Don’t hate him because he’s handsome.
Country hunk Kenny Chesney spent nearly 10 years as an opening act and B-list headliner before becoming the genre’s biggest breakthrough act in 2002. Few acts perform in arenas and amphitheaters; fewer acts fill those places.
Eleven months ago, Chesney headlined his first arena tour with low expectations among country music insiders, who considered Alan Jackson as the year’s guaranteed box-office attraction.
“I put myself on the line out there. I was scared to death,” Chesney said during a phone interview. “You hope you can sell tickets.”
Chesney did. More than Jackson, too. In a pattern that repeated itself nationwide, Chesney outdrew Jackson at the Dane County Coliseum in 2002 despite Jackson’s soaring fame. Sellout crowds marked Chesney’s 88-show tour.
“My band and I knew our lives were changing. This wasn’t us at the county fair. This wasn’t us in a theater,” he said. “People came to see us just like they came to see our musical heroes.”
Chesney returns to Madison Thursday night. Last March at the Dane County Coliseum, Chesney was prepared to release his “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” album. He’s still touring in support of that album – with nearly 3 million copies sold – but he promised a new show for his eight-month tour this year.
Although he’ll turn 35 in March, Chesney maintains one of country music’s youngest audiences. His last Madison show drew the most teens and twentysomethings (and an equal number of males and females) of any country arena act.
“We have a unique audience in country music,” Chesney said. “I love that. That means they’ll grow with us. We have a core country audience. We also have college and high school students who are listening to Dave Matthews, No Doubt, Kid Rock and us.”
Despite the age difference, Chesney, a bachelor, said he identifies with his crowd.
“I played a couple of amphitheaters where I saw Aerosmith and Jimmy Buffett play,” Chesney said, still sounding like a star-struck fan. “I was one of the guys out there partying on the grass. I look out there now and think, There’s a lot of me out there.’ ”
To his credit, Chesney acknowledged Nashville’s many star songwriters for helping lift him past other artists with tunes that led to much-sought radio airplay. (He also happily acknowledges the smash single, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” is a novelty tune.)
“But we’ve been able to get our hands on some songs that people could really sink their teeth into,” he said. “A record label can’t make fans go to the show then leave and tell others how good it was. That’s happened to us.”
His band and staff keep his ego in check, Chesney said, as he prepares to begin his second major arena tour.
“I’ve got a lot of guys around me that I grew up with,” said Chesney, a rural Tennessee native. “Just at the moment I think I’m Elvis, they knock me right back down.”