It's an hour and change into the show, the band and the crowd sweating, everybody and everything rocking to a close, before you notice Brown Eyes.
She's about 12 or 15 rows back, in the first row off the floor. She has brown hair brushed back and eyes that sparkle.
Kenny Chesney, in the midst of a duet with Kid Rock, moves to this side of the stage.
Brown Eyes is leaning over the rail. She's clapping on the beat. Then the stage lights move her way and, suddenly, Chesney is looking right at her.
Her face lights up as if her toe got plugged into a socket. She sings back at him, hips swaying, eyes dancing. And it comes over you, standing there by the side of the stage, her voice and 20,000 others creating a din so intense it vibrates from the air into the chest cavity, that this guy from Luttrell, Tenn., may be on to something.
It's a couple hours earlier and Kid Rock breezes into the twilit green room backstage at the sold-out Wachovia Center. Then Renee Zellweger, the Oscar winner whose new film with Russell Crowe opened yesterday, strolls in, calling out, "Hi, guys."
Guys in the band: "Hey, Renee."
And then, tonight's brightest star arrives. Dressed in boots, jeans and a sleeveless blue T-shirt, Kenny Chesney is maybe 5 feet 6, 145 pounds, and 37 years old, a stadium success after all those years playing in gravel-parking-lot juke joints with Christmas lights dangling from the eaves in mid-July. He has a shaved head, clean jaw and piercing eyes.
You can call him a country singer if you insist -- there is that cowboy hat to consider -- but Chesney is an omni-pop-culture phenomenon. Little known outside Nashville six years ago, he has used his power-chord music and cowboy sex appeal to generate a crossover popularity not seen since Garth Brooks. He'll be playing FedEx Field tonight.
Chesney is chatting with Kid Rock, the guys in the band, and it's 10 minutes till showtime. Out front, the stadium monitors are blasting a music video of a shirtless Chesney singing on a Caribbean beach. Girls scream like they just saw Elvis at the taco stand.
"What song do I like best?" Erin Marie Celentano, 18, screams over the noise, incredulous at the question. "He's hot."
His past two discs went triple platinum. His new album, a quiet set of beach songs, debuted in January at No. 1 -- selling 311,000 copies in seven days, or 1,851 per hour, 30 per minute, one every two seconds -- all without a radio single or advertising.
He grossed more than $96 million last year and drew more than 1.1 million concertgoers. Only Prince sold more tickets. Only Usher made more money in the entire music industry.
And, on the celebrity front, his surprise marriage to Zellweger last month made the cover of People.
Back in the green room, he's huddling up the band members as if they're a football team. He steps in the middle, leading them in a pre-concert chant they use to remind themselves of lean days playing in lifeless honky-tonks, back when you could see this band for the cost of a cold draft:
"The deader the better / The better it is / You got to give it all you got / Every time you get it," they shout, breaking apart with high-fives and laughter.
Then the door is opened. The bass is thumping so loud that it vibrates through the concrete floor like an electric current. The roar of the crowd sails in like a stiff wind.
"Pretty cool, yeah?" Chesney smiles, and then he's gone.
When Kenny Chesney was a kid, country music was a nice corner of the pop-culture marketplace.
Willie. Waylon. Emmylou. The Statler Brothers and Kenny Rogers. "Urban Cowboy." There were the cow-chip and sawdust shows at rodeos and in the VFW hall on hot Saturday nights somewhere in the Deep South or in some far-flung outpost in, say, Buffalo.
But, like NASCAR and other staples of rural white southern culture, a branch of country music has gone mainstream in the past two decades.
On radio stations and in concert halls, this movement has been led by a new generation of musicians like Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Toby Keith, Shania Twain and Chesney, who were as conversant with, say, Aerosmith, as they were with the western ballads of Johnny Cash, another crossover icon.
More of these young country performers were living urban and suburban lives than ever before, and so were their fans. Everyone watched cable and MTV. For country musicians, these influences affected the subject matter of their songs, the twangs in their voices, even the chord progressions in their music.
Chesney grew up in Luttrell, which sounds like one of those homely southern hickvilles, something like the town in "The Last Picture Show," with its lone traffic light swinging in the breeze.
It is indeed a small town, but the fact is it's just a few miles outside Knoxville. Chesney's mom was a hairdresser, his dad a teacher. He was a marketing major and frat boy in college.
"Coal Miner's Daughter," this ain't.
