July 25, 2016

It's a Country Tradition: An Interview with Mark Chesnutt

It’s been more than a quarter century since “Too Cold at Home” introduced country music traditionalist Mark Chesnutt to the masses, and the many hits that have followed (including “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” and “Old Flames Have New Names”) have aged as well as the veteran singer’s homegrown Texas twang. For his first album of new material in eight years, Tradition Lives (Row Entertainment), Chesnutt doesn’t deviate from his signature vintage style. In truth, he doubles down on what his fans have expected all along.  

“I wanted to come back smokin’. I didn’t want to come back with a half-assed kind of song that didn’t have any direction,” says Chesnutt. “I wanted it to be as close to perfect as I could get it. I wanted to show the world that I’m not dead. I’m not retired. I’m still out there and I have been. I never stopped touring since 1990. I’ve constantly been on the road since then—26 years.”

When you were choosing material for this new album, what kind of song typically stood out to you? What did it have to have in order for you to say, “Yeah, that’s a good song?”

There’s no certain song I’m looking for. When I start getting songs to record, it used to be back in the old days I’d get cassette tapes—and I’d get thousands of cassette tapes—and then I started getting thousands of CDs, and nowadays it’s all emails. I still get CDs. But I don’t sit down and say, “Look, I’m gonna listen to songs today and I want to hear this type of song.” I’m not like that. I’ll just push play and just listen to it, and if it’s a song that catches me it’ll be immediately. I shouldn’t have to listen to the whole damn song and then decide. I should know within the first verse. A song has to be structured right, and if it has everything—if the verse is right and not too long, and then the chorus kicks in—then I know. Usually if I listen to a song all the way through and then listen to it again, that’s going to end up being cut and recorded.  

Before we went into the studio, we had the big meeting where you get together with the record company and your producer and your management and everybody and I’d play them all the songs that I picked. Usually there’s about 25, 35, 40 or more… I think I had around 50-something songs that I wanted to record for this album, and we had to narrow that down to about 12. So that’s when everybody’s input came in. That’s when I started listening to opinions. That’s when we had to start saying, “Well, now we need a ballad. Okay, we’ve got these.” Because you can’t have an album that’s just full of the same type of song.

Have you always been able to trust your integrity insofar as knowing which songs are the best ones for you to sing?

Yeah, always try to. It was a little difficult to do that when I was on a major label because I had to listen to so many people’s opinions. And, I understand, again. I’m not putting down the major labels at all, but they have a business to run. They can’t take a chance. The purpose of a business is to make money—to sell a product, make money. Well, those companies are huge, man. There’s so many people that have to get a part of that album when it sells to make their paycheck, so they’ve all got a say in it—everybody on it. Now it’s a lot easier because I’m on an independent label. There’s not that many people there, and so I have complete control over the music…. I don’t have to worry about somebody saying, “That’s a piece of shit,” because first of all, I’m not going to pick a piece of shit anyway because I’ve been around long enough to know better. 

The last song on the album, “There Won’t Be Another Now”—which was added after the album proper was already completed—is a Red Lane song that Merle Haggard recorded. Sadly, we’ve not only lost Red Lane in recent years but this year we also lost Haggard. As someone who appreciates traditional country music as you do, what did Merle Haggard mean to you?

Merle Haggard was the backbone of country music. Was, hell—still is. Merle Haggard is the backbone and George Jones is the soul. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. George is the soul. Merle is the backbone. Without those two I don’t think country music would’ve ever been the way we know it is now. Being at the risk at being called sexist or whatever, I’m gonna say it: It’s a manly thing, that type of country music. But I can’t say that in reality, I can’t agree with that because when I think about Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn. They’re not manly at all, but they were strong women. Country music was made by people you didn’t want to fool with. You couldn’t push them around. You couldn’t push those people around. You couldn’t push around Loretta and Tammy. They’d kick you in the ass. They’d shoot you. The same way with Miranda Lambert. We still have strong women in country music. So to say it’s a manly thing is kind of wrong, but you know what I’m trying to say. It’s more of a “you don’t give me any shit, and I won’t give you any shit” [thing]. I think Grandpa Jones said that one time. He was quoted as saying, “We don’t give no shit, and we won’t take no shit.” That kind of sums it up, what I’m saying. Merle Haggard and George Jones pretty much set that tone, that mood, that toughness, that individualism. They’re the ones that really made that in country music. George Jones was so soulful, and then Haggard was the poet and had that strong voice and the way he presented and carried himself. You could hear his voice and you could tell that was a real man. 

