By DEBORA SHAULIS
CUYAHOGA FALLS -- The crowd at Blossom Music Center was revving up as prerecorded music shifted from the chorus of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" and, finally, to Kenny Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy."
That was Chesney's cue. The country music heartthrob made his entrance on that cool July night to the same delirious roar of approval that fans had given him exactly one year earlier, when he was the opening act for his friend Tim McGraw.
It was the same yet different, at least from Chesney's standpoint. In July 2001, Chesney was at the top of the class among warm-up acts. This year, he graduated to the ranks of headliners.
Chesney is the big-name country musician at this year's Canfield Fair, but he's still growing into his big-name status, unlike the seasoned performers of past fairs -- Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Brooks & amp; Dunn. There's no middle ground with Chesney: People are either enchanted by his music or clueless when you mention his name.
Chesney, 34, certainly has backing in Nashville and beyond. His CD, "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems," and one of its singles, "The Good Stuff," have been in the top three on Billboard magazine's Hot Country Singles and Top Country Albums charts for much of the summer. His last two albums, "Everywhere We Go" and "Greatest Hits," were double-platinum sellers.
Earlier this month Chesney broke into Pollstar's Concert Hotwire, which lists the 50 concert tours that are generating the most hits on Internet sites.
'Country's Hottest Bachelor'
There are other factors in Chesney's success. Call them The 3 B's -- babes, Buffett (as in Jimmy) and ballads.
Admit it -- Chesney is very easy on the eyes. Compact and chiseled, he's been wearing more sleeveless shirts, such as the faded Bruce Springsteen concert tee he sported at Blossom, to show off his pumped-up arms. His reputation as an eligible bachelor who's been licking his wounds after a broken engagement makes him all the more desirable to women who would like to console him.
You can see how his appearance has evolved just by looking at his CD covers. Since releasing his first CD, "In My Wildest Dreams," in 1994, he's exchanged the leather vests, denim coats and twill shirts that are part of the neo-traditionalist country uniform for sweaters, close-fitting T-shirts and jeans and natty suits.
Last month, Entertainment Weekly included him in its list of seven "Top Hats" who are making country music look good. Last summer, Country Weekly magazine dubbed him "Country's Hottest Bachelor."
Publicly, Chesney takes his hunk status no more seriously than the socks he wears inside his boots. It's that aw-shucks, approachable persona that makes him a kindred spirit of Buffett.
The King of Parrotheads needn't prepare for a revolt, but he and Chesney could discuss their commonality over a few margaritas. Chesney's latest batch of publicity photos show him on a sunny beach. There are in-concert video scenes of Chesney and his buddies enjoying time on a boat. A shell choker seems to be his favorite accessory these days, and he makes oblique references in his liner notes to a Caribbean island hideaway he frequents.
Sand and sun
The comparisons run deeper than a tan, however. They also run deeper than "How Forever Feels," the name-dropping song from Chesney's CD "Everywhere We Go":
Big orange ball, sinkin' in the water.
Toes in the sand, couldn't get much hotter.
Little umbrella shaped margaritas
Coconut oil, tan senioritas
Oh, now I know how Jimmy Buffett feels.
The title track from Chesney's newest album has that blithe feel on which Buffett's career has thrived.
It's about a working stiff who's looking forward to a vacation diversion, where he can stick his toes in the sand and hold a bottomless drink in his hand.
"She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" was a big hit four years ago. It's a slice of Americana, and a man's fantasy come true, about a woman who has a thing for farmers' tans and John Deere engines. It's still a turn-on for audiences; fans in Blossom's pavilion leapt to their feet and sang along, word for word.
If it weren't for a little twang in his timbre and a healthy helping of rural life references, some of Chesney's songs might cross over from country radio to Top 40. His country-rock blend is what Buffett was doing three decades ago when he launched his music career in Nashville. Buffett, of course, never got the airplay that Chesney enjoys today.
Chesney turns serious more often than Buffett. Of all his songs, it's the ballads that seem to carry the most weight. He's chosen wisely, finding material that cuts to the heart in its description of life's memorable moments.
"I Lost It" was one of a handful of previously unreleased tracks on Chesney's greatest hits album of last year. In the first verse, he sings of having a hundred-dollar ring in his hand, a hopeful heart and being "scared to death" to ask a woman to marry him. She teared up while his life hung on the meaning behind her emotion. Then she smiled, "and I lost it," Chesney speak-sings before moving into the chorus.
"The Good Stuff," Chesney's most recent chart-topper and tear-jerker, starts midrelationship. He sings the part of a guy who walked out after a lovers' quarrel and saunters into the corner bar, where he gets some sage advice from the widowed bartender.
It's this song that critics have also said exemplifies how Chesney is playing it safe. The conversation ends with the men indulging in glasses of milk. It is a far cry from the whiskey-and-women tunes that were typical of country music around the time Chesney was born. Then again, most of what's popular in country music today has less to do with the Merle Haggards playing in honky-tonks, dodging beer bottles and trying to hold the spotlight ... and more to do with the Kenny Chesneys performing under bright lights in front of vocal, adoring fans.