The couple in front of us were from Lancaster. That’s ninety miles from L.A., a desperate windblown metropolis sans all the glamour of Los Angeles. She was supposed to report for her bail bondsman gig at midnight, but tonight she was going to be late, tonight she was playing hooky, tonight she was going to see Kenny Chesney.
The Lakers might be playing in Staples Center tonight, but the crowd, including Dyan Cannon, Jack Nicholson and other Hollywood luminaries, will be completely different from last night’s audience. Last night’s audience worked for a living. They get up early in the morning, take their kids to school, drive off to their gigs, have too many obligations and not enough cash. Someone told them the United States was the greatest country in the world, but they’re struggling, they’re looking for relief.
The rock stars tell you to keep your distance. The rappers want to say how much better they’ve got it than you, with their women and their wheels. The country acts want you to know they’re just like you. That you’re part of their family. But for a quirk of fate, a bit of talent and some extremely hard work, your roles could be reversed. Kenny Chesney doesn’t have a security guard. He cruises Vegas with his assistant. He doesn’t take an entourage to awards shows. Because his audience respects him, gives him the distance he needs, because they believe they own him.
You don’t own the audience, the audience owns you. Too many stars seem to be playing to "Entertainment Tonight" and the rest of the celebrity industry. They get caught up in their fame. They play the roles of celebrities. Whereas country acts are quick to reinforce they’re regular folk, accessible, that they’re there for you and you only.
There’s nothing on tape, just a ten piece band. At times four guitars. A full horn section. The hi-def screens above the stage and hanging from the speakers on the side insure that even those in the cheap seats can see what’s going on onstage. You feel included. In a club you paid your dues to over and over again. You listened on the radio, you bought the albums, why shouldn’t you be respected, you’re the engine driving the enterprise!
Doesn’t matter what those not in the building think. Doesn’t matter what pundits in the Big Apple have to say. No one cares about these people anyway. Country music and its audience are just like Rodney Dangerfield, except for one key factor, they don’t complain about getting no respect, they’re happy in their own world. Could they know something the rest of the industry does not?
Ticket prices are cheap. You can see the money onstage. And they play music you know by heart.
There was a constant din in Staples, of the assembled multitude singing along! Everywhere I looked, short ones, tall ones, big ones, small ones were moving their lips, mouthing the words to the songs they heard coming out of the dashboard, as they lived their lives, both the good times and the bad. Last night was a respite, a relief, from the hassles, the problems. For two hours you could let the bullshit go and be your best self.
Country CD sales may finally be tanking. But the country market is light years ahead of the rest of the industry when it comes to the future. Nashville is prepared for what’s coming down the pike. It’s all about careers, your loyal fans. They’ve got enough money to support you, if you respect them, if you treat them right. And Kenny Chesney and the rest of the country acts do.
I GO BACK
‘Jack and Diane’ painted a picture of my life and my dreams
Suddenly this crazy world made more sense to me
Every time Kenny and his tour manager went to this bar, the African-American bartender fired up "Sweet Home Alabama". Kenny’s not from that state, he felt it was a comment on their pale skin color. But he and his pal laughed it off. But one day, rolling down the highway, that classic Lynyrd Skynyrd track came pouring out of the radio and the tour manager opined that every time he heard that record, he went back to that bar, with the bartender who had contempt for the pair.
This was the eureka moment! Kenny’s eyes bugged out wide. He picked up a legal pad, told no one to interrupt him, and went to the back of the bus and wrote "I Go Back".
"I Go Back" is my favorite Kenny Chesney record. I remember "Jack and Diane". I go back. These are not bland lyrics made for everyone, made to play everywhere from Boston to Beirut, rather there’s personalization, the writer inhabits the record, as do I. I’m drawn right in.
Well I heard it today and I couldn’t help but sing along
Cause every time I hear that song…
I go back to a two toned short bed Chevy
Drivin’ my first love out to the levee
Livin’ life with no sense of time
And I go back to the feel of a fifty yard line
A blanket, a girl, some raspberry wine
Wishin’ time would stop right in its tracks
Every time I hear that song, I go back
I go back when I hear my favorite tunes. Not only the oldies, but the new stuff too. It sets my mind free, puts me up on a perch where I can look back over my years, everything suddenly makes sense, there’s context! You experience music, you don’t watch it. Not only do you feel it, it enters your blood stream and colonizes you, it becomes you. Kenny didn’t play "I Go Back" last night, it’s on vacation, like flavors at Baskin-Robbins, I guess I’ll just have to go back!