What’s striking, though, especially with Haggard in his songwriting, was that he was vulnerable and he allowed himself to be vulnerable.

Oh yeah, you’ve gotta be. He could do that. He could sell that softer side and the horrible side. So could George. George had a lot of songs where he was very vulnerable. I mean, man, he’d sing about drinking and getting his heart broken. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” he was the narrator but at the same time you could tell he was singing about himself in a way. It takes somebody with some guts to do that. I don’t want to say “balls” because Tammy did it too. It takes people with soul and backbone to do that. 

I had the privilege of interviewing Haggard once. I was star-struck, but he was the kindest man.

I’d just assume sit and listen to him talk as listen to him sing. It didn’t matter to me. I’ll tell you the best memory I have of Merle was the time he invited us out to his house. I don’t know if you’ve heard this story or not, but I was out on tour. I was on tour with Tracy Lawrence and Joe Diffie—we were on the Rockin’ Roadhouse Tour I think in 2002 maybe, somewhere around there. Anyway, we did it for two or three summers. But we were out there during one of those summers, we were in California, up there near Redding close to where he lives, and we had a day off. Well, I got a call from our publicist that she had gotten a call from Merle’s people wanting to know if we were in town and if we wanted to come out to the ranch because he had his band there and they were rehearsing to go out on tour. Well, I mean, “Hell yeah.” We got the directions. I got to talk to one of the guys. We rented a van and we drove out there, me and Tracy Lawrence and Joe Diffie. You talk about a dream come true for us three rednecks. We were giddy. We were just like teenage kids going to a party or something. We just could not believe it. So, naturally we had to stop and get some beer. [Laughs] We drove up there, and they let us in. It wasn’t fancy or nothing at all. It was really cool, real nice, out in the country, a beautiful place. He had just a small house. I was expecting a big ol’ mansion, but of course, it’s Merle. We went up there and they were having lunch. We sat there and talked for a little while with him and he said, “Well, let’s go play some music.” 

So we walked right next door to the studio, they saddled up, him and his band, Merle called off a song and there they went. We sat there for two-and-a-half hours, Merle Haggard and his band playing for us. And he would tell us all about the song, how he wrote it [or] who wrote it, what it was about, and then tear off into it. That was the most unforgettable day I have ever had. We were sitting on the floor of the studio, drinking beer—we had a cooler of beer, and every once in awhile I’d look over at Tracy or Joe and I’d say, “Punch me right now. Make sure I’m not dreaming.” That was the best time. He talked to us for several hours. I’m the one who finally spoke up and said, “Well, we better get on out of here.” I didn’t want to overstay our welcome. That’s just one of those times you know you’ll never forget. He talked to us each for a long time. I remember looking at his boat. He had an aluminum boat sitting out there. I was checking it out, and he come over there and talked to me. We got to talking about fishing and hunting. I loved hearing that man talk. Same, really, with George. I loved to hear George talk. I spent more time with George than I did with Merle. George told a lot of stories. But they were different. They were two polar opposites. Merle was soft-spoken, but he had a lot to say. George, he liked to bullshit a lot. [Laughs]

Without either one of them, Haggard or Jones, what you do wouldn’t necessarily have been possible.

It wouldn’t because I pride myself after them, and I threw in a little Willie and Waylon. Those guys had a lot of influence on me also. All of them did—Johnny Cash, everybody… Elvis Presley. All of them had a lot to do with who I am now. Hank Williams, Sr. and Hank Williams, Jr. a whole lot. Hank, Jr. and Hank, Sr. really were the first country singers that I ever heard. That was my daddy’s favorite. It was Hank Williams, Sr. and Elvis Presley, that was what I first remember hearing in my house when I was just a baby. 

