HOT DISH: Looking Back at Kenny Before He Said, “I Do”

Relationship With Renee Zellweger Was Best-Kept Secret in Nashville and Hollywood

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by former Country Music magazine columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at CMT.com.)

Hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back, Kenny broke his ankle in March when he fell on the steps of his beach home on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgins Island.

Mystery thickens. Whispers say, “His girlfriend” was there. What girlfriend? No one had an answer, and no one bothered to inform us peons that, just before Christmas, he’d broken up with the blonde who studied real estate. So we scratched where we itched, moved on and did not ask about the new girlfriend’s identity.

Nobody told us Kenny’s frame of mind held Renee Zellweger’s picture. It has to be the biggest, best-kept secret ever where Hollywood meets Vine and Music Row meets the roundabout.

About a month ago, his assistant recognized Kenny was completely enthralled with an actress and mentioned to an associate, “This may be the one.” Even this came out AV (after vows).

Remember how touchy and giggly Kenny was with Katie Couric when he previously appeared on the Today show. As a matter of fact, giggling, he said he thought Katie Couric had a cute smile. When questioned about Kenny following the appearance, Couric flippantly purred, “I can’t imagine going out with a guy who wears smaller jeans than I do.”

A couple of weeks ago, Katie brought Today to Music Town. Kenny was set to perform three songs during the show. We watched. Katie was very touchy and cutesy and giggly with Kenny. But unlike before — think back, fans — he was not responding with his touchiness and his giggles. He sang his songs, but where was his cute, nervous laugh? It was gone. Gone like the waves at St. John’s!

The first shocking news we got was from Kenny’s April 29 show in Jacksonville, Fla. David Farmer, his best friend and tour manager who served as best man at the wedding, did not take Kenny’s usual margarita onstage at the show. Renee Zellweger did that honor. This turned out to be her first appearance and public smooch with Chesney. Kenny’s PR person left hacks, fans and flaks assuming this was Zellweger’s first Chesney concert.

I mean, after all, she is from the flat town of Katy, Texas, while Kenny hails from hilly Lutrell, Tenn. Both are small towns, so there may be a common trait here if you can make the transition from Outlaw music and beef barbecue to Appalachian fiddle/guitar music and pork barbecue — or vice versa. “Never the twain shall meet” — or so we assumed from what we were not told.

Lo and behold, there was more shocking news: Kenny and Renee were spotted giggling, laughing, whispering and being kissy, huggy and touchy at the P.F. Chang’s restaurant in the Cool Springs area just south of Nashville. “Just driving through Nashville” was the Zellweger info we got.

It was almost dark the evening of May 9 when I learned the 37-year-old barefoot Chesney and 36-year-old Zellweger (wearing a Carolina Herrera gown) had repeated 15 minutes of nuptials before a female preacher on his island property. I could almost hear female sobs halfway across the U.S. of A. and hurriedly called my “Kenny-loving” niece who was silently weeping. She allowed, “I’m still driving miles to his concerts. Don’t matter if he’s married or single.”

Now I learn that one of the many people who work with him and for him had stopped by Chesney’s house for a business appointment and later told his mate, “Renee Zellweger was at Kenny’s house. They were acting real cozy.” But nobody uttered a word until AV (after vows).

I learned from another business associate that Zellweger also accompanied Chesney to his concert in Columbia, S.C., on April 30. Chesney made the introduction between the business associate and Zellweger. The associate confirmed, “She stuck her hand out, reached across the table and shook my hand. In my opinion, Renee is one of the nicest people ever to come out of Hollywood. There’s nothing fake about her. No prima donna. No attitude.” Added the business associate, who is a good judge of character traits, “She’s pretty, funny and extremely nice.” Of course, we heard this AV (after vows).

Were the tabloids sleeping? Forty-five people attended the wedding in the Virgin Islands, and nobody told anybody where they were going and why? This had to be the biggest “lock up and throw away the key” secret in the history of Music City or Hollywood. Not one “KENNY & RENNY” headline.

