Mark Chesnutt entered the national country scene in 1990 with “Too Cold at Home,” although he’d been gigging around his native Texas for years and years. Not long into his commercial streak, he claimed No. 1 singles with “Brother Jukebox” and “I’ll Think of Something,” and continued to chart Top 10 hits right up until the end of the ‘90s.
When things slowed down for him at country radio, Chesnutt kept on recording and touring. He caught up with CMT Hot 20 Countdown at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth to reflect on that hectic decade.
Editor’s Note: Tune in to CMT Hot 20 Countdown for our interview with Mark Chesnutt. CMT Hot 20 Countdown airs at 9/8c Saturday and Sunday mornings.
CMT: Let’s go back to your first single. I don’t think it made it to No. 1 but…
Chesnutt: It was close enough to make a bunch of noise. It was close enough to make the next one go to No. 1. (laughs)
What was that life like for you? To see what you’ve been dreaming about actually start to happen?
It’s a lot of mixed feelings because you’ve worked for so long. I was singing in the beer joints for 10 years at least trying to make things happen. I was playing six, seven nights a week in beer joints and going to Nashville trying to meet people and coming back to Texas.
I never moved to Nashville. I always lived in Texas because I could make a damn good living in Texas playing music. I had bands that I worked with, I had my own band, and I would go to San Antonio and Houston. I would record whenever I got the opportunity. So when things really happened, it wasn’t really a big surprise. It was more or less, “Well, it’s about damn time. Now what?” That was the big question.
And how did you answer that, “Now What?”
I knew that I had a record deal and I had to follow it up and work harder than I ever worked in my life. I’d been working my ass off for a lot of years. Getting started, getting that first initial success was just getting my feet wet, so I had to figure out what I’m gonna do now. I’m gonna have to find better songs, I’m gonna have to sing better, have better shows. I’m gonna have to figure out what in the world I’m doing. It was real interesting and confusing and scary.
Was it a surprise to you that that’s what it would be like?
Oh yeah, exactly. I thought, “Man, once you get a record deal….” MCA was the biggest record company in the world at the time. George Strait was with MCA. And I was like, “Man, if I can land a deal with MCA, I got it made.” My hero was George Strait. I’ve got it going on! Boy, I discovered real fast that ain’t the way at all. It’s nothing like that. It was kind of a letdown. At the same time it was scaring the living hell out of me, to be honest with you.
What part of it scared you the most?
That I had to go into a different way of life. I grew up in Beaumont, Texas, singing in the clubs and honky-tonks, and I was in my comfort zone. All of a sudden I was in Nashville, I was dealing with TV and people that I didn’t know, and people that I knew weren’t interested in me personally. … It’s a money-making thing, that’s what it is. It’s a business. Now how much money can we make off of this guy out of Beaumont?
It was different then … in a way it was, but in other ways it wasn’t. When I got to meet people, the best thing that happened was that I got to be friends with my heroes like George Jones. But I was friends with George Jones even before I had a hit record so that’s a whole different story. But George told me, “You ain’t got no friends in the music business” and he was right.
You had a lot of No. 1’s and hits. It’s gotta be hard to sustain that.
You’re only as good as your last hit record. And hit records just don’t last long. I wasn’t like George Jones or Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson, I didn’t have 50 No. 1’s, 30 No. 1’s… It’s hard to describe. It’s like I’ve never reached my goal. I’m still trying. I’m still playing music for a living, which my daddy told me I would always be doing. He said, “You will always be playing music for a living. You might not be at the top. You might end up in the bottom, [or] you could find a place in the middle where you can be comfortable and make a good living.”
And once I got to hang around my buddies like George Jones and Waylon Jennings and even Merle Haggard, they all told me the same thing. They didn’t say ‘you might not.’ They said you won’t always be at the top of the charts but you’ll always be able to make a living and work as long as you do what you do, so don’t change. That’s what they were trying to tell me.
What does it mean to you when you play places like this and thousands of people are here that still want to come see you?
Every time I walk on stage at Billy Bob’s or anywhere else, I always hear Waylon Jennings saying, “You won’t always be at the top but you’ll always be able to work.” And that’s one of the things that always sticks in my mind right before I go on stage every night. And I’ve been working Billy Bob’s now for…this is the first place I worked when I had my first hit record. It was the very first place.
I’d been playing at honky-tonks around Beaumont, Texas, for 10 years and when “Too Cold at Home” hit, it was on the charts far enough to where I didn’t have to do any radio tours to meet radio people and introduce myself. They started playing the song immediately. So this was the first place that hired me to do my first big-time gig.
What did that mean to you when Billy Bob’s booked you?
It was scaring the living hell out of me. I didn’t know what the hell. … “Man, I ain’t got but one song that anybody knows! And from what I hear, they already sold tickets for these people to book me off of one song. Well, hell, there ain’t nothing I can do but load up and go.” …
Me and my band finished playing at Cutters in Beaumont, Texas — that was my house gig, played there for several years. We left there, loaded up the vans, and I couldn’t afford no bus. I drove one van and my lead guitarist drove the other van. And we drove all night long to get here. That’s a long way from Beaumont, Texas. Six hours. And we drove all the way up here, no sleep.
What has Billy Bob’s meant to country music? It’s almost like a rite of passage to play here.
Oh man, every year that I see it show up on my schedule I get excited. Whenever I look at my calendar and I don’t see Billy Bob’s I get depressed. It makes me think, “Oh hell, I’m done. I might as well go back to Beaumont and set up camp somewhere else.”
But we play a lot of other places too. We play all over the world. We started out doing 200-plus dates a year back in the early ‘90s. Now we slowed it down to 100 shows a year, which is still a hell of a lot of dates for somebody that’s been around for 30 years like me.
Is that a good thing to you?
Yeah. I bitch about it a lot because I’m 55 years old. Man, I get tired of being on the road all the time, I get tired of flying, I get tired of being in the bus, but then I start thinking, “This I why I worked my ass off all them years.” All those years, this is what I always wanted. And I tell you what, it’s a hell of a lot easier than climbing on top of a house and roofing a house, or climbing under it and doing the plumbing.
I would much rather be getting on my bus or getting on an airplane and going somewhere to get on a stage and sing country music. The stuff that I love to do, the stuff that I think I was born to do. Billy Bob’s is home to me. I’ve played here every year ever since that first night. Sometimes two or three times a year and it’s home to us.
You said you were born to do this.
Oh, listen, I know I was born to do this because this is all I can do.