I always liked something Johnny Cash said to Merle Haggard. “Merle,” he said, “you’re what people think I am.” Because Haggard had actually been to prison, whereas Cash had only written about it.

Johnny was in jail, but he never went to prison. But if he kept going the way he was going before June got ahold of him, he’d have ended up in prison or dead. But you know the story of how Merle ended up in prison in the first place, huh?

It was a botched robbery or something, right?

Yeah, he broke into a restaurant that was still open. [Laughs] You know, George used to tell me stories…. That’s one thing I got on other guys. I got to hang out and be friends with these dudes, especially George. 

It’s a privilege that most people don’t get to enjoy.

That’s what people like me, Tracy Lawrence, and Joe Diffie can say. We were around those legends. We actually knew them. I was around Waylon just a little bit, and he had a huge impression on my life after that. I always loved his music, but when I got to know him, he was another guy that had a whole lot to do with the way I live life and how I handle things. Guys like that, they teach you more than just about singing. It’s about life. It’s about living, how to handle problems when they come up, how to live your life and how to raise a family. Since my daddy died right at the start of my career, I didn’t have nobody to guide me. The only two people that did that were George Jones and my manager, Joe Ladd. I was only 26 when Daddy died and I was just starting out in this business. George Jones told me, he said, “If you ever have any questions, if you need to talk to somebody, you call me.” And I did. That’s why George and I were friends because he called me the day after my daddy died and told me that.

Had the Too Cold at Home album come out yet?

Yeah, it had just come out. It came out that summer. The album came out in August, I believe. I think the single was already out. And Daddy got to see me on TV do Nashville Now and he saw me do The Grand Ole Opry on TV. He wouldn’t go to Nashville because he wouldn’t fly. So, he had to watch me on TV. About the time the second single was released, that’s about when Daddy passed away. He passed away in November of ‘90, and that’s when George called. He said, “I’m not trying to take your daddy’s place. Nobody can do that. But I can help you if you need anything. If you need some advice. If you have any questions. Because he told me, “You’re getting into a business, Son, that you probably already know that [has] a lot of ups and downs.” And I said, “I know, my daddy told me all that.” He said, “You’re getting into something that’s gonna be tough on you at times, and I’ll be here when you need to talk to somebody.” And, boy, was it ever. It has not been easy. I’ve gotta be honest with you. There were some really strange, weird, trying times in this business. 

You got your first taste of that right when country music was—

When it got all screwed up?

Kind of when Garth Brooks was turning country into rock ‘n’ roll.

Garth didn’t turn it into rock ‘n’ roll. I know you’re not, but we can’t blame Garth Brooks… A lot of people blame Garth Brooks for killing country music. That’s not him that did it. Garth Brooks was just a high energy entertainer. He was a high energy entertainer and he was influenced by George Strait and George Jones, Merle Haggard—same guys I was. And he also was a KISS fan and a rock ‘n’ roll fan. Well, so am I. It’s just that I chose… I stayed real country and Garth blended all that together. He put those elements of a rock ‘n’ roll show—that energy—into country music. Which, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. But when he started recording other things that weren’t really country, which I know it was just changing times… Everybody thought they had to be rock stars then. Everybody started trying to outdo Garth Brooks. They all tried to out-Garth Garth and that’s impossible. Nobody’s ever gonna do that. To this day they’re still trying to do it. 

To an extent, before Garth Brooks was doing it, Alabama were turning their concerts into rock ‘n’ roll –feeling events. 

Oh yeah. You know what? Let me tell you this. I was going to see Hank Williams, Jr. back in the early ‘80s, early-to-mid ‘80s. Hank Williams, Jr. was putting on the best high energy country show I had ever seen in my life. He was really doing it up big. Boy, you talk about energy. He had a big stage set. He had it going on, that one—way before Garth or anybody else. Alabama were just getting started. So, what Garth did… He didn’t do anything wrong. Garth didn’t mess anything up. 

