STEEL MAGNOLIA

My life is a country song," admits Chalee Tennison, strumming her guitar in the bedroom of her White House, Tenn., home. She's not exaggerating either. The Freeport, Texas, native has weathered an unhappy childhood, teenage pregnancy, three divorces and two record deals. But Chalee's song has a happy ending. She's finally found true love with husband Mark Gillespie - and is celebrating her new DreamWorks record deal with the release of her third album, Parading in the Rain.

"There's a line in that title song that says, It's not raining on my parade - I'm parading in the rain," notes Chalee. "My attitude has always been to sing in the rain instead of quitting."

With a history like Chalee's, she could've easily sung the blues. Growing up in an often turbulent household, Chalee was tapped to help take care of her younger siblings every morning when her mother left for work - a task she resented. "I was very strong willed," she says, "and I got in trouble a lot because of my mouth. I had a lot of responsibility, and I lashed out because I didn't like it."

When she was 15, Chalee's mom and step-father kicked her out of their house. She went to live with her real father, whom she'd only just met. "It wasn't right for me there either," she confesses, "because here I was a 15-year-old, being raised by a man who really didn't know me. And my dad had too much going on."

It wasn't long before Chalee found herself pregnant - and hastily married - at age 16. "It was an escape for me," she admits. "All of a sudden I could make my own decisions. But I was relieved to get out of where I was, so it wasn't as scary. I guess God gives you the strength, and maternal instincts take over."

When Chalee was listening for songs for the new record, she heard "Easy Lovin' You" - the album's first single and virtually the story of her life, penned by a writer who had also been a teenage mom, aspiring singer Amber Leigh White. "I just cried and cried when I heard it," says Chalee. "It did a lot for me and my 16-year-old daughter, Tiffany. Teenagers have a lot of emotions and hormones - all just going nuts. And disagreements with Mom, like 'You don't love me,' or 'You won't let me do anything.' So it was a song that I needed to do for her, for us."

Recording the song was a bonding experience for both young mothers. "We were passing pictures back and forth, showing each other pictures of us with our babies, as we were growing up together," recalls Chalee. "Our high school prom pictures, when we were pregnant, things like that. And Tiffany sang harmony on the record. The whole experience was really great for all of us."

Chalee puts down the guitar and smiles, looking at her favorite room in her new house. She and Mark moved in the home last December, with Tiffany and Chalee's other children, daughter Haley, 11, and son Tyler, 8. "This is my area to get away," she says proudly. "It's my safe haven. I get to watch my shows, like TLC's Trading Spaces. That's where I get a lot of my decorating ideas from."

Chalee says her favorite decorating style is the popular Shabby Chic style, with muted colors and lots of roses.

"Half of my design comes from the roses my husband gives me," she explains with a smile. "All of the roses in the house are from him. I just dry them and hang them up. I don't really like other flowers. I like a mixture of Shabby Chic and Victorian styles - old stuff mixed with new."

Just then Mark comes into the room and Chalee's face lights up. Their wedding - Nov. 10, 2001 - almost didn't happen. "I refused to go out with him at first," says Chalee, "because he was a musician. But I thought he was cute, and we always kind of flirted. We'd known each other since 1998. He did a lot of, 'Come on, go out with me,' and I'd say, 'No way.'

"When I finally started dating him, I grilled him. I asked about everything. Once I met his parents I went, 'Oh yeah, I get it. You really are what you say.' That's what did it for me.

"I wrote 'I Am Love' about Mark. I wake up every morning happy now that I'm married to him."

And happy that she can, at last, be a good example when it comes to marriage. "The biggest blessing that's ever been given to me is to have a home that's filled with love, and to let my kids witness it. It's no secret that any child who grows up in a dysfunctional atmosphere will probably grow up dysfunctional themselves and see relationships the wrong way.

"Because I can now show my kids what marriage is supposed to be like, their expectations of what they want in a relationship are much higher than mine were when I was married before. Now I can show my children what a truly loving couple looks like."

No matter what happens from here on out, Chalee's learned to face adversity and the occasional challenge head-on. "I'm a fighter - I'm not a quitter," she declares. "My current single, 'Parading in the Rain,' is also me. As the song says, my hope is my umbrella. I could've easily tucked my tail and headed back to Texas, where it's a little bit cheaper to live and raise kids. But I didn't.

"I'm just going to run through the rain and get there somehow."

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