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Robert Morast, Published June 14 2009

Escape artist: Kenny Chesney’s party sounds provide relief for fans

By now most of us are sick of all things bailout – or wondering when we’re going to get our share.

Yet, as Kenny Chesney prepares to step into the Fargodome on Saturday for the third time in five years, it’s hard not to think of the “B” word and connect it with the common folk; because it feels like the perpetually sleeveless country singer is using his summer tour as a way to give his fans a reality bailout.

We’re not talking about ticket prices, which range from $20 to $79. But while trying to answer how Chesney can play the Red River Valley seven times since 2002 without a marked drop-off in fan enthusiasm or ticket sales, the answer keeps coming back to one conclusion: Chesney offers people an escape from their lives.

Whether it’s by sending his followers on a beach vacation via his faux-tropical vibe in songs like “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem” or bragging about the primal pull of his tractor, Chesney doesn’t dwell in the depressing moments of life. He preaches the party in a relaxed manner that suggests he’s been there, done that. And in a time when the fun fund has been taken out of many people’s budgets, Chesney’s low-rent escapism is something worth spending money on.

“His music makes you forget about what’s going on that isn’t fun,” says Hillary Scott, a vocalist in the country trio Lady Antebellum. “You don’t have to worry about anything that’s going on outside those two hours (at the concert). I think that’s the brilliance of Kenny, he gives you that escape every night.”

She should know. Scott’s group is one of the opening acts – along with country firebrand Miranda Lambert – that will play Fargo for Chesney’s Sun City Carnival tour, and she says she watches the show from backstage every night.

Of course, Scott’s not the only spectator. Chesney’s tour has been virtually sold out at every date – tickets for Saturday’s show at the dome are still available. This isn’t anything new. Last year the concert industry publication Pollstar listed Chesney’s live act as the biggest country music draw of 2008 when he played to more than 1 million fans.

But even for an artist who’s regarded as one of the top five solo acts in his genre, it’s curious if not impressive that Chesney can play a small market such as Fargo and surrounding cities so frequently without some fan burnout.

To recap: Since 2002, when Chesney performed at the Red River Valley Fair, the country singer has played the Fargodome twice – in 2005 and 2007, and been part of the Detroit Lakes country music festival WE Fest three times.

Along the way, his appeal hasn’t waned.

“Kenny requests are non-stop,” says Steve Bakken, music director at Bob 95.1 FM, a country radio station in Fargo. “Kenny’s huge.”

Bakken says some of Chesney’s continued appeal comes from his work building a fanbase from the ground up, steadily growing it as his popularity climbed from a no-name early ’90s attraction to a country/island rhythm hybrid artist who’s now mentioned alongside country stars such as George Strait and Tim McGraw.

But, it also gets back to the fun factor.

Bakken says in Chesney’s tours “everything is geared toward that fun summer atmosphere.”

It’s not just his tours. The man with a degree in advertising has spent much of this decade reshaping his image to make himself appear to be country music’s Jimmy Buffett. Chesney’s typical publicity photo features him on white sands on some tropical beach.

And his inclusion of Caribbean rhythms or instrumentation in just a handful of songs has provided enough foreign flavor for Chesney to be considered the Jose Cuervo of country music.

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to understand why Chesney’s party vibe has been so well-received here.

“Look at where you are and look at the artist you’re talking about. If you’re freezing your (bottom) off in Fargo, even in the summer I imagine it gets cool at night there, it’s escapism. He’s peddling that vacation that the average North Dakotan can’t afford,” says Jim Malec, managing editor of the noted country music Web site The 9513.

Again, it’s all about escape.

“It’s a way for (fans) to feel like they’re in the Bahamas without paying thousands of dollars to go to the Bahamas,” Scott says. “They can drink a rum drink, go to the concert and he can take them there.

“It has that affect on me. Every night I feel like I’m on the beach.”

If you go


Readers can reach Forum Features Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518