HOT TALK: Garth For Christmas, Kenny For New Year’s Eve

(HOT TALK is a weekly column by longtime CMT.com contributing writer and former Billboard country music editor Edward Morris.)

Here Comes Santa Garth
I haven’t heard a word lately from Elvis or Osama bin Laden, but I do have it on good authority that Garth Brooks is still around. A friend tells me that the Garthman recently sent a 5-foot tall Norfolk pine Christmas tree, decorated with a “huge red bow,” to Shari Boyd, who is mending from heart surgery. Boyd is the daughter of Fran Boyd, who recently retired as executive director of the Academy of Country Music. Brooks has long had a soft spot for the Academy which, in 1991, voted him its entertainer and male vocalist of the year awards, as well as honoring him for the year’s best album, single, song and music video.

Learning to Love Kenny
Once again I’m on deck to review Kenny Chesney ’s New Year’s Eve concert at the Gaylord Entertainment Center here in Nashville. It’s a gig I look forward to. Chesney always puts on a hard-driving show, and his long string of hits offer something provocative for everybody. A few years ago, however, I would have been considerably less enthusiastic about the assignment. Back then, I didn’t see the superstar Chesney was destined to be.

When it comes to spotting country music’s next big thing, I have a decidedly uneven record. I missed it completely with Hank Williams when, at the age of 13, I chanced to hear his new record, “Honky Tonkin’.” Having been raised on the dulcet tones and polite sentiments of Eddy Arnold and Red Foley , I was revolted by Williams’ raw, nasal voice and nasty outlook. “When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go,” he yowled, “just come to see me, baby, and bring along some dough and we’ll go honky tonkin’.”

While I was obviously a stranger to the niceties of adult romance, I felt there was something seedy about taking advantage of a depressed lady and then sticking her with the check. Little did I realize that I had just been struck by the opening shot of rock ’n’ roll — a format that prized neither smooth voice nor good manners. And it wasn’t until three years later, as I watched my fellow high school kids at summer camp sway dreamily to an amateur rendition of “Cold, Cold Heart” that I concluded Hank was probably here to stay.

Webb Pierce was an easy call, though. His first single, “Wondering,” which came out in 1952, was as lonely, forlorn and heart-crushing as those great World War II separation ballads that were still echoing in our collective memories. In those days, if your record could make grown men weep at the jukebox, you pretty much had it made in country music. Pierce had the power.

Willie Nelson had been putting out records for four years before I caught the wave in 1966 via his flat and ultra-bitter “One in a Row.” That song made me an instant convert and an annoyingly zealous missionary for his cause. The same held true with Glen Campbell . He was just another pleasant voice in the crowd his first five years of solo recording. Then, in 1967, came “Gentle on My Mind,” and suddenly I found myself jumping onto an already crowded bandwagon.

Ricky Skaggs , Randy Travis and Patty Loveless all won my heart from the first notes they recorded; but I confess to lagging behind when it came to appreciating the now-evident glories of Conway Twitty , Tom T. Hall , Alabama , Reba McEntire , George Strait , Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt .

In early 1989, I was interviewing Bob Doyle for a story on his music publishing company when he asked me if I had heard about this “new kid” he was managing, Garth Brooks. I hadn’t. So I sat there in his office and listened for the first time to “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “The Dance.” The songs were so much more contemplative and moving than anything else I’d been hearing that I was hooked on the spot. And I have remained so since.

Which brings me back to Chesney. He’s another talent I failed to see early. When he surfaced on the country charts in 1993 with the single “Whatever It Takes,” few people noticed. After all, this was the period when country music was riding the crest with the likes of Brooks, Jackson, Strait, Tritt, McEntire, Vince Gill , Clint Black and Brooks & Dunn . Moreover, Chesney was on Capricorn Records, a rock label not equipped to do battle with the country majors. His voice was strong and distinctive, but so were dozens of others. And there was nothing at all imposing about his image.

Because of his tepid chart performance and a vaporous image, many assumed — if they thought about him at all — that Chesney would quickly fall by the way. Neither Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music, which was published in 1995, nor the 1998 Encyclopedia of Country Music accorded him an entry.

However, BNA Records, a division of RCA, apparently saw something in Chesney that escaped the rest of us and signed him away from Capricorn. In 1995, BNA released Chesney’s “Fall in Love.” It went to No. 6 on the country charts and took him into a new territory of respect. Two years later, he scored his first No. 1, “She’s Got It All.” That same year, he earned his first gold album, Me and You. In 1999, he went platinum with I Will Stand. The follow-up album, Everywhere We Go, became his first — but not his last — double-platinum winner.

As Chesney was achieving his recording successes, his music videos were simultaneously shaping and sharpening his public personality. Instead of the eager but timid soul he originally seemed to be, he slowly emerged on film as a sensitive (“That’s Why I’m Here”), good-humored (“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”) and well-muscled (“How Forever Feels”) hunk. Spiriting him along, of course, was an equally well-muscled record label, an experienced and visionary manager and a publicist who trumpeted virtually every fluctuation of his body temperature. Chesney’s 2000 run-in with the Buffalo, N.Y., sheriff’s department added just the right element of bad boy to his good-guy persona.

I first saw Chesney perform live as one of Strait’s opening acts. He commanded the stage like a pulpit. It was clear that the crowd loved him and knew all his songs. A middle-aged, beer-bright woman who saw me taking notes told me she had driven all the way from east Tennessee to Nashville to see him. “He’s one of ours,” she said proudly.

Yes, ma’am. He is one of ours.

My eyes, ears and lines are open. E-mail your news and views to HotTalk@cmt.com.