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After struggling for a career foothold, Mark Chesnutt returns

Sitting in a styling chair at a Nashville photography studio, Mark Chesnutt nervously taps his right hand on his knee. As the stylist clips at Mark's hair, Mark is already half-closing his eyes, dreading what's coming next -- the shot of hair spray.

"I never can get used to that," Mark drawls, turning his head and grimacing as the spray shoots past his cheek. "But," he laughs, "it sure makes me look good!"

Mark's career is also sitting pretty after a couple of rough years. He recently signed with a new record label and released a brand-new album, simply titled Mark Chesnutt. The first single from the CD, "She Was," is currently climbing the charts. Topping it all off, Mark has joined buddies Joe Diffie and Tracy Lawrence for this summer's Rockin' Roadhouse Tour, which begins in June.

"I'm working harder than ever," says Mark with a grin as broad as his native Texas. "It gets a little nerve-racking sometimes. But I'm glad to be hitting it hard again, after being off the charts for a while."

Mark scored his last hit with "Fallin' Never Felt So Good" in 2000. But his album that same year, Lost In The Feeling, fell far below sales expectations and Mark parted ways with his record company. For the first time since he debuted in 1990, Mark was struggling.

Career pressures and concerns for his family -- wife Tracie and sons Waylon, 7, Casey, 5, and 3-year-old Cameron -- started keeping him up more nights than he cares to remember.

"I was scared to death," admits the 38-year-old Mark solemnly. "I was playing as many shows as I used to, and I got big crowds everywhere. But my concern was how long will these crowds continue without something new to hear? Nobody wants to be considered a 'has-been,' and I worried about that."

Persistent questions haunted him.

"I kept thinking, 'What if I can't get another deal? What if I'm too old for Nashville? Maybe there's not a market for me anymore.'

"I'd lie awake nights worrying if I'd be able to take care of my family. It was like the only career I knew was slipping away."

But now he's climbing back into familiar territory -- traditional, hard-core country. That was Mark's calling card when he broke through in 1990 with the world-weary lament "Too Cold At Home."

No. 1s like "Brother Jukebox," "It Sure Is Monday" and "Gonna Get A Life" further cemented his status as a throwback to '50s and '60s honky-tonkers.

He took a major detour in 1999 with a remake of the Aerosmith pop song, "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," complete with backing strings. Even though Mark's version reached the top of the country charts, the shift in direction ultimately backfired.

"All of a sudden, everything my label wanted me to do had to be over the top production-wise, with all the strings and extra instruments," Mark explains. "I didn't want every single for the rest of my career sounding like that, but my label said I needed to think more along that line. I ended up cutting songs for albums that weren't really me."

His new CD, though, is pure Mark -- and pure country. "I wanted it to be very basic," he says with a smile. "There's no strings, no electric organs. Heck," he adds with a laugh, "there's even a banjo in it. And I think every song has the potential to be a hit."

Mark is also predicting a rollicking good time on the Rockin' Roadhouse Tour.

"I've been friends with Joe and Tracy for many years, although we've never toured together," he says. "There's going to be a lot of silliness going on with us. We might be like the country 'rat pack' when we go into a town, cutting up and acting crazy."

But not too crazy. Mark, who once reveled in being a road warrior, now prefers the settled-down, domestic life at the family home near Houston. Leaving home for long periods becomes harder as his boys grow older.

"It's always such a shock to see them after I've been gone a while," he says, shaking his head. "They're all still at the age where they change a little bit every day, and when I come back they seem different than when I left them.

"I don't want to take them on the road with me right now, though," Mark adds firmly. "That's no place for little boys."

But Mark has found his rightful place again, and that fires him up. "It's gonna take a lot of work to get this thing going again," he admits. "But it's a real exciting challenge. I'm ready to go!"

-- Bob Paxman