As the police-led motorcade carrying the members of Mississippi country trio Chapel Hart made its way to the pavilion at Founders Square at the Neshoba County Fair on July 23, Devynn Hart was surprised by the number of cars she saw.
But she was truly shocked when they finally arrived, and she could see the crowd of people waiting to see her perform with her sister, Danica Hart, and cousin Trae Swindle, all childhood friends from Poplarville, on the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour. It’s a moment she won’t soon forget.
“Seeing everybody sing the words to our songs, [and] not just ‘You Can Have Him Jolene’—there were little kids there that knew all the words to almost every song that we performed—it’s mind blowing,” Devynn says.
Danica, who immediately outs herself as “the loud one,” agrees. “It sounded like we were performing at a stadium, and the only thing that I could think was, ‘Mississippi loud and proud, baby!’ I was right where I needed to be after all of this. You know, after everything exploded.”
She’s referring, of course, to Chapel Hart’s stunning televised audition on “America’s Got Talent” just four days earlier, which vaulted them onto the national stage. After performing their original song “You Can Have Him Jolene,” a response to Dolly Parton’s signature hit “Jolene,” the four celebrity judges—Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandell and Sofia Vergara—put their hands on the coveted “golden buzzer,” a unanimous sign of approval ushering them straight to the competition rounds.
Social media immediately went nuts for the group, especially after Parton herself weighed in the following morning with a tweet praising their take on her “Jolene” tale. The group’s new fans sent their 2021 album, The Girls Are Back in Town, to the top of the iTunes country charts the same day. Even Darius Rucker jumped in, announcing they would sing on his next album.
Three weeks later, the Chapel Hart train is still rolling strong. The group’s “AGT” performance has been viewed more than seven million times on YouTube—on top of the seven or so million who watched it live on NBC—and their video for “You Can Have Him Jolene,” filmed in Pass Christian and released a year ago, is clocking views in the millions, as well.
Seated on a couch in a Ketchum, Idaho hotel suite, the ladies of Chapel Hart are beaming with energy and enthusiasm. They’re on a short tour, playing gigs booked before their breakout moment, until they’re due back in Los Angeles to continue their bid for the “AGT” crown. But they know that no matter the outcome of the show, they’ve already won big. A month from now, they’ll fulfill a dream by performing on the Grand Ole Opry. And the numbers don’t lie; they have the attention of country music fans, and likely the industry gatekeepers, as well.
Wracked with emotion standing on the “AGT” stage, Danica responded to Cowell through tears when he asked how they’ve been working 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 kinda hard when I think country music doesn’t always look like us.”
Trae picks up her cousin’s train of thought, using a pointed anecdote she heard at a recent conference organized by Change the Conversation, a Nashville group established to pursue gender equality in country music, about the unspoken rules dictating how non-white and female artists get pushed in Music City.
“They highlighted a very specific, pertinent point—and it wasn’t just for minorities, it was for women and marginalized communities as a whole—Nashville has forever had this, ‘just one at a time’ concept,” Trae says. “For a while it was just Darius Rucker, then they slowly added the Jimmie Allens and the Brelands and the Kane Browns. Mickey Guyton just got pushed to the forefront last year, although she’s been in Nashville and in the music industry for over 15 years.”
Similarly, the overnight success of Chapel Hart has been brewing for years, built on their mutual love of the country music that has been omnipresent in their lives since they were kids.
“Growing up in Poplarville, country music was the music,” Danica says. “If you’re going in the grocery store, the music playing overhead’s country music; if you’re on the school bus and the school bus driver brings his or her radio, it’s country music; if you have a job and you’re at work and they have music that goes on at work, it’s country music. Even I remember at nap time when we were little and they turned on music when you get ready to lay down and go to sleep, and it was country music.”
The lifestyle they portray in songs like “Jesus & Alcohol” and “That’s a Redneck Summer Night” comes honestly. Although they were in the pews on Sunday morning—Danica and Devynn are the daughters of a preacher, and their grandfather was a minister—come Saturday night, they were in a field drinking beer with friends. Danica characterizes their upbringing as “Rebel Baptist.” “I’ll pray you up to heaven and drink a little Budweiser afterwards,” she laughs.
Once they came together as a musical group, they went through years of woodshedding, networking and pounding the pavement for opportunities. Chapel Hart had been making connections for years, and their growth was steady until the “AGT” rocket ride began. The MuzikMafia hitmakers they sang along with in their youth, like “Redneck Woman” singer Gretchen Wilson, Cowboy Troy and Big & Rich, are now in their phones; Danica still gets a thrill when John Rich texts her to check on them.
“We always used to say, we wanna 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 the stuff we grew up on it. It’s nineties country.”
Although the trio has been based in New Orleans for several years, they make an effort to show love for their home state. Devynn wore a Mississippi shirt on a recent CMT appearance, and they refer to her in songs like “4 Mississippi.” Their love of home comes with few asterisks, if any.
“Honestly, I think the world needs to understand that Mississippi is a place of just pure love,” Trae says. “I know that there are lots of stigmas on Mississippi, being at the bottom of the list for a lot of things, from education to health to everything else. Danica often says it in 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’re doing on such a scale is showing the power of that Mississippi hospitality. You have people who are in completely different socioeconomic classes, completely different culturally, but, like, being brought together all [for] the sake of good music.”