Radio started turning things around. When [Bill] Clinton deregulated radio, it wasn’t about going to this radio station and getting to be buddies with the program director, taking him out to dinner, taking him out to tit bars and shit like that. It wasn’t about sending him and his family on a vacation, the old-fashioned payola. It was about big business then. Then they hired the consultants, and the consultants came in. One consultant sitting up there in L.A. was consulting 200 stations. And they don’t know what in the hell we want to hear down here in Beaumont, Texas or in Lafayette, Louisiana or Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. But they’re telling the deejays down there what they can play and what they can’t play because the company that owns those radio stations hired this consultant egghead to tell them what to play and what not to play. So, it’s not Garth’s fault. He didn’t do anything wrong. He just did his own thing, which was great. I never do want people to think that I’m anti- Garth or anti- anything. I think what Garth did was great. 

Didn’t you record “Friends in Low Places” before Garth Brooks?

Yeah, I did. I cut it and it was Garth singing on it—Garth Brooks did the demo. He did most of the demos that I listened to back when I was getting ready to record my first album, when I was listening to songs. In fact, for a lot of years in the ‘90s when we got song pitches it was Garth Brooks singing them because he did a lot of demo work before he took off. I had a lot of songs with him singing on [the demos]. That’s how I got “Friends in Low Places.” I liked it immediately, and I cut it because we knew we needed to finish the album. We were running out of time. So, the song was pitched to me, I loved it, I recorded it. They already had the singles picked before the album was even finished. It was gonna be “Too Cold at Home” and “Brother Jukebox.” They weren’t gonna release “Friends in Low Places.” 

Garth Brooks heard about it and got pissed off because he had it on hold at the same time, and I didn’t know that or I wouldn’t have cut it. So, Garth got all pissed off and confronted my producer … and started cussing him out and saying, “I’ve got that song on hold. I’m cutting it tomorrow. That’s gonna be my new single.” [My producer] Mark Wright said, “I didn’t know anything about that. Chesnutt didn’t know anything about that.” So the next day he went in and cut it and they put it out real quick. I guess they thought I was a threat. I don’t know why in the world they would think I was any kind of threat to Garth Brooks because I have not been and I will never be a threat to Garth Brooks. [Laughs] 

Considering the kind of traditional country music you make, was there any difficulty in finding well-written songs for the new album, maybe because they’re not being written as much now?

No, I had no trouble. I went through a lot of songs. I had thought I would have trouble, because I didn’t think anybody would be writing these songs. I was worrying if the guys that wrote that kind of music were dead or if any of them cared about writing like that anymore. Well, it turns out, a lot of them do. It’s just like the musicians. When I went into the studio to track this album, I used guys like [guitarist] Brent Mason and [drummer] Eddie Bayers and these guys, I’ve used them on every album since the very first one. I used the same guys. They were so happy to work with me again and to see old friends and they were so happy to be playing country music. That’s what they were all telling me…. They were so happy to be able to do what they came to town to do. It was like a reunion with these guys to play this kind of music. Of course, that’s the only kind of music I’ve ever done, but this time it was all new music. It was all freshly written tunes.

All the guys that had written songs before for me, boy they were writing… They were sending me stuff that they wrote 10, 15, 20 years ago that they couldn’t get cut. They were sending me songs they’d just written within the last four or five years that nobody cut because that’s not what they’re looking for. So they sent them to me. Man, I had thousands of songs. Of course, I had some I had in the can myself that I had written with Roger Springer years ago, and of course Jimmy Ritchey being the songwriter he is, and I even have one written by Jamey Johnson and several other guys that surprised me. Randy Houser is on a song too. So they’re still being written. It’s just they haven’t been recording them or they’ve been recording them, but nobody’s been playing them. But it just so happened that I’ve been doing this at a time when I think people are really wanting to hear that kind of music again, which I never quit doing in the first place.

A lot of other artists have quit doing it.

A lot of the younger artists want to do it, but they can’t because they have to do what’s selling. They’re in the music business, man, and it is a business. I understand it. Like, I had to record “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” not because I wanted to, but because my label wanted me to do it. If I didn’t do it they weren’t going to fool with me anymore. So, I wanted to stay on the label. Well, I cut the song, it went number one for four weeks, but it’s not me. That wasn’t a Mark Chesnutt song; it wasn’t a Mark Chesnutt record. That’s not what I do. I don’t go around doing remakes of pop hits. I’ve done remakes of country hits, but it’s time for me to do my own stuff again.