KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Kenny Chesney went home to East Tennessee Saturday (June 7), and 61,780 of his friends were happy to see him.
Despite storm clouds that drizzled rain on and off all day, the Luttrell, Tenn., native packed Neyland Stadium, the University of Tennessee's famed football shrine in Knoxville. Dubbed the "Back Where I Come From Party," it was Chesney's first headlining stadium show and a moment the die-hard Volunteers fan has repeatedly called his "dream."
"I sat right up there and watched UT kick Notre Dame's butt when I was 5 years old," he told the crowd, pointing to the seats at stage left.
Chesney was clearly ecstatic when he rose from the stage and kicked off the show with "Live Those Songs," a cut from his latest album, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems. The singer's adrenaline could have very easily pushed the concert over the top, but Chesney was firmly in control throughout the set. He seemed to take a moment for himself to drink it all in during "Never Gonna Feel Like That Again," a song that cautions against taking life's moments for granted. He looked at the crowd and repeatedly shook his head in disbelief.
"I've been so busy the past couple of days, I can't believe it's already here," Chesney told CMT News before the show. "We were a little worried about the rain earlier, but it's passed through, the sun's out and there's 60,000 people here at this stadium to see us play. It's a great feeling."
After running through his long list of hits, Chesney warned the fans, "Right here is where the fun starts." Making good on that promise, he offered up his version of the Conway Twitty classic, "I'd Love to Lay You Down," much to the delight of the thousands of screaming women in the crowd (many of whom were wearing "Marry Me Kenny" T-shirts). He then brought out former UT football star and current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who joined in on the chorus of "Back Where I Come From." Next on the guest list was rock-rapper Uncle Kracker, whose song "Follow Me" received a surprisingly rousing reception from the country crowd. Introducing his last surprise guest as "my country-fried brother," Chesney welcomed rapper (and country fan) Kid Rock to the stage. The pair, who met through mutual buddy Tim McGraw, collaborated on Kid's hit "Cowboy." Chesney's crowd knew every word.
"He's got a lot of talent," Kid Rock told CMT News backstage. "I like to call him 'the little man with the big voice.' You just wonder where that comes from when he opens his mouth and starts singing."
Also on Saturday's bill was a solid list of country's hottest up-and-comers. Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, Deana Carter and the Warren Brothers all warmed up the crowd with sets during the afternoon. And in what was surely their first "opening" gig in the last decade, multi-platinum duo Brooks & Dunn filled the slot just before Chesney's set. Although Ronnie Dunn recently celebrated his 50th birthday, neither he nor partner Kix Brooks showed any sign of backing off. Dunn prowled the stage with a renewed exuberance, lobbing drumsticks into the crowd while a drenched but fired-up Brooks pitched his cowboy hat to the fans. The duo ended the show with a barrage of orange and white confetti.
Backstage before the show, the area around the stars' tour buses was a surreal mixture of Chesney family reunion, sports convention and Hollywood cocktail party. Chesney's mom, Karen, and several other family members mingled while UT football coach Phil Fulmer stood in the meet-and-greet line. Brett and Brad Warren chatted up Manning, Carter talked music with Kid Rock and Rascal Flatts' Gary LeVox visited with Uncle Kracker. It was a testament to Chesney's growing star power.
"We had practice yesterday, and I flew in today," Manning said. "The original deal was, if I get onstage with Kenny to sing, I've got to get him to practice or play a game with the Colts."
The concert drew 61,780 fans (although the stadium's capacity is 108,000, several thousand seats were obstructed by the enormous stage). It was the first concert at the venue since Michael Jackson and his brothers brought the Jacksons' Victory Tour there for three nights in 1984.