On the Screen, On the Beach With Kenny Chesney

In the course of 10 years, Chesney’s talent and tenacity have transported him from tiny clubs throughout the nation to his recent triumph of headlining a concert before 61,000 fans at the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium.

The Knoxville performance was filmed for the new CMT special, Kenny Chesney: Back Where I Come From, premiering Friday (Aug. 1) at 8 p.m. ET/PT. The concert special includes appearances by Kid Rock, Uncle Kracker and NFL superstar Peyton Manning.

Building his career on hit records and an insatiable appetite for touring, Chesney further established his artistic identity through music videos. Returning to the beach for his current single and music video — “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” — the 35-year-old crooner has all but taken over the tropics as his own personal Margaritaville.

Although the song’s lyrics cite Mexico as the idyllic getaway, Chesney introduces his video with a spoken tribute to “the islands,” presumably those in the Caribbean. “They’re the one place where you can truly be who you are,” he rhapsodizes, “where it doesn’t matter what you’ve done [or] how you make your life. You’re just there, with the sun, the sand and the sea. The notion of no shoes, no shirts, no problems isn’t a song title but a way of life — my way of life — where I feel the most alive, where I feel the most settled. When I’m not with you, the fans, out there on the road, it’s where I feel really at home.”

The video is pure Chamber of Commerce scenics, with emerald water, white beaches, brown skin, amber sunsets and a surfeit of coconut-based elixirs. Let others sing of dead-end jobs, bad marriages and hungry kids. In his best-of-all-possible worlds, Chesney is the cocky high school senior headed south for spring break.

Videos did a lot to establish the singer’s well-muscled image long before he was filling arenas with it. He made his first three clips — “Whatever It Takes,” “The Tin Man” and “Somebody’s Callin’” — for Capricorn Records in 1993 and 1994. While they earned him a fair amount of exposure, they did little to distinguish him from the other upstarts.

In 1995, Chesney switched to BNA Records, his current label, and opened that association with the light-hearted and catchy video, “Fall in Love.” Still in search of a look that was distinctively his own, he wore a brown cowboy hat and a loose white, long-sleeved shirt. But he had already perfected that hip-swiveling, let’s-get-it-on attitude that became increasingly evident as he poured out his feelings to the sweet young thing sitting there with a heart-shaped box of candy clasped to her bosom.

“That’s Why I’m Here,” Chesney’s fifth video for BNA, marked a departure from the artist’s usually sunny countenance. Dark, foreboding and institutional looking, the production depicted an alcoholic trying to come to terms with his affliction. Even here, though, Chesney seemed more like a wayward youth than a ground-down drunk.

“How Forever Feels,” his first video romp in the tropics, gave fans the Kenny Chesney they know and cherish today. Lots of skin. Lots of grins. Lots of muscle-flexing. (It was also Chesney’s first video to make CMT’s best-of-the-year list, coming in at No. 4. )

The hunk who emerged in “How Forever Feels” put all his sexual energy to work in his next video, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” It may have been the girl who was turned on by agricultural implements here, but it was Chesney who caught the fever. His bumping, grinding and water-splashing at the end of the clip are among the most torrid scenes in country-video history. No wonder that the explosive sound of a tractor starting up has become such a staple — and such a reliable crowd-inciter — at his concerts.

Chesney returned to the beach for “I Lost It.” This is a puzzling piece, though, and may have more to do with the singer’s well-known penchant for vacationing in the Virgin Islands than it does with his art. It seems strange that one would trek to a touristy seaside resort while in the throes of heartache, as he does here, and then ignore the one available lady who might help him salve his wound. Such fine points probably don’t matter, however, given the fact that one got to see Chesney in his beachwear. Maybe that was enough.

“Young” conveyed the quintessential Chesney — old enough to look back with fondness yet young enough to meet teenagers on their own turf. Here was Kenny posing in a varsity jacket and Kenny standing outdoors, rockin’ with the band and looking as buff as a high school jock. Who knew the Fountain of Youth bubbled up in his native East Tennessee!

A part of Chesney’s appeal is his pensiveness. After all, even a party animal has to pause now and then to take stock. It’s not so much growing up as thinking about growing up. That was the theme of “The Good Stuff,” in which he listened to an older and wiser man (the bartender) explain why a lovers’ spat was no reason to hit the sauce.

Chesney clearly told his own story in “Big Star,” even though the narrative was built around a female performer. Of course, that’s the story of every overlooked and underrated kid who beat the odds and then came roaring back to dazzle his former detractors. On another level, the video — with its whirl of stage lights, sexy costumes and phalanx of security guards — was every fan’s fantasy of what it’s like to be a superstar.

But, Chesney’s discovered, when the spotlight becomes too bright, there’s always the healing shade of a palm tree and the soothing wash of the surf.

View the best of the videos in CMT.com’s Kenny Chesney Stream-a-thon.

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