Music News

Kenny Chesney Is All Hat and No Saddle

Kenny Chesney seems like a fun guy to hang with. You know, the dude who always has a fresh batch of margaritas chillin' in the blender at his beach pad in the Virgin Islands, a bevy of bikini-clad babes at his beck and call, and enough money to keep the party rolling 24/7.

He's an affable sort, Mr. Chesney, an engaging little fella, topping out at around 5-foot-6, who lost his hair a decade ago but has enough magnetism to fill arenas with fans in flower-print Bermuda shorts and puka shell necklaces — a sea of full-on weekend-warrior types who can, for a couple of shitfaced hours, forget about the cubicles they toil in during the week. And I'm all for it. A beach party? With tiki torches and leis and frozen adult beverages and loud live music?

Sounds like a great time, except for one total end-game buzzkill: Kenny Chesney's music.

I can totally overlook the fact that he's not even a thinly veiled Jimmy Buffett rip-off (these days everybody rips off everybody else) peddling the same brand of tropical clichés. Yes, his escapist shtick is nearly identical to the one perfected by the King of All Parrotheads. My issue: I have a hard time thinking of Kenny Chesney as "country," and since he's played on KNIX and KMLE, he should be country, right?

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously opined in 1964 that he could never define pornography but that he knew it when he saw it. How do you define country music? Or any genre of music, for that matter? It's in the ear of the beholder, but just because somebody emphatically insists that it's country music, does that mean that it really is country music? I guess if you want to define Metallica as country because they have Willie Nelson-esque grooming habits, there's nothing stopping you. Actually, James Hetfield recorded "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand" for a Waylon Jennings tribute album in 2003, so you've got that as evidence. And if you want to define Kenny Chesney as country because he grew up in east Tennessee and wears a cowboy hat, you have every right to do so. And you're not alone in your opinion.

But I just don't hear it as country. And if Chesney's not country, then maybe he's rock 'n' roll, so, hey, cool. Except that if he's rock 'n' roll, he's lame, pasteurized rock 'n' roll. You sure as shit don't hear his stuff on KDKB, so that's a stretch. So maybe he's a genre all to himself, something like "Caribbean country," a puzzling juxtaposition of terms akin to "Dixieland metal" or "Delta techno."

Country radio programmers, though, have defined Chesney as country because the dude is all over country radio, even if tunes like 2008's "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" are out-and-out WASP-afarian reggae and last year's "Somewhere with You" sounds like Coldplay featuring The Edge on guitar. So to me, no matter how you carve the Chesney turkey, it is just not country music. I grew up in the deserts in waaay North Phoenix thinking country was "smoky old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings," drinking longnecks and nursing a broken heart and two-steppin' and twangin' on Fridays after work at Peter Bob's Watering Hole on Cave Creek Road. My two sons are growing up in Scottsdale seeing Kenny Chesney on CMT, swaying on a beach with Uncle Kracker, so their definition of country music is totally different from mine. And I can respect that. But I don't have to like it.

I understand it's not 1965 (or even 1995). And the Bakersfield sound is dead (on contemporary radio, at least). And country music has changed and pedal steels are dust-collecting dinosaurs, and genres bleed all over each other these days, and country singers like Chesney and Sugarland and Taylor Swift probably grew up listening to Billy Joel and Journey and not Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.

Hey, I dig Billy Joel and Journey (sorta), but when I want to listen to country music, I don't download a Billy Joel or Journey tune, or even a Bob Marley tune, or a Jimmy Buffett tune. The boundaries of country music have become staggering blurred, to the point where it's sort of like looking at country music with cataracts: You get a fuzzy, murky vision of just what constitutes country music these days. And yet, accepting that, I still can't figure how Kenny Chesney is labeled a country singer. Compared to Chesney, Garth Brooks (whom many blame for the pop-crossover "arena country" movement) sounds like Jimmie Fucking Rodgers.

Chesney has a whole shitload of fans who think his tractor's sexy, and as the saying goes, a million people can't be wrong. Whatever floats your boat and whatever milks your goat and all that. I am sure Kenny Chesney is a nice guy and he's done really well for himself, carving out a nice niche. Life could be worse — it could be like a country song.

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Chris Hansen Orf