When Kenny Chesney’s current album, When the Sun Goes Down, made its debut atop the Billboard album chartnot just the best-selling country album but the best-selling album in the countryit no doubt took quite a few rock, rap and R&B fans by surprise. If some of them then had stumbled across a video clip of Chesney performing live, they might have been doubly taken aback. This guy running around the stage in a sleeveless Bruce Springsteen concert T to the roar of electric guitars, the guy sporting sculpted biceps and a tan so bronze it’d turn actor George Hamilton green with envy...this guy is a country singer?
Country fans, of course, weren’t in the least surprised. As is usually the case when a country disc reaches such a newly wide audienceWhen the Sun Goes Down sold nearly 600,000 copies in its first weekthe popular culture at large will treat as an unexpected discovery what the country audience knew all along. Since 1995, when Chesney began scoring Top 10 hits, he has sold over 13 million albums. Nearly one-third of those were for his previous CD, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems (now going on quadruple platinum), an album Chesney toured behind relentlessly on his way to becoming Pollstar’s third biggest ticket seller of 2003, behind only Springsteen and The Dave Matthews Band.
Kenny Chesney is well on his way to becoming the most successful male country artist since Garth Brooks. The title has to go to someone, of course, but why this guy, and why now?
“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” Chesney’s chugging 1997 novelty about a woman who appreciates her men down-to-earth, is the sort of goofy, all-play-no-work number that critics love to mock, in part because it’s so catchyand unforgettably goofy. Though popular in concert, it’s worth remembering that the larger country audience reached a similar conclusion about the single, not even pushing it into the Top 10. Still, the record serves many country fans and critics as shorthand for why Chesney isn’t taken seriously as an artist. (He was shut out of the Scene’s 2003 Country Music Critics Poll last month.) The occasionally weightier themes on his new album might eventually temper that response, but as is often the case, what the critics don’t get, the little girls understand.
Since the video for “Tractor” revealed a not exactly buff young singer (more like “She Thinks My Love Handles Are Sexy”), Chesney has transformed himself into a hard body. At 5-foot-6, he seems to share the desire, not uncommon among shorter men, to remedy his perceived lack by bulking up. Indeed, all those hours at the gymhe’s said to work out everyday, on the road and offhave paid off: In 2002, People named Chesney its “Sexiest Country Singer.” More recently, he appeared on an episode of Secrets of Superstar Fitness.
All of this accounts for some of his sex appeal, but don’t forget the appeal of that tractora symbol not of a hot celeb, but of a supremely ordinary, hardworking guy. Like Garth and any number of country singers before him, Kenny Chesney keeps his thinning dome topped by a cowboy hat. He’s ever so slightly dangerous. (He doesn’t swing from ropes in concert like Garth once did, but he and buddy Tim McGraw did rustle a horse once.) At the same time, he’s not afraid to get sensitive, as in his 2000 hit, “I Lost It.” Or, on his new album, to empathize with the lot of a hardworking, ordinary and therefore sexy woman in “The Woman With You.”
So, sure, sex and sexiness sell. But sex alone doesn’t sell multi-platinum. There’s got to be more to it.
Well before he was a superstar, Kenny Chesney sometimes ended his sets with a version of “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” Originally a hit for George Jones in 1985, the song wonders aloud what will become of country music without the likes of “ol’ Marty, Hank and Lefty,” who were long gone even when Jones cut the song. In it, the singer also worries over what will happen to country music without Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich and Carl Perkins. Each of these giants died during the decade in which Chesney graduated from East Tennessee State, moved to Nashville, secured a record deal, dropped “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” from his sets and became a superstar.
Still, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” anticipated where Chesney would take his music in one respect: Like several of his most popular recordings, the song depends for much of its effect upon the reflected glory of the beloved song titles it mentions and the famous names it drops. For instance, “I Go Back,” one of two songs on Chesney’s new album that he wrote by himself and a track so ridiculously catchy that it’s sure to dominate radio playlists at some point this year, makes reference to “Jack and Diane” by John Cougar, “Rock’n Me” by The Steve Miller Band, and “Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel.
