Singer-songwriter Chris Hennessee spent three years of his young adulthood playing baseball at Maryville College, but his Blount County ties go back even further.
Hennessee, who comes back to town to headline an indoor show on Saturday at The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint, remembers well how, as a kid, his grandfather would take him to South Dakota every October to go pheasant hunting. Those trips were organized, Hennessee told The Daily Times recently, by Lynn Brown, a retired football coach and principal at Maryville High School.
“That was probably in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and I remember Coach Brown left his red Maryville baseball cap in my grandfather’s hunting truck,” Hennessee said. “That was the year Maryville won the state championship in baseball, and I wore that red Maryville cap all summer. He was awful proud of that hat, but I never did give it back. I’ve known him for a long time, and he and I are really good friends.”
That championship year was 1989, and six years later, Hennessee would come to Maryville College as a baseball player himself. He was already playing music then, living on Court Street in downtown Maryville, and as a student, he made his first foray to Nashville, where he did some impromptu busking in front of Gruhn Guitars. It’s one of many nostalgic memories that make Blount County a fond place to which he returns from time to time, when he’s not touring the country playing guitar for country star Jamey Johnson or promoting his own music.
“Being at Maryville College was great, because it was close to home (Hennessee is a native of Decatur), and I could load up and be there in an hour,” he said. “I remember one time I took a bunch of baseball buddies back home and took them out in the woods late at night to scare them. I told them I was going to show them this old cemetery, and I had a cousin with a chainsaw waiting up there.
“If I could get all things to line up, I’d move to Maryville. It’s still one of my favorite places, and some of my fondest memories are just taking advantage of the surroundings and going up to the mountains — going skiing in Gatlinburg, or going over to Knoxville and playing shows.”
Hennessee started playing music and writing songs as a teen, drawing on country and Southern rock for a sound that landed him gigs at bars along the Cumberland Avenue “Strip” in Knoxville. In 1998, he left Maryville College to move to Nashville, eking out gigs where he could until a respected music publisher heard him one evening and signed him to a deal with RPM Management.
He stayed with the company for six years, getting up in the mornings and writing songs for the company, getting off work and going down to Lower Broadway to play for the locals and tourists alike until 2 a.m. In 2001 or so, he found himself running in the same circles as guys who have gone on to become marquee names — Randy Houser and Jamey Johnson, the latter of whom took Hennessee under his wings a few years later. Hennessee became a member of Johnson’s band and was tapped to open shows when Johnson was the headliner, and ever since, the ride has gotten a lot more interesting, he said.
“It’s been busy, busy, busy,” he said. “When I’m not doing my own shows, I’m going out on the road with Jamey. I ended up meeting (up-and-coming country artist) Cody Jinks, who did a lot of opening slots for Jamey, and he and I got to be pals. When I talked to him last year, I asked him when he was cutting (a record) again and told him, ‘Let me send you some songs.’ I sent him a few, and ‘Ramble’ was one of them.”
“Ramble” — which happens to be the title track of Hennessee’s 2018 record — was included on Jinks’ 2019 release “The Wanting.” Hennessee has also penned songs for artists like Rodney Carrington, Billy Currington, Corey Morrow, Johnson and up-and-coming country star Cody Johnson, whom Hennessee describes as “the next George Strait.”
“I’ve got high hopes for him,” Hennessee said. “He’s really going to blow up.”
In addition, he’s collaborated with the band The Wild Feathers, and their song “Hennessee” was featured on the TV show “Nashville.” Rolling Stone named him one of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” in 2018, and while doors continue to open, he never takes any of it for granted, he said. Case in point: Johnson’s annual summer gig at The Shed. Not only is he playing for sold-out crowds, he gets some red-carpet treatment that’s truly humbling, he added.
“Scott (Maddux, the owner of The Shed and Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson) gave me his personal motorcycle, a Heritage Springer, to let me use for two days the last time we were up there!” Hennessee said. “I rode it up to the Foothills Parkway, and it was amazing. I can’t say enough about that place. I’ve never played indoors there, but I’ve got a great band. I’m bringing most of Jamey’s guys, but I’m also bringing my buddy ‘Sparky’ — Mark Matejka.
“He plays guitar for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he and I have been playing together for 20 years. He was playing with the Charlie Daniels Band when we met, and it’s always off-the-charts good when he and I get together.”