited about that, when for so long we’ve just wanted to show people who we are — he definitely gave us an opportunity and championed us as artists.”
“And we would love to do something with Dolly [Parton], even if we just stand and cry in the background,” Danica Hart says.
“We’ll be the background criers,” Swindle said, adding, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I’m going to convince Gretchen Wilson to come back and start doing some more stuff.”
Saturday evening may have marked Chapel Hart’s first Opry performance, but certainly not their last — near the closing of their set, they surprised the Opry audience with the news that will return for their next Opry performance on Oct. 8.
As Chapel Hart made their very first Grand Ole Opry performance, they were introduced by “Miss Country Soul” Jeannie Seely, who that same evening celebrated 55 years as member of the vaunted Grand Ole Opry establishment.
“How special it is tonight for a 55-year member to welcome a group on their debut, which just proves our Grand Ole Opry tradition — the circle will not be broken,” Seely told the audience. Prior to her introduction, Seely noted that she welcomed the trio with a bottle of champagne and handwritten notes congratulating them on their Opry debut.
Seely, known for Billboard hits including “Wish I Didn’t Have to Miss You” (with Jack Greene) and “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry on Sept. 16, 1967. On Saturday night, she was honored not only for her 55-year commitment to the Opry, but also for having the distinction of having appeared on the Opry stage more than any other artist in Opry history, having stepped onto the Opry stage over 5,000 times in her career.
Dan Rogers, Grand Ole Opry’s vp/executive producer, and Gina Keltner, director of Opry talent scheduling and logistics, offered Seely a plaque to commemorate both milestones.
“How blessed I am,” Seely said. Earlier in the evening, she told the audience, “I’m just enjoying every second of it and never take it for granted.” Noting that Roy Acuff once told her, “Sing the one that brought you to the Opry,” Seely offered a rendition of her No. 2 Billboard country hit from 1966, “Don’t Touch Me,” which earned her a Grammy win for best country & western vocal performance-female.
Of course, Pennsylvania native Seely was never content to be only a performer on the Opry — she fought for progress within the organization, becoming the first woman to regularly host segments of the weekly Grand Ole Opry shows, and is credited with being the first to wear a miniskirt on the Opry stage.
“It wasn’t just pushing for women’s rights, although that was part of it,” Seely told reporters backstage of her push for allowing women to host Opry segments. “My view was for the overall show, and the talent that gets heard and what the people want to hear.”
Currently, Seely says she is focused on three things: the Opry, her role as host of a weekly Sunday show on SiriusXM’s Willie’s Roadhouse channel, and getting back to songwriting. Last year, Rhonda Vincent released the bluegrass hit “Like I Could,” which Seely wrote with Erin Enderlin and Bobby Tomberlin. In 2020, Seely also released the album An American Classic, a mix of new songs and re-recordings of timeless tunes.
Seely noted that she went into the studio nearly three weeks ago to record more songs she had written.
“I talked to Bill Anderson one day about an idea I had and he said, ‘I really like this.’ We’ve been friends for 60 years and we tell each other about our songs,” she told reporters backstage. “[Seely said] ‘Are we ever going to write a song?’ So he and I and Bobby Tomberlin got together and wrote one. I served them lunch and when I was walking them to the door, I remembered another idea I wrote on my phone in Target one day. I told them the idea, and Bill said, ‘Jeannie, that’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a while,’ so we set another [writing] appointment for the next day.”
She’s also been writing with Buddy Cannon, Victoria Shaw and Gary Burr. Seely said that even after over five decades as an Opry member and country music mainstay, the creative possibilities of songwriting still excite her. “These people call me to write with them, and I’m blown away, absolutely,” she noted.