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Let's be honest. Kenny Chesney is just a jock in cowboy clothes.
"I'm consumed by sports," said the country superstar, who currently appears in a TV commercial for ESPN's "SportsCenter" and scored a signature hit in 2010 with the football-themed "The Boys of Fall."
So when the former high school wide receiver from Luttrell, Tenn., got an offer to play Target Field's first-ever concert next Sunday with his good buddy Tim McGraw, he could hardly refuse. After all, he is the reigning king of stadium concerts.
"I love in the fall that we can watch [football on] TV and go, 'My bus was parked right there!'" I love sports so much. To be part of Minnesota Twins history now, I'm glad that I get to put my stamp on it."
Chesney claims he was reluctant about moving up from his usual Twin Cities home, the 16,000-seat Xcel Energy Center, to play to 40,000 fans at the Twins' three-year-old park.
"When people are used to seeing you in a certain place, it's kind of where they like to go," he said. "But when we put the tickets on sale and they basically sold out the first day, my worries were over."
He's being modest, of course. The fact is, Chesney -- who's playing only stadiums this summer on his 22-city Brothers in the Sun Tour with McGraw -- enjoys connecting with fans in their favorite temples of sport.
"They get to come into a place where they're already emotionally invested. I love that," he said. "Last year when we played Lambeau Field" -- fabled home of the Green Bay Packers -- "I guarantee that a fraction of the people just bought tickets because they'd never been inside the stadium, because they can't get [Packers] tickets."
A brotherly competition
Chesney, 44, and McGraw, 45, were struggling artists trying to make their marks in country music when they met 21 years ago. McGraw had just landed a record deal, and Chesney was trying to sell his songs. They discovered they had a lot in common: Both grew up in small Southern towns playing sports, with their mothers being the prominent parent in their lives.
"Not to get clichéd with the tour name, but Tim is more than a friend; he's like the brother I never had," Chesney said by phone a couple of weeks ago. "You can't be family and not have ups and downs. Me and Tim have. That's what makes the chemistry up there great."
Said McGraw in a separate interview: "Kenny and I knew each other before we had success, knowing each other as real people, not as stars."
Like brothers, they are competitive, McGraw said -- whether it's on the basketball court or the Billboard charts. (Chesney has had 21 No. 1 country tunes, McGraw 23.)
Who's the better athlete?
"I'll say I am and he'll say he is," Chesney said. "He can dunk a basketball and I can't. Even on an 8-foot goal. It doesn't make him a better athlete, though."
"That's easy," he said, but then paused. "He's a good athlete, don't get me wrong. But I think I'm a little bit better of an athlete only because I have a few inches on him. [At 6 feet, McGraw is 6 inches taller.] I'm not sure I can dunk anymore. But he has a great outside shot."
The last time they toured together, 12 years ago with McGraw as headliner, the two buddies got into a little trouble in Buffalo, N.Y. Chesney asked the daughter of a police officer if he could ride her father's horse. When he rode away, two deputies tried to pull him off, and McGraw stepped in to help his pal. Both were arrested, but the charges were dropped.
Other than that infamous incident, what's the most trouble they've gotten into?
On that 2000 tour, "I did a lot of shows I call Bread and Water Shows where I'd do a three-hour club show after the concert," McGraw recalled. "Go into a club at 1 in the morning and play until the sun came up sometimes. He did a lot of those shows with me and I'm sure we embarrassed ourselves quite a bit on stage at about 3:30 in the morning. But that was back in my drinking days."
Now a father of three girls with wife Faith Hill, McGraw said he quit drinking four years ago. "I just reached a point in my life where I didn't want my daughters to see me doing that."
Forever 23, but more serious
Chesney, the eternal frat boy who long has sung about his love of beer, boats and the beach, also has cleaned up his act a bit. His two most recent albums -- last month's "Welcome to the Fishbowl" and 2010's "Hemingway's Whiskey" -- are decidedly more introspective, thoughtful and downbeat. Aside from the title track (about invasion of privacy) and the McGraw duet "Feel Like a Rock Star" (which was designed for the stadium tour), the material on "Fishbowl" seems to be about yearning and longing.
"It's as mature and serious of a record as I've ever recorded," Chesney said, calling it "emotionally authentic."
The shift started with "Hemingway's Whiskey," and his success with that album's downtrodden duet with Grace Potter, "You and Tequila." Before, Chesney's songs were geared toward blasting a crowd in concert. Now he's learned to turn down the volume.
On this tour, opening act Potter walks out to join Chesney in midset: "It's her and me and two acoustic guitars and we sing that song in the middle of a stadium and it goes over great," he said. "Not everything has to be four guitars with a kick and snare [drums] pounding you all the time."
He can't put his finger on why, but Chesney says he's more comfortable in his own skin, and more willing to let his fans see his heart and soul, while remaining in touch with his inner frat boy.
"In ways, I still feel 23. I don't feel old, I feel grown up. I like that. I think that it's changed the way I listen to songs. I think it's changed the way I write them. I think it's possible to do the show I like to put on and still let people see there's a poet up inside there, too. ... I'm really not a human beach ball."
Does that mean this longtime bachelor (aside from his brief marriage in 2005 to actress Renée Zellweger) could see himself becoming a father?
"Of course. If it's in the cards for me, I'd love to do it. It doesn't mean I'll be any less motivated to get better at what I do. It just means I may not sacrifice my whole life to do it."
And then he can call McGraw to baby-sit.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream