Chapel Hart wowed the judges on "America's Got Talent" last summer. The group has earned praise from Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker and sung on the Grand Ole Opry and on Darius Rucker's latest single.
With that kind of exposure and momentum, why hasn't this talented trio of young women become more successful in country music?
Maybe they're too traditional sounding or maybe they're too smart to play the Nashville game.
"We want to get the record deal that makes sense to us," said the cowgirl hat-wearing lead singer Danica Hart. "If getting a record deal means losing control and not being able to interact with our fans and to be able to make the music we love to make, then I think it's not that important. Maybe staying independent makes better sense to us."
Chapel Hart prizes its freedom and its fans. That's why the group will spend two hours meeting followers Saturday at the Mall of America before singing that night at Mystic Lake Casino.
"Our fans have been the champions for us," said Devynn Hart, Danica's sister. "They have pretty much been our record deal."
Musically, Chapel Hart's sound doesn't seem to fit in between Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs on today's country radio. The trio — the Hart sisters and their first cousin Trea Swindle — mixes the sibling-infused harmonies of the Chicks, the cheeky humor of the Pistol Annies and the turn-it-up moxie of Gretchen Wilson.
Danica recalled when Chapel Hart first traveled to Nashville from their home in Poplarville, Miss., a few years ago and played several songs for their potential booking agent, his response was "Y'all are too country for country radio."
Said Danica: "It was the biggest compliment for us. That was a time when country radio was taking a turn to modern hip-hop and pop country."
Whatever Chapel Hart is, the judges on "America's Got Talent" loved the group last summer. "I needed you today. That was fantastic," Simon Cowell proclaimed. Eventually, the trio finished in fifth place.
The notoriously hypercritical Cowell gave them advice off-camera after their tear-filled final performance, an original called "American Pride."
"He said: 'Go backstage and get yourselves together, take a deep breath and I want you guys to sing the chorus of it and post it on social media.' 'Cause, he said, people need to hear the chorus. He walked us through that moment," Danica recalled. "Even after we were done on the show, he still called. Man, who would've thought that Simon would be our biggest cheerleader of all the judges?"
"AGT" gave Chapel Hart credibility and a sizable enough audience to undertake a 60-city tour, a rarity without the support of a major record label.
"Our shows are like the family reunion you didn't know you wanted or needed," Trea said. "Our demographic at any show will range from businessmen to bums and everybody in between. Different ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds. I feel like music has the power to dissolve all those barriers for the time that you're at a concert."
From the Opry to the Apollo
The Harts' grandmother had 17 children. That translates to 108 first cousins who grew up in different age groups. That meant Danica, now 32, and Trea, 33, were almost like sisters, especially since Devynn, 25, didn't come along till eight years later.
They sound harmonious on record and even in conversation calling from their tour bus heading from Baton Rouge to Denham Spring, La.
Asked to describe her sister Danica, Devynn said: "She's bossy in a healthy manner. Bubbly. A leader. She's kind of funny but not as funny as me."
Danica said Trea "is very handy. You can find her in strangest situations. Why are you fixing a motor right now? She is aggressive. Very smart. She can have a conversation with anybody 'cause she knows everything. She's tough but sensitive. She has a very tender heart. And athletic."
Trea calls Devynn "emotional. Very thoughtful and mindful, very aware. An investigatory spirit, the detective. Spunky and sparky. She can up the energy in a room."
Musically, Chapel Hart is at turns clever, humorous, sincere and patriotic.
"You Can Have Him Jolene," the group's first number on "America's Got Talent," is a witty and sassy rejoinder to Parton's please-don't-take-my-man classic "Jolene." "Jesus & Alcohol" is a bluesy, boozy toe-tapper ("So pass the Bible, bourbon, and brace for a breakup") featuring ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on guitar. Next up is "Welcome to Fist City," a reworking of the late Loretta Lynn's "Fist City" at her request.
Despite their determinedly classic country vibe, there's something about Chapel Hart that doesn't fit any Nashville mold — they are Black. And there hasn't been a Black female country star since — well, since ever.
Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen and Rucker are Black men who are enjoying award-winning, chart-topping careers. As for Black women in country, Mickey Guyton has received television exposure and critical acclaim of late but nominal success on radio.
Chapel Hart doesn't view itself as a Black country act.
"Honestly, we say we're just country singers," Devynn said. "We are Black, we recognize that. But at the end of the day, we're just country singers. It's what we grew up on. It's what we do."
On March 3, Chapel Hart will make its debut at Harlem's Apollo Theater, a legendary venue for Black entertainers.
Will that be important for Chapel Hart as a rare country act at the Apollo or as a landmark for Black performers?
"It's definitely both, because it speaks to the fact that we're primarily country singers that just happen to be Black," Trea said.
"I think maybe we don't look at it as 'We're Black.' It's not a thing where we go into the room thinking or saying," Danica picked up. "But we have a responsibility as Black women because there are Black children who are looking to us saying 'If they can do it, I can do it.' ... We've got to sometimes make a conscious effort that we're visible in those spaces [like the Apollo] because we didn't know we could be country singers because we didn't see Black people singing country music when we were younger."
When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sat., mini-concert and meet-and-greet.
Where: Mall of America rotunda.
Tickets: Album purchase required.
When: 8 p.m. Sat. concert.
Where: Mystic Lake Casino, 2400 Mystic Lake Blvd. NW., Prior Lake.
Tickets: $29-$49, ticketmaster.com.