No two ways about it, Chesney and Zellweger are Nashville’s new power couple. Brad and Jennifer are yesterday, so that makes Kenny and Renee Hollywood’s new power couple. Maybe New York’s, too.

Kenny Chesney is the man. After several nominations, he was named the CMA’s entertainer of the year in November 2004, and that’s as big as it gets for a hillbilly. Zellweger was nominated for an Oscar for her roles in Chicago and Bridget Jones Diary and won the award for best supporting actress for her work in Cold Mountain, and that’s big as it gets for an actor. A couple on an even keel.

Giacomo won the Kentucky Derby with odds of 50 to 1. With those odds, maybe, just maybe, Kenny and Renee will make it to the home stretch, too. God bless them both.

Another Engagement, Another Marriage
My longtime friends — hillbilly star Terri Clark and her longtime road manager and guitarist Greg Kaczor — are engaged. Terri made the announcement last week.

Congratulations to Billy Dean and his schoolteacher girlfriend, Stephanie, who recently wed. Fans can view the wedding on the Montel Williams Show at a future date.

Did You See?
While country contestant Carrie Underwood performed “Sin Wagon” on American Idol, did you see award-winning studio musician Stuart Duncan fiddling the daylights out of the Dixie Chicks hit? Duncan is a member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band.

Phoning in the Lyrics for Gretchen
Gretchen Wilson’s assistant for hair, makeup and anything important is Candy Burton, who happens to be a friend of the Whites. When Gretchen needed the lyrics for the gospel song, “Rank Stranger,” Candy called Cheryl White, who remembered all verses, except the last. Cheryl knew my entire famn damily was at the hospital for the birth of my granddaughter, Mattie Lyn Smith, so she gave me a call on my cell phone. My son, Terry Smith, quoted me the lyrics that I quoted to Cheryl, Cheryl quoted to Candy and Candy then quoted to Gretchen. Ain’t show biz grand?!

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
The Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and other smart big league teams are playing Montgomery Gentry’s “Gone” after each home run.

Derby Goers
Brooks & Dunn, Sammy Kershaw and Anastasia Brown were among the Kentucky Derby goers.

Sugarland Goes Gold
Mercury’s John Zarling got up crack of dawn early to tell me the news. Sugarland’s debut CD, Twice the Speed of Light, is certified gold.

Sympathy to Connie
My associates and I send love, sympathy and prayers to ASCAP senior vice president Connie Bradley on the loss of her parents, Pat and Jean Darnell of Shelbyville, Tenn., who were killed May 9 when their car was hit head-on by another vehicle.

Only in Nashville Could You …

• Visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and see a brand new exhibit titled The Oak Ridge Boys: Thirty Years in the Mainstream, 1975-2005. Memorabilia from their gospel beginnings to country superstardom is displayed.

• Attend the Grammy street party that included performances by Rodney Crowell, Brad Paisley, Jamie O’Neal and the Crabb Family.

• Learn that Alison Krauss totes a Ralph Stanley tote bag filled with her stuff.

• See those horrendous photos of Mindy McCready on local TV after former boyfriend William McKnight allegedly beat her face blue and almost choked her to death. McCready shared the photos in hopes that other women will learn they can get help out of an abusive situation by dialing 911.

• Go to a No. 1 party at BMI honoring Jo Dee Messina and the songwriters of her No. 1 single, “My Give a Damn’s Busted.”

• Hang out at the Cannery and see Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson and Kid Rock perform a benefit concert for the Nashville Songwriters Association International.

• Drive down the street and meet Dierks Bentley and his dog, Jake, all smiles in his white Chevy truck. Maybe they’re listening to his new album, Modern Day Drifter, which is a mighty fine CD.

Sore Losers?
The Bellamy Brothers were rooting for New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s horse, Bellamy Road, at the Kentucky Derby. After the horse lost, David Bellamy summed it up pretty good when he said, “Always in the running but no win. It’s kind of like us at the CMA and ACM Awards.”

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Spaghetti and Meatballs.