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Almost a Teen Queen

Issue 67, Winter 2009

Photograph courtesy of Kenni Huskey.

We are obsessed with certain teenage performers—those angelic girls who grow up before us, tease us with their wholesale virginity. We deify them; we fall in love, only to feel embarrassed when they become ungainly sexual adults. We enable both their triumph and deterioration; we already know too many of these stories to bother listing.

Country music, generally a safe realm for a young starlet to enter, established early on a retinue of guitar-strumming ingenues. In country music, it’s easy to be wholesome, desexualized, and pleading. After all, the themes of adolescence translate naturally into the heartache the genre loves. But how terrifying anyway, to be a vulnerable female child-performer learning to please a promoting parent, to charm a feckless audience, to stand up to the prejudices of critics whose faces are just a shuffling shadow beneath the white-hot lights.

Bill Huskey, a go-getting sawmiller brimming with confidence, took his family to Memphis when he got it in his mind that he could be a country star. He sold a few songs, and kicked around Sun Studios with a few of his cronies from back home in Newport, Arkansas, while holding down a day job as a mechanical engineer in a food-processing plant. He booked clubs regularly based on his showmanship alone, and he knew how to pack a house. But the minute he heard his little Kenni belt along with him, he knew his country-music dream was over—it now belonged to her. 

Blessed with a helplessly big voice, Kenni Huskey began performing at age seven on the Memphis program Country Shindig in 1962, singing with local country and rockabilly stalwart Eddie Bond. For her first taping, she was too tiny to reach the microphone, and Eddie stacked two wooden Coca-Cola crates so her little face could reach it. Androgynously clad in embroidered Western shirts and clunky cowboy boots, she began appearing regularly and began playing clubs, her father coaching her along the way. 

Around 1966, thirteen-year-old Kenni traded her Roy Rogers getup for floral blouses, square-dancing skirts, mini-dresses, and go-go boots. Armed with a set of Judy Garland–caliber brown eyes, precocious pipes, and a guitar emblazoned with her name, Kenni cut the 45 “Mister Future” with the flipside “Wild Man Tamer,” both originals penned and produced by her daddy Bill. 

Now, surely her father meant no harm. Here he was, shrewd as ever, speculating what could be Kenni’s hit. Accounting for her age and vocal style, he knew he had two choices, two ways to portray her, two chances for country to accept Kenni, running breathlessly into its arms. The first, “Mister Future,” is like a Brenda Lee ballad: sighworthy, twinkling, the soundtrack for a teen doodling her initials with some boy’s in endless equations on her notebook, but the other, “Wild Man Tamer,” braces with Loretta Lynn’s fist-making schtick: ruthless sass and sexual confidence. Suddenly Kenni’s not even interested in a promise ring—it’s wild men she’s up against. With a voice like a foot-stamp and a hand on a cocked hip, she declares she’s the one who will tame that “sneakin’ snake,” yet she’s only thirteen years old. The single didn’t garner much airplay—outside of a few of Bill’s DJ pals around Tennessee. He simply didn’t have the wherewithal to promote Kenni’s music beyond door-knocking and favor-asking. 

Before long, Bill’s plant transferred him out to Southern California. He kept Kenni on the singing circuit there, where she headlined into her mid-teens. Being the late Sixties, and California being the new hotbed for country music, Bill was convinced he had to get Buck Owens to hear her. So Bill snuck fifteen-year-old Kenni backstage on a Friday night at an Owens-sponsored “Toys for Tots” benefit. Before Buck’s manager Jack McFadden could kick them out, Bill insisted Jack listen to Kenni. Instead, Jack asked them to come around to Buck’s office the following week. She was signed to Capitol that Monday; taken under Buck’s professional wing, touring with the Buck Owens All American Show, taping over twenty-five episodes of Buck Owens' Ranch Show, and appearing in at least six episodes of Hee Haw. Local reporters even singled her out of Owens’s palatial lineup, saying, “Miss Huskey’s voice is exactly that”—meaning husky—“likening her to a muleskinner in a miniskirt.” In every press photo, she was right at Buck’s side with a wide grin, her hemline rising over a pair of well-filled nylons like a cabaret curtain.

It seemed like it was going to happen. Kenni was going to land a hit, she was going to break out; everything had worked so far—she had not one, but two show-dads presenting and supporting her. Around eighteen, she struck out on her own, signing with Warner Brothers and relocating to Nashville. But nothing much transpired—except Kenni fell in love. And her man, a defiantly non-show-business type, asked her to return to South Carolina with him. So she did. She cut albums when she could, in Europe and stateside. She toured when she could. 

So Kenni chose an unnoticed life instead of continuing to gamble on stardom. And by the formula we can collectively recite from the tabloid memory we willfully subscribe to, perhaps it’s better she didn’t explode before us. It was the early Seventies after all, when even country became a pill-besotted affair, when even blatant sex appeal snuck into its ranks through Jeannie C. Riley’s smolder and Tammy Wynette’s Barbie hair. Perhaps it would have been a trap for an earnest, beaming teen who had been raised loving performance, who knew nothing else. We can express relief for Kenni, who feels no grief about leaving it all behind, whose voice—albeit a little creased around the edges—gives no hint of regret. Whose father Bill remains her closest companion and not her apologist and not her exploiter, whom she moved to North Carolina to be close to after her cancer diagnosis. We don’t have to feel sorry for Kenni. Hers isn’t one of those stories we should be ashamed to tell. 

Natalie Elliott

Natalie Elliott has written for such publications as VICE, Slate, and The Paris Review Daily. She lives with her husband, Nick, in Austin, Texas, where she teaches high school.