Both “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” and “I Go Back” employ emotional shorthand, but this similarity matters less than how the songs are different. The first questions the enduring vitality of country music while the second confirms the enduring vitality of rock. It’s Chesney’s embrace of this latter quality, both as subject and sound, that parallels his leap to stardom.
During his last major tour, Chesney took the stage to the thunder of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” and encored with “Jack and Diane.” In between, he delivered the sort of high-energy, rock-inspired extravaganza pioneered for the country crowd by Garth Brooks. Like Garth, Kenny puts on a rock-country showor, if you prefer, a country-rock showin which neither side of the hyphen gets shorted.
Indeed, “Live Those Songs,” a track from No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems and a staple of recent live performances, opens with the mournful whine of a rusty fiddle, then instantly morphs into a fierce AC/DC-style guitar lick. It sounds as if it might’ve been sampled outright from Back in Black rather than merely borrowed from the album by a hotshot Nashville studio guitarist. The song itself honors the music of CCR, Buddy Holly, Jimmy Buffett and Otis Reddingnot so much as an urban cowboy in the bunchand includes an “ax” solo of the eyes-closed, more-notes-the-better variety that Jack Black’s character liked to play in School of Rock.
Since Chesney’s “I Lost It” went to No. 3 on the country chart in 2000, most of his singles, and many of his album tracks, build to a guitar cliché just like that song does. The results showcase a flailing, crank-it-to-11 style previously associated not with country singers but with dinosaur guitar rockers like Van Halen, Joe Walsh, George Thorogood and any number of other old-school acts that still crowd the playlists of classic rock stations throughout the South, the Midwest and much of the rest of the country.
All these hard-rock guitars point to another explanation for Chesney’s success: that whole “Young Country” thing.
@lede2The incorporation of rock elements into country music has been going on for precisely as long as there have been rock elements to incorporate. What Chesney knows, and what Brooks understood before him, is that much of today’s country audience is primed for the incorporation of a newer kind of rock, albeit one by now already a quarter-century old. As Chesney told one interviewer, “Music is about celebrating what we have in common.” In 2004, country fans don’t have Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings or even Randy Travis in common any more than they do “ol’ Marty, Hank and Lefty.” Before too long, they may not have George Strait in common.
Like Garth’s legions of Young Country fans, Chesney’s followers are often younger than what traditionally has been considered the age of the core country audience. One consequence of this shift is that Chesney’s country fans are likely to define themselves as not just country fans. Chesney has often noted that, when he gazes over his concert audiences, he sees kids wearing T-shirts for The Dave Matthews Band, Kid Rock (with whom Chesney has recorded) and Britney Spears.
What do these kids have in common? One thing they certainly shareand this is true whether they’re Chesney’s fellow East Tennesseans gathered for a “hometown” concert in Knoxville, or high school girls posing for party pix at a suburban shed near Kansas City, or members of a fraternity or sorority in some college town in Texasis a lifetime of exposure to classic rock radio.
In many respects, so-called classic rock is now like a modern version of traditional music. The format more or less includes the rock originally enjoyed by the Baby Boom generation. In the case of Chesney’s audience, however, it specifically means the favorites of those heartlanders born at the tail end of that generation. So along with the acts already mentioned, think too of Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen (whose “One Step Up” Chesney covered on No Shoes), Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, .38 Special, Kansas and Boston, among many others.
That a significant chunk of Chesney’s audience wasn’t even born when most of these acts were first getting airplay on album-oriented-rock stationsthe singer himself was barely in junior highoverlooks the larger phenomenon. These 1970s acts emerged during the period when rock ceased to be antisocial music of greasers, hippies and other outcasts and became an institution accepted and nearly beloved by all. Today, thanks to constant radio play, VH1 and their parents’ record collections, kids inherit this music in the same way previous generations were bequeathed “The Wildwood Flower” or “Walking the Floor Over You.”
