No Shoes Stadium Nation: Kenny Chesney Talks About Breaking Records, Giving Back

Kenny Chesney, Miller Park, Milwaukee
Jill Trunnell/Couresy Essential Broadcast Media
– Kenny Chesney, Miller Park, Milwaukee

Kenny Chesney arrived at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., for the Aug. 24-25 closer of his Trip Around The Sun tour and performed a ritual that’s been with him since he first began playing in stadiums some 15 years ago. He strolled around the nearly 61,000-seat home of the NFL’s New England Patriots and took it all in, walking up the steps to the rim of the cavernous stadium bowl and looked across more than a football field’s distance to the stage.

“Every stadium show, I make it a point to go to the point furthest from the stage, and sit there,” Chesney tells Pollstar. “Sometimes I walk, sometimes I take a golf cart, but I get up there and I listen to the wind, feel the distance from that seat that somebody wanted to be there bad enough, they bought it. I then know exactly how far it is to reach them – and that means emotionally, as much as musically. I want to connect, that’s the point; but I really want to connect with those fans, because they’re true believers.”

Those true believers are also known as Chesney’s No Shoes Nation – the fans who live for Chesney’s music and live shows. And in Foxborough, No Shoes Nation broke yet another attendance record and, in doing so, bought its one-millionth ticket to see “the people’s superstar” in 2018.

Kenny Chesney
Allister Ann
– Kenny Chesney
performs at Gillette on Aug. 24, 2018.

Chesney sold 121,714 tickets, grossing $11,631,679 as reported to Pollstar for two late-summer nights outside Boston, a market with which he has a special relationship. As he does in New York, and Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, and any other number of cities where he continues breaking attendance records.

About a week earlier, even after an evacuation and 45-minute storm delay, a sellout crowd of 58,642 ($6,858,291 gross sales) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., gave Chesney not only his best attendance number in the venue but broke a record as its all-time biggest ticket-seller with 338,516 tickets sold. No other country artist even cracks MetLife Stadium’s Top 10.

Other records were dispatched in 2018: At Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field (55,238 ticket sold; $6,384,845 gross) on June 9; and the first three stadiums on the jaunt starting at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., April 21 (55,292 sold; $6,245,650 gross); Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wis., April 28 (43,526, $5,136,660 ) and U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (48,255; $4,999,184) set the tone for the summer.

When it was over, Chesney had played 42 shows for 1,298,089 fans in 19 stadiums across the U.S. for a final gross of $114,595,118.98.

Louis Messina, along with manager Clint Higham, has been riding the crest of that wave with Chesney almost from the beginning.

“When you look at the whole New York City area, it’s Bruce (Springsteen)’s territory. Same in Foxborough at Gillette,” Messina tells Pollstar. “We did our 18th and 19th shows there. I don’t know what it is. But it’s really insane up there, and it’s across the board. We did 60,000 in the Rose Bowl. But the craziest crowds I see are in Boston, New York, Philly, Chicago – they are so off the hook.

“Kenny has created this lifestyle and created this event.  When he goes to Boston, it’s like their Mardi Gras there. People look forward to it. People prepare in advance and it’s pretty insane,” Messina says. “Our very first stadium show was in Knoxville, Tenn., and then we played Foxborough and we sold it out the first year.”

According to Pollstar BoxOffice records, Chesney’s first stadium gig was pretty much a homecoming affair as the East Tennessean headlined Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium with a lineup of Brooks & Dunn, Deana Carter, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts in support June 7, 2003, selling out 61,796 tickets for a gross of $2,176,050.

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“Our first year in Foxborough (July 23, 2005), we sold it out and after that we started doing doubles every year,” Messina says. “There’s nothing like nothing like it. When you see over a million tickets in one venue, I call it goofball. But the fans are so great there.”

However, 2005 was not in fact Chesney’s first year in Gillette Stadium. His Foxborough debut came in May 16, 1999 as an opener, along with Dixie Chicks, Jo Dee Messina and Tim McGraw, for George Strait, who was another client of Messina’s.

At the time, the thought of headlining stadiums hadn’t even entered Chesney’s craziest dreams. His first stadium play in Knoxville was almost in response to a dare.

“This started because, early in my career, a writer at the hometown paper asked me, ‘What’s left?’” Chesney says. “There was so much to do, and I was taken aback. So I thought I’d be a little flip, and said, ‘Play Neyland Stadium.’ Like that was possible.

“I’d been out on the George Strait Country Music Festival tours, with big acts. But as the momentum built, we thought, ‘Well, it’s a hometown show.’ It was crazy, but not insane. And it worked. I found out I really liked playing stadium-sized stages. I love the physicality of it, the fact you can get so close to so many people.

“Louis Messina, with Clint and Dale (Morris), thought maybe we could try a few markets. So in 2005, we did Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., and found out I could do it. So, here we are.

“But honestly, even with a dozen summers of stadium shows, it’s still a little bit crazy (but awesome),” Chesney says.

Strait had become something of a mentor to Chesney, who watched his stage shows intently from the stadium wings. He and Higham deepened their relationship with Messina, who was handling Strait’s touring at the time and Chesney became his client.

“When Kenny was opening on that George Strait Country Music Festival, we were watching that,” Higham tells Pollstar. “Louis was always a rockstar promoter and was coming to Nashville more often. He saw something in us, and we kind of leaned into him. He saw the whole thing grow and took us from the couple-thousand-seat level to the 40,000-seat level. Kenny and George were his only clients and, looking back on it, we had the best mentors possible and had their time.”

Business has taken off for Messina and his Messina Touring Group, which is partnered with AEG Presents, since then. Messina now represents megastars including Taylor Swift and Blake Shelton in addition to Chesney.  Higham described those earlier years, though, as a “perfect storm” during which they focused on building Chesney’s career and avoided what he calls the “homogenization of the machine,” and was able to control their own marketing and narrative.

