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Kenny Chesney gives fans a big, besotted holiday

TAMPA

Randy Johnson doesn't take kindly to steel drums and flip-flops in his country music. The 30-year-old Frito-Lay sales rep from Lakeland is an old-school outlaw fan, and he has the Johnny Cash shirt and Man in Black action figure to prove it.

That's why he can only shake his head as the women in his life — his wife Katy Sue Johnson, 28, and his mother Katherine Teal, 50 — festoon the Ford Windstar parked in their front yard with Day-Glo shout-outs to a new-school king of country.

Husbands are one thing. Kenny Chesney, the behatted heir apparent to Jimmy Buffett, the man seducing 20,000 diehards at a sold-out Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa Saturday, is another.

"I told them I wouldn't hate on Kenny today," Randy says — as if he had any choice.

Using paint they bought at Wal-Mart — "I swear they have their own parking space there," Randy harrumphs — Katy Sue and Katherine, both dressed as New Age hula girls, get crazy with their cursive: Ya Gotta B A Fan To Understand, they write. It's A Chesney Thing!

On a back window, Teal pens My X Survived Gunpowder + Lead, which is more than a nod to a song by Miranda Lambert, Chesney's opening act. Teal says she shot an abusive ex-husband in the rear with a 9mm pistol full of rat-shot. "He really did deserve it," she says.

As the van pulls away — the women leave eight hours before the show, giving them seven hours of tailgating merriment — Randy smiles: "It's a girl thing."

• • •

The 41-year-old Chesney is more than a "girl thing." Forbes just ranked him the fifth-highest "top-earning" musician. Record and concert sales combined, the star made $65 million in the last year. Madonna was tops with $110 million. But if rankings were based solely on tickets sold, Chesney's million-plus concertgoers would top the Material Girl — and any other North American act.

Chesney has been a fixture on the country scene since 1994. But about five years later, when he started injecting a beach-and-bikinis texture into his music, the Tennessee native's shows became big, besotted events, unofficial national holidays for country listeners nationwide.

"He embraced the island vibe, and so did fans," says Veronica Young, a disc jockey at Tampa country radio station WQYK-FM. "He's always been a good-selling artist, but he went from being a star to a superstar."

Chesney's sea-breezy hits reach no deeper than their postcard titles: Beer in Mexico, Summertime, When the Sun Goes Down. His current tour is called the Sun City Carnival; it's sponsored by Corona beer.

You can call him a Kmart Buffett all you want, but give Chesney credit: He's coupled boat-drink dreams with blue-collar reality, a simple formula with staggering 21st century pull.

"His music touches everybody," says Tamara Segrest, a nail tech who has joined Katy Sue and Katherine for the day. Her favorite Chesney song? She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy. Segrest, 47, shrugs her shoulders: "I was raised on a farm."

• • •

The sprawling tailgate party in the Ford's parking lot looks familiar. Pirate ships, luau tents, a sign soliciting "Shooters 4 Hooters." That's Buffett 101. But look closer — perhaps at the makeshift hot tub loaded onto a flatbed, a true mark of ingenuity — and you'll see a crowd that is all ages, but in the main far younger than the Baby Boomer throngs at a Buffett gig.

Chesney has attracted 9-to-5 folks at a time when friends and loved ones are at war and in the unemployment line. "The vibe his music gives off is so great," says Katy Sue, a stay-at-home mom with two young sons. "People need a break."

Mike Culotta, operations manager at WQYK, says Chesney's gift is in creating a mood: "Fans associate their happiness, their relaxation with Kenny Chesney."

As Katy Sue & Co. wander through the tailgate party, they get catcalls and compliments. Everyone is sweet; no one is rude. When gray skies unload one mother of a storm, the throngs keep partying — as if they had any choice.

"I hope the paint on the van doesn't run," Katy Sue says.

Ya Gotta B A Fan To Understand survives just fine.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

Kenny Chesney gives fans a big, besotted holiday 08/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 12:13pm]

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