Put it another way: If Roy Acuff (like Chesney a native of the Smoky Mountains) were to tour the region today, he’d be more likely to hear “Sweet Home Alabama” blasting from pickups than “Wabash Cannonball.” And if Chet Atkins (whom Chesney has surpassed as the most famous citizen ever to leave Luttrell, Tenn.) could revisit the old homeplace, he’d hear his own music less often than the guitar work of, say, Duane Allman or Eddie Van Halen. He’d also hear plenty of Kenny Chesney records, which, guitar-wise, amounts to the same thing.
This intersection of classic rock and young adulthood explains a great deal about not only the sound of Chesney’s music but also its point of view. After all, only those who haven’t made it around the block a few times could hear the absolutes found in many of Chesney’s Top 10 hits and sing along without ironyor without yet having learned the lessons taught by experience: Life is unpredictable, and purely happy endings are mere illusions created by the omission of subsequent details.
In the songs Chesney has turned into Top 10 hits, happy endings have been all but inevitable. When he declares uncertainly in the first chorus of 2000’s “What I Need to Do” that he should turn his car around and return to the woman he loves, it is no surprise when, in the final chorus, he does. “The thing that is so cool about ['That’s Why I’m Here’],” Chesney has explained, “is that it’s about an alcoholic who’s struggling to get better, but it has a happy ending.”
In Chesney’s material, everything works out, especially love, and it works out forever. Think, for instance, of 1996’s “Me and You” (“A love this true...is suited for eternity”) or 1995’s “All I Need to Know” (“I’ll always have you to hold”) or, especially, his 1999 chart topper “You Had Me From Hello.” The kicker is that Chesney concludes the song by announcing not just that she “had” him but that, “I loved you from Hello.” This is a conception of love so fairy-tale-ish it’s hard to believe anyone of drinking age could sing along with a straight face. You loved her? From Hello?
Chesney’s youth movement also makes sense of why he cuts so many songs about high school and college. During one stretch of 2001-02, he scored three hits in a row referencing high school: “Don’t Happen Twice,” “Young” (“We were wannabe rebels who didn’t have a clue / With our rock ’n’ roll T-shirts and our typically bad attitudes”) and “The Good Stuff.”
Like the title track to No Shoes, Chesney’s new album is packed with references to “spring breaks in Panama” and other road-trip getaways filled with sand, sun and fruity rum drinks. His upcoming tour is called the “Guitars, Tiki Bars & a Whole Lotta Love” Toursponsored by Cruzan Island Rumand he has just finished a series of shows in the university towns of the Southeastern Conference. On the “Keg in the Closet” Tour, named for a track on his new album, Chesney presumably found plenty of takers for his current duet single with Uncle Krackera beach house fantasy about sunning all day and drinking all night called “When the Sun Goes Down.” At the merch tables, attendees could purchase a Kenny Chesney Shell Necklace, a Kenny Chesney Beach Towel, or a pair of Kenny Chesney Black “Good Stuff” Thong Panties.
This, as the cliché goes, is not your father’s country music.
Then again, not all of Chesney’s fans are slamming shots at all-night wet T-shirt contests in Daytona Beach. Partying like that takes a hell of a lot of energy, and some of us have to go to work in the morning. All of which suggests another key to Chesney’s popularity: the Margaritaville Factor.
Though not entirely as accurate as it once was, the old saw that “Country music is for grown-ups” remains a truism. And many grown-up fans enjoy a sunny ode to a beachfront vacation as much as the kids do, albeit perhaps for different reasons.
For those for whom either high school or college is an increasingly foggy and idealized memory, life in the real world likely means 40 or 50 or more hours a week behind a counter or at the wheel, in a cubicle or on the assembly line. Worse, they can look forward to more of the same for nearly the rest of their lives, and that’s if they’re lucky.
