Country singer Mark Chesnutt has taken up the reins of traditional honky-tonk for a ride into the future. With his roots in the musical traditions of working-class Texas, Chesnutt can belt out a barnburner, then turn around and tug at a listener’s heartstrings with a sentimental ballad. The singer has taken slow, sure steps along the road to success and gained legions of fans that have driven each of his albums to the top of the country charts.
Born in 1963, Chesnutt was raised in Beaumont, Texas, in the thick of the traditional country music milieu. His father, Bob Chesnutt, had recorded several singles on a Nashville label during the 1960s and 1970s before deciding to end his musical career for a more viable way of supporting his family; he was quick to encourage his son’s budding musical talent. “There was always a radio going to a country station,” Chesnutt told Neil Pond in Country America, “and my daddy was always playing records—George Jones, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb. Music was everywhere. It was always around.” Young Mark practiced by singing to the records in his father’s collection, and he still maintains a strong love for the old country classics.
Chesnutt got his first taste of performing in his midteens, when he accompanied his parents to local bars. He often sat in with members of the band that his father knew, and was soon singing right along with the other musicians. After a while, he started getting paid for his time and was encouraged to make a commitment to becoming a singer. When he decided to quit high school a year before graduation, his father gave him some strong advice: “My daddy told me if I was gonna quit school that I would have to be damn sure that I was gonna really work hard at music,” Chesnutt noted in an MCA Records press release, “because I wouldn’t be able to do anything else, which was fine with me because I didn’t want to do anything else.”
In 1981 at age 17, Chesnutt began recording for independent labels in San Antonio and Houston, while also shopping Nashville for new songs and a deal with a national label. A recording of “Too Cold at Home” that he made for Houston’s Cherry label came to the attention of producer Tony Brown and the executives at MCA/Nashville. Once they heard the singer’s rich baritone voice, the label was quick in bringing young Chesnutt on board.
Chesnutt hit the national country scene in 1991 with his debut album Too Cold at Home. Half the songs from that album became hit singles, including the swinging “Blame It on Texas,” the upbeat “Your Love Is a Miracle,” and the clever title cut. By the close of that
Born September 6, 1963, in Beaumont, TX; son of Bob (a former musician) and Norma Chesnutt; married Trade Motley, 1992.
Worked for Montgomery Ward department store while attending high school in Texas; sang in nightclubs throughout southern Texas, beginning 1980; signed with MCA/Nashville, 1992.
Awards: Horizon Award, Country Music Association, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —MCA/Nashville, 60 Music Sq. E., Nashville, TN 37203. Publicist —Sharon Allen, The Brokaw Company, 1106 16th Ave., Nashville, TN 37212.
year, Too Cold at Home was certified gold and Chesnutt had received his first nomination for the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Horizon Award honoring upcoming talent.
In spite of his youth, Chesnutt had 10 years of solid, on-the-road nightclub performance experience behind him by the time he cut his first album, and when he began touring with the New South Band, audiences sat up and took notice. As a warm-up for more well-known country acts, his show was high-energy honky-tonk and proved to be a hard act to follow. “People who haven’t seen us don’t realize what kind of show we put on,” he modestly explained in an MCA press release. “It’s not flashy but a lot of fun, a lot of energy, a lot of movement. It’s not choreographed, it’s just a bunch of us having a good time.”
By the time his second album, Longnecks and Short Stories, was released in 1992, Chesnutt was getting top billing on the road. The album earned him four more singles on its way to the gold, including “Old Flames Have New Names,” “I’ll Think of Something,” and the humorous “Bubba Shot the Jukebox.” Especially memorable is “Talking to Hank,” a duet Chesnutt performs with his musical hero and fellow-Texan George Jones.
As with his first album, Longnecks carries the distinctive Chesnutt sound. “There’s a certain type of music that comes from southeast Texas,” Chesnutt explained to James Hunter in LA Weekly, discussing the music that has influenced him since he was a child. “I think it has to do with a fusion of Cajun, zydeco and just pure country. There’s a little bit of Texas swing down there, but not much. There’s more of a bluesy feel. And hardly any bluegrass.”
But Chesnutt’s success had a bittersweet side. In 1992 he wed his longtime sweetheart, Tracie Motley, but was still recovering from the death of the man who had served as one of his greatest inspirations: Chesnutt’s father died in 1990, just as Mark’s career was beginning to take off. “He wanted to be involved in what I’m doin’, and that’s what I planned on,” Chesnutt told Country Music’s Bob Millard. The singer had hoped that his father would eventually accompany him on the road. “I’d like to think that he’s still somewhere around watching and listening,” Chesnutt confided to Pond in Country America. “A lot of times, when I’m tired or feeling bad, I kind of feel him there, kicking me in the butt and saying, ‘Come on, don’t start wimping out on me now.’”
Chesnutt was already enjoying a growing reputation as an energetic stage performer and a popular vocalist when his third album, Almost Goodbye, hit the charts with a bang in the fall of 1993. “It Sure Is Monday,” a country ode to “the day after the big night out,” was the first single out of the gate in the race to the top of the charts. “I Just Wanted You to Know” and “Woman, Sensuous Woman” were soon to follow. As singles off Almost Goodbye continued to jockey for position at the top of the country music charts, Chesnutt was finally honored by the CMA with the coveted Horizon Award.
