It’s official. Kenny Chesney, music’s largest summer act, just postponed his Chillaxification tour yesterday indefinitely until 2021 due to COVID-19.
For the country music uninformed, Chesney’s annual summer road show isn’t just a concert. It’s a music institution for millions of Americans across more than two dozen states and 30 cities, anchoring summer on the calendar the same way that Memorial Day and Labor Day do.
By the numbers, no other artist in the world in any genre can sell out America’s stadiums like Chesney—70,000 to 90,000 fans at a time, back to back sold-out nights, year after year. Not the Rolling Stones. Not U2. Not Yanni. Not Rhinanna or Taylor Swift. No one. Emotionally, it’s a like a summertime revival.
So when Chesney finally says the show can’t go on, the ramifications reverberate far beyond the roadies and the music industry. It has a psychological effect on how people experience summer and their confidence that America is actually returning to a “new” normal. If Chesney can’t pull it off, what about major league baseball, the PGA, and the NFL whose lifeblood like Chesney’s are the fans?
On Thursday, Chesney issued the following statement to fans on his social media channels:
“We have done everything possible… and things I’m not even sure we would’ve thought of three months ago. Myself and my team have talked to medical experts, city commissioners, team owners, building staffs, the NFL, often daily, because coming out to play for you is everything to us. When we postponed our first wave of shows, no one would’ve imagined we’d be here today…Still wondering, still uncertain. But as I said when we postponed those first dates, I will not take chances with people I care about. I’ve laid awake many nights thinking about this, not wanting to disappoint all the people who are with us every summer… Some who fly from all over the country to meet up, people who’re coming for the first time…friends who’ve met at the tailgate or the Sandbar.
No Shoes Nation is not just people buying a ticket to a show, and I know that. I care, because you guys care so very much. But that’s exactly why…
1) I wanted to tell you guys first
2) I hate everything about what I’m about to say. No one has tried harder than my team to make the 2020 Chillaxification Tour a reality…Sadly, we can’t find a way to make it safe, to navigate water that’s just not getting any clearer. For that reason, we have to postpone this year’s tour. We are hoping to have the entire schedule for 2021 finalized quickly. Right now, though, it’s you and me and that’s what matters”
That was likely the most painful thing Chesney ever had to write in his life.
“It’s the thing I kept saying over and over,” Chesney tells me from his house in Nashville about the risk of touring right now. “I won’t take chances with the people I care about. And that’s No Shoes Nation, as well as my entire road family. I kept thinking, as serious as this is, things would be a lot clearer by now. We’d know more, understand in a deeper way. But it doesn’t feel that way. I talk to a lot of different kinds of people every day, and most all of them feel like I do. We’re not sure, we don’t know. So, as much as we want to go play for the fans, I couldn’t find a way that would allow us to not take a chance with those people who are such a part of my life.”
Chesney’s 2020 Chillaxification Tour, which purposefully coincided with his 19th studio album release ‘Here And Now’ that dropped on May 1st, was queued up for launch in Arlington, TX on April 18th.
As coronavirus infections surged across major cities and most professional sports shut down through March, however, Chesney put his tour’s first 11 dates on ice on March 12th, with the goal of re-launching on May 30th at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field and trucking on through the tour’s two dozen other scheduled dates through Labor Day.
Unlike most other touring acts who either cancelled or postponed their summer plans altogether back in late March or April, Chesney held out as long as he could. He consulted with health professionals, event coordinators, stadium staff, and the NFL to see if there was a way to keep the show going safely. Music and a release from isolation, Chesney reckoned, were exactly what people needed more than ever right now.
But in the end, there wasn’t a way. And it was one of the hardest decisions Chesney has made in his life.
