When Kenny Chesney strides onto the stage at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Saturday, it will end a three-year absence from touring and mark 930 days since tickets for the Florida concert went on sale.
Because of the pandemic, his Here and Now stadium blitz was rescheduled, re-routed and re-announced twice.
Chesney acknowledges that he “didn’t cope very well” the first year that COVID-19 quashed his plans for an annual run performing for 50,000-plus people per show.
But now, with the GPS pointing to Atlanta, Philadelphia, Seattle, Detroit and other cities, the guy who has earned 34 No. 1 hits on the Billboard country charts and sold more than 30 million albums is pacing like a racehorse in his stall.
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Calling from Tennessee, where he was packing to head to Florida, Chesney, 54, spoke enthusiastically to USA TODAY about returning to play for his legions of fans known as the No Shoes Nation, a moniker spawned by his 2003 hit, “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem.”
At his shows, Chesney will traverse a 220-foot wide stage – part of a green-leaning production that features all LED lights – and is joined on the bill by country hitmakers Dan + Shay, Old Dominion and Carly Pearce.
Here’s what Chesney had to say about getting back to “Setting the World on Fire.”
Question: It’s been a long time since you hit the stage. What do you think will be running through your head before you walk out there?
Kenny Chesney: A lot of life has happened since we were last on stage. It’s going to be pretty emotional. We didn’t take this time off because we wanted to; it was taken from us. There were moments during the first year of COVID that I was wondering if this moment would ever come. This is what we do.
Q: How did you cope with the constant uncertainty and rescheduling?
Chesney: This has been my life since I was in college and renting a sound system to put in my truck and playing college bars. I didn’t cope very well the first year. It did give me time to reflect and to sit with myself, which is hard for me to say. I’ve been moving for so long that there’s always somewhere to go – an expectation, a deadline – so when you’re forced to sit with yourself, that can be hard (laughs).
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Q: So many of your fans held on to their tickets, no matter how many times the show dates changed. What do you think inspires that kind of loyalty from the No Shoes Nation?
Chesney: It means a lot to me that they held on to those tickets. It’s been a hard time for everyone. But it shows they love this music and these songs and more importantly, the years of connection, the experience of it all. I don’t get that connection many other places in my life and I’d like to think they don’t, either.
Q: What are you most looking forward to singing?
Chesney: The ironic one would be “Here and Now” (released in February 2020) because we’re finally in the here and now. It’s a good, rocking song and we kicked it harder in rehearsals. I’m excited to say that sentiment to an audience, especially since we’ve yet to play one single live from the (“Here and Now”) album.
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Q: I’ve seen you live several times and by the end of the show, your clothes just hang on you from the sweat. What is your physical prep like to endure these tours?
Chesney: My brain, my soul, my heart, cardiovascular-wise, I have to prepare all of me to do what I do. It felt good to get in the zone because for two years, I wasn’t in my traditional routine of getting off tour in August or September and going to the islands to be the other person and drink and eat what I want through Christmas. The second week of January I’d start preparing for the other six months, so I started a little earlier this year. I measure my food; it’s a pretty intense diet. And my trainer mixes it up. It’s a lot of cardio, a lot of interval training to get my heart rate up.
Q: You’re closing in on 30 years since your debut album (1994’s “In My Wildest Dreams”). Have you thought about your legacy?
Chesney: I haven’t thought about it, really; I’ve been too busy. But I think it’s important to make music that pushes your audience but doesn’t alienate them, either. I just hope people know I gave them every cell of my body with a lot of love mixed in.