I’M A COWBOY
Uncle Kracker came out and duetted on "When The Sun Goes Down". Then, Kenny talked about getting a text message the night before, from an old friend he hadn’t seen in eons, who wanted to come over and join the barbecue, hang out. Fearful he’d be up all night, Kenny declined, but now he wanted to introduce him, wanted him to come out and greet the audience and perform a couple of numbers, ladies and gentlemen, KID ROCK!
I’ll be honest. I saw Bobby Ritchie in the Vibe Room. His manager caught my eye and wanted to introduce us, told me I’d be safe. Yeah, right.
But, after the show, backstage, returning from the bathroom, Felice told me the Detroit tiger was holding court in the center of the room, there was no way I could avoid him.
So, I strode right up to Mr. Ritchie, who immediately stopped talking to the woman trying to get in his pants, popped me on the head and pulled me into the corner to talk.
He agreed with 90% of what I wrote. But told me I can’t go around saying "Fuck _______". That where he comes from, you can say something about someone’s music, their clothes, but if you attack them personally, expect retaliation.
Then he laughed and said we had fun, we entertained the audience, didn’t we?
Now the two of us are going on and on. The women can’t penetrate our conversation, not even Kenny himself. Rock is going on about doing Donington. Will they stop asking about Pam? He made a mistake. Haven’t you ever? He’s going to have to endure abuse across the pond, but he’s big over here, where they all want to make it. Hell, his new album just went platinum!
That’s true. And eventually it will be available on iTunes and double platinum. Rock wanted to bet, five bucks, by Christmas!
What an enigma, a conundrum. As Rock said, he’s only half a rapper. He’s from an upper middle class family. He worked for a decade to make it. Take that you wannabe newbies!
I think I’ll be getting one of those midnight texts too.
All part of the rock and roll circus.
NEVER WANTED NOTHING MORE
Kenny played "Don’t Blink", "Better As A Memory", "Shiftwork", all the recent hits. And old classics like "She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy" too.
But the highlight was "Anything But Mine". That story of a summer love. It sounds like a late August evening, one last blast of heat before September comes, before you go back to school, to work, before seriousness comes ‘round again. I stood and sang about leaving in the morning for Cleveland like the rest of the 20,000 in attendance, my brethren. We knew this show was going to end. We were going to savor the joy before we exited, got into our cars and drove back to our mundane lives. Which contained just enough joy to get us through the drudgery.
Meanwhile, Kenny was off to San Diego. To do it all over again. The sixty band and crew members were going to take their places in the caravan, drive to the southernmost tip of California, and then on to Phoenix, for a stadium show.
They usually only do Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then back to Nashville for a little R&R, then back out on the road again. It’s a hard life, but no one wants to give up his job. This is what they dreamed of. Being part of something, having blood brothers, being, as the sign on Jill’s desk said, the people their parents warned them about.
By the middle of summer, Kenny will be planning next summer’s trek. Drawings will be made and approved. Eventually, come the new year, rehearsals will begin. They’ll go out of town for a trial run, then the tour will begin. And most of the audience will return. They’re part of the family, you don’t want to miss the reunion.
And if you feel left out, don’t. After the show, Felice wondered whose iTunes playlist this was, projected on a screen, pouring out of the speakers. So I asked the man. Kenny said it was his, as Jackson Browne’s "Pretender" played at full volume. He wanted to write songs just as good as Jackson’s. He loved those singer-songwriters of yore, just like you.
If you can’t understand today’s pop landscape, turn the dial until you end up at the country station. What you’ll find there is something you recognize. Hummable verses. Singable choruses. And a shitload of guitars. You’ll discover country is closer to the rock you remember than anything you hear on Top Forty radio.
Well, I’m what I am and I’m what I’m not
And I’m sure happy with what I’ve got
I live and love and laugh a lot
And that’s all I need
I never wanted nothing more
And I never wanted nothing more