Twenty-five years ago, country music fans couldn’t help singing along with a tempting melody called “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away.” Sung by a fairly unknown father-daughter duo named the Kendalls, the breezy song captured the 1978 CMA award for single of the year — beating out “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Here You Come Again,” “Take This Job and Shove It” and “Blue Bayou.”
The song spent four weeks at No. 1 and earned a Grammy. The album of the same name was certified gold. Jeannie Kendall, the lead vocalist, was just 22 years old when “Heaven” hit the airwaves.
“I don’t guess we expected ’Heaven’s Just a Sin Away’ to be such a big hit,” Kendall tells CMT.com. “We surprised people, because most record executives didn’t think a duet could do it, then they didn’t think a father and daughter could do it. I’m used to being up against a whole lot.”
Jeannie’s father, Royce Kendall, died in 1998, leaving behind a partially recorded acoustic album. The project was shelved until Jeannie decided to finish the record as a solo artist — but not without those signature harmonies. Guests on Jeannie Kendall include Alan Jackson , Alison Krauss , Allison Moorer , Mountain Heart’s Steve Gulley and Rhonda Vincent . Several members of Krauss’ Union Station provide instrumentation. Two of her father’s harmony vocals were rescued as well.
After recording his part on “Timeless and True Love,” Jackson complimented Kendall by telling her, “I’ve been singing with you for years, you just didn’t know it.” Vincent made the same remark.
“I’ve grown up singing with my dad for so many years, and I feel like harmony is one of the key important things to all songs,” says Kendall, now 48 and boasting that same pristine voice. “I hate to see the people singing harmony way back there. I’ve always liked the face-to-face, you know? That’s why I like acoustic and bluegrass, because you get yourself in a little group, a little huddle, and sing.”
With its enticing melodies and plainspoken yet poetic lyrics, Jeannie Kendall may tempt contemporary listeners to harmonize as well. With an approach that’s similar to Dolly Parton ’s recent fare, Kendall says of her album, “Maybe a little bit more serious music was the whole idea. Not that this doesn’t have its happy sides here and there. Bluegrass and acoustic music tends to be a little more forlorn, I would think.”
If that is true, then Kendall’s aching soprano is a perfect fit for the tradition-tinged country songs that populate the album. Although they may quickly reduce the listener to tears, Kendall herself remains upbeat and positive, cheerfully telling stories about getting her start in Nashville.
“When I was in high school [in St. Louis], I went to beauty college because my mom was a beautician and, of course, my dad was a barber. But I let my license go many, many moons ago,” she says, laughing. “As a teenager when we were coming to Nashville to record, I worked at a store selling wigs. So we came down to record, and we had to spend a couple more days down here than we intended to. I called them up and they didn’t like it, and I told them they could just keep their job,” she laughs. “Bye-bye! And that’s the last I did of that!”
The Kendalls maintained a chart presence — often with cheating songs — until 1984 when “Thank God for the Radio” hit No. 1. (Jackson covered the song on his 1994 album Who I Am.) After that, they continued touring, worked out of a theater in Gulf Shores, Ala., and finally settled in northern Arkansas where Jeannie and her husband Mack still live.
Despite the ups-and-downs of the last 25 years, one thing remains unchanged: Kendall’s fondness for fanciful hats. She wore a tiny denim cap during the interview and a black cowboy hat on the album cover.
“I’ve probably let up a little bit on it, but I will say that when I see one I like, it’s hard to keep away,” she says, laughing. “I’ve still got boxes and boxes of them. I’ll dig them out every once in a while and I’ll put them on and I’ll go, ’I bought this?’ (laughter) You don’t realize how much headwear fashion changes through the years. But I love hats. I still will buy them occasionally and I do have quite a collection. You won’t see me walking out the door without one.”
Another constant is the endless number of fans who remember “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” as the music of their youth.
“This happens thousands and thousands of times to me,” Kendall says. “Someone will come up to me and say, ’I was a teenager when that was out, and I love that song and I’m still singing it all the time.’ It makes me feel good, it really does.”