"Country music has always had outside influences, but like many country artists his age, Kenny grew up in a more diverse culture," says Jay Orr, executive editor of the Journal of Country Music and the senior director for museum programs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. "Kenny in particular absorbed some rock influences, and the production elements of his show match anything you'd see in a really good rock concert."
That same night in Philadelphia, hours before the show in the green room, Chesney confirms Orr's analysis.
"I love June Carter, don't get me wrong," he says, naming the late wife of Cash and member of country's fabled Carter family. "But that's not what gets us up for the show. That would be AC/DC, Van Halen, maybe Springsteen. Something that rocks."
He's wearing a T-shirt, drawstring pants and flip-flops, and has a Boston Red Sox cap turned around backward.
Chesney's had staffers cover the walls with huge blowups of his yacht on a bright blue sea, and another of a favorite beachfront bar in the U.S. Virgin Islands where the band likes to hang out.
"My life here is about time and place," he says, easing back in his chair. "Down there, you don't always know what day it is. It's great."
He's drinking a Red Bull, the energy drink laced with caffeine, and talking about gym workouts and diet regimens. He consumes egg whites, protein shakes and carrot sticks. Just for a moment, you try to get a visual of Conway Twitty doing sit-ups on his tour bus, and somehow you know times have changed.
What's striking about Chesney is how entirely normal he is. He was your basic small-town kid at Gibbs High School. Played football and baseball, though those careers were short-circuited when he stopped growing in his freshman year. Peyton Manning, the University of Tennessee quarterback who went on to be a Most Valuable Player in the NFL, has teased him about being "the slowest receiver in the history of Knoxville sports."
Chesney didn't pick up a guitar until he was 19, and only then because his mother gave him one. He figured it out within three months and discovered he could sing a little bit, too. He got his marketing degree at East Tennessee State University and then went straight to Nashville's country music scene in 1992, landing a $125 per week gig as a songwriter at one of the production houses.
"I had written four or five songs before I went there and I thought they were pretty good," he says. "But when I got there, it was intimidating. I realized I just did not have it at the time. My thought process wasn't there -- not enough life experience, maybe."
So he put together a band and hit the road, writing songs and playing bars and shopping-center parking lots. Nobody knew his name and few people cared. He had one album come out that didn't do much. He released another, and it did pretty much the same. The band tried to sell souvenirs, but few people wanted more than a key chain.
Chesney, driven, kept pushing, writing another song, setting up another gig, looking for a hit.
"You'd be at a bar with him, and see his eyes sort of wander off, and you'd know he wasn't really there, he was writing a song or thinking about performing it," remembers Daryl Hobby, a friend from childhood who works on the road show. "He'd go off and leave the rest of us sitting there."
He finally got his breakout hit in 1999, the tongue-in-cheek, "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy."
In the follow-up, he began writing upbeat rockers about college frat parties and laissez-faire ballads about chilling out on the beach, songs that didn't fit the mold of traditional country, but honest songs cut and pasted from his own life. He honed the cowboy-hat-and-sleeveless T-shirt stance, giving his female fans something to look at. The music itself was more personal, more cathartic and, he found out, extremely lucrative.
"No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems," released in 2002, sold more than 3 million copies.
"Before that, we carried our own gear to shows; we were playing clubs with 200 people," violin and guitar player Nick Hoffman says. "During the breaks you could go have a drink with everybody else at the bar. Now, everything gets carried everywhere for us. It almost gets boring during the day of the show -- everybody does everything for you."
Chesney released another good-time album last year, "When the Sun Goes Down." It was the best-selling album in country music and one of the top five in any genre. It vaulted Kenny Chesney Inc. into the stratosphere.
Now, with a sold-out tour in place and another disc on the way, the band is rolling. There are a dozen buses and almost 100 full-time employees. Chesney and Hobby play video-game football ("He's a sore loser and a worse winner," Hobby wisecracks) on drives between shows. David Farmer and Tim Holt, two other childhood friends, manage his tour and sell his merchandise, giving the tour bus a hometown feel.
His wedding to Zellweger, a native of a small town in Texas, clearly makes him happy. He owns one home in Nashville but spends a fair share of each year in the U.S. Virgin Islands. From there, the lights of the long parade of honky-tonks, where they don't bother to put your name up outside, seem a dim memory.
"This business isn't complicated, but it does take time," Chesney says. "We're a touring act. We go around to everyone's town, get them to have a good time, and to come back next year with a friend. . . . I don't want the guys in the band to be virtuosos, to be technically perfect. I want them to capture a moment that's not going to happen again, and to do it onstage in front of 20,000 people. Whatever you call the music, that's what we do."