Kenny Chesney has sold more than 1 million tickets for eight consecutive tours and grossed more than $500 million since 2002, according to Billboard Boxscore. The streak will surely continue with the 2012 Brothers of the Sun tour, which begins a run of more than 20 stadiums on June 2 at Tampa, Fla.'s Raymond James Stadium.
When Chesney won his sixth top package award at the 2011 Billboard Touring Awards last November, promoter Louis Messina, president of TMG/AEG Live and longtime director of Chesney's tours, accepted, saying, "I guarantee you I'll be back up here next year." The next day, word came that Chesney's former tour mate and country star Tim McGraw would be part of this year's stadium extravaganza, along with Grace Potter & the Nocturnals and Jake Owen.
The pairing with McGraw, an arena-level headliner in his own right, reunites a duo that first worked together as part of the George Strait Country Music Fest stadium tours, and then later as a run of mostly sheds in 2001 headlined by McGraw. The careers of both artists have grown exponentially since.
"Ten years ago when Kenny and I toured, he was just getting his feet under him, and now he's gone on to have incredible success," McGraw told Billboard when the tour was announced. "I can't remember when two artists at the top of their games that have such a history together have gone out and done something like this."
Chesney wants to ensure all his band and crew are also at the top of their games, and prior to rehearsals he was searching for a way to motivate the team. "I wanted them to feel what it's like to be a fan," he says. "So I bought 30 tickets to Van Halen [at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena] on the floor, and I sat in the chairs on the floor with my band and crew and we watched the show - as fans. You get so lost in this cocoon of what we're doing on the road, it's important for them and me to feel what that's like."
Hank Williams Jr. and Alabama brought rock production values to country in the 1980s, and country stars like McGraw and Chesney upped the ante even more in this century. Today, Chesney's stadium production is second to none, regardless of genre. Band and crew rehearse intensively right up until the tour begins, and the tweaking doesn't end there.
"The first weekend we play Tampa and Atlanta, and I'll watch [video from] those shows," Chesney says. "You can rehearse for months, do all the things you think will make the show have hands-up-in-the-air rock'n'roll moments, but until you get out in front of people, you don't know if it's going to work or not."
Messina, Chesney and manager Clint Higham have impressively built the Chesney touring machine with strategic booking from the clubs up, playing each market with care. Beyond Chesney's charisma as a performer, his success on the road is due to a long-term vision that prices tickets conservatively and doesn't go to the well too many times. By playing only stadiums, an option aided by McGraw's drawing power, the Brothers of the Sun tour can reach the same number of people in fewer dates than if amphitheaters and arenas were in the mix, as is typical for Chesney.
"That was a definite strategy," Chesney says. "We don't think it's good to play every market every year. In playing 23 stadiums, it's almost the equivalent of doing 46-50 shows, with the amount of people that are there."
Chesney's fans are passionate and loyal, and whether it's in a club or a stadium, his connection with the audience is palpable. This is an artist who not only knows his audience, but also is keenly aware of his powers - and his limitations.
"I know I can't play guitar as good as Keith Urban or Vince Gill. I just can't," he says. "Part of my success is knowing what I'm not good at. But when I put that hat on and I go up onstage with my band, something inside of me knows for a fact that I can take my index finger and make 60,000 people move left or right. That's a connection that's indefinable. I don't know where in my family I got that from, but it's like a laser vision: Through music, through my band, through raw energy and heart and passion, there's a connection up there that I know that I can do. I know I got that."