Kenny Chesney was born March 26, 1968, in Knoxville, Tenn., and raised in nearby Luttrell. He attended college at East Tennessee State in Johnson City and became a fixture in the area’s venues, including Chuckie’s Trading Post and Quarterback’s Barbecue. “The scene up there then was mostly blues, rock and folk,” he recalls. “I was about the only one doing George Jones and Hank Jr. I got to where I had a pretty good following.”
An awakening of sorts came when he went into the Classic Recording Studio in Bristol, Va. Backed by several musicians he knew from college (who later became the core of Alison Krauss’ band), he recorded an album’s worth of songs he’d written. When he pressed up a thousand copies, sold them all at his shows and made enough to buy a new Martin guitar, he realized he was onto something. A month after graduating from college with a degree in advertising, he headed down I-40 west to Nashville in early 1991.
The going was slow the first couple of years. He made the rounds of the publishing companies without much success. He went to see the only person he knew in the business, producer Kyle Lehning, who told him, “You’ve definitely got something, but it ain’t there yet.” The only steady gig he could find playing music was in a down and dirty honky-tonk called the Turf. This was on Nashville’s storied Lower Broadway before the area was gentrified. In 1992, the head of publisher/writer relations at BMI set up an audition with Opryland Music Group. Chesney came out of the audition with a songwriter’s contract.