June 14, 2017–No current artist comes close to keeping alive the sound of traditional country music more than Mark Chesnutt. But if the straight-talking Texan had continued with his first music gig, he might have ended up as a rock drummer instead.
“I played drums in a rock and roll band when I was 13 to 15 years old,” said the multi-platinum recording artist during a phone interview. “While I was born and raised into country music, my brother who was five years older got me the rock and roll influence. I listened to ZZ Top and Aerosmith, and I loved it all.”
But true country music is where his heart beats strongest, and his fans will get to hear that live when Chesnutt headlines the Stonewall Peach Jamboree on Sat, June 17.
The Beaumont native grew up in a musical family. His dad, Bob Chesnutt, was a country music singer who started taking Mark along on trips to Nashville when he was 17. Once that town recognized the young singer’s talent, he was off on a career that led to 14 No. 1 hits, 23 top ten singles, four platinum albums, and five gold records throughout the 1990s.
Looking back on his now 27-year career, what’s most obvious is that Mark Chesnutt paid tribute to those who came before him.
He performed covers of songs by Kris Kristofferson (Sunday Morning Coming Down), Marshall Tucker Band (Heard it in a Love Song), Charlie Rich (Rollin’ with the Flow), and even some Aerosmith that his brother introduced him to. He has collaborated with all the greats of country music, including Vince Gill, George Jones, and Hank Williams, Jr.
Chesnutt credits those last two the most for making him who he is today.
“The first ones that really influenced my style were George Jones and Hank Williams, Jr.,” the 53-year-old singer said. “When I was a teenager, Hank Jr. was just busting out, shedding all his daddy’s stuff he was being forced to do and coming into his own style. I liked that a lot. He created his own rock and roll honky-tonk style, still bluesy, still country, but still honky-tonk. He took us in a different direction that’s still going to this day. Yeah, I stole a lot of stuff from old Bocephus.”
Chesnutt has a reputation for giving his fans their nickel’s worth at the live shows. He still books 175 dates a year. When I asked him whether the audience should expect a show or a dance, he replied, “That depends on where we’re playing. If there is a dance floor, they’re gonna dance. Even if it’s a theater or civic center not intended for dancing, they’re gonna dance!”
With his reverence for country music tradition, it’s no surprise a Mark Chesnutt live show contains songs from those he calls his “heroes”–Haggard, Hank Jr., and even some Elvis. Of course he spins his hits, which include Brother Jukebox, Lord Loves A Drinking Man, and Bubba Shot The Jukebox.
But he is never sure exactly what will happen next on stage.
“I piss off my band about every night,” he said with a chuckle. “I stray off the set list about 20 minutes in. I may play some George Jones stuff we haven’t played in 20 years. If a fan yells out a song we haven’t done, we’ll try to do it. I just like to have fun.”
While many stars lament being moved out of active radio rotation, Chesnutt embraces the freedom it gives him.
“I don’t have a major record deal no more and I don’t want one, even if you gave it to me,” he said. “I like recording for independent labels.”
He not only prefers the flexibility and control of recording independently, he embraces all the new ways to sell music online.
“That is great for guys like me,” he said of the Internet opportunities. “Hell, I’m selling more records now than I ever did before. With downloads, it’s so much better than the old record stores!”
So when fans began clamoring for a new album, Chesnutt jumped on it.
“I have a lot of songs I’ve been holding onto for years, that people in Nashville passed on because they were too country and wouldn’t get radio play. That was the kind of stuff I was looking for.”
For anyone looking for a new sound, they won’t find it. In fact, the man once hailed as the “hillbilly messiah” states his style “ain’t changed a bit.”
“I promise you there ain’t no rap or no hiphop, just straight down the barrel country music,” he said. “That’s why I cut this album–to let people know that country music ain’t dead.”
It certainly isn’t in Mark Chesnutt’s world. When he and his band take the stage at the Peach Jamboree, he won’t be playing rock and roll drums. Or… maybe he will. Guess you’ll have to show up to find out.
“Let everybody know to come out and hear some good Texas honky-tonk music from a real Texas honky-tonk guy,” he said. “If you want to hear that stuff, come out and see us. If there are two or 2000, we’ll be there! We’re gonna have a good time.”
Mark Chesnutt performs on Saturday evening, June 17, at the Stonewall Peach Jamboree in Stonewall, Texas. Information at www.stonewalltexas.com. Information on Mark Chesnutt at www.markchesnutt.com.