The more country music changes, the more singer-guitarist Mark Chesnutt, a Beaumont, Texas native, stays the same.
Chesnutt delivered his first hit back in 1990 with “Too Cold At Home.” Major label deals followed. But when country went pop, Chesnutt and the majors parted ways because he didn’t intend to alter his sound.
Produced by longtime friend and collaborator Jimmy Ritchey, Chesnutt's new album, Tradition Lives
, serves as a statement. It sounds like a throwback to the country music of the ’80s, a time when icons such as George Jones, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings could still receive airplay on commercial radio.
“I’ve never changed my direction,” explains Chesnutt via phone from his Texas home. “I stayed on the traditional side. That led to me leaving MCA and then Sony. The reason I left the major labels was because I wouldn’t conform and do the type of music they wanted me to do. I wanted to stick with country — traditional country. I ended up on my own doing independent stuff.”
When Ritchey approached him about cutting an album for his record label, Chesnutt seized the opportunity.
“We had the opportunity to make a new album after a lot of years, and we wanted it to be the best album we’d ever done,” he says. “We didn’t know for sure if I’d get a chance to record again. I wasn’t trying to get on radio. We knew our chances for that were slim to none. We wanted to make an album for my fans who had been asking for new music for a long time. That was the whole purpose of this album. We found some great songs, and it got a lot of attention when it was released. A whole lot of people took notice. It made more noise than we intended to.”
and other publications that Chesnutt says “never really cared about anything I’ve done since my major days” praised the album.
The disc kicks off with a slide guitar-driven rendition of “I’ve Got Another Quarter in My Pocket,” a song that was a hit for country singer Gary Allan.
“The guy who wrote that song played guitar with Gary back in the ’90s,” says Chesnutt. “Jake told me he wanted me to cut that song. He said he wrote that song with me in mind. I told him that one of these days I would. Gary’s version isn’t a Texas shuffle all the way through. I got ahold of Jake and told him I cut it. He was happy. He said that’s how he always heard that song. He was glad that a Texas guy finally cut it.”
With the song “They’ve Never Been to Texas,” Chesnutt takes a shot at fair weather country music fans.
“This was a song that was written way back in the ’90s when country was leaning more toward a pop sound,” he says. “It wasn’t the first time. Country did the same thing in the '80s. It got real slick and polished. We saw these people running the labels and working as consultants for the radio stations. They don’t know that this lifestyle still exists real strong all over the country. Some of those people never get out of Nashville or New York or Los Angeles. Some have never been to small town Texas and seen honkytonks are still going like they always have been. We weren’t trying to knock anybody. We were just picking at them. We were just poking fun.”
Chesnutt says he passed on the bluesy “Hot” years ago because the hokey song had no hope of getting radio airplay.
“This time, I didn’t shoot for airplay,” he says. “I wanted to make a good album for my fans. That’s why I did songs like that. I knew ‘Hot’ would never get played. I had creative freedom and nobody was telling me what not to do. We had a great time recording it. I had more fun doing this album than I ever have in my life on any other album.”
Chesnutt says he has about 20 songs ready to go for the next album. He admits that given the state of the music business, he might just have release it himself.
“Wherever we land, I’m sure I’ll be in the studio again or doing it myself,” he says. “I have several live albums and greatest hits things that I have done myself on my own label, so that’s certainly a possibility.”
Mark Chesnutt, 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, On Air Studio, 1075 Old River Rd. Tickets: $42.50-$60, ticketmaster.com.