TAMPA — When you first meet Kenny Chesney, shake his vice-grip hand, you don't think "rock star." It's more like "handsome soccer dad, but, like, one of the cool ones." Backstage at Raymond James Stadium, where on Saturday he'll commence his 42-show, 19-football-field No Shoes Nation Tour, he wears corduroys, a thermal, trucker cap, New Balance sneaks.
He smiles. He's polite. He's punctual.
Forty-eight hours before show time, the crossover country king is also a nervous wreck. "This is an unsure time," Chesney, sitting in his backstage "vibe room," tells a small group of journos on Thursday. "You're not sure if everything you put together is going to work. … I sit up at night trying to figure out the best way to do what we do."
In that 5-foot-6, 44-year-old frame, however, there reside the swaggy ingredients that have helped him become one of the biggest (if not tallest) stars on the planet. He's sold more than 1 million tickets for each of his past 10 tours. The past three have started here; last year he drew close to 50,000 local fans for the daylong tailgate, nightlong gig. "(Tampa Bay) fans are really invested, a passionate bunch," he smiles. "This is perfect for me."
Maybe that's the key right there. Chesney is just a regular nervous, humble dude who, every now and then, becomes a musical superhero who can own a 365,000-pound stage. And maybe his infamous "vibe room" — with its spinning skull disco ball and busty wooden sentry guarding the entrance — is key to that transformation.
"Going from city to city, sometimes that can get stressful," he says. "That's a mundane existence waiting for 9:15 (show time). So this is where we flush everything out of our lives. (The vibe room) gives me and my band a chance to get together before we get together with everyone else."
There's also his ability to make a giant spectacle feel personal; he's known for making sure even the cheap seats get good sound. "I have not left this venue in three days," he says. Fans "don't have to come."
That sounds corny, but I've interviewed Chesney several times, and what he never comes off as is false, phony. Yes, he loves to sell tickets, and he hates to offend anyone. But the guy has a natural, likable charisma.
He knows what sells, too, and has put together an eclectic, possibly volatile lineup this year, including bad boy Eric Church. When I asked KC if EC brings an extra edge to the show, he laughed: "Eric brings an extra edge to everything!"
Chesney might be inspired to get a little edgy himself. "I went to see AC/DC and said wouldn't it be awesome to do a show and not do one ballad," he laughs. "We're not there yet, but it's pretty rocking."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected]