While other artists have streaked momentarily across the musical landscape only to fade back into obscurity, Kenny Chesney has built his career the old-fashioned way: one step, one hit, one gold record at a time - "like a slow burning fuse on the way to a big explosion" is how Billboard described Chesney's gradual yet steady ascension.
"It has been a slow build," says the 29-year-old East Tennessee-born singer, whose first single release, aptly titled "Whatever It Takes," came out in November, 1993. "All along I've just tried to learn everything I can and take small, little-bitty steps, no matter what they were, just knowing that one day I'd be able to look back and see I've covered a lot of ground. And it's worked, especially in the past couple of years. We've really established a fan base, and it's continuing to grow."
"Conway Twitty was always one of my favorite performers, and he always said that he tried to record songs that the
women loved, and which said things that the men always wanted to say to the women but couldn't. Well, if I can do that too, then that's
definitely what I want to do."
Other musical dimensions and ambitions are also fleshed out by this versatile, seasoned young artist who grew up in
Luttrell, Tennessee (the birthplace of Chet Atkins) surrounded by country music, but listening to "everything from old Keith Whitley
and Ricky Skaggs bluegrass records and George Jones to
Lynyrd Skynyrd and James Taylor."
"No matter how good a song is, I just can't make it believable if my heart's not a hundred percent into it, and
ultimately that's what I have to go on," he explains of his arduous song-screening process. "I've passed on songs that I knew would be hits and later were big hits by other artists. But that's okay, because I know they wouldn't have been hits for me, because my heart wouldn't have been in them."
If Chesney's career has unfolded a little differently
than others, it should be no surprise that his personal history, as it
pertains to his musical development, has a few unique twists, as well.
"I'm not one of these guys who can sit here and
tell you that since I was four years old I knew I wanted to be a country
singer," Chesney laughs. "I think it's often b.s. when people
say that anyway. To be honest, I never dreamed about being a singer as a
kid. Never once gave it a thought. I was mainly just growing up and
playing sports. I didn't know what I wanted to do until I was in college
at East Tennessee State in Johnson City. "Even then," he adds,
"it wasn't like I just woke up one day and decided, I'm gonna be a
country singer!' It just happened, just evolved into what I do. I was in
college, I got a guitar, I learned a lot about it. Then all the sudden
I'd written a few songs, then I was out playing clubs and making a
little money here and there. And ya know, about another year after that
I was doing it all the time. It wasn't till I got out in the clubs that
anyone ever said to me, 'Man, you really oughta try to do something with
Kenny Chesney became a fixture at prestigious
Johnson City area venues – a Mexican restaurant called Chuckie's
Trading Post and Quarterback's Barbecue. "The scene up there then
was mostly blues, rock, and folk," he recalls. "I was about
the only one doing George Jones and
Hank, Jr. I got to where I had a
pretty good following."
An awakening of sorts came when he went into the
Classic Recording Studio in Bristol, Virginia. Backed by several
musicians he knew from college who are now the core of
band, he recorded an album's worth of songs he'd written. When he
pressed up a thousand copies and sold them all at his shows and made
enough to buy a new Martin guitar, he realized he was onto something.
A month after graduating college with a degree in
advertising he headed down I-40 West to Nashville in early 1991 where,
"I dug my feet in, took a deep breath, and went for it."
The going was slow the first couple years. He made the
rounds of the publishing companies without much success. He went to see
the only person he knew in the business, producer Kyle Lehning, who told
him, "You've definitely got something, but it ain't there
Setting out to meet as many people in the business as
he could, Kenny Chesney made one steadfast ally: Clay Bradley,
head of publisher/writer relations at BMI. After countless turndowns by
publishers, Bradley, in 1992, set up an audition with Acuff-Rose, one of
Music City's oldest and most venerated song mills. Chesney came out of
the audition with a songwriter's contract. A year or so later, an
appearance one night at a songwriter's showcase led to a recording
contract with Capricorn Records, which had recently started a country
division. "The whole Capricorn deal was a very big emotional roller
coaster ride," Chesney remembers. "Of course, for that matter,
the whole music business is the biggest roller coaster ride in the
Ultimately, Capricorn had neither the clout or the
staying power to get much done with Chesney's impressive debut album.
He'd had only a couple of modest chart singles when the label closed its
Nashville office. But one of his 1994 singles, a song he wrote called
"The Tin Man," stirred considerable interest up and down the
Row, despite only making it to Number 70. Almost immediately there was
interest from several majors. RCA's Joe Galante put in a call and not
only offered Chesney a contract, but also offered to buy the masters of
his Capricorn album.
That's when the long, slow climb began in earnest.
Though his Capricorn LP sold only about 100,000 units, "All
I Need To Know," his debut 1995 BNA disc, more than tripled
that figure, setting the stage for his gold-certified second BNA album,
"I'd be lying if I told you there wasn't a lot of
frustration at first because I wasn't getting much airplay and was kind
of perceived as an independent artist," Chesney acknowledges.
"But my real goal in this business is to treat people good and
build the kind of relationships so I can stay around a long time. Ten or
even twenty years from now, if I'm still lucky enough to be having hits,
or even if I'm not, I still would like to be able to go out and tour all
"Well, I don't know how long the good Lord's
gonna let me be in this music business, or even be this successful at
it," he adds with a warm, measured smile. "So while I'm here I
want to enjoy every minute of it."