The beverages are lined up in a row: a SuperSipper of Diet Coke, a 5-Hour Energy drink, a liter of water, another 5-Hour Energy, a large Americano coffee. It’s just after 4 a.m. in the control booth at KFAN, the sports-talk radio station, and in the next five hours, Chris Hawkey will consume most of the liquids in front of him.
“Our show is about energy,” says host Cory Cove.
And Hawkey brings it.
He produces, directs and plays sidekick on the top-rated “Power Trip” morning show. Before the program even starts at 5:30 a.m., Hawkey will digest two daily newspapers, a couple of news websites and oddball Internet items as he plots the schedule for the day’s 3½-hour tour of sports, news, movies, trivia and juvenilia.
Hawkey’s day job has brought him minor celebrity in the Twin Cities area — fans stop him at Home Depot or tweet at him constantly (he has 43,000 followers on Twitter).
But after dark, the radio man becomes Chris Hawkey the aspiring country star. He tosses on a brown cavalry jacket and commands stages at suburban bars, regional theaters and music festivals.
The man born on Christmas Day wants to have it all — a handsomely paying day job, a fulfilling marriage, hands-on fatherhood and his won’t-die childhood dream of being the next John Mellencamp.
Inevitably, something has to give.
“I find the most difficult thing about being an adult is being a good parent and having a full life,” Hawkey volunteers. “So the way I’ve dealt with that is to not sleep and to try to do everything.”
Near-deal in Nashville
After gulping a vial of 5-Hour Energy, Hawkey hits the stage at St. Cloud’s Paramount Theater with rock ’n’ roll swagger.
“This ain’t country,” he barks to a crowd of plaid shirts and bluejeans. “This is something we like to call our own brand. It’s ‘North Country.’ ”
In concert, Hawkey often seems indistinguishable from the guy on the radio — part Ryan Seacrest, part hype man.
Offstage, he’s pinching himself about his burgeoning music career. “I’m living the dream,” says the man with two jobs and two kids. “People our age don’t get to do this unless you were once famous.”
At 45, Hawkey has become the rock star he always yearned to be as a kid in small-town Indiana. Except he’s actually more of a regional country star.
He wears custom-made in-ear monitors like Kenny Chesney, sells an array of T-shirts and caps and boasts a bunch of corporate sponsors. He gets called upon to be an afternoon act at the mammoth We Fest in Detroit Lakes, Minn., or to open for Dwight Yoakam at a festival in Prior Lake. But mostly it’s the Anoka County Fair, St. Paul’s Highland Fest or an acoustic gig at the Maple Tavern near his home in Maple Grove.
He hears his tunes on Twin Cities country station K102 (102.1 FM), such as “Favorite Song” or “North Country,” co-written with his previous band Rocket Club. The group came close to a major-label deal. A Sony Music exec loved its sound but, after two showcases in Nashville, declined to offer a contract.
“The reason they gave us was, ‘You’re just too old,’ ” Hawkey recalls. “After the immediate shock, that was the biggest relief of my life. If they had said, ‘Your music’s not good enough,’ we would have written more music. If they said, ‘The lead singer is too fat,’ I would have lost weight. I cannot get younger. I realized I could stop chasing that record-contract dream. That took all the pressure off.”
So Hawkey, who left Rocket Club for a solo career two years ago, lives a more realistic dream — modest star in a medium-sized market in a self-sustaining band. But he has a big advantage that other wannabes of any age don’t possess: His boss at KFAN (100.3 FM), Gregg Swedberg, also runs K102, and Hawkey’s wife, Lauren MacLeash, programs BUZ’N 102.9, the Twin Cities area’s other major country station.
“It’s in her contract that she can’t do anything for me” career-wise, Hawkey explains without any bitterness. He doesn’t even ask his wife for advice about the business.
However, he often consults Swedberg, iHeartMedia’s senior vice president of programming. The veteran programmer is frank in assessing Hawkey’s try-to-please-the-crowd music.
“His writing is a little simple,” Swedberg opines. “He’s got a good ear for hooks. He studies the audience and sees what they react to.”
Hawkey unabashedly wants to make commercial music, not necessarily works of art and introspection.
But they have to ring true to him. He’s been writing of late with Twin Cities musicians Ryan Liestman, his new keyboardist and a former Jonas Brothers band member, and Michael Bland, drummer with Soul Asylum and formerly with Prince’s New Power Generation.
“They had a song they presented to me — it was just the chorus and I was going to fill in the rest,” Hawkey remembers. “It was called ‘Redneck Party,’ and I said, ‘No. It’s not me. I’m not a redneck.’ ”
Leaving Small Town, U.S.A.
Like Elvis Presley, Christopher Allen Hawkey was born a twin whose brother didn’t survive their birth. His parents worked in a factory in Union City, a railroad stop on the border of Indiana and Ohio. He wanted out of small-town life.
