“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for several years,” he told Sounds Like Nashville of his first album of all-new material since 2008. “I didn’t think I would ever get the chance to be a recording artist again. I thought it was done. I thought it was over for me. To have this happen is a dream come true. It’s just as exciting as it was when the first one came out in 1990.”
That “first” one, Too Cold At Home, helped to make Chesnutt a household name from the start. It yielded five major hits, including the title cut. Before that, the singer had spent years playing along the Beaumont club circuit, and also was a member of the band at Jones Country, a music park owned by George and Nancy Jones. He says he tried to watch how Jones and other artists handled the pressure that went with being a headliner, but when his turn in the spotlight came – it was quite scary for the singer.
“When it was my turn, it was altogether different,” he admitted. “It was nothing like Jones Country. I was the one that people were coming to see, and that changed things. I went from being a part of the bar band to the focus of attention. It scared the living hell out of me. I never had stage fright at all until I had a record out, and I had to stand in front of a crowd that was there to see me. I was literally shaking before each show, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. It’s scary when the spotlight is on you, and you only have one song that people know. I just closed my eyes and pretended I was back in the honky-tonks, and it worked. That helped me to get some confidence. I was so glad when I got the second number one, so I had two songs. Then, Longnecks & Short Stories came out in 1992, and it got easier. I could throw in some album cuts.”
Chesnutt continued to rack up the hits, including “Brother Jukebox,” “Let It Rain,” and “She Dreams.” Ironically, the song that became one of his biggest hits at radio, his 1998 cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” proved not to be one of his favorite musical memories.
“That’s a period in my career that wasn’t very happy for me,” he confesses. “I was talked into doing that by my producer at MCA. I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t my type of music, and it’s still not. That’s not what I sing. I didn’t even think the song was right for Aerosmith. That wasn’t even the band playing on the track, it was just Steven Tyler singing. But, that’s what they were going after – something different for them. It’s a beautiful song. Diane Warren is a great songwriter, and she wrote some great ones. But, I didn’t want to cut it. I knew that if I didn’t, I would be put on the back burner at the label, and they would call me ‘hard to deal with,’ and they wouldn’t fool with me anymore.”
So, he took the plunge, and though radio made the song a number one hit for four weeks, there was a little bit of backlash – among his fans and one of his biggest influences.
“It confused everyone,” he said. “It actually made George Jones mad at me. He always told me to stay true to who I was, and not to let anyone lead me in another direction. Waylon [Jennings] told me to do the same thing. The record goes on to hit number one for four weeks, and doesn’t sell anything. Radio loved it, but the fans didn’t buy it.” When it came time for his next album, MCA wanted Chesnutt to do another Pop cover, but he resisted. The fallout made for not a great moment in his career. “They got pissed off at me, and I couldn’t blame them because that’s what was happening at the time. Traditional country music was done as far as they were concerned. I disagreed with them, and eventually wound up leaving the label. That’s why people didn’t hear much from me after that because I was labeled hard to work with,” he said.
Now, with Tradition Lives on the market, Chesnutt gets a chance to give fans what they expect with a healthy dose of his down-home style. “I wanted to show the world that I’m still here and that I’m still Country. I’m not changing with the times. I’ve been on the road for twenty-six years, doing the same kind of music. I made up my mind that I do what I do, and that’s what people expect of me. I’ve never had trouble getting a crowd anywhere. The fans don’t expect anything different from me, so I couldn’t wait to go into the studio and cut these songs. I picked the songs by myself. Nobody influenced me or suggested anything. They turned it all over to me. All I had to do was to go in and sing,” he says fondly of the recording experience.
Among the highlights of the disc include “I’ve Got A Quarter In My Pocket,” “Oughta Miss Me By Now,” “What I Heard,” and “There Won’t Be Another Now,” a Red Lane composition that was originally recorded by Merle Haggard on his 1985 album Kern River. One might assume that the song was a last-minute addition to the album in honor to Haggard, who passed away three months ago, but the recording had been around for quite a while, he insists. “It wasn’t recorded to be a tribute to either Merle or Red Lane. When I recorded the song, Jimmy Ritchey and I were hanging out at his house one night years ago in the studio listening to music for the next project – which turned into this one. I asked him if he ever had heard the song, because I had always loved it. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard songs, and I didn’t know that Red Lane had written it. I told Merle that was my favorite song that he recorded. He told me that it was a Red Lane song, and I ought to cut it someday. It was several years later when I played it for Jimmy, and he said ‘Man, you need to sing that.’ So, we went upstairs, and I got the guitar off the wall, and tuned it up, and away we went. It was never meant to be on a record or a tribute or anything, because Red and Merle were still alive. We just did it for fun. We liked it, each of us got a copy of it, and we carried it around for years. I thought about it after we finished the album, and we decided to put it on as a bonus track in tribute to the two of them as a bonus track. It’s just me and a guitar, along with Jimmy playing another guitar.”
Chesnutt was a fan of both men, and says he was honored to include the song on the disc as a statement about where his kind of music comes from. “I never met Red Lane, but Merle Haggard – to me – is the backbone of Country Music. George Jones is the soul, but Merle is the backbone. They go together, and always have. Those two guys defined country music for all times. I was just so fortunate that I got to hang around them and talk to them personally, and get advice from them. Now that they’re both gone, I’ve taken a little bit of what they’ve taught me, and put it on my record. If you hear any of my music, but especially the new music, you’ll hear more of their influence than on any of my previous records. Naturally, I’m older and I’ve learned a lot in the past twenty-six years, and both George and Merle had a whole lot to do with that.”
Chesnutt’s Tradtion Lives is available for purchase HERE.