Kenny Chesney’s Trip Around the Sun tour stop in Denver on Saturday, June 30, would have made Betsy Ross proud.
Old Glory hats, shirts and dresses filled Mile High Stadium. One teen was even decked out in red, white and blue overall shorts, one strap unbuttoned, ’90s style.
While Chesney has been dubbed the heir apparent to Jimmy Buffett — and has even branded himself that way (“Now I know how Jimmy Buffett feels,” he sings in “How Forever Feels”) — his proud-to-be-a-redneck fans are nowhere near as obnoxious as the drunken parrotheads that flooded Coors Field last week. The No Shoes Nation is more Heart of America on an ocean-side vacation than ex-pat New Yorker at a Florida retirement community, and Chesney’s shows are more fun because of it.
A few of those fans, mostly the younger ones, were slobbering all over each other like they were at a heterosexual pride parade, gobsmacking children and elders alike with their tongue-and-spit-soaked grope-a-thons. A seatmate who befriended me — a woman on a mom’s night out enjoying a much-needed break from her kid — asked me if I’d have to write about the “hillbilly millennials” going biblical less than a foot from me. I told her I wouldn't, but I guess I lied.
With all that red, white and blue spit-swapping, outsiders might picture the stadium as an orgy of conservatism — even revolting white nationalism. And while I won’t deny that there was at least one drunk guy wearing Rebel flags on his hat, shirt and shorts, mostly those outsiders would be wrong when it came to Chesney and the show he put on.
Chesney brings a world-without-borders flare to country music. Strutting around in his boots, blue tank top, jeans and beach-bum cowboy hat, he opened his concert with “Have Another Beer in Mexico.” As he closed out the night after signing a guitar, hats and license plates with his pal Peyton Manning, Chesney told the audience, “Adios. I love you.”
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Surely by bookending his set with songs about healing loneliness by drinking in Mexico and a Spanish farewell, he’s signaling something about the pleasures of loose borders — and none of those flag-wearing patriots seemed to mind. The New York-Developer-in-Chief may have race-baited his way to the White House fuming about criminal immigrants, but Chesney and his fans showed a different way of being country — a loving way, an inclusive way, a big-tent joyfest where all are welcome to dance and sing along.
That inclusive spirit even took hold in the men's bathroom, which turned gender-neutral as high femme women dominated the stalls — a fact that would have given the toilet gestapos at the Alliance for Defending Freedom a bout of carpal tunnel from all the finger-wagging they'd be doing.
Focus on the Family, watch out: If the gender lines at a country concert in a football stadium are being crossed, the end of gender-segregated bathrooms is coming fast.
Chesney himself, whose gender presentation was far from butch as he sashayed across the stage, dished out a welcome break from the burly bro-centric masculinity many country artists exude. While rumors have rippled through the tabloids for years about the singer’s sexuality — particularly after Renée Zellwegger divorced him after four months of marriage back in 2005 for “fraud” — he maintains he’s not gay, which is absolutely fine.
And, really, who cares who Chesney sleeps with — or longs to sleep with?
Well, bigots, probably. People scared the straight world is dying. And millions of queer country-music-loving youth whose families have shoved them in the closet, kids who are keeping their fingers crossed that a pop country star of Chesney's stature could be as queer as they are, dreaming every night that he will tell the world he's gay.
But he's straight, right, so that's not his load to carry. But someday soon, a star like him will join country singing pioneers like Billy Gilman and Ty Herndon, who have paved that trail — and that will be revolutionary to millions.
But what Chesney already offers — and this should be celebrated — is an unabashed queeniness that is charming, warm and defies the Neanderthal notion that real men, Southern men, country men, need be hard-as-a-rock masculine.
Okay, he broke out songs like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy," which take masculinity about as seriously as Little Richard did. But a lot of his material, particularly the stuff of the past couple decades, focuses more on nostalgia, partying, youth culture, chilling out at the beach and escaping the mundane world. Crooning about hetero love is hardly front and center for Chesney, and that's magnificent.
Chesney gives his fans a musical pleasure cruise, pure love and an escape, much like pop divas Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. And his music skews pop: Even the between-set music at his show came from Bruno Mars, Post Malone and Pharrell Williams. The boot-stomping crowd sang and danced along.
Brandon Lay opened the show, followed by the band Old Dominion, whose set was pure pop country — hipster-chic Matthew Ramsey leading the quintet in a killer brand-new song, "Make It Sweet." Thomas Rhett, the third act of the night, blended genres, fusing his brand of country with rap, funk, jazz and straight-ahead rock, melting the crowd with music from various cultures. His genre-blending efforts were solidified by stunning saxophone player Frank Houston, the rare black man in a country band, whose riffs caused even the grumpiest of good ol' boys to crack a smile.
Rhett wore a Denver Nuggets Dikembe Mutombo jersey with the rainbow flag on it, and in one of the sweeter moments of the night, he brought his children on stage to sing to them, his daughter from Uganda wearing an adorable sea-creature costume.
Rhett's genre-borrowing isn’t a sloppy gimmick (see Kid Rock’s and Colt Ford’s attempts at country rap for that), and his music doesn’t parody itself. It's just plain fun.
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While Chesney occasionally spoke a few rhymes during his own set, they could hardly have been confused with rap. What his music does embrace from outside the country world are occasional nods to club music, that gayest of genres that has been embraced by the straight EDM scene.
While offering his fans a riveting experience, Chesney's concert wasn’t flawless. Some in the crowd grumbled about how the entire affair was a two-hour ad for Blue Chair Bay rum, which was branded throughout the show. The move was odious, enough to make fans want to get drunk...on Blue Chair rum. But perhaps Chesney could be forgiven. The proceeds of the concert and his soon-to-drop album, Songs for the Saints, with a spot from — you guessed it — Jimmy Buffett, are going to Hurricane Irma relief efforts.
Irma aid and rum ads aside, Chesney didn’t speak directly to the the hate-spewing political swamp we’re blowing bubbles in, as so many other stadium-packing singers do these days to champion the LGBTQ community, people of color, disabled people and immigrants. And if there were ever a time for artists with power — particularly those who play to a largely conservative crowd — to be vocal and explicit about basic human rights and dignity, it’s now.
But to his credit, Chesney talked at the show about how music is the one place where we can all get along, and from the looks of it, at a concert where Confederate-flag wearing drunks shared space with a rainbow coalition of equally drunk country fans and nobody got shanked, he seems right.