COLUMBIA, SC — April 26, 2008.
For Kenny Chesney, the date is as unforgettable as a favorite hat or a pair of his most comfortable boots. Chesney, one of country music’s top entertainers for more than a decade, performed at Williams-Brice Stadium that day just more than five years ago.
But the concert got off on the wrong foot.
“It will go down in my top three special moments on stage, my most awkward moments on stage and my toughest moments on stage,” Chesney said.
As his band played “Live Those Songs,” Chesney emerged from beneath the stage on a lift, but his boot got caught between the platform and the stage, crushing his right foot.
“It would’ve been really easy for me to go straight to the hospital,” Chesney said in a recent phone interview. “After awhile, my foot was so numb I didn’t feel it that much.”
Chesney, limping and in obvious pain, battled through his set like a swashbuckling pirate. Without the more than 44,000 people at the stadium, mustering the adrenaline would’ve been impossible.
“I think any entertainer will tell you that, especially me,” Chesney said. “I feed off the love and the energy that crowd came to give. The more you get, the more you give.
“I could see how passionate those people were and how much fun they were having.”
Still, Chesney, who has performed in Columbia eight times in 11 years, including Saturday’s return to Williams-Brice, felt he didn’t give fans an adequate concert.
“I do feel like I owe those people and that stadium and that crowd that was there the real thing,” he said. “Because they got a hurt Kenny on stage.”
No matter what he does, it’s apparent that local fans can’t enough of Chesney, the four-time Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association entertainer of the year.
After Saturday, about 200,000 will have attended Chesney’s concerts since the Colonial Life Arena, which organized the stadium shows, began booking him in 2003. (The figure includes an estimated 45,000 at Saturday’s concert.) After this stadium show, Chesney will have had almost $10M in gross sales in Columbia over the last 10 years.
“If you look at the numbers, it’s no secret that he sells well here,” Global Spectrum’s Lexie Boone, general manager of the Colonial Life Arena said. “It’s arguably the No. 1 selling artist in Columbia, if not South Carolina.”
When Chesney comes to the city, the economic impact is significant, especially with a stadium tour. In an email, Ed Wannebo, Chesney’s stage production manager, said the tour will hire 200 local stage hands to assist with assembling the stage and show production elements. The locals, Wannebo said, will work approximately 6,000 man hours the week of the show, which began Tuesday.
The tour crew will use more than 400 hotel room nights for the show, according to Wannebo. Jason Outman, the director of sales for the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports, & Tourism, estimated the crew’s direct spending impact at $90,000. According to Outman, the estimated revenue from the concert attendees is $2.05 million, and that’s without taking hotel room purchases into consideration.
Chesney’s loyal fan base, known colloquially as No Shoes Nation, arrive hours before his concerts and tailgate, setting up homemade Tiki bars and staking pirate flags.
“It’s one of the biggest joys that I’ve had and one of the biggest surprises of my life,” Chesney said when asked about the atmosphere before his concerts. “You start with a dream in college playing for tips and free enchiladas. The fact that it’s become less of a show and more of an experience is unbelievable.”
John Kudlack, who was at the 2008 show, agrees.
“It’s not about the music,” he said. “It’s a way of life. This is my escape.”
The good-natured spirit within No Shoes Nation is fueled, in part by, well, spirits. This month, Chesney will release Blue Chair Bay Rum in three flavors – coconut, coconut spiced and premium white. Instead of signing a lucrative contract with a distillery to use his brand, Chesney included himself in the rum-making process.
“It was a creative process, just like anything else I do,” he said. “I wanted it to be authentic. I think (No Shoes Nation) can smell a rat pretty quickly. I wanted it to represent me.”
And the countless days sitting on a boat watching the sun sink into the water, the colorful scenes shaded with the feelings and memories of days gone by. Chesney bottled up some of those feelings into “Life on a Rock,” the album he released Tuesday. “Pirate Flag,” the album’s lead single, is another ode to the caution-to-the-wind island living that Chesney has become known for, but much of the record is more introspective, contemplative. There are songs about grieving, letting go and hanging on.
“The more you live, the more you love. The more mistakes you make, the more fun you have. The more success you have, the more you fail. That’s just living life,” Chesney said. “It’s hard sometimes to hang on to the things that matter. That’s where I’m at right now”
“Life on a Rock,” Chesney said, allowed him to be a storyteller because he wasn’t on a label-imposed deadline. He was able to capture life as it passed.
“It’s really easy to be in the moment and to let that idea, feeling or emotion to evaporate,” he continued. “If you don’t write it down, if you don’t remind yourself in some way, life happens and you move on.”
That’s why, on the album, listeners get to meet “Lindy,” one the island characters Chesney was able to capture. Chesney decided to write the song after happening on Lindy playing the piano alone in a church one night.
“Lindy was a guy that I never had a conversation with and I don’t know many people that did,” he said. “You didn’t know him, but you saw him a lot. Lindy was one of the brush strokes that could give an island heart and charm.”
Five years ago, Chesney gutted out a stadium performance of a lifetime because he didn’t have the heart to quit.
“When that energy meets, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I think that’s what both sides look forward to after months of anticipation.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.