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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

ETSU alumnus Chesney has a very good year

Kenny Chesney (far right) performs with the ETSU Bluegrass Band at the International Bluegrass Music Association's
Kenny Chesney (far right) performs with the ETSU Bluegrass Band at the International Bluegrass Music Association's "World of Bluegrass" festival, Owensboro, Kentucky, 1990. Other band members from left to right are Beth Stevens (banjo), Stephanie Cole (bass), Jack Tottle (mandolin), Marcus Smith (guitar). (Photo by Rebecca Hilton)
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By By Jack Tottle, Associate Professor Emeritus, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee | June 29, 2016

According to Billboard, the venerable music industry publication, Kenny Chesney earned $39,800,000 — more than any other musician in pop or country music except Taylor Swift — during the past 12 months. That's more than Adele, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Shania Twain, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Celine Dione, Britney Spears, Cher, Bette Midler, Brad Paisley or Toby Keith.

Many promising country music careers are short-lived. Chesney, however, has demonstrated not only star power but also staying power. He first showed up on the country music charts in 1993 with "Whatever It Takes." Two years later he had his first top 10 hits. In 1997 he reached the coveted #1 spot for the first time. By now he's had over two dozen #1 hits, sold over 30 million albums, won multiple awards from the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music and Billboard magazine. He has performed at America's largest and most prestigious venues.

"Whatever It Takes" is an appropriate title for Kenny's first charting hit. Even as a student in the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Program, his attitude about work, study and life could have been summed up by the same philosophy. He just wanted to know what it took to be successful at any given task, and then — if it was important to him — he set about doing whatever was necessary.

Chesney arrived at ETSU without knowing a single chord on the guitar. By the time he graduated, he could play Doc Watson's intricate fingerpicked guitar solo for "Deep River Blues." He listened attentively to explanations that success in the music world takes — in addition to ability — sustained hard work, self discipline and a firm grasp of the business end of music. He took all the bluegrass and country music courses available and pursued studies in business and advertising.

The "Whatever It Takes" approach has served Chesney well over the years. At age 47, he continues to put on long physically-exhausting but highly entertaining concert sets. Many his age, or even much younger, would lack the strength and abundant energy to bring this off, but Chesney knows it is an important part of what his audience wants. Thus he adheres to a carefully planned healthy diet and a regimen of daily workouts devised in conjunction with a professional trainer. He remains totally disciplined and focused on his goals of physical health and stamina throughout the performing season.

During the sound check before each show Chesney does not delegate everything to his audio engineer. Instead, he personally takes time to walk around the area or hall and listen to the sound, not just on stage and in the main seating area, but also in the most remote portions of the venue. In this way he makes it his own responsibility to ensure that everyone who bought a ticket will have a first-rate listening experience.

A Good Old Boy At Heart

While an artist's largest fan base normally coincides with his greatest commercial success, there are always many who never lose their love for his or her earliest work before fame found them.

Only a few hundred lucky people, mostly in East Tennessee, have copies of Chesney's very first recorded music. In 1989 at Bristol, Virginia's Classic Studio he recorded an album, "Good Old Boy At Heart," primarily of songs he himself had written. He met the backing musicians through his participation in the ETSU Bluegrass and Country Music Program (see album credits to the right).

Clearly Chesney's career to date has changed a lot of things. His success has allowed him to generously contribute to a wide variety of charitable undertakings. As the Special Thanks paragraph from "Good Old Boy At Heart" shows, he doesn't forget his friends and those who believed in him before he achieved success. Chesney has repeatedly helped his old alma mater, most recently by providing major support for the newly re-instituted football program at East Tennessee State University. From humble beginnings himself, he has never lost his admiration for folks who keep striving despite life's challenges.

The writer, Jack Tottle, is the founder of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music program, which he directed from 1982 to 2006. He taught each of the bluegrass and country music courses Chesney took at ETSU. Tottle's music is heard on dozens of albums, including a mandolin cameo on "Written In Stone" from Kenny's "Good Old Boy At Heart" album.

Topics: Music

Kenny Chesney performs at Bristol Motor Speedway, Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available through

Jack Tottle is pictured with the Kenny Chesney model Takamini guitar which Chesney sent him as a gift upon his retirement to the Big Island of Hawaii. (Photo by Anne Pontius)

Above are the credits and thanks from Chesney's first album.