Kenny Chesney Pauses for New Year, Then Rocks On

The revelers at Nashville’s Gaylord Entertainment Center Monday night (Dec. 31) were more excited by Kenny Chesney staying than the new year arriving. The singer was barely 40 minutes into his show when midnight struck. After a modest fireworks display, a balloon drop and a group hug on stage, the scene reverted to the normal state of pandemonium Chesney inspires these days.

Backed by a dazzling and dynamic seven-piece band, Chesney had most of the audience on its feet from the instant he strode into the spotlight at 11:20 p. m. until he made his final bow at 12:50 a. m. In the country music pantheon, the diminutive East Tennessean struts like a rock god.

Indeed, Chesney and his opening acts — Jamie O’Neal , Phil Vassar and Sara Evans — all salted their sets with various rock standards from the 60s, ’70s and ’80s. Wearing his trademark black hat and sleeveless, muscle-baring shirt, Chesney opened his segment with a fusillade of his own hits — “Don’t Happen Twice,” “She’s Got It All,” “Fall in Love,” “What I Need to Do” and a medley of “That’s Why I’m Here,” “Me and You” and “You Had Me From Hello.” He then went on to showcase his catchy and nostalgic new single, “Young.”

Following a heart-tugging rendition of “The Tin Man,” Chesney paused for the arrival of 2002. While the crowd batted at the cascade of orange balloons, he brought visitors Barbara Mandrell and Mark Collie onstage to join and sing along with the cast as his band played “Auld Lang Syne.”

Although he worked hard and kept his patter to a minimum, Chesney couldn’t resist taking note of how far he’d come since his early days in Nashville, playing “seven nights a week” at The Turf, a seedy bar that once stood only a few yards from where he was now performing. “This is a pretty big difference from The Turf,” he said, as he looked out into the cheering legion.

“How many country girls are out there?” Chesney inquired late in his performance. Assured by their screams that there were plenty, he crooned back to them Conway Twitty ’s lubricous “I’d Love to Lay You Down.” He closed with a loping, extended reading of “How Forever Feels” — interspersed with a few lines from “Margaritaville” — but quickly returned to wind up the proceedings with “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” “You May Be Right” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”

By this time, the less-than-capacity crowd had thinned considerably. But the many who remained would have gladly given Chesney a second encore. As it was, hundreds of them moved to the edge of the stage as the star hurriedly autographed the balloons, T-shirts and other oddments held up to him.

Chesney was obviously the big draw, but O’Neal, Vassar and Evans had their pockets of partisans too. Vassar connected especially well with the audience, grinning and pacing confidently across the stage and leaping periodically onto the grand piano he played. With too few hits of his own to make a show, he filled in with hits he had co-written for others, including “I’m Alright” and “My Next Thirty Years.” He also delighted the throng with a dead-on version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” (complete with harmonica flourishes) and closed by lying atop the piano and spinning around on his stomach.

From the outset, Evans’ segment was marred by a ferocious electric lead guitar that efficiently drowned out her vocals. Gone were all vestiges of her acoustic country beginnings. She was determined to rock and subtleties be damned. Even so, the crowd was clearly in her corner, waving signs and frequently singing along with such fare as “I Could Not Ask for More” and “Born to Fly.”

O’Neal, who opened the show, also found a responsive audience for her by-now-familiar “There Is No Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels.” She further enlivened her half-hour set with spirited covers of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.”

Festive though it was, it was not an evening country purists would have found reassuring. But it looked like the face of country music to come.

Set List

Jamie O’Neal
“When I Think About Angels”
“You Rescued Me”
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
“There Is No Arizona”
“Son of a Preacher Man”

Phil Vassar
“Joe & Rosalita”
“I’m Alright”
“Rose Bouquet”
“My Next Thirty Years”
“That’s When I Love You”
“For a Little While”
“Piano Man”
“America the Beautiful”/”Just Another Day in Paradise”
“Six-Pack Summer”
“Workin’ for a Livin'”

Sara Evans
“The Great Unknown”
“Let’s Dance”
“I Keep Looking”
“Show Me the Way to Your Heart”
“No Place That Far”
“Fool, I’m a Woman”
“Every Little Kiss”
“Saints and Angels”
“I Could Not Ask for More”
“Born to Fly”
“Long Train Runnin'”

Kenny Chesney
“Don’t Happen Twice”
“She’s Got It All”
“Fall in Love”
“What I Need to Do”
Medley: “That’s Why I’m Here”/”Me and You”/”You Had Me From Hello”
“Back Where I Come From”
“Live Those Songs Again”
“The Tin Man”
“Auld Lang Syne” (the band)
“I Lost It”
“I’d Love to Lay You Down”
“How Forever Feels”
“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”
“You May Be Right”
“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to