“I love to go to a bar now with a jukebox that has all those old songs,” Chesnutt told Millard. “That’s what I learned to sing on—songs like “She Thinks I Still Care,” “Swingin’ Doors,” and “The Bottle Let Me Down.” To me there’s a mystique about that. I would rather listen to any old cryin’-in-your-beer George Jones or Merle Haggard song than anything.” In fact, Chesnutt probably knows the lyrics to more honky-tonk songs than most people outside Texas have ever heard. As a child, he memorized entire albums of music by his favorite singers, and once he set out to make it in the music business, he worked even harder at expanding his repertoire. “A lot of people can name a singer and an old song, and I probably know it,” he admitted.
But the biggest thrill for Chesnutt is when he goes in a honky-tonk back home and the voice from the jukebox is his own. As he told Millard: “After all those years learnin’ everybody else’s songs, and now somebody else is learnin’ mine—even if they’re killin’ ‘em. That’s what really tells me something—tells me I’m really here.”
Too Cold at Home (includes title track and “Blame It on Texas”), MCA, 1990.
Longnecks and Short Stories (includes “Old Flames Have New Names,” “I’ll Think of Something,” and “Bubba Shot the Jukebox”), MCA, 1992.
Almost Goodbye (includes “I Just Wanted You to Know”), MCA, 1993.
Billboard, February 13, 1993.
Country America, February 1994.
Country Music, July 1992.
Country Song Roundup, September 1993.
LA Weekly, April 24, 1992.
Tulsa World, May 4, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from MCA Records publicity materials, 1994.
—Pamela L. Shelton
Born: Beaumont, Texas, 6 September 1963
Best-selling album since 1990: Almost Goodbye (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "Too Cold at Home," "I'll Think of Something," "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"
Mark Chesnutt's smoky, textured voice and taste for tough, "honky-tonk" country made him one of the finest "neotraditionalists" of the early 1990s. Like his fellow neotraditionalists Randy Travis and George Strait, Chesnutt cast aside the slick, pop-oriented sound of 1970s and early 1980s country for a simplified approach built on fiddles, drums, and steel guitar. When country returned to a smoother, less gritty pop style later in the 1990s, Chesnutt proved his adaptability by recording rock-influenced numbers such as "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Chesnutt's talents were better suited to traditional country, however, and by the turn of the century, his singles were no longer hitting the charts with regularity.
Mark Chesnutt entered country music through the influence of his father, Bob, an amateur vocalist who achieved local popularity in Texas but later gave up singing to work in the used-car business. Influenced by soulful country vocalist George Jones, the younger Chesnutt began singing in nightclubs at the age of fifteen. During the 1980s he performed as part of the house band at Cutters, a club in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas, and recorded for a variety of small labels. In 1990 one of his recordings, "Too Close to Home," earned him a contract with MCA Records. "Too Close to Home," a classic country ballad built upon strong, ironic lyrics and a theme of heartbreak, became his first major country hit when he re-recorded it for MCA. Chesnutt's second MCA album, Longnecks & Short Stories (1992), was one of his best, featuring slow, heart-tugging ballads such as the hits "I'll Think of Something" and "Old Country." In 1993 he moved in a slicker pop direction with "Almost Goodbye," a number one hit arranged with sugary strings. Compared to the nice-guy sensitivity of late-1990s artists such as Kenny Chesney, Chesnutt sounded like a holdover from country's hell-raising past on "Thank God for Believers" (1997). Here, Chesnutt's character is an old-school boozer with a long-suffering wife.
Building upon the crossover pop success of country in the late 1990s, Chesnutt scored his last number one hit in 1999 with a strong version of "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," a ballad first recorded by rock group Aerosmith the previous year. The song's success notwithstanding, Chesnutt's rough-edged persona seemed like an anachronism by 2000, when disappointing sales of his album, Lost in the Feeling, caused him to be dropped by MCA. Chesnutt's self-titled debut for Columbia appeared in 2002 and was marked by Nashville songwriting's new lyrical conservatism, increasingly in evidence in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Like Kenny Chesney's 2002 hit, "The Good Stuff," "I'm in Love with a Married Woman" takes a time-worn country theme—adultery—and renders it toothless by making the "married woman" the narrator's own wife.
In the 1990s Mark Chesnutt found commercial success with his tough neotraditionalist sound. In keeping with the changes in modern country, Chesnutt recorded smoother, pop-influenced music toward the end of the 1990s. Although his later recordings lacked the fire and bite of his early work, Chesnutt's rich, burnished voice remains one of the most appealing in country.
Too Cold at Home (MCA, 1990); Longnecks & Short Stories (MCA, 1992); Almost Goodbye (MCA, 1993); I Don't Want to Miss a Thing (MCA, 1999); Lost in the Feeling (MCA Nashville, 2000); Mark Chesnutt (Columbia, 2000).