Country superstar Kenny Chesney connects with football's "Boys of Fall" on radio and TV and in hockey arenas -- but not NFL stadiums.
Call it ironic. Incredible. Or idiotic. You make the call.
Country superstar Kenny Chesney scored a career-defining hit last year with "The Boys of Fall," a sentimental ode to high school football. Not only was it a No. 1 country single but it had a video clip starring Peyton Manning, Joe Namath and other football greats plus an HBO documentary featuring even more gridiron heroes.
Now that country's biggest concert attraction has hit the road again, he says pro football players can't see him perform at NFL stadiums because of their contract deadlock with league owners.
"If you're in the NFL [players union], you can't go to your stadium, you can't work out at your stadium, you can't talk to your coaches," says Chesney, who has 10 NFL venues (including Green Bay's Lambeau Field) on his 2011 itinerary. When he played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' home turf last week, "we had all baseball players there. We had a lot of Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees who were down there for spring training."
"But at West Palm [Beach], we had a ton of NFL players. I saw [guard Steve] Hutchinson from the Vikings. If we were to play the Dome up there, he couldn't come to the show."
An NFL spokesman, however, said there's no rule barring NFL players from attending events at NFL stadiums. Regardless, it won't be an issue for Hutchinson or any other Viking when Chesney returns Friday -- to Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL's Minnesota Wild -- for his first Twin Cities gig in four years.
A four-time winner of the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year award, Chesney has sold more tickets -- 8.8 million -- than any other act since 1999 except the Dave Matthews Band. As a performer, he said he approaches arenas and stadiums differently.
"In a stadium, I try to get there early and soak up the environment and put myself in the place of the fans and figure out how far I have to go emotionally and mentally to get to them," he said. "Mentally, I love the energy of an arena. In a way, it's louder. You can have so many more people in a stadium but the sound goes away. But when you get an excitable bunch in an arena, their sound stays there. I love that. I'm looking forward to hearing that."
After a much-needed 18-month respite from the road, he was anxious to hit the stage when his Goin' Coastal Tour opened last weekend in Florida.
"My body feels great," said Chesney, a fitness buff who began working out in earnest Jan. 1. "More importantly, the heart and the mind and soul feel better. I could tell that me and the band had a hunger onstage. After Tampa and West Palm this weekend, I had a spring in my step that wasn't there almost all of 2009 because I was just tired."
In concert he's still an eternal frat-boy partying in overdrive. Will Chesney, who turns 43 on Saturday, ever grow up onstage?
"Yeah, I don't think we do 'Keg in the Closet' anymore," he said with a chuckle. "I have this very free spirit about me. But life has a way of growing you up even if you don't want to. I think that's starting to happen. I feel an artistic shift."
Offstage, he feels his maturation is manifested in his song choices for last fall's album, "Hemingway's Whiskey." He figures he wouldn't have recorded Guy Clark's reflective title song four years ago, or tackled the sobering "You and Tequila" (by Deana Carter and Matraca Berg), done as a quiet duet with Vermont soul rocker Grace Potter.
"I'm glad I'm at a point in my life where I understand what those songs mean," he said. "But I still love edgy, and I still record songs for the sole purpose of making my show great."
"Hemingway's Whiskey" is his most diverse album, running from predictable beach-splashed tunes like "Coastal" and the party anthem "Reality" to the summer-romance ballad "Seven Days" and the sentimental "Where I Grew Up." He even went for a blatantly country ditty by covering George Jones' "Small Y'all" with the legend himself.
But the pivotal song is "The Boys of Fall," the 6 1/2-minute tribute to high school football that has had more multigenerational appeal than any previous Chesney hit. Being a skinny 5-foot-6 wide receiver for two years at Gibbs High in Corryton, Tenn., had a profound impact on him, he said.
"I'm very competitive," he said. "Whether it's music or playing basketball backstage or playing a dollar a hole in golf or PlayStation college football on the bus, I want to win."
The son of a small-town baseball and basketball coach, the undersized athlete had to fight for playing time.
"I had to work extra hard to be on the field in the first place. I wasn't the most talented wide receiver we had, and I was pretty slow. I learned that work ethic on the football field. I learned you've got to have a lot of people working together to achieve something special. Now I've got 100 people that roll down the interstate with me every night. We're a team. If any part of that team breaks down, there's a price to pay for that.
"It's the same in football. I learned to trust people on the football field. I learned to sacrifice on the football field. The whole idea of commitment so you can be the best, I learned that on the football field. I've got lots of friends now in the NFL and colleges and coaches, and there's a lot of parallels with what I do and what they do."
Except he doesn't have to worry about a lockout.