No offense to Tim McGraw and the Zac Brown Band, previous opening acts on Kenny Chesney's annual stadium swing, but when Mr. No Shirt No Shoes No Problems picked Eric Church as his 2013 touring pal, the year's biggest concert extravaganza finally became interesting.
The likable, if artistically straight-forward, Chesney has had roughneck touring partners before; in 2005, he hit the road with Gretchen Wilson and Uncle Kracker, not exactly Bonnie and Clyde but not saints either. But there's never been anyone quite like Church to get Kenny to indulge his inner bad boy.
Plus when the strange bedfellows kick things off Saturday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa — tailgating starts at 10 a.m., the show at 4 p.m. (wow, what could possibly go wrong there) — Chesney's suburban good-time fans and Church's rural hardcore faithful should make things as intriguing in the stands as they are on the stage.
Maybe Kenny, 44, needed a little boost, something to inspire him. The guy has a superheroic work ethic, and genuine charisma, but even he admits the shows are a slog sometime. It's why he takes summers off every now and then, never mind the millions and millions in profit.
But this year, he certainly has a sparkplug in Church. The 35-year-old comes off like Kid Rock's country cousin, a North Carolina eccentric who blends genuine outlaw edge (Smoke a Little Smoke, Drink in My Hand) with slick Music Row hooks (Springsteen) — and processes life, and stardom, on his own terms. Church has built a loyal, rabid grassroots fanbase that trumpets his refusal to play by the rules.
Toss in the throngs supporting the touring bill's other two acts — singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves and the Rascal Flatts-y Eli Young Band — and that's a tough show to predict right there, which is rarely the case when Kenny comes to town.
Something to watch for: The attendance for last year's show (when McGraw was co-headliners) was 48,443. With Church, whose 2011 album Chief was a multiplatinum critical and commercial success, Chesney & Co. could draw even bigger crowds this year. As a critic and a fan, it'll sure be fun watching — and listening to — this ragtag assortment of troubadours try.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.