#LetTheGirlsPlay: Karli Chayne, An Opry-Raised Soul Singer With Big Country Dreams
More often than not, Karli Chayne will close her Monday night Song Suffragettes set with "Mercy," a soulful ballad she helped an old high school classmate write. It's a pure, uninterrupted love song that begins slowly and crescendos into each chorus in steps. “I don’t want you to set / me / free,” she sings, pleading with an imaginary lover.
Chayne owns "Mercy" like Jennifer Nettles owns "Stay" or Deana Carter owns "Strawberry Wine." The 19-year-old (OK, maybe the high school friend wasn't that old) dives deep into every emotional note, as if she wasn't singing to a couple of hundred diners but one breathtaking man.
“Mercy / Oh have mercy on me baby / You don’t know what you do to me / Every time you walk through that door / I cry mercy,” she calls out. The audience grows quiet. The other girls on stage hold the strings on their guitars as to not let them accidentally rattle.
"Mercy" is a moment. It's Chayne's moment, but it's the audience's to remember every time she sings it, be it on her own with just guitar accompaniment, or on stage with a band, replicating the version she cut on her just-released Voices EP.
“I grew up listening to the Dixie Chicks, and Reba and George Strait and all of them," Chayne says when asked where that song came from. "I think just the traditional country sound inspired us to come up with something more bluesy and from the soul.” Allie Squires and Bryan Austin helped her write the song. It's an outlier on a project of outliers.
Chayne has been in Nashville for four years, and while she's been working toward her dream day-by-day, only recently has she found her sound, she says. One hears traditional country and deep blues, but she doesn't rest within any one genre for very long. Her music is more of a journey.
There's one more she doesn't directly mention, but it's obvious. The Bolivar, Mo. native grew up singing at her grandparents' Opry on Saturday nights. Local campers and blue-haired regulars would come from all over to fill up the venue, and Karli and her family would deliver a show. She, her little sister and her cousin were part of a band called the Little Chicks, a no-doubt-adorable, mini-version of the Dixie Chicks.
“They were really famous around those parts,” she says, laughing. The trio would play covers mostly, but with a twist. Shania Twain's "Honey, I'm Home" became "Mama, I'm Home." Martina McBride's "My Baby Loves Me" became "My Daddy Loves Me." An aunt played piano. Her father played guitar and her mother would sing. Karli Chayne literally grew up playing the Opry!
But she knew from a young age she was born to play the real Opry, Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Starting around age 10 she began pestering her parents — both of whom flirted with music careers in Nashville before settling near Branson, Mo. — to move to Nashville. She recalls a very civilized conversation in which she announced she could better hone her craft in Music City. Chayne was 13 at the time, but when pressed she insists no tantrums or door-slamming occurred.
"I was like, ‘If you guys would like to look for jobs, that would be awesome.’ And they were like, ‘OK.’”
Dad got a job as a police officer in Hendersonville, Tenn. Mom works in the OB wing of the local hospital. They just ... left, leaving family, friends and her Opry behind. Admittedly, she's at a point where it feels like everyone back home is watching closely, and waiting.
“I have felt that pressure," she says. “I hear from them, it’s like, ‘Have you got a record deal yet?’ It’s constantly like that.”
Of course they're well-intentioned queries, but the little successes that build toward the fulfillment of a dream often go unrecognized. Working with Kent Blazy, and knowing the legendary songwriter is in your corner is a big win. A regular gig at a Doubletree hotel is a big win. Being selected to join Song Suffragettes ... that's a huge win.
I think when I sing that song it really comes from the soul," Chayne says of 'Mercy,' "so that’d be hard to let go of.
Chayne comes across as older than she is. Her songwriting and artistry are ahead of many her age, but that's to be expected from anyone who's gotten this far. She's more polished than most, offering responses to questions in punchy, descriptive ways. She doesn't ramble or wander, which journalists appreciate. A subtle mischievousness sneaks out at times, like when she's admitting to being on Tinder ("There’s a lot of drummers on Tinder," she says, laughing, before admitting that's how she met her boyfriend) or when she's singing "Blonde Moment."
“Never underestimate the power of a pretty face / It might get the best of you / She knows how to play the part / Thinking that she ain’t as smart / Such a foolish thing to do / Blonde moment.”
That's about as mean as Chayne gets. She doesn't do that whole scorned woman thing. Once a guy did her wrong, and she wrote a sad song instead. “I kind of have a soft heart," she admits. "I do like to have a little bit of an edge to my stuff, but I like to make my songs happy, I guess.”
Two years ago she says she'd have objected to another artist recording that song, but time and a few hard lessons have taught her that you can't turn down opportunities. A record deal is what she's after, but she's closer to and more excited about a publishing contract. That's probably where she's shown the most growth recently, mostly because she's a sponge when she gets in the room.
“I honestly like writing with people with more experience," Chayne says. "They have more stories to tell. They’ve seen more.”
Nashville is home now. The Opry near Bolivar is no longer a family business, although she's confident she can still get a gig there if she asks nicely. She is part of the world-famous Little Chicks, after all. Those blue hairs might be in for a bit of a shock when she starts singing about love and intentionally spilling $50 glasses of wine, however.
Watch Karli Chayne Sing "Blonde Moment"