To these fans, a vacation spent strenuously trying to get laid, repeatedly shouting “Wooh!” with their fists upraised, and imbibing until they lose consciousness, might just sound like more work. Much closer to perfect would be a chance to do nothing at all, to stretch out all day on a beach sipping a drink with an umbrella in it and dozing.
Maybe, if Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” (a song Chesney has included in his set lists) or “Margaritaville” comes on the transistor, you raise your glass and sing, “Salt, salt, where’s the goddamned salt,” at the appropriate moment. Or you smile and sigh and hum along with The Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Or maybe you just roll over and go back to sleep. Older Chesney fans might not know who in the world Uncle Kracker is, but when they hear him and Chesney sing, “All day long just takin’ it easy, laying in a hammock, nice ’n’ breezy,” they sure as hell know what he means.
This common need for what might best be termed restorative indolencewhere literal shiftlessness is for once an idealremains for most of us largely unfulfilled. There are bills to pay, houses to keep up, a college fund to feed. Where will the money be found, let alone the time, to really get away? Not just to take a drive down to the lake or the river for the weekend, as folks do in hits by Alan Jackson and Darryl Worley, but a trip someplace novel or exotica seaside resort or a Caribbean Cruise. For most working-class fans of country music, such a getaway won’t be a regular event but, at best, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. So they’ll turn up the radio longingly when they hear Chesney’s “When the Sun Goes Down” or dream along with Garth Brooks and his 1997 hit, “Two Piña Coladas.”
“My fans know life can be difficult, which is why they want to make their good times count,” Chesney has explained. A good vacation is one where they can escape those difficulties and relax. As Chesney puts it in another of his island-themed hits, “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems”: “Blues? What blues? I forgot ’em.”
When the Sun Goes Down is the best album of the singer’s career. It deliberately plays up all of the elements that have coalesced into the “brand recognition” that Kenny Chesney now enjoys. (Like Garth, Chesney was a marketing major in college). But now and then it also allows for an emotional complexity previously unheard in his music. This is perhaps best illustrated by the album’s first two tracks: “There Goes My Life” and “I Go Back.”
The latter cutthe one where Chesney mentions songs by John Cougar Mellencamp, Steve Miller and Billy Joelis the sort of nostalgic, up-tempo anthem for which Chesney has become so well known. Yet in its final verse, after a brief School of Rock-style guitar solo, we unexpectedly find that it’s not dreamy nostalgia that sends Chesney back through the years whenever he hears “Only the Good Die Young.” It’s the unpredictable death of an old high-school friend.
Even better is “There Goes My Life,” the new album’s debut single. The ballad’s first verse presents a kid who has to give up on his dreams to see the world when he finds he’s just become a father. The second verse offers a reversal, the It’s a Wonderful Life moment you’d expect from a contemporary country hit: The child he thought had robbed him of his life has become his life, her pictures and drawings plastered all over the front of the fridge.
But it’s the last verse that knocks you on your heels, offering that rarest of emotions on country radio: ambivalence. The band newly quiet around him, the song’s narrator watches his college-bound daughter pull away in a used Honda, off to live the very dreams he gave up nearly two decades before.
“There goes my life,” Chesney sings, gulping with pride. “There goes my life,” he gulps again, unsure of what will become of him now that his reason for living is gone. It’s in that moment that the experiences of Chesney’s youth and adult audiences come together into what is the country music audience, 2004. And it’s precisely the sort of intense, nuanced moment that Garth Brooks shared with his audience a decade before with songs like “The Dance.”
Chesney began his rise to superstardom during the same period in which Brooks began his decline. This suggests one more explanation for Chesney’s success, perhaps the best one of all. Indeed, for several years now, the previously most successful progenitor of ordinary sex appeal, rockin’ country, Young Country and working-class dreams has all but disappeared from country radio, off licking his Chris Gaines-inflicted wounds and playing spring training baseball for charity.
Why Kenny Chesney? Where else was Garth’s audience going to go?
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