“I really didn’t think about [a career in music] until I was in college,” Kenny Chesney told attendees Tuesday (June 7) at the Billboard Country Music Summit in Nashville.
For more than an hour, Chesney answered questions posed to him by Billboard‘s Ray Waddell, who noted at the outset that the superstar sells “more than a million tickets every time he goes out on tour.”
Raised in the small town of Luttrell in eastern Tennessee — the home of Chet Atkins — Chesney said he grew up surrounded by musicians and singers, among them his mother and her twin sister who sometimes performed on the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, a radio and TV show in Knoxville.
Although he sang at home and in church, Chesney said it wasn’t until he was attending Eastern Tennessee State University that he considered making a life in music. He said he wrote his first song in a “persuasion class” to persuade a girl in the class to go out with him. It didn’t work, he added.
He moved to Nashville on Jan. 13, 1991, he recalled.
“I had nothing to do,” he admitted. “I knew no one. Then I met a few songwriters.”
For most hopefuls who come to Nashville, that’s about as far as it goes. But Chesney said he had the good fortune of meeting BMI executive Clay Bradley, who listened to his songs, heard something in them and referred him to the mighty Acuff-Rose publishing company.
Chesney played a few of his songs — including “The Tin Man,” which would become his second charted single — and the company signed him to a songwriting contract.
“That’s when my life started in this town,” he said. “All of a sudden, I wasn’t outside. I was writing with some of the best writers in the world.”
Beginning in 1993, he had a short run as an artist on Capricorn Records, a rock label that was trying to gain a country music presence. That affiliation didn’t make him a star, but it was enough to attract the attention of BNA Records, an RCA subsidiary. He’s been there since 1995.
“I had the luxury of not happening early,” Chesney said. He likened his brief tenure at Capricorn to playing Triple A baseball.
Asked who gave him the best advice early in his career, Chesney cited Jim Vienneau at Acuff-Rose, who urged him to write every day; his first producer Barry Beckett, who warned him not to “over-sing” (a habit he’d acquired singing in bars) and advised him to “put a smile” in his voice; and his manager Dale Morris, who took him to a record store, gestured toward the vast displays of albums and said, “This is what you have to compete with.”
As a touring act, Chesney said, he’s also learned he’s not just competing with other artists but also against sports, movies and “life.”
He acknowledged he was one of the many male country artists of the 1990s who began their careers by trying to sound like George Strait. He dated his artistic independence from the moment he abandoned that aim.
At times, Chesney sounded like a latter-day Ben Franklin, the Founding Father who may have been America’s first self-improvement guru.
Chesney said that one night he wrote down a list of 30 things he could do to make his life and career better and began implementing the list the next day.
As a headlining entertainer who tours with several opening acts, Chesney said he has always tried to offer fans the best package of talent possible for the least possible ticket cost.
He likened connecting with his audiences to an “out-of-body experience” and said that at each stadium he performs in, he hikes up to the most distant seat to get an idea of what the stage looks like from that point of view.
He explained he didn’t tour last year because he didn’t want to reach the point where he felt like he was “mailing in” his performances. He emphasized he didn’t feel he had reached that point but said the mere fact that the thought occurred to him was a warning signal.
The prospect of not touring for a year and possibly losing his fan base scared him, he confessed.
“What if they’re not out there when I get back?” he said.
In retrospect, he said the decision to take a timeout “allowed [him] to make everything about the show better.”
Chesney is currently in the early stages of his Goin’ Coastal tour.
Waddell asked if there were achievements Chesney still aspired to.
“It would hurt me to know that I’ve written my best song,” the 43-year-old star replied, “or been the best onstage yet.”