For the latest issue of Knoxville Magazine, Kenny Chesney took the time to write a special letter to his hometown (Kenny is from nearby Luttrell, TN.) Read below as Kenny reflects on his childhood and remembers his roots…
I Go Back
You never know when you’re starting out, where a dream will take you – or what it might cost. You just know you can almost taste it, touch it, breathe it, and that’s enough to keep you going. I sometimes look back on growing up in East Tennessee and see, just like most people’s, how my life was; there was no reason to think I could get a record deal, let alone play football stadiums in Boston, Seattle, Indianapolis, Detroit and San Francisco, but somehow I did.
Well, it’s not something that just happens. You don’t wake up one day, going, “I’ll just set up my gear at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.” It starts long before you even dare to dream something like that.
I wanted to play football. Obviously, when I stopped growing freshman year, football required a lot of commitment from me – and the coaches at Gibbs High. They saw that and showed me what to do to be able to make the grade. Hard work. Discipline. A lot of willingness to push beyond what all us kids thought we were capable of.
You’d be surprised how many times I’ve gone back to those drills, those plays, that conditioning over the years. Whether it was playing small clubs where no one really cares – and rather than giving up, pushing harder to connect… or watching a single die on the charts, knowing I was gonna have to make more calls, visit more radio stations, and possibly learn more about my craft… or putting in the hours as a writer, as a student of what it takes to create a good show, making the calls, doing the interviews, doing those all night drives for seemingly not very much reward.
But I learned: it’s all part of it. It doesn’t just happen; it grows and takes shape.
Growing up in East Tennessee, I also learned a lot about what matters, about having fun and being happy right where you are. When I got my record deal, I realized that a lot of music isn’t made from that place, but from some place people are trying to get to. The only thing is: I liked the friends I had, the things we did, the moments we shared – and I realized as I journeyed, those things hold up.
So that drove me to cut songs like “Back Where I Come From,” “Young,” “Down The Road,” “There Goes My Life,” “Summertime,” “When The Sun Goes Down” and “I Go Back.” Those songs, those memories are so real for everybody, me especially… and you’re not going to see them in the pages of People, but people recognize themselves in those songs.
To me, that’s the greatest thing about music: you can bring people together. You can party with 100 or 5,000 or 67,000… and even if you don’t know the person sitting next to you, you kind of do – because you both know what’s in the music. And that’s the most fun of all: realizing how much we have in common.
When some of the stars I really looked up to came out to see me and the guys over the last few years, they just showed up and hung out like one of us. They’ve figured out how to keep that part that wasn’t a rock star alive… and that really struck me. After the show, they always say kind of the same thing to us, “You know, you and your guys remind me of us when we were at our peak.”
Those are the things you don’t think about. You’re living your life; you’re chasing your dream; you’re trying to make it mean more, be better, create something special every time. Then someone you’ve looked up to, someone who truly has a “band of brothers” on the road, says that.
It caused me to stop and reflect. What was this thing we had created? Because you don’t think about stuff like that. But when someone you respect and admire tells you something like that, you have to step back and consider.
At this point, football stadiums are part of what we do. A dozen, 15 a summer. It’s what we do… and it’s what in many ways inspires us. But it’s that notion of “this is special” – the heart that I see every night when we’re onstage, looking out at the fans, the way the band puts it all out there every single night, the places we’ve gone, the songs that we sing and especially the stories I hear about people coming together every year for this show. It’s their rite of summer.
Playing Neyland Stadium was an impossible dream. But we did the work, and it happened. It’s one of the most special memories of my life… and thankfully, we were able to capture it. Looking around, I realized so many of these other moments might be lost, and we should document it for when it’s gone.
Country singers and kids from East Tennessee don’t make 3-D movies. That’s for the Rolling Stones and U2. But there was something there, and, like always, I figured, “I might as well dream…”
When we started shooting last summer, we all looked at the footage – and knew there was something there. Something you couldn’t describe, but you could truly see. It’s the energy and the passion from the fans as much as anything, and the songs that are those people’s lives, just as much as they’re mine… and it becomes pretty obvious.
When I was sitting on a barstool with a tip jar at Quarterback’s Barbeque, no one – including me – could’ve imagined what we saw. When I got to Nashville, knowing no one and thinking a gig at the worst bar on Lower Broadway was a break, this wasn’t possible.
But that’s the thing: if you do enough one-nighters, touch enough lives, make enough people smile or laugh or sing along, keep looking for better songs that say something that’s real to you, it all adds up. It all adds up.
I didn’t make the Gibbs football team because I was so great at the try-out; I made the team because I worked hard, I kept coming back… and I grew into the thing I wanted to do: play football. That’s how dreams are. That’s the thing you can learn wherever you are… I know I did.