I’m not going to pretend like I’m boned up on the ins and outs of the nationally-televised TV show America’s Got Talent, how the competition actually transpires over the season, and how a winner is eventually chosen. But I do have a basic understanding that the so-called “Golden Buzzer” is a pretty big deal.
What I also know about is the singing trio from Poplarville, Mississippi called Chapel Hart, who were honored with said “Golden Buzzer” last week after performing their original song “You Can Have Him Jolene,” inspired by Dolly Parton’s iconic country standard, “Jolene.” Dolly has since reacted to the performance, and says she loves the song. “You Can Have Him Jolene” was originally released in early 2021.
Chapel Hart have been around for a while now, originally forming in 2014 and releasing their first of two LPs in 2019. They are also one of the most egregious victims of discrimination in country music. No, not just because they are Black—though I’m sure that hasn’t necessarily helped their prospects either. It’s because they are actually country. Having the audacity to play actual country music has been the biggest vector for discrimination in Nashville over the last 15 years.
This makes for a double whammy for sisters Danica and Devynn Hart, and cousin Trea Swindle. Actually, a triple whammy if you consider women also tend to have a greater uphill battle in country music too. The truth is, being Black in country music is not as big of an obstacle as it once was, or that the media love to portray it to continue to be. Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen are legitimate mainstream stars with multiple #1 singles. Darius Rucker is still out there of course. Blanco Brown hit it big with “The Git Up,” and Breland with “My Truck.” And nobody has received more positive press or performance opportunities in the last two years in the entirety of country music than Mickey Guyton, including performing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.
But these are all pop stars within the country realm. As feature after feature has been published touting the new crop of Black country stars and the challenges they face, Chapel Hart has been curiously absent, as have other Black stars that actually sing country like Charley Crockett, Tony Jackson, and Wendy Moten just to name a few.
Earlier this year, Amazon released a documentary called For Love & Country featuring what they touted as today’s Black country artists. It included Jimmie Allen, Breland, Mickey Guyton, Reyna Roberts, Blanco Brown, and others from the mainstream set, along with artists who are almost universally considered folk or Americana such as Allison Russell, Valerie June, and Amythyst Kiah. What it didn’t include were any artists who can be legitimately called “country.” Black artists who do fit that description such as Chapel Hart were excluded.
About the only mainstream outlet that has been supporting Chapel Hart for a while now has been CMT and Leslie Fram through their Next Women of Country initiative. But generally speaking, the gaze of both the country industry as well as much of the media has shot right over Chapel Hart for years. It also probably doesn’t help that they don’t fit the narrative much of the media want to portray about diverse country performers.
Not only are Chapel Hart country, they’re Christians, and they are also friends with John Rich, who has also been a big supporter of the group for a while. In truth, many of the calls for diversity in country music have a political underpinning, and that has put Chapel Hart behind the 8 ball even more during an era when much of the media is looking for diverse artists to feature above the standard white country guy.
What also makes the overlooking of Chapel Hart for so long so egregious is that along with being country, they do have some songs that veer more into the commercial realm, and would thrive in the mainstream if just given a chance. That’s exactly what we saw with their performance of “You Can Have Him Jolene” on America’s Got Talent. When an omnivorous, general audience was exposed to the song and band, they gave them a standing ovation, and the judges all collectively hit the “Golden Buzzer.” Chapel Hart has been a gold mine Music Row has been overlooking because they didn’t fit the mold. But neither did Luke Combs, and neither does Zach Bryan, and they’re the #2 and #3 biggest things in the genre right now.
In some ways, it’s a bit sad that Chapel Hart had to resign themselves to a televised singing competition to finally have their “moment.” And as we know with all of these shows—whether it’s AGT, The Voice, American Idol, etc.—success on these shows guarantees you nothing in the outside world. Even if you win or are a runner-up, the day after the season finale, the world resets, and you have to go out and prove your worth, even if you have a bit of a better starting point. Just ask Craig Wayne Boyd, Adam Wakefield, and Casey James, who had to combine their singing competition successes into Texas Hill, and are still struggling for attention.
But hopefully for Chapel Hart, this will finally be the spark that will ignite their careers. Because just as much as country music needs diversity, it also needs artists that are actually country. Chapel Hart happens to be both.