At 15, he and two other teens played in a band with their 33-year-old shop teacher (“he had all the equipment”), covering Bon Jovi and Neil Young. Hawkey’s parents let him play in the clubs until 2 a.m. as long as he went to school in the morning. One night, Hawkey had an embarrassing epiphany while singing “Free Bird.”
“A biker jumped onstage, took the microphone away from me and sang the rest of the song, and he killed it,” he recalls. “He was so much better than me.”
Hawkey decided his backup plan would be rock radio. After enrolling in broadcasting school in Dayton, Ohio, in 1989, he called a local classic-rock station, lied about his skills and got an internship.
That led to a real job in Virginia Beach, Va., where he lived in his Camaro behind the station. He became best buds with a co-worker — and married her. When MacLeash got hired to program a Twin Cities station, Cities 97, he pursued a degree in religious studies at the University of Minnesota and landed a job running the Twin Cities control board for the syndicated “The Howard Stern Show.”
His experience led to a bigger job in 2001: producer of KFAN’s new morning show, featuring an inexperienced but funny ex-Viking, Mike Morris.
At 5 feet 6, Hawkey looks like the pickup-truck driver next door — if your neighbor has a brown beard and bleached-blond hair hidden under a never-ending series of ball caps (he has 300 to 400, stored in plastic bins at home).
He can squeeze 60 seconds of words into a 30-second commercial and still make listeners understand him. Whether he’s on the radio, onstage or at home with his daughter, he knows only one speed.
“I’m not happy unless I’m doing nine things at once,” says Hawkey in the middle of “Power Trip” as he gives an assignment to an intern, scans the newspaper ads, samples tracks from Apple’s best rock songs of 2015 on his phone and guzzles a 5-Hour Energy.
His alarm sounds at 3:15 a.m. on weekdays. He has his first 5-Hour in the bathroom, then drives to St. Louis Park, where he’s usually the first one in the iHeartMedia office. Wearing jeans and a Vikings pullover, he settles into his booth on the other side of the glass from his teammates.
“Power Trip” recently unseated Tom Barnard’s KQRS (92.5 FM) juggernaut as the No. 1-rated morning program among males 25 to 54. Each Power Tripper plays an exaggerated version of himself: Cove the cynic, Hawkey the eternal optimist and Lambert the comic relief.
“My theory about the show is, first and foremost, it’s got to be positive,” Hawkey said. “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of people want to wake up in the morning and hear people complain.”
One morning this winter, Cove kvetched about how he and his wife were trying to install flooring in their house.
Hawkey laughed and interjected: “My wife is super surprised when I change a light bulb. I’ve been married 21 years. You’ll get to the point where you’re so bad at stuff, she won’t ask.”
After the show Hawkey has other commitments. Twice a week during football season, he heads to Vikings practices because he hosts a pregame show and produces game broadcasts for KFAN. In the winter, his weekend job is play-by-play announcer for AMSOIL Championship Snocross on CBS Sports Network.
“I do on TV what I did with my Hot Wheels when I was a little kid,” notes the once-avid NASCAR fan. “I scream and make a lot of noise.”
‘A better mom’
On his way home he grabs a fast-food lunch — usually his only meal of the day — then takes an 80-minute nap so he can be ready when his 13-year-old daughter Abby returns from school. He likes to help with homework. (Son Alex, 21, lives on campus at the U, where he’s studying computer science.)
Although Hawkey is overcome with guilt about the scant time he spends with his daughter, his wife contends “he’s a better mom than I am.” MacLeash says Hawkey takes Abby to acting class, helps her with math, goes to the movies with her — and chats with her via FaceTime before he hits the concert stage.
Unless he’s got a music commitment at night, Hawkey puts Abby to bed about 8:30 and maybe enjoys an hour of TV with his wife. He’s in bed by 10 p.m. because the alarm will ring five hours later.
“I’m tired all the time — physically and mentally,” he concedes with a sigh. “I could fall asleep right now at this table.” And it’s not even 1 p.m.
Hawkey can work a crowd like a guy running for political office. Onstage, he finds it hard not to cheerlead when he belts out “Underdog” or to cry when he sings “Hallelujah.” The latter song details scenes of uplift — a family saying grace in a restaurant and his daughter jumping into his arms when he comes home.
Hawkey has a way of making people feel important, whether it’s the college intern on his last day at KFAN or the kid in the wheelchair who greets him after a concert.
Between sets at Maple Tavern, he works the room, greeting everyone with a handshake and look in the eye.
Zach Snyder, 25, of Brooklyn Center discovered Hawkey on KFAN. He and his wife, Nicolle, have seen the singer a half-dozen times in concert.
“He sure has an outgoing personality,” Zach says. “We fell in love with his music, especially her.”
“His music is really relatable,” Nicolle says.
If Hawkey could wear only one hat — if he could be Howard Stern or Blake Shelton — which would he choose?
“I think as each year goes by, I get closer to answering that question as ‘I’d rather be Howard Stern,’ ” he offers after a contemplative pause, “but I’m still, ‘I’d rather be Blake Shelton.’ ”