He may have grown up in the same small Tennessee town as Chet Atkins, but Kenny Chesney’s sounds more like Jimmy Buffett. The singer, born in 1968, is about pop-country crossover success a la Garth Brooks and a fast-as-lightning marriage to an Oscar-winning actress.

A favorite of the Country Music Awards and the owner of four #1 Billboard mainstream albums, Chesney manages to blend a hickory-smoked voice, radio-friendly hooks and lots of homage to Jimmy Buffett. But where Buffett makes music that is the equivalent of a “wish you were here” postcard, Chesney produces songs that are better considered the equivalent of Hallmark greeting cards that ooze sentimentality and emotions. Chesney seems to rebel against this by kicking his songs into honky-tonk and country bar blues, but the fans aren’t fooled when he writes about sentimental relationships (women, children) and the passing of time.

Many celebrity watchers know Chesney from his 4 month marriage to actresss Renee Zellwegger. The couple was married on the tiny island of St. John, and Chesney later told reporters that he had written You Had Me At Hello years earlier when inspired by Zellwegger’s performance. The line, of course, is her famous one from the movie Jerry Maguire, a film made years before the pair met. No one had broken the silence about what “irreconcilable differences” split the pair, although after an earlier relationship with Jack White of The White Stripes, it’s safe to say that Zellwegger likes her men musical.

Chesney seemed to throw himself even more into his work, and in a 12 year burst of activity has brought out 11 albums, including the obligatory Greatest Hits recording, a live album and a Christmas album. And lest you think a Kenny Chesney Christmas album is awful, it has a blend of traditional, island and original tunes that make it worth a listen.
Even President George W. Bush agreed, inviting Chesney to perform at The White House.

Meanwhile, Chesney continues to pump out one hit album after another and has started bringing in duet partners like Uncle Kracker and Willie Nelson. If his songs (Soul of a Sailor, anyone?) are reminiscent of Buffett, Chesney has proven he can do more than imitate the great beach singer.

Fans seem to agree. In late 2006, Billboard data showed that Chesney had played live shows to more than five million people in five years, a claim no other artist can make.

So in the end, the singer didn’t get the girl (he doesn’t have a Grammy either), but he sure made lots of music that millions wanted to buy. And if he doesn’t possess Chet Atkins’ lightning licks on the guitar (he doesn’t), tiny Luttrell, TN has two native sons who make music millions adore.

–G. Bounacos