Whenever someone wants to define what “country music” is, or define the most pure and traditional version of the art form, or draw the greatest contrast or comparison between the pop versions of the genre and what country music is supposed to be in its most buttoned-up form, there is one proper answer or example to give, and one proper answer only. His name is Mark Chesnutt.
Sure, there are plenty of other traditional country performers out there, both in country music’s past and present. But Mark Chesnutt is the man that not only draws a hard line when it comes to keeping the true country music flame alive, he’s also the guy who’s done it with appeal, style, originality, and class for going on 40 years now.
If you need a textbook definition, or encyclopedia entry of what country is … if aliens came down and asked for a quick summation of what the music is all about, you’d hand them a Mark Chesnutt album. But instead of being relegated to the fringes of the genre for this fiercely loyal adherence to the true country sound, Mark Chesnutt fielding eight #1 songs and twenty Top 10s in his heyday on the way to putting together a towering catalog that is a terribly important part of country music.
All of this is true, despite Chesnutt’s decision to cover Aerosmith’s song “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” in 1998—something he’s spoken about in the past as a regret, even though hey, it ain’t a bad version of a good song. Chesnutt also pulled off minting eight #1’s without some of his most signature and lasting songs rising to the top. “Too Cold at Home” only went to #3. “Bubba Shot The Jukebox” stalled at #4. And “Blame It on Texas” only made it to #5. They were too country for the top of the charts.
Mark Chesnutt took the torch from George Jones who was also from the Beaumont area of Texas, and made sure to keep it country during country music’s most commercial era in the Garth Brooks ’90s. In fact Chesnutt came directly endorsed from George Jones who was country music’s ultimate gatekeeper later in his life. Chenutt got invited to perform on the special guest version of George’s song “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”
But before any of this, Mark Chesnutt spent a decade paying dues, which is the way it’s supposed to be. Dropping out of high school when he was a junior so he could perform in the clubs and honky tonks of east Texas, Mark and his dad would travel back and forth to Nashville to record for independent and regional labels. It never really went anywhere, until famous producer Tony Brown heard one of Mark’s albums, recommended him to producer Mark Wright, and Chesnutt was signed to MCA Records in 1990.
That same year, Mark Chesnutt’s dad died of a heart attack. He never got to see the overwhelming success of his son.
Mark Chesnutt’s debut album Too Cold At Home was a big one. It launched five Top 10 singles alone, including the #1 song “Brother Jukebox.” It also includes the other version of the song “Friends in Low Places,” which of course Garth Brooks would send into the stratosphere after ball hogging the single. Garth heard it while he was still working as a demo singer. A few different twists of fate, and it could have been Mark Chesnutt who made it big with the song (his version officially came out about a month after Garth’s).
Some will forward George Strait as the textbook example of country. But the starch in Chesnutt’s jeans may be even more rigid than Strait’s. Though similar to George Strait, Mark Chesnutt rarely wrote any of his own songs. But that didn’t matter. He could pick them with the best, and sing them perhaps better than anyone in his era or the present one.
Why are we speaking so long and fondly about ol’ Mark Chesnutt on a random Monday? It’s because over the last few days, word has come down that Mark Chesnutt has been in the hospital for undisclosed reasons, getting tests and being looked over with undetermined results. It comes after he’s been forced to cancel shows over the last few years due to back issues and other health concerns. Turning 60 in September, we sure hope Mr. Chesnutt still has plenty of life to live, and plenty of shows to play. But too often we fail to share our appreciation or bestow adulation to an individual until it’s too late.
People love to talk about how ’90s country is all the rage at the moment, and it is. Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Brooks & Dunn are always given top billing for defining the era. But Mark Chesnutt rarely gets mentioned in this shorthand notion of what ’90s country was when he was the guy that kept it country while killing it on the charts as well.
So here’s to ‘ol Mark Chesnutt, who never sold out, never compromised, kept it country for 40 years going strong, and remains the textbook definition of “country” for anyone who wants to go searching for it.