“We bet on ourselves,” HIgham says. “You have to really learn how to earn it. The deals are tighter, the artist gets more money, but you have to have vision and you have to believe in yourself and the team around you.”

That vision has creating a touring juggernaut for Chesney and his team, and the passage of years has only seen the business grow. From his 2002 “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem” shed and arena outing, which played to some 1.1 million fans and grossed $22,562,980, his numbers have increased every year that he mounted a full tour.

Few, if any, other country artists of his vintage can say that. Changes in musical tastes, touring and business models, and the economy can all conspire against the most popular, hard-working artists. But Team Chesney has had a long-range plan for building a superstar career that is not dependent on being “hot” for the moment and doing it in a way that seems effortless.

“To me it’s real simple,” Messina says. “There are people who get hot and they rise to the top and then there are people who are stars and they stay at the top.  Kenny has elevated himself. He separated himself from the rest of the pack and he’s in his own lane.

Kenny Chesney, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
Alister Ann/Courtesy Essential Broadcast Media
– Kenny Chesney, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.

“Everybody else is hit and miss. Kenny is also keeping relevant music out. When a Kenny Chesney song comes on the radio, you know who it is. And live, you know it’s a Kenny show. We give people value for their money. It’s affordable. You can pay a premium or $49.50. Like Springsteen, Kenny is relevant and has always been relevant.”

And then there’s the No Shoes Nation. Like Jimmy Buffett’s Parrotheads, or the Grateful Dead’s Deadheads, Chesney and his hardest-core fans have created a culture that the live shows invigorate and nurture.

“He used to always say, ‘Leave your problems at the door. No shirt, no shoes, no problem!,’” Messina says. “Kenny and I, and Clint and Dale (Morris), always talked about where we are going to be in the next 10 years. It’s not about staying hot, it’s about being relevant and planning your course.

“A single moves the needle but his show is an event. Its’ a destination. What it is, is a culture,” Messina explains. “When Kenny talks about No Shoes Nation, it’s real. People wave that flag. They are with Kenny forever. Especially this year. He just found another gear. I’ve never seen it before. This year he just raised the bar for his himself.”

Messina, Higham and Chesney all agree that 2018 was different, infused with a new energy and purpose. Hurricane Irma, the Category 5 hurricane that struck the Leeward Islands including the U.S. Virgin Islands, destroyed not only Chesney’s St. John home but devasted the region – only to be followed by Hurricane Maria, the storm that devasted Puerto Rico, a month later. Both had deep impact on Chesney and those around him.

“After Irma and Maria wiped out the islands, he went into his own pocket and got the ball rolling,” Messina says. “He was the first guy in line to do that.”

The storm not only was the catalyst for Chesney to pour his heart out to aid his island home, but for a burst of songwriting energy that resulted in Songs For The Saints, an album inspired by the people who survived the most intense hurricane to ever strike the region.

Higham and Messina agree the hurricane’s effect on Chesney may mark a new phase in his career.

“The whole thing about the island and the devastation and all, it’s such an organic place and nobody could have predicted what happened there,” Higham says. “He wrote a majority of Songs for the Saints in a very short span of time and he had to get it out. He had to go somewhere with the emotional intent. He’s donated all of his monies to the island from this record. It just happened to get a few songs that were commercial but it fit what he does, fit the timing of the world, and it was just perfect.”

Chesney’s got a single, “Better Boat,” finding success on country radio despite not sounding a lot like anything else in a tight format that loves to copy whatever sound is of the moment.  They took the album to friends at Cumulus radio who offered to champion the single – something a new act wouldn’t have the juice to get done.

“It’s great music, but I don’t know if there are two acts in the format they would let do something like that,” Higham says. “What happens as a result of the devastation and where Kenny’s heart is at and the energy with that is just touching, it felt like another level I didn’t even know we could go to.”

It might seem that Team Chesney would strike while the iron is hot, given the new record and the energy behind it. But they are pragmatic – there’s still a carefully planned Chesney business to attend to.

“Next year, we’re not going to do stadiums,” Higham explains. “We’re going to preserve that and not saturate the market – kind of give it a break.”

Besides, it’s important for Chesney to recharge after the highs of a record-breaking stadium tour and the lows of seeing your home, along with those of your neighbors, devastated by hurricane. And those last Trip Around The Sun shows in Boston provided an emotional coda for Chesney that should last him a while.

He brought a group of those hurricane survivors, including those who sheltered in his laundry room, to Gillette Stadium to see his show; to become a part of No Shoes Nation.

“A lot of the people from my time on the islands lost their ability to make a living,” Chesney says. “They’re scattered all over the country. Some of them had moved on, as happens. But yes, a lot of them came to Foxborough this year. They’d all been through so much, it was a chance to be together and hold on to people who understood the love, the life, the laughter that marked out time there.

“A lot of those friends I made there are from New England. The shows were a homecoming for them in some ways, as well. For us, Boston – as you know – is a very special place. We played to our millionth fan at Gillette Stadium, and the Krafts, the Patriots organization and our people wanted to mark that, too,” Chesney explains.

“But really, at the end of a very long 12 months, because the hurricanes were almost as soon as the dust settled from last year’s Boston shows, I can’t think of a better way to close down the year. We played so many amazing places. Every time I didn’t think the crowds could be better, No Shoes Nation showed me.”

Kenny Chesney
Jill Trunnell
– Kenny Chesney
Kenny Chesney stands alone at the top of his own attendance record at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., July 14. The stop on his “Trip Around The Sun” tour racked up 57,528 tickets sold, besting his old record from 2015 with Jason Aldean.