“Everyone I work with on the road cares the same way I do,” says Chesney. “They care about the show, each other, the fans and the experience. That’s why I call them my road family: because it’s not a job, they’re not co-workers. We’re all in this in a way that is so much more. So to not go out, it leaves everyone a little lost and disoriented. This is what we do: it’s not me, it’s all of us. It’s why I talk in ‘we’ a lot, because from the riggers, the drivers, the guitar tuners to my band, the tour management staff and everyone associated with these tours, it’s all of us. And for all of them, it’s not like there’s another way they can go get their fix of that moment when the curtain drops, the music happens and the people merge with the songs. You know, we could feel it: AT&T Stadium in Dallas. It was just weeks way. And now? Well, who knows?”
It’s a new feeling for Chesney who’s genetically programmed to tour. When I ask him what he’ll miss most, Chesney tells me, “everything”.
“Catering in the morning, hearing what everyone’s talking about. Soundcheck. That energy starting to ramp up before the show… friends who you maybe haven’t seen in a while, the three meet & greets, knowing it’s about to happen – and that second before I walk out. And then, the show. There is nowhere I feel more alive than in that moment. I have friends who surf, and I’ve said I can’t imagine the power of being on one of those massive waves and having all that power coming at you from that ocean, being on it and flying. And Laird Hamilton just said, ‘You do. Only that power comes at you from the front’. No Shoes Nation, and I say it exhaustively, is such a passionate, crazy place! The people love music and life and each other with such intensity, and when you play for them, you really feel it. If you’ve ever been near the speakers and felt the music move through you, multiply that by 100 – and you’ll have a sense of how hard those people throw it at all of us onstage.”
Notwithstanding the emotional toll, the cancellation of Kenny’s 2020 tour also leaves a mind-boggling financial hole in its wake. When he’s on the road Chesney employs hundreds of people who crisscross the country with him in a herd of more than 60 tour busses and tractor-trailers. No music artist has sold more concert tickets over the past 15 years.
In that way Chesney’s tour is like a mobile financial stimulus plan. Everywhere the busses roll in, they provide an immediate and massive jolt to the local economy by filling stadiums which in turn employs thousands more people who run concessions, security, ticketing, parking, maintenance, lighting, sound, and groundskeeping. Some estimates are that Chesney’s tour rakes in over $115 million a year and contributes nearly three times that to local economies across the country.
Cities like Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Detroit will sorely miss that jolt this year. The economic repercussions will be even more severe for smaller cities like Cuyahoga Falls, OH, Rogers, AR, Bristow, VA, and Bozeman, MT which have far narrow margins for financial error.
The silver living of Chesney’s Chillaxification tour cancellation, however, is his new album. ‘Here And Now’ just came in at #1 on Billboard’s top album debuts, tying Chesney with Garth Brooks, Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Kanye West, and Drake for nine #1 debuts. For the millions of fans who won’t be able to see him live this summer, it’s at least something to hold on to and get them through to next year.
On what happens for the rest of this year off the road, Chesney is predictably optimistic and focused on his music as a tool for healing and uplifting people.
“Since we don’t know what the new normal is, I can’t begin to tell you what happens next,” Chesney tells me. “And even when the new normal starts to roll out, I’m not sure that will stay the new normal. But it’s part of why I wanted to get ‘Here And Now’ out. That record was made in so many ways about No Shoes Nation. The title track wasn’t meant to be a song for the times. But a song about cherishing the moments, not being so caught up in negative stuff that you miss the awesomeness right before your eyes is suddenly the song that says this is all we’ve got—at any given moment—so please find the joy in it, enjoy the beauty of it. When things are uncertain, or I’m in a funk, music is the thing I turn to. I say it all the time: Music Is Medicine. I couldn’t change the reality of the touring business, but I could give people the new music with this album.”
On what comes next on the touring front for 2021, Chesney’s still as pent up as his fans.
“This fall is gonna say a lot,” he recently told the LA Times. “I’ve got a lot of friends in the NFL, and I’m keeping my eyes on what they do, because it directly affects what I do. But I’m confident we’re gonna play music somewhere. And if we get to, everybody’s gonna be—I don’t know what the word is—horny for it”.
I couldn’t have written that lyric better myself.