From the time Jenee Fleenor was a little girl, she knew her path -- but she never saw this moment in her future.
That moment would be when she received news of her 2019 Academy of Country Music Award nomination for specialty instrument player of the year.
Not only is this a coup for the fiddler, but for female country musicians the world over, as she is this year's only female nominee in the studio recording fields, but also this particular category's first and only woman nominee in the award show's history. Previously, Deanie Richardson carried the torch for women with a nomination back in 2010, when fiddle was granted its own category.
Kinda shocking all around, isn't it?
"I sat in bed and looked at the text message, and I'm pretty sure I cried for a good 10 minutes before I could get my composure," Fleenor told CMT.com of the moment she heard the news.
"It really was one of the most special moments of my whole life. Because I just remembered as a little girl looking at those awards as a kid, thinking, ‘Man, it would be really cool to be a part of that group of musicians someday.'”
But Fleenor, whose quiet demeanor is wrought with humility -- so much so that she doesn’t even really consider her journey to be that magical. After all, she’s just a human being with a talent and passion like anybody else.
The Arkansas native began playing the fiddle as a child, and through hard work and resolve unlike most, made her way to Nashville, becoming one of the most sought-after sessions musicians in town.
When she landed a touring gig with Blake Shelton, her visibility rose even higher. Shelton’s tour boasts a few female crew members and personnel, and a female backup singer -- all still a rarity among major country tours, oddly enough.
But talking to Fleenor about her move into the awards show boys’ club, and you hardly get the sense that she feels any sort of gap. For her, male peers and counterparts have never made her feel like anything less than chosen family or even more importantly perhaps, like she one-hundred percent belonged in the room.
She’s one of them -- or vice versa, one could argue.
"I don't really think about it," she admitted.
"I've thought about it more because of all the women movements that are going on. I've sat back and thought about that now, but I don't really think about it when I'm in a session. I've had people ask me now: do I feel any different being a woman in that industry? But, it's what I always wanted: just to be a session musician. Initially, ever since I was 11 years old. I never thought, 'Well, I'm woman. I can't do that.'"
But of course, Fleenor says, there were a few moments. You know, those moments in studios.
"There have been a few times, not now, but in the past, when I was starting to get hired more for master sessions or just more sessions in general. Every once in a while I'd get that look. Like, ‘here's the girl.’"
“Now, I stay so busy, I don't even think about it, really. Those are all my buddies of course in the category that I work with on the daily. I love all of them."
And that includes her boss, Shelton, who has been nothing but encouraging and supportive, even celebratory, despite his own surprising lack of nominations for this year’s show.
"I got to sound check because we were on tour, and even Blake's manager had told me congratulations," she said smiling.
"We're in sound check, we had done a couple of songs…and not that I expected him to say anything, but I figured he knew. And Kara, the vocalist, she goes, 'Blake, Blake, did you hear the news about Jenee?'"
"She told him, and he turned around and he hugged me so big…he had no idea. He's just the best."
For Fleenor, the reward was always the opportunity to chase her dream and wake up every day as she headed out to sessions or bus call to the realization that her dream had come true. But now that the ACM nomination is in the picture, the game has changed. Well, at least a bit. Fleenor isn’t going to deny herself a small amount of celebration.
But most importantly, she hopes her nomination will speak directly to the hearts and minds of future generations wondering and dreaming to follow in her footsteps.
"If there are any little girls out there wanting to do this someday: don't let it stand in your way. It never really occurred to me, maybe it would be a bump in the road being a woman, you know? Trying to break through this. Don't let it be a hiccup.”
That's advice to take to heart.
Fleenor and her fellow ACM Studio Recording nominees will find out who wins in their respective categories during the annual ACM Honors, held each year at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.